27 Mar 2014

Iceland 2014 - Day 4b: The Northern Lights, Finally

The forecast for both the weather and the aurora borealis was good, and I headed out with high expectations at 10pm. I had decided to return the place I'd been just before sunset - on the ridge of moraine at the southern end of Jökulsárlón lagoon. I pulled into the parking area at the same time that a coach arrived. This wasn't quite what I expected. I'd thought that there might be a few 4WD like mine, and expected it to be busy, but a coach-load of squawking Japanese tourists wasn't what I'd had in mind (they could have been South Korean, I suppose).

I made my way through the throngs of people along the ridge to a more isolated spot and took a few test shots. There was a vague glow in the sky, imperceptible to the naked eye. I then wandered down the steep slope to the beach and set myself down there. Two others had passed me on the ridge and were further along the beach - the light of their camera was captured in my shots of the lake-shore. The skies were beginning to look a little lighter - there was a vague glow just above the mountains; it could have been cloud. The long exposure shots eventually showed me that it was indeed northern lights. They were beginning.

The first lights looked almost like a rainbow, with green below and a belt of pink sky beneath it. It still wasn't very visible without the camera. The Japanese were making an absolute racket up on the hill, which wasn't conducive to the potentially exciting experience I was about to enjoy. One woman in particular kept gasping. Within about 15 minutes the real light show began, greeted with more whoops and squawks. I lay back and looked up at the sky, as strange lines of light reached down towards me. It was almost spiritual, and I was now able to laugh at the annoying chorus accompanying it. Here's some of what I saw - obviously to the naked eye it was nowhere near as spectacular as this, but still pretty impressive to witness.

After about an hour there I tore myself away, deciding that I must give the beach a try. I knew it would be a bit dangerous to get too close to the waves, so I just sat a bit further back away from the shore, so I didn't risk getting wet. As the lights weren't visible to the south (the direction of the beach) I had to face east to get shots of the beach at the river end with skies lit above, or take shots back up the beach towards the lagoon. It wasn't ideal, and I struggled to focus in the darkness, but I managed a few shots while the lights overhead entertained me.

I finally got home at 1am, utterly exhausted from the packed day's photography; the lights were still visible in Hali, in spite of the lights from the buildings. I attempted to review the photos I'd just taken but sleep got the better of me. With rain forecast from the early hours I knew a lie-in was in order to recover!

Click here for Day 4a blog
Click here for Day 5 blog

Iceland 2014 - Day 5: A Few Icebergs in the Rain at Jökulsárlón

My second full day in Jökulsárlón was a lazy one, owing to the appalling weather. It rained constantly, all day long. I woke up late (at 9ish) to drizzle. Occasionally it would piss down. There was little interest for me in going out; rain + no visibility doesn't usually lend itself to good photographs.

Instead of going out I wrote my blog from the previous day - sorting through masses of photos of the beach (with a few others of the lagoon and nearby Fjallsarlon). Once that was finished I did manage to drag myself down to the beach again, in case the rain eased. As I approached the rain worsened, any view of foggy mountains disappeared and it became increasingly misty. I continued on, and parked at the east beach again, having spotted a huge, triangular turquoise iceberg in the surf as I arrived. 

Armed with just my camera, 24-70mm lens, tripod and the usual selection of filters (the 6-stop was attached to the lens in advance) I ventured out into the rain. Fortunately there was some direction to it and the wind wasn't bad, so I knew that if I pointed the lens in a certain direction I should be okay, given the hood is long enough to protect the lens a little.

I walked slowly along the beach, taking a few shots of iceberg and waves along the way, checking the lens for errant raindrops and sea-spray as I went. Some icebergs look remarkably turquoise, but my goal was the huge one ahead. It was at least 6 feet tall, and about 10 feet wide, and sat at the edge of the water, being battered by each crashing wave. It was a magnificent colour, so I took quite a few shots of it! On each of my trips I usually find an iceberg that I like the best - this one certainly won my accolade of best-iceberg-of-the-trip-so-far! It really was this colour - the only adjustments I made were to boost the clarity and whites (and a little vignetting to make them stand out).

The rain soaked my gloves and the camera was dripping (I trusted the weather-tightness, but only for so long). After 45 minutes I called it a day. I stopped by the lagoon to see if the visibility was any better there but it wasn't so I gave it a miss and came home. A short photography day, but sometimes that's quite nice when you've been frantically snapping away until 1am the previous day! Given the weather, though, I was pretty pleased with the results; I think it was worth the effort.

The weather forecast is better for tomorrow - rain until 11am, then a bit of cloud and possibly sun, before a glorious day for my drive westward.

Click here for Day 4a blog
Click here for Day 4b blog! 
Click here for Day 6 blog

26 Mar 2014

Iceland 2014 - Day 4a: Magical Jökulsárlón Beach

After a disappointing drive and first day in Jökulsárlón I was hopeful to wake up knowing that the weather-forecast was good for today. It's always nice to return to a place that you love again and again, knowing that it will never disappoint you. Even in the rain it was still magical. So I returned to Jökulsárlón beach again yesterday, just as the clouds were beginning to lift. 

I parked at the east beach and was somewhat taken aback at the amount of photographers already spread out along the iceberg-strewn beach. I counted 19, and another couple were just unpacking their gear in a car next to mine. The light wasn't great, very bright straight out over the sea, and any shot along the beach would have a dozen or so other photographers in view. Oh well, I somehow managed, playing around with a few different directions, filters and shutter speeds. I was grateful to finally have some sun during my time at Jökulsárlón; it had been pretty limited on previous visits.
Having learned the hard way last year about the damage that water droplets and spray can do to the picture quality, I wiped the filter regularly. The salt left a smeary film on the glass, so cleaning was a laborious job. Better that, though, than smeary photos. Occasionally I'd find an iceberg - or a collection of bergs - that took my fancy and then would spend ages photographing it again and again, waiting for the right wave movement. As I discovered before, a question of a few seconds can make the difference between and average shot and a great shot. Other photographers would move straight in once I'd vacated a spot near a decent chunk of ice! I particularly liked this one below, a little black but still striking; it was about 2-3 feet on each dimension - it's difficult to get a sense of scale.

The minutes and hours floated past with the waves. The photos were mounting up, the batteries wearing down. I decided to try something a little different, and took my spare camera out with the zoom lens attached and began trying to capture the movement of the waves, with different shutter speeds. Again, the sun was too bright and I was shooting towards it, but it gave quite dramatic results.

Eventually I had both cameras out - snapping waves with my 60D and 200m lens and my 5D with the 24-70mm attached to the tripod, waiting for a decent wave trail to come along (so glad I'd brought the spare body!). Finally when my second battery died and my feet were blocks of ice I hobbled back to the car and drove home. I realised that I'd been on the beach from 8.45am to 2.15pm - a whole five and a half hours! There were only a couple of photographers there when I left, everybody else choosing to avoid the harsh middle-of-the-day light, which I still think can lend itself to striking shots, given the strong black of the sand, blue/green of the icebergs and white of the frothy sea. 

I raced home, bunged the batteries on the charger, had my usual lunch of volkenbrot, cheese and ham, and warmed up a bit. I'd had one accident on the beach where a wave came in over my boot, but my feet had dried off pretty well. I'd also tried standing on a flat iceberg to take a few shots, but that method came to an end when a big wave nearly toppled it (and me).

I headed out again at 4.30pm, my two main batteries charged, thinking that I might be out for the rest of the day and evening, if the northern lights that were forecast appeared straight after dark. I headed past the lagoon, which glowed in the afternoon sun, and went on to Fjallsarlon, another glacial lagoon which is off the main road and rarely seems to have any visitors. There were two cars there when I arrived, but they left and I had the place to myself, as usual. I wandered down onto the beach and took the opportunity of the solitude to do a couple of silly self-portraits. Some whooper swans flew over from time to time in v-shaped formations (I wished I had more than a 200mm zoom).

I stupidly forgot about the mountains when working out the sunset time - had hoped to spend a good hour and a half at the lagoon back at Jokulsarlon, but as I sat enjoying the view at Fjallsarlon the sun disappeared behind a cloud just above the mountain-top. I headed back to the lagoon in case there was still some good sunset light, but had left it a little late. I still managed a few shots of the nice colourful clouds. Obviously I wasn't the only person there...

And then, you guessed it, it was back to the beach for the last light! Only a handful of photographers were out, which was nice, so there wasn't too much queueing to shoot the best icebergs. There was still a glow in the sky, but the light faded fast; just long enough for my feet to freeze again.

Normally that would've been the end of a long and wonderful day in the life of a photographer, but no, there was more to come.... I headed home, recharged the batteries (again!), cooked some pasta, skyped home, and manically checked the aurora forecast. Things were looking good. The skies were clear, the forecast was for 2.67 Kp, so off I headed out, hoping for a spectacle, and finally I got one!

Click here for Day 3 blog
Click here for Day 4b blog