In September 2013 I travelled to southern Iceland to join Edwin Baynes, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences. You can see the finished film here.
I love Iceland, and this was my first opportunity to return since 2007 [which happens to be when and where I met my wife]. It was almost 6 years to the day since I was last there, and being September I knew the biggest hurdle was going to be the weather. Iceland’s weather in September isn’t the most reliable, and each day is a meterological-lottery.
This made planning the trip a bit awkward since the weather forecasts had to be taken with a generous pinch of salt. However, the one near-absolute certainty was that the night of my arrival would have crystal clear skies. The forecast for the rest of the trip was bad. Given that this year is a solar maximum, I was pretty desperate to see the lights and realised that the first night might be my only chance.
A fantastic site for planning northern light photography belongs to the University of Alaska Fairbanks which I’ve previously relied on in Greenland. After checking the forecast it was clear that there was a great chance of seeing the light show on that first night [albeit a fairly low intensity]. We reached ‘Heimaland’, a community centre cum volcano evacuation centre, pretty late in the evening… and when I looked up I saw the clearest and deepest view of space I’ve ever seen in my life. Perfect!
With no opportunity to find a more picturesque location [all I had to work with were some nondescript hills in the distance], Ed directed me to an attic room in Heimaland with access to the roof/balcony. This was ideal, as I was able to wake up every 45 minutes to jump outside and see if the aurora was active. After settling in and preparing my alarm for what could have been a long first night, I only had to wait for an hour or so for my first glimpse.
I stepped outside in my underwear, marvelled at the clear night sky once again and just as I was deciding to go back to bed I saw a shooting star on the horizon which drew my eyes to a very faint light just above some low hills. I’d seen this glowing cloud-like light before in Greenland and knew it was the start of the show. I threw on some clothes [although the temperature wasn’t below zero, boxer shorts were not adequate attire!] and grabbed the camera and tripod which were ready to roll. A high-ish ISO of something around 1000-1250 and shooting wide open at f2.8 for around 10 seconds would avoid star trails and would be about right to capture the aurora at a medium intensity. I shot very wide to capture a large amount of sky, giving me a bit of leeway if the lights moved around a lot, and let the camera roll for a few hours.
The next morning I had a look, and was pretty pleased with the results. I captured a few shooting stars [as well as the ubiquitous planes and satellites] and a decent shot of the aurora midway through the night. Not bad, but needless to say this has well and truly whet my appetite for a proper aurora-shoot at some point in the near future. Sadly that first night was to be our only clear night.
After an aurora-filled semi-sleepless first night, it was down to business as Ed’s fieldwork started the next morning. The forecast for the next few days ranged from excellent to abysmal, and as luck would have it we managed to get all the fieldwork and shooting done before the bad weather hit us. The predicted storm ended up blowing in early with the worst weather hitting us in the shelter of the schoolhouse during the night of day three. That was an excellent stroke of luck, and other than a spattering of rain we managed to complete the fieldwork shooting in a few dry-ish days. The majority of our time was spent hiking and shooting upstream of Seljalandsfoss on the western flank of Eyjafjallajokull and in the incredible gorge systems of Thurragil and Jokulsagil near Solheimajokull, an outlet glacier of Myrdalsjokull.
I could blabber on for hours about how inspiring and beautiful Iceland is, Ed’s field sites in particular were truly spectacular, but it’s where we stayed that I think makes for the most interesting reading.
‘At least we’re not camping'; a phrase used throughout the trip. We were intending to camp during the entire week, only at the last minute did we manage to secure some accommodation elsewhere. It’s a good job we weren’t camping… the gale force winds that hit midway through the trip wouldn’t have been very pleasant in a tiny tent. Instead, we were in the relative luxury of ‘Suljaland Skoli’ [the Schoolhouse] and ‘Heimaland’. Heimaland is great. It’s built to house hundreds of people in case of a volcanic eruption; with a basketball court, hundreds of mattresses, a massive industrial kitchen, shower blocks etc. However, having watched plenty of horror movies, a place like that becomes pretty creepy when you’re there alone at night. It was quite an odd experience sharing that massive building with just two others, but [with the help of the odd G&T and a few bottles of beer] we managed to find ways to reign in those wandering thoughts! Mattress-sliding was a firm favourite.
Heimaland is built to weather a volcanic emergency, so a puny Icelandic rain storm was no biggie. Unlike the schoolhouse [which whistled and howled in the wind], the only sign of gale force winds from inside Heimaland were when you stood in the ‘lobby’ and saw the waterfalls cascading over the cliff and being blown back up the mountain by the wind. We found this sight was best enjoyed with a cold beer in hand whilst uttering ‘at least we’re not camping’.
‘Suljaland Skoli’ [or the Schoolhouse] was a pretty odd place. We stayed here for two nights. There was stuff everywhere inside, as if there had been a sudden mass exodus one day. Shoes, clothes, toys, nappies, buggies, a pram and a wendy house were amongst the random items scattered around. Although the explanation was probably entirely innocent, it was the kind of place that gave you the creeps. I opted for the ‘tractor room’ over the ‘wendy house room’ but in hindsight that was probably a poor decision. A yellow tractor painted on the wall seemed like an innocent thing during the day, but at night his all-seeing gaze was a little disturbing.
The rest of the trip was pretty wet and windy, but still excellent. Ed showed us the Icelandic way of dealing with dodgy weather – hitting the geothermal spa. There’s nothing more satisfying than sitting in a 40 degree hot tub during a storm, and that’s pretty much how we spent most evenings. It was an excellent week, which flew past way too quickly. I hope I won’t need to wait another six years to visit Iceland again… in fact I suspect we may be back next year. -Alex
Stills & video:
Kata 220 PL: http://bit.ly/Kata220