This blog post is a long-time coming. In March I posted a packing list for a trip I was taking to Iceland to (hopefully) see and photograph the Aurora Borealis. A big bucket list item of mine. While it seems like there are tons of aurora photos on Instagram and social media these days, seeing the aurora in person is still a rare treat, especially when you only have a short amount of time to see them. There are a ton of factors in play in getting an aurora sighting, so in order to maximize the chance of seeing them, I selected to go in March, which is a particularly good time to see them, and planned the dates around the lunar cycle. A new moon provides a darker sky less ambient light in sky, making the aurora look stronger, if they appear at all.
Fortunately, on the first night, after being awake for who knows how many hours already, they appeared. And appear they did. I was the fortunate witness to one of the strongest solar storms of the last decade, with perfectly clear and windless weather conditions (a rarity in Iceland).
Before going into the images I made, here are a few thoughts about my first experience there.
Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country. Everywhere you go is a new vista making you constantly aware of your surroundings. The beauty just smacks you in the face, to the point of being overwhelmed at times. The first couple days I just wanted to take pictures of everything I saw. Not necessarily because they were good photographs, but because I felt a compulsion to document my new surroundings.
Since it was my first trip to Iceland, there were many of the postcard places that needed to be seen and photographed in order to check them off the list. I always have a difficult time initially when going somewhere I've seen plenty of times before in pictures. You have certain expectations of the images you might make, and if they don't live up to it, you can feel a little let down by your experience.
So coming back from my trip I really didn't like many of the images I'd made and it took me awhile to warm to them. I think this was a result of my expectations versus my reality and that a place like Iceland is so stunningly beautiful you can't possibly make an in-depth documentation of it's landscape on your first trip, let alone in 6 days.
In putting together this blog post, I've decided to break it up into two post. The first (this one) will cover pretty much the first 24 hours in-country where we spent time exploring the Snaefellnes Peninsula on Iceland's east coast. The second post will cover the rest of the trip on the South Coast.
Part 1: The Snaefellnes Peninsula
As soon as we arrived in Reykjavik (I traveled with my father), we were greeted by our guide for the trip, Snorri Gunnarsson. Snorri runs photography tours in Iceland and is an all around great guy and and an excellent photographer. His expertise ensured that we were in the right place at the right time, every day. Extremely valuable on a quick trip.
Here's my my first (non-crappy) photo in Iceland. When we landed in Iceland we were greeted with icy/snowy conditions at the airport. After driving for several hours the weather cleared and we stopped at a small bakery in Borgarnes for a quick coffee and bite to eat before heading on to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This is pretty much the view from inside the bakery (though I walked outside to take the photograph).
Road conditions on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Our first bit of fun for the trip came just over this hill...
When we reached the coastline, we decided to try our luck off-roading through the ice to a lava field that would afford some cool views. We never made it :) Unfortunately, even though we had a pretty heavy duty off road vehicle, we came across an area of ice that was too soft and our car sunk down to the back axles. After unsuccessfully attempting to dig ourselves out for about 30 minutes, Snorri called for a tow truck. Fortunately for me, it was a chance to walk around and explore in conditions I'd never really been in much before.
About 500 yards to the right of where this photograph was made is where our truck was stuck in the ice. Without my crampons on, this was about as far up this hill that I was willing to go. Looks easy to walk on but it was solid ice mixed with a little snow covering it.
This has become one of my favorite photos of the trip. The hill in the foreground is where the previous image was made.
Svörtuloft Lighthouse. This was more of a sightseeing venture during the mid-afternoon on our first day in Iceland (after napping in our hotel room for a few hours). This lighthouse marks the western end of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Maybe 50 yards past the lighthouse is a rather steep cliff to the ocean.
After spending time wandering around the coast, waiting for the afternoon light, we made our way to the volcanic sea stacks at Londranger to photograph the sunset. We went here as the sky to our north was mainly clear but the weather to the south looked like it might give us some interesting clouds with the sunset. It ended up being a great choice.
There's me fiddling around with my filters. You can see the clouds to my left approaching. Photograph by Snorri Gunnarson
As the afternoon light began to fade, a storm was approaching toward our left, quite quickly I might add, and the clouds were constantly changing. That's Snorri to the right of the image. Fortunately the storm moved on out to sea and after sunset the clouds quickly disappeared, leaving us with the hope of a clear sky that night to see the aurora.
We made our way to Budir to eat dinner at a nice (and only) restaurant. Before heading in to eat we drove about 200 yards past to the Black Timber Church to take a couple photos. My father, already tired and hungry from the long day, decided to walk over the the restaurant to get a table. About 10 minutes after he left Snorri and I were still out photographing and then this appeared...
The northern lights, yep. I made a few images and then literally ran over to the restaurant to get my father. We we're heading out to catch the lights while they lasted.
(Me again) Photograph by Snorri Gunnarson
We hopped in the truck and headed up through a mountain pass that bisects the peninsula, taking us over to the iconic Kirkjufell (Church Mountain). Of course, we had to stop along the way as the lights began to get brighter in the sky.
When we reached Kirkjufell it was about 9:30 and everyone was pretty hungry. Being the winter time, most places close fairly early, so the only hope was a gas station to find something for dinner. Not wanting to miss out on any of the lights, I had Snorri drop me off while they headed into the nearby town to find something to eat. Fortunately I brought along some Cliff Bars so I made good use of those.
The pinks in the sky aren't visible to the naked eye but after a 20 - 30 second exposure they start to appear. At this point, there isn't much green in the sky (which is visible) and the lights hadn't reached their strongest point.
After about an hour-and-a-half photographing around Kirkjufell, we started to make our way back towards our hotel. Since the wind was unusually calm, along the way we looked to spots to give us some reflection in of the sky. Finally, at about 1:30 - 2 AM we returned to our hotel, exhausted, hungry, yet blissfully happy at what we'd just witnessed. If I hadn't wanted to collapse out of sheer exhaustion I would have stayed out all night. But I made the best of it as I went to sleep with the shades open in our window, looking out into the sky.
The northern lights are really a spectacle to behold. Coming into it I didn't realize how much they would move and dance around. At times you feel like your eyes are playing tricks on you. It's an experience I'll never forget.
The next morning we woke to clear skies and sunshine, but as we could see in the distance it didn't like it would last long. We headed back to the Kirkfufell area to see it in the light of day and then moved on toward the south coast by midday.
One of the most valuable pieces of equipment I brought with me were a pair of crampons that easily slipped over my boots. This made getting to some areas, especially near water, where I would not have been able to get without them. Photograph by Snorri Gunnarson
Me carrying way too much equipment on my back :) Photograph by Snorri Gunnarson
As mentioned before, the first twenty four hours of our trip was so eventful that I'll cover rest of our trip in a separate post. Stay tuned!