I have been thinking about a trip to see the Northern Lights for quite some time. We have been lucky to have seen them In Orkney, Scotland in 2002 where they shone green and in Death Valley where the whole sky turned red. In both cases we were camping and the event was quite unexpected. I wanted to plan a trip where we could be prepared to see them and I wanted to try to photograph them myself. In the past, I only had a point and shoot camera with film which was incapable of capturing the colors.
We had looked into places in the past and our friends had been doing similar research. We both found a polar bear trip in Canada but the cost of about $10,000 per person was way out of our budget. I must admit that polar bears would have been really neat, though. I had looked into Iceland trips and they certainly had their share of Northern Lights getaways, but we wanted a trip where we could be active during the day. This is limited since it is winter when Iceland has no sun at night so any activity outdoors might be a bit chilly. We eventually found a trip from Eldhestar, a riding company in Southern Iceland. It was only for four days, but a fair price and we would get to ride every day. If it was too cold, we had a hotel we could hide in, but we were fortunate to have moderate temperatures when we visited.
Right before we left, our friend Wayne who is into the night sky and other scientific things, called us to tell us something happened on the far side of the sun (or something like that) and Northern Lights activity might be heightened by this event. His predictions were spot on. Wayne, we dedicate these photos to you!
The first night we were there, we got a knock at the door a little after midnight. The Northern Lights were active. I had thought that we meet in the lobby and they put us on a bus and we head to the place where you could see the Northern Lights. This was not the case. All we had to do is go outside and look up.
My first night photographing the Northern Lights was not very successful. It was dark and we could not see what we were doing. My tripod kept blowing over and people kept walking in front of the camera. I am glad we had these problems so that I could prepare better for the next time. I tried a few manual time exposures and tried a few where I had the shutter set for 30 seconds with one press. Unfortunately, my new camera was not compatible with my remote trigger so I had to push the button and try not to jiggle the camera each time. We went in because we were cold and frustrated.
I wanted to share how my photos came out because I think it might help someone else in the future. The ones where I did a manual time exposure did not show any colors at all, even after bringing them into Photoshop and adjusting the brightness and contrast. I got a little bit of green in the two that I had preset my shutter speed for, but I only saw colors well after adjusting the brightness and the contrast.
The second night we were there, the lights showed up after dinner at about 8pm. I already had my camera set on a sturdier tripod that was low to the ground. I had the dial set to my preset 30s shutter speed so we would not have to figure that out in the darkness. I walked far enough away from the hotel so that people would not walk in front of the camera. I took photos in all directions and also directly above us. One mistake I made was that the lens was not set at its widest angle. I did not get many shots of grand sky, but I did get photos of some of the details. I have no regrets, but I have things I will do differently next time.
Some photos came out almost completely black and some showed faint colors. When I got home, I brought them into Photoshop and played with the brightness and the contrast. That was when I finally saw the strong colors. This is an example of the same photo, but the second one was altered with Adobe Photoshop to enhance the brightness.
The Camera Lies...but Beautifully
One thing is the truth and that is that the camera lies. When we took photos of the Northern Lights, we got 30 second recordings of what was there. Think of a time exposure where a car leaves a long streak of light as it travels while the shutter is open. The car is only in one place at any given time, but over 30 seconds, the light form the car is picked up in every position it travels in that 30 seconds. The same thing happens for Northern Lights. A green streak might be bright on the right side of the sky for the first 15 seconds and a red one might show up on the left for 15 seconds, but both will be in the captured image together. I hate to dash any romantic thoughts of the Northern Lights, but they are not necessarily what you see in the photos. Despite knowing that, seeing them in real live and how they dance and appear and disappear for hours is beyond any words I can weave together. This was truly a chance of a lifetime and an absolute gift of Mother Nature and our universe.
Zoom In or Zoom Out?
I went to take a photo of the hotel with the lights over it and realized my lens had been zoomed in. I recommend for grand photos that you do not make this mistake but instead use the widest angle you have. You can always trim the photo later. Once I expanded the view, my photos picked up beautiful shots of the night sky.
When to Go and Where to Stay
We stayed at the Hotel Eldhestar. I would stay there again. The dinner was fantastic and freshly prepared for each individual group or table. The vegetarian meals were also top notch. Our room was comfortable and the bathroom was very clean with a large walk in shower. Although this is also basecamp for horseback trips and day riding, many guests do not ride and stayed just to see the Northern Lights. The staff at the front desk were very nice and helpful and have a list you can put your name on to be woken up for the Northern Lights. The chef was the happiest kindest person on the planet. He was also very professional and could come up with an accommodating menu for the table at a moment's notice. The hotel is easy to find from Route 1 as it is right on Route 1, and is not very far from Reykjavík.