I became interested in photographing the northern lights during December of 2013 after reading an article and seeing some wonderful images. I began doing research and found the prospect of seeing the aurora was both location and season dependent. While many U.S. photographers choose Alaska as their destination, I discovered that Iceland was a viable alternative and decided to revisit there in winter, having previously enjoyed a visit in early summer. One of my favorite locations had been the glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón, and I soon envisioned an aurora dancing over water with icebergs in the background. After tempting a fellow photographer to chase the light with me, we booked the trip to be near the spring equinox in March, a favored time for northern lights.
Wide-angle lenses are the best choices for capturing night skies, so I took several to offer a variety of options. A fast Nikon 24mm f/1.4 offered shorter shutter speeds due to its speed. A Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 provided a true infinity focus set point for precise sharpness and a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 would provide flexibility in focal length. I also opted to include my Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye to round things out.
Despite the best planning, our greatest windfall was pure luck; two days before we left, the sun rotated a sunspot into earth view and discharged a huge solar flare. Everything lined up to maximize our likelihood of success, but the final outcome would be decided by the weather, a perpetual unknown. If we were spared clouds, we would have an excellent chance for northern lights. During our first dinner in Iceland, the hotel owner came to our table to announce there was aurora in the sky visible from the hotel. We rushed out and made some attempts, finding everything more difficult in the cold dark than expected. Yet the aurora, a first for us both, was still exciting.
The next day, we drove to Jökulsárlón, arriving late in the evening so starved we felt we had to eat despite there being a hint of aurora already in the sky. Finishing our meal, we overheard other arriving photographers describe the evening’s light show as over. “Clouds just rolled in,” they lamented. We looked at each other and said, “So what? We’re here and weather changes. Let’s give it a go.”
We drove to the glacial lagoon and found the clouds already moving away. The auroral display was spectacular. Over the next several hours it grew in intensity, spanning the sky from horizon to horizon. Near the end of our shoot, my friend was below me on the shore of the lagoon, aurora stretched above. I decided to try something with the 10.5mm fisheye and shouted down to talk with him in the darkness. “Try laying your headlamp on the ground behind you,” I suggested. The added light source created a special secondary subject in the viewfinder, and inspired me to try one more variation. When my friend called it quits I asked him not to move and laid my red-filter-shrouded penlight on the ground in front of him, backlighting his silhouette. I made two exposures and it was time to leave. The next morning, when I looked at the files on the computer, I was stunned. The combination of landscape, green aurora, red penlight and my friend’s silhouette proved magical. It almost looked like his figure had descended from the aurora streaks in the sky, so I dubbed the image “Homo Borealis.” These last shots at the lagoon remain favorites from the entire Icelandic adventure. – Mark Alberhasky
See more of Alberhasky’s work at his website, www.imagema.com. Travel and photograph with Alberhasky and photographer Layne Kennedy on available photography workshop tours including upcoming trips to Namibia this August/September and Death Valley this December, which you can find out more about at Photozonetours.com.
Equipment and settings: (Top Image – Jökulsárlón, Iceland) Nikon D7100 camera, Af Dx Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm F/2.8G ED lens – 13 second exposure @ f/2.8 – ISO 1000 – (Bottom Image – Homo Borealis) Nikon D800 camera, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED lens – 5 second exposure @ f/1.4 – ISO 800