Tag Archives: Iceland

Last Chance to See Northern Lights?

2016 might be the last best chance to catch the aurora borealis in a decade.

If seeing the aurora borealis (otherwise know as the northern lights in the northern hemisphere) is on your lifetime bucket list, then next year might be your last best chance to catch the eerie celestial display for quite some time. According to scientists, the current 11-year solar cycle is quickly winding down and next year might very well be the show’s final act for nearly a decade.

The auroras (both northern and southern) occur when highly-charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elemental gasses in the earth’s atmosphere. These particles stream away from the sun at speeds of about 1 million miles per hour and follow lines of magnetic force generated by the earth’s iron core, flowing through the magnetosphere, an area of highly-charged electrical and magnetic fields. Each atmospheric gas produces a distinct color: green is oxygen up to 150 miles, red is oxygen above 150 miles, blue is nitrogen to to 60 miles, purple is nitrogen above 60 miles.

The sun is now just past peak in its current 11-year period, Solar Cycle 24, meaning the number of solar flares and the electrons they produce will begin to wane until the next cycle begins. This winter might be the best chance to catch the lights for a long time. Here’s a good article on Yahoo Travel on the disappearing aurora.

Some of the most popular places to see the aurora are Alaska, northern Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.

In February of next year (2016), I will be leading a photography tour and workshop to Iceland with Epic Destinations and aurora hunting will be a centerpiece of the trip (also  winter landscapes, ice caves, seascapes, etc.). As of this writing, there are still 2 open spots available (UPDATE 10/24/15: This tour is now sold out).

Iceland Winter with Epic Destinations: Aurora borealis, Ice Caves, and Winter Landscapes in the land of Fire and Ice.

As the sun’s activity begins to wane over the next few years, I know I will be spending some extended time in Iceland this winter.

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Vignettes from Iceland 2015

Here are a few sample images from my latest trip to Iceland, the first time I’ve visited during the autumn season. The opportunity to capture fall colors was better than I could have imagined, but then again, there really is no bad season to photograph this magical country.

These were captured while leading an Epic Destinations photo tour and workshop with two talented co-instructors, Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa. I’ll be making a return visit to Iceland in February and this time the focus will be the aurora borealis, ice caves, and snowy winter landscapes.

The Reynisdrangar formations in black and white under stormy skies.

A water abstract from the giant waterfall, Gullfoss.

The aurora borealis dances over mighty Skógafoss. Above and to the right of the waterfall, you can also make out a hint of a moon bow as well.

Brilliant fall color above the Hraunfossar waterfall in western Iceland.

Colorful autumn colors in late September.

The coastal seastack formations of Reynisdrangar near Vik, Iceland. At low tide, there were no dramatic waves or rushing water so I opted for a series of long exposures during the best light of the morning, this one 30 seconds.

The sea arch at Dyrhólaey, Iceland. Dyrhólaey literally means “the hill island with the door hole” which an obvious reference to the conspicuous arch.

Hraunfossar, Iceland

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Packing for a month in Alaska and Iceland

In a just over a week, I’ll be headed out on a month-long photography journey to Alaska (Katmai National Park and Preserve for brown bears chasing the final salmon run of the year and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for polar bears) and Iceland. Considering everything that needs to get done before departing on a trip like this, I got ahead of the curve by packing all my photo gear first. But before putting it all away for good, I thought some of you might be interested to see what I take on a trip like this. So here it is…in all it’s unglamorous glory.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III body
Canon EOS 7D Mark II body
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens
Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens
Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT
Really Right Stuff TVC-34L tripod
Really Right Stuff BH-40 ball head
WH-200 Wimberley Head Version II
Kinesis F169 Large Grad Filter Pouch
Lee Filters: Big Stopper, Little Stopper, 3-stop ND, polarizer
Giotto Rocket Blower
CF and SD digital media
Extra batteries and charger
Lens clothes and small dry bags
Gura Gear Bataflae 32L Backpack

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Flashback: A Day in the Life, December 12, 2012

"Midnight's Children" Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland. Canon EOS 5D MarkIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 @ 24mm, 30 seconds @ f/4, ISO 1250

“Midnight’s Children” Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland. Canon EOS 5D MarkIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 @ 24mm, 30 seconds @ f/4, ISO 1250

Ed. Note: Portions of the post were published in December 2012 on the Earth and Light Blog

Often I’m asked what a typical day is like for a professional nature photographer.  I do my best to explain that it’s nearly impossible for me to answer since each day is unlike any that preceded it. In other words, there are no typical days. If I’m in the right mood, I might attempt to outline what I do and how my time is actually spent, which is usually met with disappointment and disillusionment by the questioner. It’s shocking to know what percentage of my time is spent actually creating images, in addition to how spectacularly unglamorous this whole business really is.

So here is a glimpse into my world, if for only a day (and it’s one of the better ones) and which also happens to be exactly one year ago today. The place?  Cold, snowy, dark, northern Iceland in mid winter.

December 12, 2012. Akureyri, Iceland  

9:10 am:  Just waking up and getting out of bed. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know 9 am is embarrassingly late for a nature photographer but please consider the circumstances. First, my body and circadian rhythms are still attuned to Eastern Standard Time. So if you subtract the 5-hour time difference, I’m really getting up at a much more respectable 4:10. Does that make you feel better? Besides it’s still dark outside so I’m not exactly missing out on much.

10:00 am:   After a shower and a few returned emails, I am out the door and looking for a quick lunch in town. There’s an intense red glow on the southeast horizon but the sun still has quite a way to go before it makes a proper appearance. I scarf down soup and salad at the Greifinn and drive toward Vatnsskarth Pass for some photos ops. It’s uncharacteristically cloud free. No clouds? This is new.

12:17 pm:  I can now finally see visible sunlight as the snowy mountaintops are bathed in a beautiful pink glow. But without any clouds in the sky, I’m just not jazzed about anything. I take a few obligatory images and shrug. Well I am here so what the hell?

12:50 pm:  I slip on my snow boots and a down jacket to hike and scout some locations for the evening. I find some rare open water for possible aurora reflections but I’m not entirely crazy about the composition. Yet at night with the aurora overhead, it might not be terrible. I make a mental note of some nearby landmarks so I can find the place later in the dark.

The Long Silence, Vatnsskarth Pass, Iceland

The Long Silence, Vatnsskarth Pass, Iceland

3:05 pm:  Back at the car and I’m changing back into my regular shoes after nearly backing the car into a deep ditch. The huge, clunky snow boots I was wearing wouldn’t allow me to step on the gas pedal without also catching the brake. And when I try to depress the brake, I also get the gas pedal or clutch. That almost cost me a hefty towing bill. It’s already nearly dark.

3:44 pm:  At the apartment again and it’s time for a nap. What is it about these short days that make me want to sleep so much?

6:25 pm:  Sitting on the sofa in my underwear looking over my images from Godafoss yesterday. They don’t suck too bad so I’m somewhat pleased. Next I check the weather and aurora forecast for tonight. Promising. The world news? Wish I hadn’t even looked. I’m bored. I’m hungry.

7:40 pm:  Dinner at a downtown Akureyri restaurant. Worst lasagna ever. Not surprisingly, Icelanders don’t do Italian food very well.

8:55 pm:  I slip into a nearby bar (Sorry I didn’t remember or write it down) for some local color and a cold Viking brew. The bartender tells me that over half the people here on the island believe in elves. This is my fourth trip to Iceland and it’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I nod knowingly.

9:31 pm:  After belting out an inspired rendition of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on karaoke, I bask in the polite applause of the two German tourists in a dark corner. I’m so outta here.

10:10 pm:  Driving out of town and scanning the sky for any sign of the aurora when I am startled by the brightest, most brilliant shooting star that falls slowly toward the northern horizon. It’s so bright and brilliant, in fact, that I reflexively duck my head. This is only one of several dozen I would see tonight as I am to find out later that the Geminid meteor shower is just starting.

10:46 pm Back at Vatnsskarth Pass and it’s really cold and really dark. There’s no moon and the aurora is looking spectacular –  intertwined ribbons of light stretching across the sky from east to west, horizon to horizon. Sometimes the large ribbons morph into smaller strands that slowly dance side to side, intensify, fade, before returning again stronger than ever. It’s easily the best display I’ve seen since arriving here in Iceland last week. The problem, however, is that the aurora has moved further south than the previous nights and the composition I scouted earlier in the day just won’t work. Back to square one.

11:40 pm:  Driving north along the Eyjafjordur toward the coastal town of Olafsfjordur when the aurora forces me to pull the car over. I turn off all the lights and begin taking a series of continuous 30-second exposures with the pale, eerie green lights over the mountains. Its not the type of image I had envisioned, but this is the big aurora display I had come here for. I spend the next two hours talking and shouting to myself (I tend to do that when I’m out alone). “Holy #%&@! This is #^&@ insane! I can’t feel my #%&@# fingers!” You know, that sort of stuff.

I mentioned earlier how little of our time as nature photographers is actually spent behind the camera creating images, as a percentage of our time as a whole. But for all the long silences – the travel, sitting around airports, driving, scouting, hiking, waiting out bad weather, just waiting in general, getting skunked, cold, wet, stuck or lost – the punctuated moments of pure magic like these are what we live for. Literally.

3:25 am:  Back at the apartment. I drop everything in the middle of the floor and stagger toward the bedroom, zombified. I’m sleeping in, damn it.

If you’re interested in seeing and photographing Iceland in more favorable conditions (think summer), I’m taking a group of lucky photographers there in July and there’s still a few spots left. Epic Iceland with Richard Bernabe

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Incredible Iceland in Pop Photo

“Behind the Falls” Southern Iceland’s Seljalandsfoss on a bright, sunny evening.

I have a new article published in the May issue of Popular Photography magazine entitled Incredible Iceland. That’s their title, not mine. My preferred Warming up to Iceland was a bit too cute for them, I suppose. Anyway, the article begins on page 50 with the above image as the opening spread. The colors in the magazine are printed rather dark and dull, so enjoy this version before you read the printed word.

“Behind the Falls” at Seljalandsfoss was created during last year’s Epic Iceland tour and it was my favorite take from this location. I experimented with different shutter speeds, as I usually do, and this one – 1/250 of a second – projected the look and feel for which I was aiming. I really like the cascading water effect rather than the smooth, silky look of a longer exposure for this image. I’m often asked about “rules” concerning exposure times when handling moving water. No, there are no rules but I do have a few guidelines.

First, and this is strictly personal, I prefer to keep some detail and texture to the water. Long exposures that turn moving water into featureless white blobs smeared across the image frame do absolutely nothing for me. I want to keep the water’s texture and detail while still creating the illusion of motion.

Second, the heavier the water, the shorter the shutter speed. This goes back to what I just said above. It’s much more difficult to retain that texture and detail with heavy, fast whitewater than lighter water flows.

Third, since I am almost always much more interested in how the image will make people feel rather than how it will look, I want to ask myself how the choice of shutter speed will affect its emotional impact on the viewers. My own experience and emotional reaction to the scene will dictate that choice. For example, large waterfalls that move heavy volumes of water project power and rage and I want that emotional trigger embedded in the image so that viewers can feel that power, rage, or fury too, even if they can’t feel the ground vibrate or hear the cascade’s thunderous roar. A faster shutter speed seems to express the heaviness of the water and by extension, its power as well. Conversely, slower shutter speeds express lightness, grace, and fragility. Waterfalls and cascades with gentle water flows or elegant, stair-stepping design characteristics project an air of fragility and grace. That’s how I want those images to feel to my audience.

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