Photographing the northern lights takes patience, a tripod and more than a sprinkle of good luck. I recently achieved a place on the NES Artist Residency in rural Iceland, packed up my life in London and headed north. Within two days of my arrival, the artists’ shared WhatsApp group rang out ‘AURORA’. I feverishly gathered my equipment, craned my neck upward and scanned the sky for green. With me was my Canon 5DSR, Manfrotto ‘190 Go’ tripod and a trusted (and shamefully battered) Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. Completing my kit for the evening was my beloved (and violently expensive) Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens, which at £1200 is about as steep as a round of drinks in Reykjavik. Both are worth the expense, though!
Setting out to capture the aurora
Skagaströnd’s street lights risked dulling the visibility of the ensuing spectacle. I headed for the fringe of town for minimal artificial illumination and, calming my shaking hands, set the 16-35mm on the tripod. At full width the lens created a vast starry sky. Opening wide to f2.8, I began shooting at 3200 ISO. Previous night shoots had resulted in grainy images which, although great for Instagram, are a challenge to print. With this experience in mind, I instinctively lowered to 1000 ISO, allowing longer shutter speeds take up the slack. The usually aggressive winds were mercifully calm, reducing any risk of camera shake. The tripod is solid for its size and price, but still easily buffeted.
My exposures were pushing 8 seconds as the verdant psychedelia grew in intensity and reach. With my shoot now set up, I could mindfully enjoy the show. Earthly and stellar shades collided through my lens in a cosmic crescendo. It was as though an unseen giant was shooting lime coloured lazar streaks from behind the mountain. Changing location, I paused at a quaint wooden gate, atop a grassy knoll. Ambiently lit by cottages opposite, the texture of the grass and the smooth swirling of the sky offered a garish green contrast. In the absence of local curtain twitchers, I wondered were the people of Iceland desensitised to the magic. Was it merely the same oddity as we might perceive a rainbow?
Experiencing the magic of the northern lights
Onward I trudged, in hot pursuits of the streaking sky snake. Finding a stable rock at the shoreline, I perched my tripod and shifted to the 50mm lens. Its impressive 1.2 aperture allowed me reduce my ISO to 250 for extra crispness and vibrancy. Facing the Greenland Sea, I captured the aurora reflecting against a purple and black horizon. Thickening clouds added welcome detail. Whilst the more subtle of my shots, these are my favourite of the evening. As I reached the industrial end of town, the light storm lengthened and began to arc with ever-increasing intensity. Alone in the dark – It was hard not to feel there was an epic force performing alchemy solely for my benefit. Tears of gratitude soaked my scraggily beard.
Doubling back to the centre of town, I stumbled on a row of rusty mythical sculptures. Shifting back to my 16-35mm lens, I used the street lights to illuminate an imposing statue of ‘Loki the trickster’ while the aurora swooshed flamboyantly above his head. More tears flowed. I stayed out until the freezing wee hours, staring at the sky – swooning, swearing and sobbing. I wasn’t snap-happy, I was snap-ecstatic. Subtle signs can reassure us we’re in the right place at the right time. This swirling neon emerald martian-fest was less subtle and more sublime. It left me humbled and deeply connected to my new surroundings.