Thursday, 2 January 2014

The clouds lift and the Aurora appears

It was December 30th and the Amarula was going down quite nicely as the three of us were watching TV. Every evening we would regularly pay a visit outside for a 'cloud check' whilst we all avidly checked the NASA website for the current aurora activity. This particular evening was no different. It was around 11pm and Andy had just checked the update which showed a KP value of 1, certainly not strong activity but enough to potentially provide a show in the sky. He took a wander outside into the icy cold and instead of coming back with the usual glum look that had typified the last few days he exclaimed that actually the skies were clearing.

Bored with TV and so desperately wanting to give every single opportunity of seeing the aurora a chance we decided to take a drive out. Fortunately Andy had stayed on the hot chocolate that night, whilst munching his way through a giant bag of Doritos and a huge bag of chocolate buttons! Andy and Angela suited up in a zillion layers whilst I, feeling a little pessimistic and not expecting to be out for long doned a pair of jeans and just a few other layers. Oh how I wish I had also 'thermaled up that night' (thank goodness andrenilin keeps you warm....well for a while anyway!!)

We took a drive in the direction of Geysir, and we all continued to look skyward. We had not realised how many small hamlets and houses dotted the route and we soon realised this was not the best direction to head, in order to avoid the distraction and light pollution from these properties. Especially with such a low KP index we needed to search for the darkest skies possible. We pulled over for a short time and scanned hard, sometimes convincing ourselves that we could see the aurora. We had heard that sometimes the aurora can be active but not always visible to the eye, the only equipment that can sometimes capture the lights being a camera. So Andy braved the cold and decided to test this theory, just in case this magical spectacle was playing hard to get. Angela and I expected Andy to return back into the car with negative news. However, this was not so and instead greeted with "guys get yourselves ready I think we have the aurora!" and at the same time showing us an image just captured where indeed you could see a very feint glow of green in the sky. However, masked a little by the orange glow of some nearby properties. This was time to get serious, we hoped this was the start of activity that could increase in intensity.

We made a quick about turn and decided we needed to get to somewhere darker, with Thingvellir National Park just 30 minutes away we felt this was the best place and we were desperate to get the lights above the mountains. As we drove the skies darkened and the stars increased. The skies were continuing to clear of cloud as well as ridding of any nearby light pollution.

It was by now past midnight but with the adrenelin pumping it felt like midday. We pulled up to a location with the shadow of mountains ahead of us, nothing else but the stars lighting the sky. It was bitterly cold but fortunately the wind had totally subsided. Initially we could see very little of the aurora with the naked eye except a very slight green tinge to the sky, that you could have easily missed had we not been glued to the skies! To confirm we were indeed looking at the aurora we took another test shot and sure enough it provided the affirmation that we needed.

We set up the tripods, all three of us in a row and hoping so desperately for the aurora to increase. After all the Northern lights (as well as Orca's) is why we had come to Iceland and we really did not want to leave without one or the other! We all had remote camera releases attached to our cameras to minimise the effect of camera shake. Taking images of the aurora certainly requires a different technique from our usual speciality of wildlife photography. To capture the lights required as little movement as possible due to each shot requiring the camera shutter to remain open for at least 30 seconds. With the camera in manual mode and the lens focussed to infinity.

As we were setting up and cameras pointed above the mountains we started to notice an increase in the green colouring and a slight change in its movement. For the first time we could see it with the naked eye. With each release of the camera shutter 30 seconds seemed like an absolute eternity before we could review each image.

For a few moments at one point the lights grew in strength, we watched as the lights 'danced' above the jagged mountain peaks. The great thing about photographing the aurora through remote camera release means you don't have to have your eyes glued to the eye piece and have the opportunity to absorb this spectacle with your own eyes whilst at the same time capturing stills.

Finally we were getting to see what we had travelled to Iceland for and although it was weak activity compared to how it can occur we were greatful for the chance to see another one of natures' spectacles. Our patience and vigil though the cold nights had finally paid off.

Every now and then the lights would fade giving us the chance to 'regroup' and change our location slightly for a different perspective. By 4am the activity had totally subsided, and by this point the excitement had been overtaken by tiredness and so now it was time to call it a night and head the 30 minutes back to our base. Although we wanted more and of course had hoped for a more intense show of the lights we were really pleased to have seen them. Although on reflection we would have liked to have experimented a little more with different camera settings to provide optimum results. However, we certainly felt a little more content that we would now leave Iceland with some images of the Aurora Borealis.