My Icelandic Northern Lights adventure

A trip to Iceland has long been on my bucket list to capture some of the magic in photographic form. So armed with my camera, a new tripod and a £28 ticket from Norwegian, I embarked on a trip of a life time.

This country is incredible! The people are wonderfully hospitable, the landscape has a martian-esque quality about it and the tours available are well worthy of leaving one breathless. I packed a lot into my trip, while staying at the very comfortable Reykjavík Downtown Hostel. Tours I booked were the Lava Caving, Southern Iceland Glaciers, Waterfalls and Beaches Day Tour, the Blue Lagoon and the Gold Circle Tour,

While I was keen to explore as much of this magical island in the five nights I had, I really only came for one reason -to see the illusive northern lights.

I booked a tour with Grayline on my first night, thinking that if cloud cover scuppered my chances of seeing them, I’d be able to re-book for the next night with a guaranteed space. A very wise move! Not only was the tour cancelled on the first night, it wasn’t until my final night (a few hours before my early morning flight home) that tour operators deemed conditions were right to go ahead.

We headed out west to an area away from the lights of Reykjavik, to where the skies were only illuminated by the stars. I’ve seen dark skies before, but not this dark! The darkness made the stars twinkle so bright – and once my eyes became accustomed to the surroundings, I began to see the magical northern lights creep up over the Barnafoss waterfalls in Borgarfjörður. WOW!

Then I had an idea…

With the stars so bright, I could easily identify the northern star, Polaris. Could I capture the northern lights with the stars revolving around Polaris in this magical landscape? It would take over an hour, but I was willing to stand about in the cold and experiment after I secured a few snaps that would make the evening worthwhile anyway.

So I steadied the tripod, and set my Nikon D5200 to capture 16 second exposures with an ISO of 1600 at 11mm with an aperture of f2.8 on my Tokina lens (check out my review). I attached my cable release (to reduce camera shake) and programmed it to take 120 images with the above settings, with the camera pointing at Polaris.

It turns out 120 images was just the right amount of time to get what I needed. Just as my last snap fired off, the coach driver came to find me. Apparently, the whole tour party were waiting for me for 15 minutes! I got some tuts and the usual rolled eyes when I got back on, but by this time it was about 2am and soon my annoyed fellow passengers were fast asleep. Was I bothered? I know, I should have been – but it was totally worth it for the result:

Once home, I exported my images and ‘stacked’ my 120 images in Photoshop into separate layers. With some minor colour and transparency adjustments between each image, it appeared that I pulled the magic off.

As the stars were so bright, each 16 second exposure was long enough to capture the movement of each star revolving around Polaris, creating the circular motion in the above image.

This photo takes pride of place in a framed mount in my living room.

So go on, give Iceland a go! I can’t wait to go back.

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