Saturday, 1 June 2013

In 2014 I am headed to the best spot in the world to view the Northern Lights... Iceland

This coming winter is said to be the best time for a decade to see the Aurora Borealis, or ‘northern lights’... so I am headed to the best spot in the world to view the Northern Lights, Iceland.


Why? The event will be caused by the Solar Maximum - a period when the sun's magnetic field on the solar equator rotates at a slightly faster pace than at the solar poles. The solar cycle takes an average of around 11 years to go from one solar maximum to the next - varying between 9 to 14 years for any given solar cycle.

The last Solar Maximum was in 2000 and NASA scientists have predicted that this winter will be the greatest since 1958, where the aurora stunned the people of Mexico by making an appearance on three occasions. Scientists have stated that the 'Northern' lights could at least be visible as far south as Rome.

Possibly the most accessible, affordable place where you’ve got a good chance of seeing the lights is Iceland. Lying on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is only a three-hour flight from London and an hour shorter than a trip to England for those in North America.

It is possible to see the lights from Reykjavik itself, or head to the infamous Eyjafjajokull volcano to see them in a particularly dramatic setting. While you’re there, take a dip in the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, an hour from Reykjavik.

Clothing: be sure you’re dressed for the occasion. This is not a party you’ll want to attend in a mini-skirt.  For winter aurora photography you want to dress warm… and warm from head to toe. For the hands, you’ll want gloves thick enough to keep you warm, but thin enough to allow you to operate your camera. Personally I prefer to forgo gloves and keep my hands in warm pockets between shots. Most of the time it works fine. If you’re averse to occasional frostbite, try a different approach.

Batteries: The temperatures of the far north take an enormous toll on battery life. My camera batteries last around 1,200 actuations in normal conditions, but in the arctic winter have become exhausted after as few as 50 frames. The conventional cold weather advice is to keep your battery warm by storing it in a jacket pocket while not in use. I recommend bringing multiple batteries and a charger, and rotating the batteries through the charging station when they’re not in use. If your aurora photography will take you far from the nearest well-stocked camera store, consider also bringing backups.

Tripods: Carbon fiber tripods are just wonderful. They’re light, and in cold weather can be carried without chilling your hands as much as metal would. In frigid temperatures, however, both the carbon fiber legs and the adhesive used to connect then to your tripod base can become brittle. Exerting substantial pressure on your tripod, particularly when its legs are buried in deep snow, can easily result in the amputation of a leg. If you’d prefer not to find yourself hundreds of miles from civilization, with only a 'two legged tripod' for support, be particularly cautious when planting your gear in deep snow.

Cameras and lenses: As noted above, weather-sealing is preferable. In part, this is to help prevent condensation from forming inside your equipment, when you move from a cold environment (e.g., shooting outside) to a much warmer space (e.g., into a heated car). Particularly for non-weather-sealed equipment, including most medium format cameras and lenses, it is essential that the cold-to-warm transition be made gradually. It only takes one misstep to generate trip-ending amounts of condensation inside your lenses or sensor. To help slow the transition, I transfer my equipment to a camera bag that has also been outside, and only after sealing the bag do I move the bag and its contents into a warmer space. The camera is then allowed to heat up, slowly and safely, within the bag. For even better protection, consider placing your equipment in an airtight enclosure, such as a Ziploc bag, during the thawing process.

But Iceland, while conjuring up images of frozen water dripping from your nose, is not as cold as one would think.

I am headed there in February of 2014. The weather in February is characterized by essentially constant daily high temperatures, with daily highs around 3°C throughout the month, exceeding 7°C or dropping below -3°C only one day in ten.

Over the course of February, the length of the day is very rapidly increasing. From the start to the end of the month, the length of the day increases by 3:04 hours, implying an average day-over-day increase of 6.3 minutes.

The shortest day of the month is February 1 with 7:03 hours of daylight; the longest day is February 29 with 10:07 hours of daylight. The earliest sunrise is at 8:36am on February 29; the latest sunset is at 6:44pm on February 29; the latest sunrise is at 10:10am on February 1; the earliest sunset is at 5:14pm on February 1.

Here is our itinerary for our workshop in February 2014…

February 5th - Arrival Keflavik airport
At  Keflavík, Tim and Kevin, will meet the group. We leave the airport and drive through the lava fields to our guesthouse in Reykjavík.
Dinner and overnight in Reykjavík

February 6th - Reykjavík Höfn Vatnajökull glacier
We start the morning by taking a one hour flight to Höfn, a small fishing village in the southeast of Iceland. The contrast in the nature of the Southeast is breathtaking, with spectacular black beaches and dominating white glacier Vatnajökull. Serenity, energy and forces of nature combine to make the region of Vatnajökull a never-to-be-forgotten experience. We will spend the day exploring the region and if we are fortunate, we will see the Northern lights dancing above the glacier.
Dinner and overnight in Smyrlabjörg guesthouse.

February 7th - Vatnajökull glacier – Jökulsárlón lagoon – Skaftafell
Today we will visit many of Vatnajökull’s outlets and outwash areas and the Jökulsárlón, a famous glacial lagoon full of icebergs, an unforgettable experience. The glacial scenery continues with a visit to the stunning Skaftafell, Iceland’s second largest national park were the landscape has been formed in thousands of years by different influences of fire and water (volcanic eruptions and the glaciers). Again the night skies present the possibility of northern lights.
Dinner and overnight at Icelandair Hótel Kirkjubæjarklaustur.

February 8th - Vík – Geysir – Gullfoss
We leave Klaustur and drive towards the coast to the basalt caves of Reynisfjara were we take a small walk on the black beach and have a view towards Dyrhólaey. We drive to the small but high waterfall Seljalandsfoss and walk the path behind it. On we drive to the world famous Geysir region, where hot springs are in abundance, such as the famous great Geysir which has given name to hot springs all over the world. We will see one of the most active geysers in the area, Strokkur, spouting up to 30 meters. From Geysir we drive to Gullfoss the Golden waterfall, one of the most impressive waterfalls in Europe. Here you can see thousands of tons of icy water thunder majestically down in a double-fall into a deep gorge. Again the night skies present the possibility of northern lights.
Dinner and overnight at Hótel Geysir.

February 9th - Pingvellir – Reykjanes peninsula
We leave the Geysir area and drive to Þingvellir national park. Þingvellir is a remarkable geological site, and the most historic place on the island, where the world’s oldest democratic parliament was founded in 930. We continue to the Nesjavellir geothermal area and on to the lava fields of Reykjanes peninsula.

More then half of the peninsula is covered with lava flows and you will see lava cones and craters of different sizes and shapes. We will walk where the mid Atlantic ridge rises from the ocean and head for the lighthouse on the westernmost tip of the peninsula. We continue to the small fishing village Grindavík and end in the Blue Lagoon, a unique man-made pool of geothermal water (37-39°C) in the middle of a moss-covered lava field. The Blue Lagoon is a combination of many factors, the most important being the origin of the geothermal seawater from 2.000 meters beneath the surface.
Dinner and overnight in Reykjavík.

February 10th - Departure from Keflavík airport
Transfer to Keflavik airport.

Transfer from/to airport upon arrival and departure
3 nights in a hotel in the country
2 nights in a hotel in Reykjavik
Full board from dinner on day one to breakfast on day 6
Flight from Reykjavík to Höfn
Boat trip on the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon
Entrance to the Blue Lagoon and towel
Expert photographer guidance (Tim Vollmer/Kevin Pepper)

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I hope you can join us