October, 2014 written by Daniel Lowe
Since learning about night photography, I've wanted to capture photographs and timelapse sequences of Aurora,
the "northern lights" as they are called in this hemisphere. Before going to Iceland, I had never seen them with my own eyes before.
In summer 2014 we made arrangements to spend 16 days and nights in Iceland. We made plans to visit not one, but two artist-in-residency locations:
Fljotstunga travelers farm (fljotstunga.is) in West Iceland, and
Gullkistan center for creativity (gullkistan.is) in Laugarvatn.
We had comfortable flights on Air Canada and Icelandair, and somewhere over northern Canada, I saw a faint tinge of green on the horizon.. my first ever sight of the aurora.
Upon landing, I was surprised to find that renting a car on Iceland was much, much more expensive than renting a car in Spain, or La Palma.
If you go to Iceland, research renting a car before you go, it can save you a considerable amount of money.
We rented a 2014 Toyota RAV4 from Iceland Car Rental and had a positive experience.
They offered to replace our vehicle when we heard a strange noise (a small rock in the brakes),
and allowed us to drop off the vehicle in the airport parking lot when we were running late for our international flight.
Iceland: Wonderful, Wet, and Windy
After we arrived we spent a night in Reykjavik, and the weather was driving rain, and 50mph winds. Never mind working with the camera, simply getting in and out of the hotel was a challenge.
The next day we drove to Fljotstunga, and found one of their volunteers cleaning up the remains of a greenhouse building that had been blown over by the strong winds.
On the drive, we began to see immediately the raw, volcanic beauty of Iceland and its wide variety of landscapes contained within a relatively small area.
We took a scouting trip to a small coastal town named Akranes, tried to visit a waterfall named Glymur, and went to a small restaurant with excellent pizza..
but still the weather was very windy with rain.
The bad weather in Fljotstunga became less violent after the second day,
and we went on a four hour expedition to a nearby glacier area with built-up ice, near Fljotstunga.
In four hours we went from rain, to clear skies, to blowing ice pellets, then to the sun shining with rainbows, and then back to rain again.
I was able to go out during an overnight break in the clouds and capture the sequence in the film with aurora over our cabin.
Touring Iceland: Driving the Hringvedur
At this point, I decided that we'd ignore the weather and drive around the entire island. Iceland has a road called the Hringvedur, which is Icelandic for "ring-road".
On my trip to La Palma, I'd waited until the last few days to drive around the entire island, this time I decided not to wait.
We spent extra money on an all-wheel drive rental vehicle, and as it turned out, we were very happy to be in an all-wheel drive vehicle.
Driving from Fljotstunga to Akureyi, we drove through snow and freezing rain, on desolate roads with few signs of civilization. Thankfully we made it to Akureyi just before dark.
Akuyeri is the "second largest city in Iceland" but it's not a large city. It's quite charming, we had a pleasant meal here and spent a comfortable night in a hotel.
Akureyi to Myvatn: Visions of Mordor
We drove up a long, snowy valley from Akureyi, after a while the terrain changed dramatically.
The Myvatn region is surrounded by volcanoes, and there are plains of dark basalt with almost no plant life, punctuated by the sharp, menacing peaks of extinct volcanoes.
All along we'd been trying to get close enough to see something of the Holhraun / Bardarbunga volcanic eruption, which is one reason we stopped near Myvatn.
Due to poor planning and a low number of hotels in Myvatn, we ended up sleeping one night in the car.
During this long and cold night, I was able to capture some light from the fissure eruption at Holhraun.
We found this sign below, and I joked that northeast Iceland looked as close to J.R.R. Tolkien's Mordor as anyplace I could imagine.
Hvalnes: Is this what Paradise looks like?
We drove onward around the ring-road, stopping in Egilsstadir for a meal.
We accidentally took a "shortcut" away from route 1, the ring-road onto route 939; this gravel road passes through some of the most amazing and raw terrain I've ever seen.
Every few hundred meters, there was a waterfall or canyon, and there is a massive wall on one side formed from layers of black volcanic basalt.
Just after route 939 merged back into route 1, we came upon one of the most beautiful natural scenes I've ever encountered: Hvalnes nature reserve, on the extreme southeast tip of Iceland.
Hvalnes has a stunning bald mountain, and features a lake of freshwater trapped adjacent to the north Atlantic ocean, separated by a wide beach of small, volcanic stones.
You want to visit a mountain, a lake, the ocean? This place has all three.
I immediately set up both cameras to capture this beautiful scene with the clouds going over the mountain and the lake filled with white swans.
It was a special moment for me, a moment of absolute peace. While the cameras were running, I walked the beach and collected a few small, unusual volcanic rocks.
South Iceland: Hofn, Vik, Skaftafell
As we drove from Hvalnes to Hofn, along the south coast of Iceland, the weather turned brutal again. We stayed one night in Hofn and continued east on the ring-road.
Very strong, gusting winds and rain made driving conditions dangerous. We used extreme caution and stopped early at least one time due to extreme winds.
We passed the massive glacier Vatnajokull and a pool of melt-water and icebergs known as Glacier Bay. We stopped and saw the ice and tried to capture usable photographs or video, but the 50+ mph winds and rain made this almost impossible.
We drove past a tractor-trailer cargo truck, one of its containers blown over in the wind, making the truck immobile.
The next day, after we stayed the night in Skaftafell, we found a wrecked tour van overturned on its side.
the Aurora and the Full Moon
We eventually made a detour through Reykjavik to fix a piece of equipment, while we waited, I captured a sequence of the full moon rising over the water. Then, finally back to our cabin at Fljotstunga.
It had taken us five days to drive around the Hringvedur. After a day of rest, the weather improved and we went back to work.
At this time, we switched locations to the Gullkistan center for creativity in Laugarvatn.
The moon was full, but the aurora, mysteriously gone since the first nights of our visit, returned to the skies.
I captured more timelapse of the aurora, but under the full moon, with a blue sky instead of a dark sky.
In the following nights at Laugarvatn, the weather was nice, clear, with almost no wind and mostly clear skies.
I scouted a few waterfalls to visit, Seljalandfoss, and Skogafoss, and also learned about a U.S. Navy plane wreck from 1973 on the beach at Solheimasandur.
We visited these locations for the next two evenings, capturing multiple shots of the waterfalls.
We got lost trying to find the plane wreck on the first attempt. On the second try, with the exact
GPS coordinates and better directions, we found it.
As luck would have it, the aurora came out for almost two hours while we visited the plane wreck.
I set up the motion control dolly and was able to get some really interesting shots, using the bright moon behind me to light up the plane wreckage.
I wanted to capture aurora at the waterfalls, but nature had her own ideas, and I felt fortunate to have captured aurora with the plane wreck.
Not without difficulty, we packed up and left Iceland.
We made things difficult for ourselves, the vehicle's GPS guided us down a gravel road that turned out to be closed, adding almost two hours to our travels during the last day.
During the last night and day in Iceland, I stayed up all night photographing aurora, drove four hours, packed, and then drove another two hours to the airport, without any rest.
the Music: thanks to my friend bignic
Thanks again to bignic: I've used his music before and he's always been great to work with.
He suggested a track to work from, then I made some suggestions.
We exchanged feedback a few times and I'm very happy with the music Nic delivered.
If you like the music in "On the Road in Iceland" bignic's website is http://thebignic.com,
and you can also find his music on SoundCloud
Here's a set of photos on Flickr for "On the Road in Iceland".
Equipment used on "On the Road in Iceland":
Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera
Samyang 24mm f/1.4
Rokinon 14mm f/2.8
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (used as 16mm prime)
Canon 28mm f/2.8
Nikon 85mm f/2 (used with adapter on BMPCC)
Dynamic Perception Stage Zero motion-control dolly, with 36 inch rail
Two remote timers (intervalometers)
StickyPod vehicle camera mount
Life Above 5,000ft: Colorado + Utah
One month in western Colorado and eastern Utah, with two timelapse cameras and two drones.
Copyright 2011-2014 by Daniel Lowe