“It was un… real.” That’s how I describe my trip to Iceland to my friends who ask about it without talking their ears off. But the more accurate, long-winded answer is: It’s a real-life acid trip and the closest you can come to experiencing Mars on Earth.
One minute, you’re in a viking-esque city that overlooks snow-capped mountains and super blue Atlantic waters. The next, you’re walking through mossy, golden fields with magical, fairytale lighting. Keep going down the road, and you’ll stumble upon a seemingly endless black sand beach that’s followed by exploding geysers, hot geothermal pools, and massive waterfalls you can reach out and touch with your hands. Next thing you know, you’re walking on a giant blue glacier that’s millions of years old, which happens to be sitting next to an active volcano.
The weather shifts from sunny and warm to freezing and snowing in a matter of minutes. The locals have a strong belief in elves (if you snicker at that, you will offend them) and take great pride in their miniature horses (if you take one home with you, you can never bring it back for fear of cross-breeding). Every day is packed with amazing sights, but the nighttime is when Iceland truly lights up.
It has been a lifelong dream of mine to see and photograph Aurora Borealis, aka the northern lights. Ever since I picked up a camera, one of my favorite hobbies has been shooting the stars. In such a fast-paced world, there’s no better way to slow down my mind than being out in the dark with only my tripod, camera, and thoughts. Everything becomes so quiet and clear. So naturally, I always imagined that being under the green glow of the sun’s particles bouncing off of the magnetic poles would be the ultimate night photography experience. I was right.
Because technology is amazing, your camera will actually see the northern lights before you do. On my first night in Iceland, after being out in the cold for hours looking for the show, I started to pack up my camera gear into my Jeep. That’s when my good friend George and his girlfriend, Sam, started calling out in the dark. “James! The lights are here!”
I looked up and saw nothing. I thought my friends were jet lagged and delirious. But then George called out again. “They are here, look!” I unpacked my gear as fast as possible (forgetting my gloves–a mistake) and ran over to where he was standing in the middle of a field overlooking a lighthouse and a few landlocked ships. On his camera’s screen, I could see the green hue in the sky. I looked up again. Nothing. Then looked again–and slowly the colors started to appear in the distance over the water.
“Got to get set up!” I said, my adrenaline pumping and mind racing. I was in full-blown photo geek mode. Sans-headlamp and gloves, I fumbled with my camera in the dark, mentally running down my checklist to make sure all of the settings were right. One over twenty-five. No, one over fifteen. F1.4, keep it sharp, ISO check. Focus on the light of the lighthouse. Whoops! Lens cap is on. Rookie move, James. Okay, all systems go. Let ‘er rip!
I hit the release button on my remote and waited the longest fifteen seconds of my life. The screen went dark and I hit the review button. Boom. There they were—my dream come true in a 15-second-long exposure. I looked at my wife, Bella, and thanked her. “I did it, babe.” She kissed me and asked for the car keys so she could get out of the cold.
It was an incredible sight, but on the northern lights’ brightness scale, it was about a seven out of 10. Considering that we had just gotten off a red-eye and driven around a dark country we didn’t know following road signs we couldn’t read, it wasn’t so bad.
On our second night, we really scored. We were driving back from a sunset geobath dip when we started to see the lights outside our windows. The frigidly cold and dry night, plus the almost full moon, made for perfect conditions. We pulled over to a picnic area on the side of the road to take some shots.
This time, it was everything I thought it could be and more: Giant bands of neon green danced over my head from horizon-to-horizon, pulsing and fading, twisting and turning. It looked like Christmas tree tinsel glimmering in every direction. At that moment, all of the iconic images taken by my photographer idols flashed through my mind. This is what they saw, I thought.
I couldn’t help but feel small.
Since then, I have had other photographers ask me if Aurora Borealis was really like what my photos depict. I tell them, “No. It was way better, and you should go see them for yourself.” For me, those moments were some of the greatest of my life, and I got to share them with my wife and friends under the cold night sky. I’ll never forget it.