Monday, September 17, 2012

The Magic Of Chance

If you live in the northern latitudes, 47ยบ North or higher, spotting an occasional Aurora is not uncommon. And, with the aide of online alerts from websites like, your chances increase substantially.

As a newspaper delivery boy growing up in Anchorage, Alaska I frequently witnessed the northern lights. My papers had to be delivered before 6:00 a.m. and in the constant state of darkness in the winter months, conditions were ideal for aurora spotting.

Two things I remembered most about those days; One, I relished the idea of being the first one making fresh tracks in the new snowfalls, and second, how many people were up watching the aurora. It amazed me how they knew they were out. How did they know? This was usually 4:00-5:00 a.m.. What in the world were these people doing up that early?  I never figured that out. Now, I just assume they were all nutty photographers!

That magic chance of being able to witness stunning natural phenomena like the aurora borealis have never been lost on me. Each and every time they impress the mind. I can only imagine, before technology explained the reasons, how early humans in the North must have hypothesized about the glowing night skies. I can easily see the stream of stories, gods, spirits, being created as the night explodes into color and movement.

Earlier this month, while teaching a photography workshop with the Mentor Series Ultimate Photo Adventure ( along with Lucas Gilman ( in ICELAND, a huge solar flare from the sun had occurred and alerts from reached my inbox.

I was stoked. YES..........everyone on the Trek would have the experience to witness and photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland. What a thrill, right?  WRONG!

Each night we painstakingly watched weather patterns push thick cloud cover over our giant movie screen in the sky. When it did clear, Lucas, Michelle Cast and I set our clocks on the hour, every hour, to check the skies for a glimmer of dancing colorful curtains only to awake tired and after a few days exhausted. It just wasn't mean to be. Geez, we got everything else Iceland has to offer, glaciers, puffins, lava, wind, sheep, vodka, and a great trip. But, no aurora.

I stayed on an extra week with friends from Minneapolis who joined me after the workshop. We too, had great hopes the aurora would dance. Same situation repeated itself. Clouds, rain, sleep, ect., prevented us from photographing one of nature's most thrilling displays.

On our very last night in Iceland we were celebrating with shots of that famous Iceland Vodka, Reyka, in the hotel lobby in Selfoss. About midnight we wandered off to our rooms. One last peek out the window I said to myself. "You can't win if you don't enter" right?

The smile across my face almost hurt it came on so fast. I raced down the hall to knock on the door, "get your tripods, cameras and warm jacket....the aurora is out!"

Off we went.

As is common with the aurora, you never know what you'll get. This night, the northern lights started out dim then built to a dancing show of glimmering colors and light all around us.

In the darkness, all I could hear was "holy cow," friggin eh," "holy shit," "OMG," and so on. The excitement set off a hilarious audio track screaming out in the blackness.

Once everyone settled down and captured something, I suggested as long as they are out, let's try a different location. After all, power lines, and roads could be seen in the first shooting spree. Well, this set off a whole new round of panic. I got such a chuckle outta these guys so excited, like kids in a candy store, to get more images.

Just south of Selfoss towards Reykjavik, we found a good dark landscape filled with blackness, no light pollution to speak of, and one small farm house that actually added to the scene. We leaped outta the van, jammed the tripods into the soft dirt road and aimed our lenses skyward. Just as our shutters begin to open and our eyes adjusted to the ambient light around us, we heard some sounds. As our eyes continued to adjust, we realized there were seven horses only 15 yards away watching us....and laughing at us I'm sure.

As we quickly searched for areas of darkness and something in the foreground to use in our pictures, I spotted a series of giant crosses off the Ring Road. I had no idea what it was but the concept of creating something very different with the glowing skies pounded my brain.

"OK, after this, let's go back to that spot. It's only a quarter mile or so back towards Selfoss" I begged.

We went back and found the crosses. We were at first, slightly disturbed by the scene. We grabbed a few images and then chased off to yet another potential location. The next morning we learned what the crosses were all about. It was a memorial set up to remember those who had died in car accidents on the Ring Road between Selfoss and Reykjavik.

We continued to photograph until 2:00 a.m. in the morning. We got aurora photos. We were pleased. Perhaps we didn't end up in the ideal place we had dreamed of.....with a lake or volcano in the foreground, but we got it.

That magical chance of taking one last look before bedtime and then beating the pavement to get out there and capture the northern lights.

In photography, more often than not, its "f/8 and be there."


More Iceland images from this trip; 

Above, a wonderful example of columnar geology 
along the North Atlantic coast.

Below, an aerial example of the great floodplains flowing towards
the sea from Iceland's largest glacier, Vatnajokull.