Lights, camera, Iceland: Improve your photography in a dream destination
Land of Fire & Ice
A photography tour gives a whole new perspective on this iconic destination, says amateur snapper Nicola Brady.
There's a certain type of coldness that grabs you in the Icelandic countryside, particularly at night. It's the kind of cold that permeates your brain, as well as your bones. It becomes all you can think about.
My eyes should be trained beyond the dark mountains, as we stand in the chill, awaiting the arrival of the Aurora Borealis. But all I can do is hop up and down in the snow, occasionally breaking into star jumps, in an attempt to hang onto all of my extremities.
The Northern Lights, shimmering displays sparked when solar particles strike the earth's atmosphere, are one of Iceland's most jaw-dropping natural phenomena. But I haven't come just to see the Aurora. I've come to photograph them.
TDactive (an offshoot of Travel Department) runs activity holidays around the world, including photography trips with Dublin Photography School (dublinphotographyschool.ie). I'm joined by founders and tutors Stewart Kenny and Sinead Murphy, who have led us to a spot outside of Reykjavik on a late-night Aurora hunt.
The trouble is, the lights are being more than a little elusive. I've been anxiously waiting with my camera poised and ready, convinced they were about to burst forth on the horizon and fill the sky with their garish green glow.
They never do.
At one point, Stewart guides our gaze to a distant point beyond the hills where, he says, something is brewing.
"Can you see that very faint green?"
I pretend I do, in the same way I used to when presented with a Magic Eye picture. But it amounts to nothing, in the end. The sky is black, not green, albeit filled with a thick splattering of stars. So we focus on these instead, learning how to capture "star trails" with a remote control and a long exposure of at least eight minutes.
Our group is a mix of both experienced photographers, laden down with jazzy gadgets, filters and lenses, and complete newbies, who arrive with borrowed cameras. I fall somewhere in the middle - technically, I have some training under my belt, but I'm nowhere near an expert and frequently resort to my camera's Auto setting.
These trips are designed with people like me in mind - how many of us own decent cameras, but are intimidated by their multitude of little icons? Iceland is the perfect spot to experiment. It's currently experiencing a huge surge in visitor numbers, due to an improving economy, the increase in direct budget flights (from Ireland, among other destinations), and Reykjavik's new role as a cheap stopover for transatlantic flights.
Downsides? Well, this does mean that popular sights get busy - it seems that most people follow the same itinerary, travelling in a convoy of huge coaches. Everything you've heard about the expense is mostly correct, too. By the hotspots, expect to pay around €14 for a bowl of "meat soup" (tastier than it sounds) and at least €4 for a vending machine coffee. A glass of wine will set you back €10 minimum (though I recently paid the same price in New York City, to be fair).
My advice? Accept the prices, plan accordingly and focus on what the country has to offer - vistas that are almost other-worldly, and an unmistakably Nordic landscape dotted with wide, mossy plains and stumpy Icelandic horses.
Our photography tour started out at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, where tiny bridges arc and curve over rapidly rushing water. While others scurried closer to the falls (you can actually walk behind the waterfall itself, if conditions allow), we stood back, armed with our tripods.
It's good to have a tutor on hand - Stewart showed me how slowing down my shutter speed can create a soft, milky sheen to the falling water, and Sinead helped me wrangle with a tricky tripod. Both point out that the weird orbs appearing in my photographs aren't mysterious ghouls, but the mist of water on my lens (oops...).
My skills improve at Skogafoss, with its swathes of long, buttery grass and wide, pebbled riverbanks, but the waterfall to rule them all is Gullfoss. It's a beast, where white water tumbles into ribbons and freezes against rocky peaks. The water here doesn't just fall from pretty, moss-covered heights. It also shoots up from the sulphur-scented depths. The Geysir hot springs are a collection of bubbling mud pits, smaller geysers and the main attraction, Strokkur, which erupts every few minutes, spurting water 100ft into the air.
Using burst mode, we learn how to capture multiple shots of each eruption, in the hope that one secures the perfect photo. After an hour and over 100 pictures, I decide to tuck my camera away and look at the geysers with my own eyes.
I realise it's something we could do a lot more of - how often do we watch a sunset through our phones, or photograph our food until it's cold? I wanted to photograph the Northern Lights almost as much as I wanted to see them, so it's hard not to feel disappointed when they don't show. But there's so much more to Iceland than this phenomenon. I leave with many pictures to be proud of, but I'm glad I remembered to see it in the moment, too.
The next photography trip with TDactive is Morocco, on November 10. The 3-night trip costs €699pps (€69 single supplement). The 'Iceland & the Northern Lights' package with Travel Department starts at €699pps for three nights on November 24 (other dates available). See tdactive.ie and traveldepartment.ie.
What to pack
More layers than you ever thought possible, especially if you're heading out at night in the winter. In terms of camera kit, a tripod and remote control are essential for capturing waterfalls, star trails and geysers (and a lens cloth is imperative, too).
Where to stay
We stayed at the Grand Hotel Reykjavik (above, grand.is), a little walk out of the city with an excellent breakfast. The Stracta Hotel Hella (stractahotels.is) is a funky and stylish hotel in the depths of the countryside, with outdoor hot tubs and saunas. Imagine the Northern Lights during an al fresco soak!
Spot the Aurora
You'll need two things - complete darkness and a clear sky. Your best chance of this is between September and April, but remember there are never any guarantees. A local guide will be able to read the forecast and take you to the best spots, or you can check the Aurora forecast on vedur.is.
The Blue Lagoon. Yes, it's often packed to the rafters, and it's hardly off-radar, but get there as soon as it opens and you should find some peace in the blue geothermal waters. Douse yourself in the silica mud and drift between the various hot zones. Prices start at €40. See bluelagoon.com.
Get lost in Rekjavik
The city itself is small and perfectly formed for ambling. Plan a vague route, but meander between its side streets and ramshackle wooden shop fronts. The walk from Harpa, the city's gorgeous concert hall, up to Hallgrímskirkja church, is a great introduction to the city. See visitreykjavik.is.