Iceland waterscape photography in Kirkjufell, showing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), by landscape photographer José Ramos

First Iceland photo

“Dance of the Spirits” | Kirkujfell, Iceland

“And even though the eyes had seen so much beauty, the enchantment of the Aurora would steal the crown of the most magnificient spectacle of light ever witnessed…”

José Ramos ©

After my seven day trip to Iceland, from 16-22 September, here’s my first published photo from the trip. After sleeping inside the rental car in Keflavik (the plane arrived at 1am), I decided to head to Kirkujfell next day. I had seen this mountain so many times on 500px and other galleries, and yet it still kept me fascinated every single time with its singular shape, frequently adorned by beautiful waterfalls. As soon as I arrived I could feel my heart racing with the excitement, and I rushed to the spot and photographed it from many angles until it was absolutely dark. Finally headed to the car, parked right before the path to the waterfalls, to grab something to eat, and waited on the inside for sleep to come. The sky had been partially filled with clouds, as it usually happens in Iceland, and I was nowhere near from thinking about watching an Aurora Borealis/Northern Light during my whole trip (due to their rarity), let alone seeing it on the first day!

It all happened very quickly, and started with my girlfriend’s scream, “AURORA!”. We rushed to the outside, and time suddenly stopped while I glanced at the sky, feeling mesmerized with the light dance spectacle right in front of me. Then a thought instinctively appeared amidst the emotional rush, “my camera! Where is it?!”. Chaos ensued, and in 2 minutes I was ready to start shooting. There was the option of returning to the waterfall spot, but it would take too much time (minutes are precious, as Auroras can dissapear in seconds), so I ended up going to the beach right by the mountain and started shooting.

It’s not easy to photograph this type of scene. ISO needs to be at 1600-3200 and the lens set at maximum aperture, to maximize exposure. Shutter speed is usually between 10-30 seconds, and longer than 30 seconds will create small star trails, instead of the more aesthetically pleasant star single points. Focus needs to be manual and preferentially set at infinity (even though the infinity mark on many lenses doesn’t actually correspond to infinity). I decided to use the reflection of the water to create a point of anchorage to the Northern Lights, and the Kirkujfell mountain was just perfect for this. Everything is usually almost pitch black, except when the Aurora is extremely strong, and to avoid loosing too much time guessing the composition in such dark conditions, having to wait for the end of the whole 30 second exposure, I decided to make shorter test shots at very high ISOs (12800), and then fine tune composition.

Post-processing these photos is much more about noise reduction and sharpening control than adjusting color and other settings, as the Aurora color and intensity is already captivating enough on its own.

Apart from a 5 minute Aurora in Jokulsarlon, I didn’t see it again during my trip, which made this night even more unique and remarkable. Definitely one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.

Technical data:

Sony a77 + Sigma 10-20mm
Aperture: f/4
Shutter speed: 30 seconds
Focus: Manual
White Balance: Auto
Wireless Remote Timer
Manfrotto MT055XPRO3 tripod + MH055M0-Q6 ballhead