Tuesday, 29 November 2016
Iceland holiday - The conversation over dinner the first night went something like this:
'There is a very high forecast for the Aurora tonight...'
'But it's cloudy here...'
'We could drive up into the mountains to see if the cloud lifts..'
'But we didn't get to bed until 2am this morning so we're all tired...'
'OK, let's not bother tonight and let's hope the weather improves during the week.'
So, I retired to my room at about 9pm, intending to catch up on my sleep. Within minutes, came an urgent hammering on my door: 'Come out, quickly!' I thought there was a fire! But no, my friend pointed to the sky: 'Look... the Northern Lights!' I looked and saw the clear night sky, sparkling with millions of stars - and what appeared to be white, wispy, moonlit clouds, or maybe smoke drifting across. I would never have known what I was seeing. Furthermore, I would never have known how to capture them.
We all set up our tripods and cameras, right there on the grass outside our hotel, and the experienced ones helped those of us who'd never done this before. Point camera at the sky, manual focus on infinity, high ISO, widest aperture you can get, exposure no more than 20 seconds (not more or it'll be blurred), press the shutter... Wait ages, nothing seems to be happening - ah, wait, the little green light just came on on the camera (it's focussed). Still nothing seems to be happening... wow! Suddenly an amazing green image appears on the LCD screen. Magic! It's a bit like doing a chemistry experiment. Once the basics were mastered, the trick was in trying to discern where the best Aurora activity seemed to be and then to compose a pleasing image. A little bit of foreground detail seems helpful in that.
It was so, so exciting! I have wanted for many years to see the Northern Lights. I never really imagined that I would - and fully expected to be involved in a week-long chase, standing on freezing cold hillsides late at night in the hope that the cloud might part. Instead, we were blessed with this wonderful show, right there outside our hotel on our first night! What a gift.
As for why they don't really look coloured (as I'd expected) to the naked eye, it has something to do with the rods and cones in our eyes and the way we see at night, whereas the camera captures much more detail. To be honest, I'd have missed it if someone hadn't told me what I was witnessing. (See here for another blogger's take on it). But oh, the joy...!