Behind the shot: the Northern Lights and me

Behind the shot: the Northern Lights and me

This photo of me with looking out at the Northern Lights makes me so happy every time I look at it. But the story of how we got the shot while we were on holiday in Iceland is not what you might expect…

I had a good feeling about Hofn from the start, which is odd given that it is not a place that makes a spectacular first impression. 

It turns out that I had great intuition: it was a town full of surprises.

First there is its name, which is not pronounced Hoffen, as we’d been calling it before we arrived, but Hupp, said as if you are giving someone a leg up over a wall, or maybe tossing a caber. 

Then there was the surprising beauty of the place, which only became apparent after we’d walked out of the campsite, along the main road, through the centre of neat little town and past the port, reaching the lagoon at the far end just as the sun was beginning to set. The light bounced off the water, which was unwrinkled right to the shallows where it was pockmarked with stones. The colourful fisherman’s cottages glowed and popped and the stray rays illuminated every crease and crevasse in the glacier behind us.

We basked in the glow while walking back to the campsite, content and enamoured with the spot, which was the least wild place we’d stopped off for the night on the trip that far. 

But the best surprise of all was yet to come.

We started our meal prep that evening outside, but as the sky darkened and the temperature dropped, we bundled into the communal kitchen where the smell of ten different pasta sauces mingled in the air. As the evening wore on, each little group huddled closer around card games and phone chargers. With each round that passed, my awareness of the outside world grew smaller and the steamed-up little cabin became the centre of my existence.

And so, when the rather taciturn lady who had checked us in earlier burst through the door, I almost jumped out of my skin. “If anybody wants to see the Northern Lights, then get outside now,” she said, her face now beaming.

There was a mass exodus from the kitchen. Seeing the green shadows in the sky to the south, I ran out of the campsite, across the road and up the small hill opposite. It might seem silly to run towards something that is always going to be crazy far away, but I honestly wasn’t thinking straight in this moment. My boyfriend Andy was 30 seconds or so behind me and when he reached me, we threw our arms around each other knowing that we were both experiencing the same elation and disbelief.

There were so many things we had hoped for from our trip, but given that it was in the middle of August, seeing the Northern Lights hadn’t even made the list.

The light show started faint and got stronger, pinging south to north overhead. I was happy just to watch, but I could sense Andy itching to get his camera kit. We trudged back to our van and turned our attention towards the glacier. We had an almost unrestricted view of it from our pitch out across the bay. Andy fiddled around with long exposures, and I settled myself down on a nearby rock just to watch and take it all in. It was in this spot that Andy took possibly my favourite photo ever, with me perched in the foreground while the lights flicker over the mountains beyond.

For my part all I had to do was sit still — like barely-breathing statue still. This required some concentration, but meant that Andy could set the shutter to capture my outline as sharply as possible. The only blur you can really see is the fur around my hood, which was being moved about by the wind.

Ultimately it was Andy that did the hard work though. I’ll leave it to him to explain here exactly how he captured the shot:

“Getting a vibrant shot like this of the Aurora requires cramming as much light from the environment into your camera as you can. I used a slow shutter speed to get this shot — around four minutes, I believe — which gave a lovely hazy quality to the aurora and really lit up the landscape in front of us. A tripod is essential for this sort of shot.

“Most importantly, you need a very patient partner. Katie sat stock still for four minutes so that there was no blur in the final shot.”

For more of Andy’s work, you can check out his portfolio and read about how he took more amazing pictures on Iceland trip in his adventure photography explainer for CNET.

I should also mention that we got to see the Northern Lights a second time (trust me when I say we felt like the luckiest people on Earth in that moment) towards the end of our trip while we were staying on the Snaesfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland. 

As you can imagine, this trip was super special to us and we can’t wait to go back to Iceland in winter one day and, fingers crossed, see them all over again!

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