One in a Million Shot: Capturing the Aurora from Inside an Icelandic Cave

aurora Iceland

Photography has been a powerful medium for me. It emerged in my life as a serendipitous counterbalance to the technical rigour of a day job in the tech industry.

At the time, I was working long hours and found that photography provided an outlet for me to express myself and maintain a sense of balance. It allowed me to explore my artistic side and challenge myself to see the world from different perspectives.

josselin cornou

As I progressed in this field, I found myself reaching out to take photographs in more challenging situations – which led me to win some awards in the landscape photography field.

It also resonated with me as a form of journaling/meditation technique, as I typically have to slow down to appreciate what nature has to offer and capture the specific photos, which I find especially important in the world we live in.

While many would try to reproduce a shot, I was interested in discovering new locations and trying out new venture points – this became my genre.

Two examples of this were capturing a snowstorm in Australia, and Helensburgh train station, which is an old train station only 45 minutes from Sydney where you can observe thousands of glow worms that take over the tunnel, which were both highlighted in the Nature TTL 2022 competition.

The winning photo

As for my winning photo (below), capturing the aurora from inside an Icelandic cave, we were travelling with one of my long-time friends, as I promised him I would guide him to see an active volcano.

Long story short, the volcano stopped erupting a few days prior. But little did we know, a solar storm was on its way.

I had no idea that it would become the most amazing four days I’ve had in Iceland; four days of auroras ranging from KP5 to KP7, allowing me to capture this unique photo, which is statistically almost impossible to get.

josselin cornou

In Iceland, auroras are most often only visible towards the north or overhead (during solar storms). The viewpoint in the photo above faces south, which makes it statistically very hard to capture auroras. It would take a G2 solar storm (KP7) to get to see auroras whilst facing south.

A G2 solar storm requires a strong solar event to occur, which is not something that can be predicted far in advance. These events are rare and unpredictable, making it difficult to plan and prepare for them.

All these factors combined make capturing a G2 solar storm in Iceland a truly unique and challenging experience for any photographer.

Luckily, we had excellent conditions on this day.

waterfall Iceland

It’s an incredibly rare and unique sight to see auroras from this waterfall cave. But in this special case, the auroras were incredibly strong (thanks to the G2 solar storm) which caused them to shift south and put on a breathtaking display for all to see.

I had to wait in location on slippery terrain (I wouldn’t recommend anyone heading there at night without safety equipment) for a few hours until the events appeared at around 3 am that night, producing this photo.

As of now, this is probably the most challenging and most rewarding aurora photo I have taken to date.

Auroras: flexible planning

Capturing auroras is an art per se, and here are four principles I abide by to maximise the probability of capturing auroras and solar storms.

1. Find the best times to watch auroras

Although auroras can be observed from late August through early April, certain months offer a greater chance of witnessing this captivating phenomenon – March and September. This is mostly due to specific solar spots that increase the likelihood of solar events.

aurora Iceland

Additionally, mid-November to mid-December presents favourable conditions for experiencing auroras and the breathtaking landscapes of Iceland.

With the sun rising late and setting early during this period, there are ample opportunities to behold extended sunrises and sunsets. This allows enthusiasts to dedicate hours to capturing the mesmerising night sky without compromising too much rest.

2. Strategic planning: embrace simplicity

In preparation for my travels in Iceland, I’ve meticulously charted numerous locations I’ve explored throughout the years. However, I adhere to a minimalist approach when crafting my itinerary, opting to concentrate on a select few destinations at a time, depending on weather conditions.

Vedur.is, a three-day auroras forecast, usually gives me good indications of how the weather is going to look over the next 18 hours, which helps me plan accommodation and areas to best capture auroras. I also consider road closure and easy access to move North to South or East to West.

If the KP index forecast (the higher the better) and weather forecast are looking promising, then I know I will be ready to stay outside most of the night.

kp index chart

3. Choosing the right equipment for astrophotography and auroras

For this particular photo in the waterfall cave, the forecast was at KP6, which meant that there were some good odds that the aurora might finally be moving south. I headed to my chosen location in the morning to see how I could envision the shot and figure out the lens needed.

aurora photography equipment

I decided to use a Sony Alpha 7R V and a Sony 15mm f1.4, as I wanted to keep good portability, and the low f/stop would allow me to lower my exposure time, allowing me to adapt faster, as well as capture video of this location.

4. Be patient

Patience is key. For this specific photo, I stayed a total of 2 hours around the area, capturing a few compositions before finally heading behind the waterfall as the solar activity intensified.

northern lights Iceland

Then commenced another waiting game, spanning 3 hours.

Though the auroras initially teased with subtle hints of green, I remained steadfast, anticipating a surge in activity for my desired composition.

And indeed, at around 3 am, amidst the tranquil solitude, the auroras burst forth in all their glory, just for us. I went to bed at 5 am that night, having shot the most difficult aurora photograph I have taken to date.

In conclusion

As the dawn approached and my lens finally rested, I reflected on the journey that brought me to this point.

planing an aurora photography trip

An unplanned trip – I had ventured into the night in pursuit of the auroras, and in return, I found a rare glimpse into the universe’s vast beauty; a moment of profound clarity captured through my camera’s eye.

Visit Josselin's website

Josselin Cornou, a French-Australian tech professional and adventure photographer, passionately captures Earth's splendor through a very unique lens. From Antarctica's icebergs to Icelandic auroras, he showcases our planet's unique beauty, emphasising sustainability at every frame, in a journey to reveal nature's wonders.

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