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Iceland in September: auroras and breath-taking colors on the menu!

After a fantastic and unforgettable journey through the island of fire and ice, here's why you should go visit it precisely then...

Yes, I did it again. Obviously one time in Iceland was not enough as much remained to be explored. On another note, my first trip was more focused on hiking and scouting as many places as possible without lingering for long at each spot. I wanted to come back for several reasons. The first one being that I needed a break. The second one, which trickles down from the first one, is I needed a break in a place where I could be in a genuine communion with nature. While there exist tons of places to do so, Iceland has this inexplicable appeal. Is it its mineral and singular nature? Probably! Everything is extremely well preserved, and this would enable me to get the break I longed for. The third reason was that I wanted to communicate this state of mind to my audience and the world...

The rhythm of our hectic lives often deters us from realizing we are still living in a natural environment. We have forgotten how to appreciate it, to live in it and with it. However as soon as you slow down and look around you, you reset this kind of instinctive awareness, the one that draws you to natural freedom. The best shows are not on TV nor in theaters but merely outside. All you have to do is take some time and gaze. It’s upside? It’s free and never ends! One of my life passions has been to try and live as much in communion with nature as possible, and try to spread this mindset around me through my films. It is exactly the purpose of the short film that I would make in Iceland. The decision of a destination was not easy, and I had already visited Iceland in February 2017, but something inexplicable about the island of fire and ice dissuaded me from going anywhere else. I needed to be alone in an environment that would bring me back to my natural roots and enable me to roam free while taking a deep breath. This would in turn give me the inspiration- the spark I needed for this film. ‘Scintillation’ is the spark of light, the ignition we all need to start our day and to keep our lives going.

I casually started my trip inside the Golden circle as the night was falling, as well as the rain! However already on the first night, a short clearing in the cloud layers enabled me to peek at a wiggling display of northern lights in Þingvellir national park. As I was trying to monitor the weather for my whole stay, I eventually figured out that I should take it day by day and travel towards clear skies, and that's what I did. From Laugarvatn, I drove all the way to the northern fjords to get better chances at seeing the lights, as a minor storm was announced. On my way (6 hours by car), I realized that I had come at the right time of the year. All the leaves of small willow trees were turning yellow, contrasting with the green mosses, the red cranberry bushes and the dark rocks! What a beauty. After a day of long but interesting travel with some stops on the way, I finally arrived at Akureyri, a major city in northern Iceland. I tried to find a spot that would be away from the city lights but not too deep in the mountains as I wanted the milky way as well. I found the perfect spot, right at the entrance of a fjord in a pasture, on top of impressive dark cliffs. From there, I was able to have a clear 360 degree view. After a well needed nap, I waited patiently for the sun to set. It wasn't really cold but windy! I was trying to see if I could perhaps see some whales, but they never showed up. However no longer than 45 minutes after sunset, a clear band was already showing across the sky right above my head. I stormed my gear out of the car and started shooting, and I didn't know I would be in for a treat. Huge coronas and bright bands sparked all night long (picture above and below).

After an unforgettable night, I made my way south again back where I started. I went shooting in Þingvellir national park and the area where I would be able to capture the colors of Fall. My initial plan was to capture the aurora and the ice in south-east Iceland, so I hit the road again after that towards Vatnajökull national park and Jökulsárlón. Unfortunately there are times where you simply cannot escape the weather you are under. The tail-end of storm Maria reached Iceland at that time and the south-eastern coast was badly targeted. So much that from the lagoon and on, it was literally pouring the whole time. I spent the night in a remote guest house that shook all night, and decided to get out of there first thing in the morning as I had read several warnings for floodings and landslides. I rushed to get out of Höfn and it was the right call, as the main road was flooded several places and sheep were drowning. Several hours later, they closed down the road and declared over a hundred sheep dead! It was such a close call! I stopped in Vík for a bit to shoot the sunset, and decided to stay in the area for the night, as NOAA had forecast a G2 solar storm! I was very skeptic as I could see some clear skies on the horizon, but it stayed there. A layer of high cirrus was blocking the view. After talking to my friend photographer Colin Abott that had an eye on airport weather for me, I drove west a bit for a better chance of viewing the lights. And BOOM! They popped out of nowhere 30 minutes after sunset! I had never seen them so early before. They took me by surprise so I found a spot far away from the highway near the coast and in spite of a lot of haze, magnificent aurorae showed up south!

The day after that amazing night was the occasion for me to catch some Z's. But I needed to be alert again for what was to come, because it was going to be the climax of the trip. On September 28th at 7:00pm, I headed out to Þingvellir national park again to shoot the aurora to get that water reflection. I had already done some prospecting for spots earlier, and I knew where were the best ones, away from cars and lights! As I set up my cameras on the edge of a small pond, some faint bands were coming from the north already 30 minutes after sunset. And you can guess once again, they took me by surprise. The bands developed into arcs and intensified. Around 8:50 pm, it literally started being day time again. I had never witnessed it before. The arc over my head sparked an unbelievably bright corona. So bright that it blew the highlights on my time-lapses. They went so fast that I didn't know where to shoot. It is so overwhelming and humbling at the same time. I decided to stop my Sony a7s to shoot some real time, and guess what? I shot at f/1.4, 1/25'' and ISO 16400 only! Some of this footage is available at the end of the video in the credits (Look at how little noise there is!) The moon and twilight were helping a bit, but boy, it got so bright! After the explosion, it went into type IV aurora (pulsating and sky filled fainter auroras), so I shot couple of timelpases and decided to go to Öxarárfoss to shoot the waterfall.

I was welcomed by two fellow photographers there and gave them some tips on how to shoot the lights! As I started shooting the waterfall, the whole process happened again! And again! And again. A total of 4 bright and colorful coronas could be witnessed there, and again it completely blew out my highlights on the pictures, but I couldn't stop my timelpases just to adjust my settings. I got so many pictures that night, and I also got sequences of deep-sky objects with aurora in the foreground!

Iceland has a very special way of generating and transforming light. The rampant cloud clover gives abundant rain, but also unique cloud entanglements each casting different colors and brightnesses onto the mineral landscapes. It is not rare to cross paths with sudden rainbows or majestic blood-red sunsets. The omnipresent water also gives a good opportunity to witness the scintillation when it is reflected or refracted. However in my opinion, night time is when things start to get really interesting. Being an astrophotographer, I might sound biased, but when the night falls, everything finally slows down: there comes the real opportunity for you and me to watch, listen, breathe and feel. The night is far from being scary, it is rather the only time of day where everything is bathed in darkness, enabling you to witness the subtile and mesmerizing changes in lighting. Moreover the starry sky has its way of putting you back down on Earth and makes you appreciate our place in the universe. Are you not tempted to step outside yet? Well this might change your mind…

There are many way of capturing the aurora borealis, but it has now been done beautifully over and over for the past decades as sensors got better at handling low light. I wanted to try new techniques and perspectives. For example I am fascinated by how well you can actually see the milky way when the aurora fades away. That is why I attempted to show the winter part of the northern hemisphere milky way above head and its red nebulas (North American nebula) slowly rotating behind the pink and green bands of coronas. I love how the lights cast colors on top of celestial objects like the Big Dipper or the Andromeda Galaxy. I also tried to focus a lot on aurora reflection in water. In about 7 days, I was able to witness almost all the different shapes and colors of the aurora borealis and I am sharing it with you here!

This unforgettable trip led me to travel about 3000 km in all directions, chasing clear skies and auroras, sometimes raking up 800km in one day just to find small patches of starry sky. I spent almost all of my time hiking and shooting, and gathered a total of about 50 time-lapse sequences and around 10.000 pictures. I sometimes only slept a few hours each night to get a maximum of pictures, because you never know when clouds are going to roll in! I met with a lot of cool people on the way but I tried to avoid crowed places to really get the sentiment of being in communion with mother nature. I believe it is mission accomplished and I am confident that my film transcribes well this vibe. I do hope you enjoy watching it and encourage you to step outside and take time to experience the nature around you more often, even if it feels like you don’t have time. It is more empowering and revitalizing than a vacation to the Bahamas, at least for me!

All has been shot with Sony a7rII (day and night landscapes), Sony a7s (real-time in credits), Canon 6D astro modified (most auroras and close-up astro lapses). I used various lenses, but I want to give a shoutout to the new Sigma 14mm f/1.8 that I especially brought there to test out, and it confirms my initial conclusion on this lens: it is one of the best astro-lenses on the market. It has become my number one astro-lens: look at how crisp the stars are, even wide open (all sequences shot at minimum f-stop!). Edits in Lr and post-process in Sequence, TLDF.


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