Milky Way, Jökulsárlón, Iceland.

I waited until 1 a.m. on the only clear morning of my weeklong trip to photograph the northern lights. When they came out and the stars shone, it was magic.

Canon EOS-1D X EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens f/1.4 for 25 seconds ISO 1000

I have traveled to Iceland several times in my career to photograph the volcanic landscapes, the icebergs along glacier fed shores, even the diminutive and iconic Icelandic horses. It was on a trip in October 2013 however that I set out with the intention of capturing the aurora borealis or northern lights phenomenon — a spectacular sight I had seen before but never captured to my satisfaction. This was an ideal opportunity to observe them due to the long nights and the fact that we were at a peak in a 9-year cycle of solar activity responsible for generating auroras. Now, I just had to cross my fingers for a clear night and the ideal opportunity during my short, week-long stay. 

So this story should be all about auroras however, as I have always said, you must remain open to opportunities that present themselves wherever you are. Don’t be blind to what is right in front of you simply because it’s not what you had planned to photograph when you had first set out. Seize every opportunity, don’t tell yourself “that looks great and I’ll come back and shoot it later”. Weather changes, winds pick up, clouds move, and schedules change. The best time to capture an image is when you first see it. 

Kirkjufell and Whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus), Vesturland, Iceland.

With the right amount of snow an ‘eye’ is revealed in the side of a mountain. It almost looks like the eye in the pyramid on the dollar bill. As I photographed a pair of swans took flight.

Canon EOS-1D X EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens f/16 for 1/200 second ISO 1250

I was in route to a new location and it was an unusually calm morning. We were simply driving along the northern coast in Vesturland when I saw Mount Kirkjufell with a very light dusting of new snow near the summit which certainly wouldn’t last the day, perhaps not even through the afternoon. What immediately caught my attention was a huge eye staring back at me from out of its side. I had to practically rub my own eyes and look twice but there it was, plain as day, staring right at me. It immediately reminded me of the eye on a US dollar bill hovering above the pyramid. It was a little disturbing even. Had there been any less snow, it would not have been there at all and any more snow and it would have been covered up entirely. It was just that perfect dusting that revealed the eye in the mountain, always there, but rarely seen by passers-by.  

All of the elements coalesced that day for this shot. The beautiful symmetry of Mount Kirkjufell, a perfectly placid lake at the base to reflect the mountain and the eye, and then, as we stopped and pulled over to compose the shot, I could see two whooper swans up the lake sitting on the water. They would be too small to see in the final image so I chose not to include them in the composition so as not to distract, however as I stayed with the subject, moving my tripod, trying different exposures and angles they took flight moving from left to right down the lake. Seeing it unfold before me I panned the camera, framed the mountain and shot a sequence of images as the swans passed directly front and center.  

Icelandic horse, Iceland.

I can’t resist the adorable and affectionate Icelandic horse anytime I visit the country.

Canon EOS-1D X Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15 ZE lens f/14 for 1/200 second ISO 4000

Everything had to come together at that moment, entirely unplanned and unpredicted. I love these serendipitous moments. While I always have a plan when I go out to a location, sometimes orchestrating the shot, getting up before the sunrise or planning for a moonless night, working with interpreters and locals or using guides to help find specific animals, it’s these moments that can’t be anticipated, can’t be planned for, that I love and am always on the lookout for.  

And that wasn’t the last time a serendipitous moment that would fall into my lap on this trip.  

The following day I came across a nice young couple in Southern Iceland and we struck up an instant conversation comparing notes on the landscape and what the other had discovered. It turns out they were professional climbing guides who were more than happy to show me some of the less accessible areas of Iceland on and even under the glaciers.  Well I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity. No, I hadn’t come to Iceland for glacier photography nor did I even bring the basic equipment from my own climbing days - it simply wasn’t on the agenda. However, I found myself, later that same afternoon, meeting up with this young couple again and donning borrowed crampons, an ice axe and roping gear and we set out racing the sun late in the day to investigate an ice cave they had told me they had found high up on a glacier.  

Bergy bits, Iceland.

Powerful ocean currents sweep Iceland’s southern coast, tossing bergy bits and larger icebergs like dice. The ice, which formed in Europe’s largest ice cap over a thousand years ago, calves at the shore of Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15 ZE lens f/11 for 1/10 second ISO 100

Practically racing up the glacier was only the beginning as I would soon learn. Once on location we had to rappel down directly into the glacier where a stream had melted out a shallow tunnel beneath the thick ice above. How they discovered this I still don’t quite know as we had to crawl on our hands and knees for over 200 hundred yards under the glacier. “What would drive them to do this in the first place?” I kept asking myself. We were crawling in wet gravel, crossing the stream from time to time, always bent over or on hands and knees, clothes and boots getting increasingly wet with each foot forward, and I was freezing trying to keep hold of my tripod and constantly bumping my backpack into the ice immediately above me. 

Glacial ice cave, Austur-Skaftafellssýsla, Iceland.

Using ropes, crampons and ice axes, we followed a small river down under the edge of the glacier on hands and knees until we came to large opening that provided the only light. We were over 100 feet below the ice surface which was covered in ash and it was nearly pitch black. I was cold ,wet and struggling with helmet straps that prevented me from effectively using my glasses. All in the name of “art.”

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/15 ZE lens f/14 for 30 seconds ISO 100

As promised there was an eventual payoff 200 feet below the surface of the glacier. A crevasse had bottomed out on the stream we were following providing a source of light to illuminate this cavern which they had discovered. It was a spectacular scene and I only had about 20 minutes of light to quickly size it up. I choose a wideangle lens and exposures started at one minute and only grew from there as I worked fast in the fading light. I love the jade blue cast to the entire scene and the movement in the water. The elements all came together to provide an unworldly scene unlike any other ice cave I have photographed before. 

With headlamps, we retraced our route crawling back through the ice cold water and gravel. Prior to leaving for Iceland and even that very morning, for that matter, I had no idea I’d be crawling around underneath a glacier in such conditions. At the very least I would have packed some warmer clothes, heavier rain gear and even knee pads for the trek. I am very aggressive and seeing an opportunity like this, knowing that wind and water can reveal beautiful patterns in the ice beneath snow fields and glaciers, I wasn’t about to pass it up simply because it wasn’t part of what I had planned or imagined when I had set out.  

Now did I ever get around to shooting the auroras? Absolutely! Though it was only on the very last day of the week on this long trip that the clouds parted and revealed the dancing colors in the skies over the glacial Lake Jökulsárlón on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. Every night leading up to that last day was clouded over and I had begun to accept that photographing the auroras, the only reason I had initially set out for Iceland, simply wasn’t going to happen on this trip.

Aurora borealis, Jökulsárlón, Iceland.

When I traveled to Iceland late one October with the primary intent of photographing the northern lights, it was very stormy and I thought we were going to be stymied—until the last two days, when the weather cleared to reveal a crystalline sky.

Canon EOS-1D X EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens f/1.4 for 20 seconds ISO 800

Taking one last chance I waited until 1 a.m. and despite earlier clouds that evening, eventually the lights came out and the stars shone, it was like magic. It is a joyous moment as a photographer when you guess right and your effort is rewarded, and even more so sometimes when you take a risk and seize an opportunity.

I love it when it all comes together like it did for this trip to Iceland.  


Join Art at his next seminar in Denver, Colorado at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on June 6th.

To join Art and photograph in some amazing places around the world such as Namibia, Washington, Alaska, Svalbard, Oregon, Sierras, Grand Tetons, Tanzania, and Antarctica in 2015, check out his workshops.

Art Wolfe is a nature and cultural photographer and advocate who has worked on every continent over a span of five decades.  He has published more than 80 books and appeared in the television series 'Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge'.

Art’s work is available online at www.artwolfe.com, and at the Rotella Gallery in New York City and Las Vegas.

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