Luck is a funny thing

April 26, 2010

Sometimes you don’t realize how lucky you have been, though you always seem to realize immediately when you have been unlucky. I can safely admit that with a few exceptions (known only to me), I can truly feel that I have been lucky because of the sight I beheld Thursday night. April 22nd is a national holiday here in Iceland as it heralds the first official day of summer. Never mind that when I drove to the town of Vik it was a white-out blizzard or that the temperature never gets much above freezing during the day. The day was a special one for the whole country, and with clear skies I wanted to make sure I got a good parting photo of my volcano friend before I packed up my bags and headed back to New York.

I was staying in the same hotel as Ingolfur Juliusson (Ingo), the Reuters freelancer based here in Iceland, and Gunnar Bondal, a photographer for Dagens Næringsliv – the Norwegian Business Daily. We decided to head out to get a good vantage point and take some nighttime photos and to take advantage of the rare clear night. During this time of year it does not get dark until after 9pm and even then the sun doesn’t stop illuminating things until 10pm or so. This meant that even though we were in place by roughly 9pm there was a lot of light to take slow shutter speed photos of the lava and ash clouds.

It seems that every day this volcano takes on a different personality. In the beginning, the ash was dark, almost black, and unbelievably forcefully shot skyward in massive and mushroom shaped plumes. After the first day or two, the ash turned to gray and white. And some evenings the only thing you could really see was the lava because the sky and ash were too dark. On this night, the moon was shining and it was possible to get some nice frames of the red glow of the lava and abstract shapes in the ash plume.

Lava and ash explode out of the caldera of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 22, 2010.  REUTERSLucas Jackson
Lava and ash explode out of the caldera of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 22, 2010. REUTERSLucas Jackson

I set up my clamp/car window rig again as Ingo and Gunnar spread out with their tripods to get some photos of the “orange stuff” as Ingo put it. Unfortunately, where we had the car (aka my tripod) parked was too windy and my lava trails looked like the slime trail of a drunk slug due to the wind rocking the vehicle.

Lava spews from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 22, 2010. REUTERSLucas Jackson

I suggested we move to the side of a cliff to keep the wind off us. We could also keep warmer as the temperature steadily dropped farther and farther below freezing.

Once the jeep was snug against the cliff we spread out. Everyone was trying different focal lengths and compositions and since we are all photographers no-one was in a rush to leave. It was approaching midnight and the light had gone too low for me to use my live view or the viewfinder to focus my camera, so when I switched bodies I had to use a much more menial method. I began at infinity (no matter what anyone says it’s not automatically focused on things far away because it’s on infinity) and ever so slowly turned the focus ring to take a picture.

A view of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 22, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

I would then check the picture by zooming in and seeing if it was sharp. It took about 5 or 6 photos to get the image sharp but it worked relatively well. I then proceeded to play with the shutter speeds and f-stops to see the different effects.

I was focusing mainly on the lava and its glow on the ash cloud as I hadn’t seen it as strong as this before. With the distant rumbling of the mountain, I shot some tight images with my Canon 1DMKIV and a 70-200 to get the lava trails before switching to my Canon 5DMKII and a 16-35mm for some wide shots. Shortly after getting the focus locked in I looked at one of my images to see a slight green tinge in the top of the photo. It took me a moment before I realized what I was seeing was the beginning of the Aurora Borealis peeking through.

The Northern Lights are seen April 22, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Northern Lights are seen April 22, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

To the naked eye this looks like a whisper of a cloud and you can only really see the color in the camera so I widened my composition to make sure the Northern Lights were in the frame and pressed the shutter as fast as I could. To keep the camera still (as mentioned in an earlier entry, I didn’t bring a cable release) I was using the 10 second timer and was pressing the button as fast as I could.

The Northern Lights are seen April 22, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The Northern Lights are seen April 22, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

To my amazement the lights began to brighten and brighten until the entire sky was filled with tendrils of green light snaking east to west across the top of the volcano and directly above us. It was incredible. The lights were so bright I had to stop my camera down from 20 and 30 second exposures to 10 and 15 second exposures to prevent from over-exposing my frames.

A slightly over-exposed view of the Northern Lights April 22, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
A slightly over-exposed view of the Northern Lights April 22, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

I couldn’t believe that I was seeing this, much less in a position to photograph it. On top of that, I was photographing it with the bonus element of a volcano in the background! I was so excited I was literally laughing. There is no feeling like knowing you are taking a good picture and this is probably one of three times in my life that I knew I would come out with something that I liked. Ingo and Gunnar were equally as excited and no-one really talked much beyond the occasional “wow” or “I can’t believe this is happening” as we all clicked away madly. By this point Ingo was feeling pretty cold so I traded him my seat in the car for his tripod and ran to take photos of the lights straight above.

The Northern Lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano April 22, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

One of these wound up (quite by happy accident I assure you) having the volcano peeking into the corner. The lights slowly grew in intensity until the sky was filled with them before they almost suddenly disappeared, showing themselves for perhaps a half an hour or so in total.

We stuck around a bit longer before packing up and heading home with the heater on full blast across the dirt roads of southern Iceland to our hotel talking non-stop about the sight we had just seen. It was incredible and I hope that my images convey even a fraction of the natural splendor that is almost commonplace here in Iceland. I have been humbled, and I do consider myself lucky, not because I took some pretty pictures, but because I got to be in the position to take them and was able to witness the event in the first person. This was one time that I knew I was lucky as the event happened before me. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t appreciate it, because I do. I hope you enjoy my attempt to capture it and share with anyone who loves to look at pictures.

The Northern Lights are seen above the ash plume of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano in the evening April 22, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

To view a full selection of Lucas’ images click here.


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[…] Update to this post in which Reuters photographer Lucas Jackson talks about how he got pictures of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. […]

Posted by On taking pictures of Eyjafjallajokull | friskyGeek | Report as abusive

Wow Lucas, I got chills looking at your photos.

Posted by 5thandSpring | Report as abusive

[…] – What’s the subject of street photography? [Seven Seven Nine] – Marc Rochkind checks out the iPad camera connection kit [The Online Photographer] – Ken Tanaka has a lot to say about the Eggleston exhibit in Chicago [Part 1 | Part 2 from The Online Photographer] – You’ve seen photos of the volcano. Let’s add the aurora borealis for good measure. [Reuters] […]

Posted by Photo This » Read This for 04.26.2010 | Report as abusive

Awesome, incredible, breath-taking work!
Just remember that “luck” happens when preparation meets opportunity. You were prepared, you were there and you acted on the opportunity!

Posted by Pagebinder | Report as abusive

Hi there, we are two french journalism students working on a report about images of the volcano. We would really like to interview you about this shoot. Could you please get back to me at We could do it through email or by the phone. Thanks so much!

Posted by paulineeiferman | Report as abusive

I was compelled to track you down, based on a tweet: A collection of assorted images from the volcanic eruption in Iceland ( Your shot (Image #19) is epic.

The way you’ve captured the texture of the clouds and the illumined core of the lava, hidden from our view. …It’s downright Tolkien-esque.

Beautiful, arresting work. Kudos. Best, M.

Posted by mckra1g | Report as abusive

[…] Luck is a funny thing […]

Posted by Photosoc » Blog Archive » The Boston Big Picture – Icelandic Volcano | Report as abusive


Posted by BUNNEBO | Report as abusive

What absolutely stunning photos! Talk about being in the right place at the right time… who or what ever is responsible. Thank you so much for sharing.

Posted by jayfisher | Report as abusive





Posted by happyheart | Report as abusive

Stunning photos and an enjoyable read! Thanks for the sharing!

Posted by FrankFung | Report as abusive

You are a lucky person having the opportunity to take those pictures, and you are very good person showing them in the net.
Thanks for share us the pictures because we can see and reflect about the small we are in front of the nature force.
God bless you friend.

Posted by Fercho | Report as abusive