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A 'dream come true': UK photographer gets aurora and volcano in same shot

A 'dream come true': UK photographer gets aurora and volcano in same shot
The Northern Lights dance behind Icelandic volcano Fimmvorduhals. (Photo by James Appleton. Used with permission)

UK photographer James Appleton had a dream: To capture the beauty of the Northern Lights in the same photograph as the awesome power of a volcano.

And when the Fimmvorduhals volcano began erupting in Iceland -- one of the world's best places to see the Northern Lights -- he knew he had to make a very challenging but ultimately rewarding trek to capture both events simultaneously.

He survived a long, solo trek up amid a belching volcano while carrying roughly 60 pounds of equipment, and then had to weather an intense snowstorm that had whiteout conditions amid a full blizzard. 

In the end, the hard work paid off. Appleton's images have since made their way around the internet as well as adding an impressive entry into his portfolio. In asking permission to use some of his photos for my blog, he was gracious enough to give me his entire story of how he came to get these shots, which is just as impressive as the photographs themselves.

Quoted below is the e-mail he sent to me:

I went to Iceland specifically to go and view this eruption - I'd been over this mountain pass a number of times before in previous trips, but always in summer, and even then it is a pretty bleak place - not somewhere you want to get caught out. When I saw how close the eruption site was to the trail I had walked, and I knew I had the free time to be able to get out there, I couldn't resist.

I didn't know what to expect really - weather in Iceland is notoriously changeable and unpredictable, let alone whether it would be possible to get up at all. But, you have to try, so I booked flights, spend two days buying some updates to my winter gear, and then flew out. As it turns out they only opened the mountain the day I arrived at the bottom - the days previously it was considered too unstable, and even on the day I went up the mountain rescue services were checking anyone trying to get to the top for the right gear - crampons, rations, tent etc.

Getting to the top and seeing the volcano going off was just insane - it was a hell of a trek up with about 25-30kgs (55-60 lbs) of gear and food since I knew I wanted to stay on top for a few days at least. And pretty nervous too - the pass can be a really, really exposed spot so I didnt feel exactly comfortable about how easy the next few days would be. But when you see something like that going off - kicking lava bombs hundreds of metres into the air with the backdrop of endless snow-capped mountains disappearing into the distance - it's just something else. As a photographer, at that point, nothing else mattered - I was here to get images of this beast, and now I was at the top nothing was going to stop me!

That first evening I headed up right to the eruption point, probably to within a few hundred metres of the crater/fissure - it was pretty windy and getting clean, unshaken shots proved difficult, though I managed to get a few decent frames as the sun went down. But after it did, the wind began to drop, the skies totally cleared and the real show began.

At first, in the twilight, there was just a thin green band of light above the horizon, that shifted slightly and began to fragment a little. As it got darker, and I continued to shoot in the easier conditions, it just went nuts, and the whole sky began to light up in these amazing threads of green and purple light. This first night was frustrating - learning the hard way that exposing for the subtle northern lights, and at the same time a really bright light source from the volcano, was not easy.

Eventually it was a case of using part of a snickers wrapper to block out some of the light from the eruption during the long exposure, whilst allowing the light from the sky to come through. Trial and error, and very DIY, but it got the results (I don't like "composited" images, or multiple exposures - I believe in getting it right in one shot).

Night two was similar, though I was more prepared, so the shots were better. I picked a spot, had a composition all good to go, and then just waited to night and the lights, which did not disappoint! This was the best of the whole trip - being in the right place, ready, getting the shots in the bag, and knowing how to deal with the difficult exposure of the scene. Such a rush! And then when it got fully dark, and the show wasn't quite as dramatic as it had been around twilight, just sitting and soaking up the experience - the volcano growling and spitting, and the lights sifting across the sky - just unbelievable.

Unfortunately when I woke the next morning it was a whiteout, and for the next 48 hours a blizzard, with full gale force winds, battered the pass - I was the only person who stayed on top - the mountain rescue guys came to check up on me before they left for the bottom of the mountain - letting me know clearly that if I didn't go with them in their tracked vehicle or one a skidoo, I was on my own. I decided to stay - there was no way I was passing on this opportunity. So I sat out the storm, and an earthquake or two, before the storm cleared two days later. Unfortunately I had to leave that morning to get back in time for my flights, and to work back in the UK, but it meant I had an easier hike back out than I would have done in the severe winds and zero visibility!

The whole thing was pretty much a dream come true - I'd seen the lights before but never so strong, and I'd certainly never seem the glowing behind the fires of an active volcano. On the plane flying out I drew a picture of what I thought my "perfect" image might be - and I pretty much got it!

You can see more of Appleton's incredible shots from his trip on his website.