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Three years ago, during the 2021 eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcanic system in Iceland, I set out on a mission to try and capture the northern lights above an erupting volcano. I recently attempted to witness this unique & rare combination of natural phenomenons again, which I have dubbed the ‘Holy Grail of Iceland Photography’. A few weeks ago, I succeeded in witnessing this fairytale scene again.

Disclaimer: The entire area where the eruption is occurring is restricted to the public. As a member of press, I have permission to access it.

In recent months, we’ve had several volcanic eruptions near Reykjavík. I have been spending an enormous amount of time documenting these events for various media as a freelancer.

Shot using the Canon EOS R5 with the Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM.

Chasing A Mythical Photograph

In 2021, during the first eruption I photographed at the Fagradalsfall volcano in Iceland, I had declared it a personal photography mission to try and capture the northern lights above an active eruption. To me, it’s a mythical kind of photograph and I wondered if it would even be possible to capture this in one frame. It seems almost surreal and impossible to capture two of the most elusive natural phenomena in Iceland in one photograph. Under the motto of “You lose 100% of the shots you never attempt to take“, I made several attempts during that eruption to capture that shot. One such night I managed to take one shot of a moment that lasted maybe one minute, which I share in detail in my book, New Earth. It was one of the most thrilling moments I experienced during the 2021 Geldingadalir eruption.

In 2021, I captured this unique photograph the aurora borealis above the then-ongoing eruption.

Shot using the Canon EOS R6 with the Canon EF 16-35mm F/2.8 L III.

Since then, I have dreamt of experiencing that unique moment again. With every eruption that occurred since then (a total of 7 at the time of writing), I thought about that possibility and whether I would see it again. Until last November, all eruptions occurred over the summer, with no real worthwhile opportunities. However, the last eruption, which has been ongoing since March, really invigorated that hope as the eruption lasted much longer than anyone had anticipated.

The Reykjanes Peninsula has been incredibly active in terms of volcanic activity. This was taken during the December eruption at Sundhnúksgígar, which only lasted 3 days.

Shot using the DJI Mavic 3 Pro.

The March eruption at Sundhnúksgígar has lasted much longer than previous eruptions in this area.

Shot using the DJI Mavic 3 Pro.

Several nights I set out to try and capture that unique moment again but never were the northern lights strong enough. Until three weeks ago, when a G1 geomagnetic storm was predicted and we were lucky enough to have clear skies.

One of my first attempts wasn’t too great (in my view). I wanted to get a much stronger aurora above the eruption. I did, however, like the wind funnel above the lava.

Shot using the Canon EOS R5 with the Canon RF 14-35mm IS USM L.

It wasn’t even fully dark yet but the aurora was already quite visible. We had a show of about 3 hours before the aurora eventually scattered and faded away. A lot of that time, I just sat and watched to take it all in, while pressing the shutter button of my camera occasionally. I find it so important to also step away from the camera to truly see and experience that moment.

Even though it wasn’t fully dark yet, the aurora was already very visible. I really loved how it seemed as if it erupts from the crater.

Shot using the Canon EOS R5 with the Canon RF 14-35mm IS USM L.

Later that evening, the aurora came back even stronger and filled the whole sky above the eruption.

Shot using the Canon EOS R5 with the Canon RF 14-35mm IS USM L.

It’s Complicated

Even though this shot may seem simple and straightforward, it is far from it. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome. Before you can even begin to shoot, you need the right moment where the northern lights are very strong and you need an approachable volcanic eruption.

The most obvious technical hurdle is the fact that the light intensity of the aurora and the lava is vastly different. To the eye, lava is much, much brighter than the northern lights could ever be – even when the aurora is really intense & bright. On top of that, you have many different areas within the frame that have different light intensities. The crater itself, where the lava erupts, is much brighter than the rest of the lava field. Within the lava field, the light intensity also changes as the thin shell on top of liquid lava breaks as pressure builds up, which in turn creates random spots with more intense light.

Getting this shot is complicated and perhaps even impossible to get right without serious compositing.

Sometimes getting the shot is secondary to the experience.

Finally, the gas cloud originating from the crater is much weaker lit in comparison to the rest of the scene. To make matters even more complicated, you have a lot of movement within the frame too. Perhaps the most difficult bit is the fact that the gas cloud is moving very fast and in an unpredictable way. All of these challenges together make that bracketing, to get the different light intensities right, very difficult and perhaps even impossible.

But let’s assume that it were possible and you create a composite out of all these different exposures, keeping the light intensity of each element intact, would it still be a photograph of a moment you witnessed? It wouldn’t be to me. I preferred in the end to use a single exposure, and simply accept that the crater would be overexposed. For me, photography is about memories, being outdoors, and experiencing things. It’s not spending hours behind my computer creating an image I hoped I would capture.

Dreaming Again

With the northern lights season being officially over, it’s time to start dreaming again. When will be the next time this duality of elements occurs again? As always, time will tell…

My Book: New Earth

When the Geldingadalir eruption of Fagradalsfjall started on March 19th 2021, Jeroen was there with his camera to experience and capture this volcanic event from a front row seat. It was the beginning of a genuine photographic journey which exceeded all his expectations. In this book, Jeroen shares his collection of images taken from day one until the very last day of the eruption. The photographs are strengthened by sharing his story about his experiences whilst photographing the eruption.

The book combines Jeroen’s photography of the eruption with interesting stories on how those photographs came to be. He also shares how this volcanic event left a big impact on him personally and how his experience started evolving together with the eruption.

Support Jeroen’s Work

As an independent photographer, Jeroen partially relies on your support to keep producing worthwhile content such as blogs, photographs, books and much more. If you want to support his work, it is possible to do so by buying his e-books & books, prints or calendars.

You can also sign up to the newsletter to stay up to date on new blog posts, projects, workshops and other interesting information.

Thank you for considering!

Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove

Jeroen is an award-winning Belgian photographer based in Iceland. The past years, he dedicated his photography to the Central Highlands & volcanic eruptions. Most recently, he received international attention for his work at the Fagradalsfjall volcano.

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