Midnight sun: When the sun never sleeps

Summer has arrived, and in the world of landscape photography that means you will be hearing talk about the “The Land of the Midnight Sun.”  This sounds like it might be the title of a romance novel, I know.  Is it the new Nicholas Sparks book? What IS the land of the midnight sun and what the heck does it have to do with photography?

The midnight sun is just that.  It’s the sun, at midnight.   This is a natural phenomenon that occurs in the northern and southern pole regions of the planet.  During certain times of the year (June 21st in the north and December 22 in the south) the angle of the earth in the far northern (or southern latitude) creates a scenario where the sun will never set below the horizon.  It is visible for a full 24-hours a day.  Which means, you can see the sun at midnight.

There are no permanent settlements in the southern hemisphere to view this phenomenon in December, so the only chance to witness the magic of a midnight sun is to venture to the northern areas, and one of the prime areas to view this is Iceland. There is no better place on earth to witness the midnight sun!   But what does this have to do with photography?

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Photography in the midnight sun zone creates some of the most amazing landscape shooting to be found anywhere.  Landscape photographers love sunrises and sunsets.   The problem is they are so fleeting there’s barely any time to photograph one before it’s gone and you’re left in the dark (literally).

When the midnight sun is in town it’s a sunrise and sunset party!  There’s only a few days where the sun is fully visible for all 24-hours, but even on the other days, when it does set…it doesn’t set very far.  The sun just travels along the horizon creating an extended sunset, which eventually fades seamlessly into sunrise.    It’s possible to have a sunset/sunrise that lasts for HOURS!

This never-ending sunset is great because it gives you the chance to really find that perfect shot, and not rush around finding it before the light fades.  It’s possible now to photograph the sunset from multiple vantage points and have plenty of time to enjoy the colors and warm evening light.    This light lasts so long that it is possible to sometimes drive to an entirely different location and still have sunset.  During the later part of June the sweet light last from around ten every night all the way until two or three in the morning; with some great light in the hours before and after as well.   This makes for long nights chasing the perfect photographs.

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Another advantage of this very forgiving and wonderful light is that you can wait out any bad weather, and still have an opportunity for a colorful sunset or sunrise.  You know what they say in Iceland, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes.”   In the southern parts of the world, if bad weather rolls in, a sunset can easily be ruined waiting for it to pass.  Here there are 5-6 hours of really great light for photography.  It is possible to wait out the weather, or just get in the car and move to somewhere where the weather is more to your liking.  Or perhaps you can pass some time waiting in one of Iceland’s many geothermal pools and watch the bad weather from the warmth of a naturally heated bath.

With 24-hours of daylight the photographer is not only able to drive wherever he or she wishes, but hiking is also a possibility as well.   Iceland has numerous wonderful nature trails to explore and with all of that light there is plenty of time to do that!  You can brave the Landmannalaugar trail and witness some of the most impressive geothermal areas in the country as well as some of the lushest green forests.   If a multiple day hike isn’t your style there are numerous hikes to waterfalls like Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park or Öxaráfoss in the beautiful Þingvellir National Park.   These hikes are all relatively short, and well worth the time. The bonus is that if you are flexible and want to go during the midnight sun, you can visit these places without all of the daytime tourists the tour buses bring!

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If the countryside isn’t on your agenda during your stay in Iceland there is plenty to see and photograph right in Reykjavik.   Reykjavik loves the summer and even though it is after midnight there are never a shortage of people out enjoying the wonderful long days.      Iceland also has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  This means you can walk and explore the city with your camera late into the night safely.    Whether you want to photograph the world famous Harpa concert hall and its ever changing colored light show, or the nearby Sun Voyager (Sólfarið) both offer numerous photographic opportunities.

With so much to explore and never ending daylight are there any drawbacks?

Some people find it difficult to sleep during the summer.   The locals cure this by just not sleeping a lot.  For the visitor using a sleep mask or just napping periodically throughout the day can remedy this.   With all of the extra hours of daylight the body will adjust and eventually you’ll find you have energy that you never knew you had.  

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Another issue is you might run out of memory cards!  It’s not uncommon for folks to really burn through the memory cards photographing the magical midnight light.     When there is 24-hours of daylight to work with and 6-8 of those can be sunset and sunrise type of lighting it’s easy to get bombarded with beautiful scenes to make photographs of.    Make sure you bring plenty of memory cards with you so that you’re never without a place to store them!  Remember…with 24 hours of light to work with, your camera batteries will drain fast as well.   It’s recommended to have a couple spares with you.

The weather in Iceland can be cold, windy, and wet even in the land of the midnight sun.   Bring plenty of layers so that you can wait out those periods of time when the weather isn’t cooperating.   Also keep a good attitude and remember dramatic weather creates dramatic photographs!  Some of our favorite photos have been created during crazy storms.

One last piece of advice is to remember to pace yourself.   It’s quite easy to get overwhelmed with the quality and duration of great light in Iceland.   I’ve seen many people get so excited at the brilliant sunset they try to run around like a crazy person getting as many shots as they can, only to realize thirty minutes later that the light isn’t going away, it’s only getting better.    Then they keep running around trying to get it all in and find out that there is still many more hours left of this magical light, and now they don’t have the energy left to enjoy it.

Iceland is indeed the land of the midnight sun.   It’s a friendly and hospitable country filled with limitless photographic opportunities.  Whether photographing puffins in the evening light in the western fjords, walking the rugged highlands of the wild interior, there are plenty of wild places to search out with your camera.  It doesn’t matter if you are wandering amongst the giant icebergs on the beach near the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, or strolling through Reykjavík and all the great architecture there is always something interesting to point your camera at.  

What are you waiting for?  Pack your bags, your camera (plenty of batteries and memory cards) and set off to visit the land of the midnight sun.  Iceland is at its best during the months of May-August and should be on everyone’s bucket list.  Be sure to pack the latest Nicholas Sparks book as well to read on the airplane flight to Iceland, because you wont’ have time to read once you arrive!

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