The Case for Iceland
One photographer recently described Iceland as “that band you liked before they were popular.” Another photographer (whom I used to respect) said, “If I see another picture of Iceland I’m going to blow my brains out!” Iceland has become increasingly popular among photographers (and the general public) in recent years. It’s easily accessible, immensely beautiful, and looks like nowhere else on earth. It’s a great place to hone your photography skills. Tourists flock to Iceland in droves year round, now more than ever thanks to budget airlines like Wow Air that provide fares as low as $99. But does this newly gained popularity take away from the experience or make Iceland any less beautiful? No, I really don’t think so. I’ve still seen more blurry pictures of gondolas floating in a Venice dock and panoramas of the Grand Canyon than images of the Icelandic landscape. I honestly believe that photographers have barely made a dent in documenting the island’s endless wonders. Also, Icelandic people and cultural traditions have yet to be adequately explored by serious photographers, including myself.
Simply because a place is photographed “to death” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there and take your own stab at it. We all have different experiences, and two photographers standing at the same spot will make two different images of the scene in front of them. I try very hard to make images of heavily photographed scenes that look like no one else’s “trophy shot.” I actually live in one of the most photographed areas in the world. One of the many reasons I wanted to go to Iceland in October is to escape the crowds and congested road conditions caused by the thousands of tourists that come here for the fall colors. More people visit my back yard (Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Boone area) in one fall season than visit Iceland in a year. In fact, 16 times more people visit the mountains of North Carolina annually than visit Iceland each year. Does that make this place any less amazingly beautiful or enticing to photograph? No. Most of the spots my wife, Alison, and I went to in Iceland last week had very few, and sometimes no, tourists.
Vik and Skogafoss
Because we fly Wow Air, we arrived in Reykjavik 6 hours before we were allowed to check into our apartment. It was cold and raining hard, and we were soaked after a few blocks of walking around town to kill time. We stopped in my favorite bakery in the world (not exaggerating), Sandholt, for croissants and coffee. Then we browsed around town for a few hours, popping into shops here and there to escape the weather. We had a hot and hardy lunch at Noodle Station before finally checking into our place. We were soaking wet half -dead-zombie versions of ourselves by that time. That evening is a blur…I think we just slept.
On the morning of day two we picked up our rental car. The weather was even worse that day with high winds and horizontal rain that occasionally turned to sleet. Despite the weather, we continued with our plan to drive from Reykjavik to Vik (a two hour drive) on route 1. There was low visibility on the road, but there was very little traffic. We arrived at the Reynisfjara sea stacks only to find it too windy to get out of the car. We waited and after a half hour with no improvements in the conditions, we walked out onto the beach without cameras. The waves were high and violent. Rain slapped our coats and turned to ice before hitting the black sandy ground. It was difficult to stand. We continued on to Vik to find the same difficult conditions. We hopped back in the car and drove on. I wasn’t too hard pressed to get images of this area. I have a few good exposures from my last trip to Iceland in 2015.
I wanted to go to Jokulsarlon- a beach that icebergs float up on, but because it was another two hours east of Vik and the weather was pounding our poor little rental car, we decided to turn around. We ended up stopping in Vik again for lamb soup. Then, I was finally able to take a few shots on the beach as the wind and rain drenched me and my camera. I had to wipe the lens between each shot. It was challenging and miserable, but that’s all part of the Icelandic experience! We stopped at Skogafoss on the way back to Reykjavik just as the tour buses were leaving. There was a little less rain, but just as much wind. I managed a few frames of this gigantic waterfall before hurrying back to the warm car where Alison had been waiting. We spent that evening in the apartment with a homemade dinner and went to bed early. We rose at 4:30 AM to make it to the Snaefellsness Peninsula before sunrise (another two hour drive).
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula
I wanted to visit Snaefellsness when we first came to Iceland last year, but we just couldn’t fit it in on that trip. This time we had a car and loads of time. We drove in the dark and arrived at Kirkjufellsfoss just as the sun was rising. There was no actual sun or colorful sunrise, however. It was still very cloudy, though not raining at the moment. I was ecstatic about that. My excitement was squashed when I noticed some large excavating equipment abandoned at the very top of the waterfall. This ended up being a sort of blessing. Because of the equipment’s placement, I couldn’t get the typical top down shot of the waterfall with Kirkjufell mountain in the background. This limitation forced me to work harder to find unique compositions that excluded the large yellow machinery. The result is a few images of Kirkjufellsfoss that I haven’t seen other photographers make yet.
Next stop was a volcano that I can’t remember the name of (and probably couldn’t pronounce anyway), followed by a hike through lava fields covered in bright green moss (on a designated trail), then a short stop at a little black church by the sea called Búðakirkja. Then, we drove to Gatklettur, a rocky beach with basalt sea stacks and high cliffs. We had a made-to-order meal of fish and chips from this nice lady in a food truck while waiting for a tour bus to depart. When the bus left, we had the area to ourselves, and I found this deep hole in the earth near the coastline with black basalt walls that the sea flowed into. It was like some sort of "sea geyser." The waves would occasionally crash in the hole and reach upward toward the rim. I waited at the edge of the 30-foot deep hole for the peak of action when the waves would crash against the walls and reach for the sky. It didn't quite happened like I imagined; the crashing waves were never high enough. I hope to return to this spot someday and get the dramatic shot I envision. As the rains came and the wind picked up, we found ourselves at a famous sea arch. Just as before, I set up and waited for peak action when the waves would crash into the rock and send a spray of water in all directions. I made about 100 exposures before I got close to what I wanted, wiping the lens between shots.
I was reluctant to leave the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. One could easily spend a week only exploring that one area of Iceland. I felt that I had just begun to get a sense of the place when the sky began to darken and it was time to head back to Reykjavik. Our original plan was to stick around on Snaefellsness for the Northern Lights, but even though the Aurora activity was high, there was one hundred percent cloud cover and little chance of actually seeing it. We took the long way to Reykjavik, hopping off route 1 and onto route 47 to avoid the long toll tunnel. 47 quickly became treacherous. High winds actually lifted the driver’s side tires off the road at one point. There was no guardrail. Had the car flipped over, we would have gone straight down two hundred feet into a lake. There were several instances where I thought the windshield wipers would blow off. Thankfully, we arrived safely in Reykjavik shortly after dark.
Þingvellir National Park
We spent our final full day in Iceland at Þingvellir National Park. We went there on a tour last year, but the bus driver only gave us 15 minutes before we had to be back on the bus. I was livid. There I was at this amazing place and I only got 15 minutes! This time we had all day. This would also be our only day of good, dry weather. We arrived just before sunrise and hiked over to Öxarárfoss (good luck pronouncing that one). The name means “axe falls”, and it is actually a man-made waterfall formed when some Icelanders diverted the river a long time ago. It is also the last waterfall on what is technically the North American plate. So, it is the most eastern waterfall in North America. That’s actually what makes Þingvellir so special. It’s a spot where the North American and Eurasian Tectonic plates diverge, creating a rift valley. It’s also the area the first-ever parliament was set up in 930 AD.
Öxarárfoss is stunning. The descriptions I read in blogs made it seem like a trickle, but due to heavy rains, it was much larger and dramatic than usual. The sun speckled the clouds in the east with vibrant pink light, but that never reached over to the clouds above the falls in the west. The waterfall itself was in shadow with dark rain clouds above it and was mostly colorless. I turned my lens to the river flowing away from the falls and captured the morning light hitting the high cliffs. This was the only time I used any filters on my lens the entire trip. I used a polarizer to cut reflections on the water and a graduated neutral density filter to even out the exposure. As usual, I had to wipe the lens between each shot, not because of rain this time, but because of the massive amount of spray from the waterfall.
We lingered in Þingvellir for a few hours, exploring the lake edge and admiring the autumn color. There aren’t many trees in Iceland, but the few scraggly birches and shrubs provide little pops of yellow and red. While exploring the rift, I had my first experience ever with a wild rock ptarmigan. There were few people around, so I was able to get close enough by pretending I was sheep grazing on grass (looks silly, but works like a charm). I snapped a few shots using my 70-200mm as the bird ate berries and buds until some tourists came through loudly and scared it off.
One of the main things we wanted to experience on this trip was seeing the Aurora Borealis. Two weeks before our trip, the northern lights were so active and so amazing that Reykjavik shut off all lights so that people could admire them in town. We were hoping the intensity would linger. On our trip, however, though the lights were supposedly active, most of the island was covered with dark rain clouds each night. The clearest night was supposed to be our last. We had to return the car after we left Þingvellir, so we booked a tour on a bus to take us out into the wild again to see the lights. The clouds were stubborn, and despite the driver’s persistence at trying to find clearer skies, we saw no northern lights. I made one long exposure that night of a lake with storm clouds passing above it as we waited for the Aurora in the dark, wind, and cold. Our tour vouchers are good for two years, so we’ll just have to try again later. In fact, it is likely that we will be returning to Iceland in March. I hope so. I still have some unfinished business with sea stacks, icebergs, and northern lights.
Some folks have already inquired via social media about the gear I used on this trip (check out my full gear list). For this October trip to Iceland, I used both my Nikon D600 and D7000. I used my Nikon 18-35G or 70-200 f2.8 VR II for all images. My 50mm 1.8G was with me, but I never used it. The only time I used filters was when shooting Öxarárfoss and for that I used a Nisi V5 Polarizer and Lee 3 stop Graduated ND. I left my big Gitzo tripod at home, and instead, took a small and very lightweight Sirui T-025X Carbon Fiber Tripod with C-10S Ball Head. I am really pleased with this little tripod. Not only does it support my gear (even the 70-200mm with a camera body), but it gets out of the way quickly. Nearly all the images in this post were made using it. In fact, some of the shots of Kirkjufellsfoss would not have been possible using a larger tripod because I was situated on steep soft narrow ledges of only one foot wide and needed to get as low as possible to achieve the composition I wanted. Though there are a few limitations with smaller travel tripods, I would not have been able to get many of these shots with a larger one.