Ice, Ice , Baby...
Visiting the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in south-east Iceland for the first time is one of those very rare experiences which simply leave you speechless and awestruck... it is so other-worldly and alien that it is hard to comprehend what you are seeing.
Iceland is a significantly glaciated country with ice covering approximately 11% of the land area all through the year. These glaciers are mostly concentrated in the southern central highlands with Vatnajökull in the south-east quarter of the island being by far the largest, occupying a surface area of over 8000 square kilometres with a thickness of over 1000m in places. Breiðamerkurjökull (one of Vatnajökull's outlet glaciers) winds its way down to sea level before calving huge icebergs into the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
The glacier lagoon started to find wider fame after being the shooting location (pretending to be Siberia) for the pre-title scene of the James Bond movie "A View To A Kill" in 1985. Commercial boat tours on the lagoon started immediately after that and Jökulsárlón has become one of Iceland's biggest tourist attractions. Not content with pretending to be in Siberia, Jökulsárlón has also pretended to be in Tibet (Batman Begins) as well as featuring in numerous other movies.
Icebergs spend a period floating majestically in the lagoon, occasionally colliding, splitting or capsizing as they slowly melt. The lagoon is also home to a number of grey seals which are often to be seen playing in the desperately cold water.
One surprise is the range of different colours that the icebergs display. Some contain ash and sediment and take on a fully grey or mottled appearance, some are close to white, some are a very bright blue. All are the children of the same glacier.
Some small fragments of ice gather on the shore of the lagoon, where their interesting shapes can be observed more closely.
As with many places, the softer light at the start and the end of the day provides some of the best photographic opportunities. On my last trip I was finally lucky enough to be at Jökulsárlón for a nice sunset.
As the sun went down the prevailing hues went from orange/ pink towards purple and blue as a lovely evening began.
The glacier lagoon connects to the North Atlantic via a narrow (and highly dangerous) channel, a channel which flows under highway 1 which traverses the gap using a suspension bridge. Once icebergs are small enough in size to pass down the channel the strong current pulls them towards the North Atlantic, sometimes forming traffic jams as a declining tide temporarily runs them aground on the channel floor.
The forecast for strong auroras that night meant that I spent the next few hours around the coast at Vestrahorn, but I was back at Jökulsárlón shortly after one in the morning to see the remnants of the aurora show.
A few hours later I was back at Jökulsárlón once again, by which time the traffic jam in the channel had almost cleared.
As the tide recedes a large number of icebergs are drawn out into the ocean, many of which are depisited onto the beach (near to the ocean, on both sides on the channel) when the tide turns. This beach gets referred to as the diamond beach as a consequence... it could just as well be called the photographer beach as the ratio of photographers to diamonds is usually about 1:1 - it is perhaps the most photogenic part of this location.
The different shapes, sizes and compositions of the ice fragments provide a lot of potential interest.
The constant lapping of the waves also gives some opportunities to play with the shutter speed in your photographs, showing the motion of the water to a greater or lesser degree.
Jökulsárlón is a very popular and busy destination. For those who find themselves in the area but want to have at least a bit less of a crowd around them then there is animpressive alternative just a few kilometres down the road.
The Fjallsárlón glacier lake... (a lake is a body of freshwater surrounded by land, a lagoon is a body of water separated from a larger body of water by a reef or other barrier)... sits at the foot of the Fjallsjökull glacier, which is another outlet glacier for the huge Vatnajökull glacier.
At Fjallsárlón you can find many of the same facilities (icebergs, refreshments, toilets, boat trips among the icebergs) but with (for now at least) a fraction of the amount of tourists. It doesn't have its own diamond beach and as a lake it is a lot more calm... which removes the possibilities of "waves breaking against the icebergs" or "iceberg in receding waters" pictures... but on the other hand the still water makes it a lot easier to photograph the icebergs themselves with a bit longer exposure.
For wider views of this kind of glacier lake/lagoon I think that Fjallsárlón offers a bit better opportunities than it's more famous neighbour. The glacier in the background is angled a bit more steeply and appears to be slightly closer, both of which make it a little bit more prominent in any pictures. The outlet glacier's path is flanked by some interestingly shaped rocky mountains, this helps to make the background a bit more interesting and also to make the glacier's route stand out a lot more than in similar pictures at Jökulsárlón.
Well, thats it from me for 2018. I hope that you have enjoyed this post and my many other posts throughout the year and I wish all my readers a happy new year and a terrific 2019.
All the best.
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Wet, wet, wet...
Water plays such a central role in your experience when visiting the beautiful country of Iceland.
Surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic ocean, the 4970km of coastline provides amazing opportunities for interesting seascapes, while fans of freshwater can spend countless hours visiting over 10,000 waterfalls. Water also plays a key role in providing electricity through hydropower (~73%) and geothermal power (~27%).
In this post I will share some water themed pictures from my autumn trip to Iceland.
Iceland's beaches are fascinating, beautiful, and in some cases very dangerous. It is wise to heed the warning signs in some popular places and to treat unfamiliar places with caution - never turn your back on the ocean.
Volcanic basalt rock which makes up much of the exposed rock in the whole country, leading to the beaches with black sand instead of the golden or white sand beaches that are common on geologically older land masses.
Some of the spectacular Icelandic waterfalls have become huge tourist attractions, but with over 10,000 to choose from there are chances to get some of the less popular ones to yourself, at least for a few minutes.
This trip took place in the middle of October and the autumn colours were strongly visible at that time, providing quite a beautiful colour palette at many locations. Iceland is generally not a land of trees and forests, but the abundant mosses and grasses cover the volcanic landscape with a blanket of yellows, oranges and reds at this time of year.
On this trip I made a first (and probably last) visit to one of the more popular tourist destinations, the waterfall at Svartifoss. Searching for a parking space took quite a few minutes, it was very full despite the massive capacity (I guess maybe 1000 spaces), but I followed the trail upwards through some nice scenery to the waterfall, surrounded by hexagonal columns of basalt. The area around the waterfall had a population density similar to downtown Manhattan which made photography somewhat challenging, particularly because many people completely ignored the fences and signs informing you where you could and could not go. I set up my shot and waited quite some time for a break in the rule-breaking human traffic... a wait which included being asked to take phone pictures of some of the trespassers... and eventually managed to get a shot. It was great to see Svartifoss, but I will not rush to see it again.
On the walk up to Svartifoss there is a vantage point for another waterfall, Hundafoss. The crowds did not seem to be so interested in it, but I thought there were some nice colours in the bushes near the top of the waterfall.
Moving water can create great interest in landscape photography, but sometimes it is preferable to have things totally still - a smooth and calm body of water can work as a perfect mirror. With a wide-angle lens, low to the ground, you don't need much more than a puddle to get a full reflection of your scene.
I am always drawn to these reflection shots (I sometimes feel like I do too many of those) and usually manage to spot opportunities for them, perhaps trying to rely on that a bit less would make me pay more attention to getting interesting foregrounds for my pictures and give better results... something for me to think about in future.
My journey continued round the southern coast of Iceland and when I passed through the tunnel just past the turn-off to Stokksnes (see previous post) I was into new territory, in previous trips I had not gone further around the coast than Vestrahorn.
The coastal road (still highway 1, the road that goes right round the whole country) goes through quite beautiful scenery between Vestrahorn and its less well known twin - Eystrahorn.
Eystrahorn has a rather similar shape to Vestrahorn, the mountains are a little higher and maybe more dramatic, and there is a similar bay in front of the mountain backdrop. The bay cuts in from the left when facing the mountains whereas it cuts in from the right at Vestrahorn, so if you see a "Vestrahorn picture" where the ocean is on the wrong side then you probably actually saw an Eystrahorn picture.
Continuing round the coast, moving north up the east side of the country, the waterfalls just keep on coming, one after another. I stopped at the side of the road to shoot this next one, it was very beautiful but as far as I can tell it does not have a name... in another country perhaps it would be more of a highlight.
My Iceland trips have usually been arranged at quite short notice and that has led to a variety of different accomodations... not all of which I would be desperate to revisit. The east of the country starts to be remote enough to at least slightly reduce the amount of visitors and those who do venture there are probably doing the full circle around the country, so maybe this is an area which is more passed through than stayed in.
I spent one night in the small town of Djúpivogur at the Hótel Framtíð, which proved to be a perfect place to stay with a good restaurant and very comfortable rooms. The price:quality ratio was much better than any of the other places I stayed on this trip and I definitely recommend it for anyone who visits this area.
While having a morning cappucino in the reception area of Hótel Framtíð I was surprised to hear a familiar voice addressing a group of asian people that had been gathering nearby, it was Mads Peter Iversen. I have never met or spoken to Mads, but I have listened to many of his YouTube videos, he has a lot of great material about different locations, including practical information such as where to park and all the other things which it is hard to prepare for without seeing a location.
I was interested to hear how he explained the coming day to his workshop group, and I thought I might say hello after he had finished his business, but he disappeared before I had an opportunity. Anyway... check out his channel, he is a good explainer and a great photographer also.
Back to my waterfall hunt... I continued round the coast on a day where the weather slowly deteriorated.
My new "furthest point anti-clockwise around highway 1" came when I visited Folaldafoss... yet another waterfall, by which time the weather was a full-on snowstorm. Normally I don't like to have any people in my images but on this occasion I felt like it helped the picture to include the guy making a video call live from the scene.
It is always a little sad to be making my way slowly back towards the airport instead of heading out into the unknown, but in Iceland there is always something interesting to shoot.
The interest is there no matter the time of day, as darkness falls the possibilities for stars and auroras arrive.
On the morning of my final day I decided to head for one of the most popular tourist destinations, the mighty Gullfoss waterfall. My idea was to try and beat the main traffic of the day by arriving well before any bus tours starting from Reykjavik could hope to be there.
Gullfoss is a remarkable sight. The Hvítá river makes a sharp turn and falls down into a deep canyon with an average of over 100 cubic metres of water per second cascading over the falls.
Following the path down to the rocky platform was a treacherous affair as the mist generated by the falls coats every surface in ice, there was advice to use crampons on this path and that was good advice. The view once you get closer to the drop into the canyon made quite an impression due to the enormous power of the water.
As much as I like trying to capture the grand wide views of these places, my favourite pictures usually come when focusing on a more intimate part of the landscape, giving an almost abstract impression and making it hard to identify the location.
Another advantage of these more intimate landscape shots is that there are still possible compositions, even at very famous places, which have not been shot a million times already, so there is more chance to come up with something interesting and original.
My final stop in this Iceland trip was in the geothermal area area at Geysir, the place which gave rise to the english word geyser. The original Geysir geyser is largely dormant now, but a number of its neighbours are still active to some degree, the Strokkur geyser being the most impressive and reliable of those, bursting forth every ten minutes or so.
The difficulty with photographing a geyser, especially these geysers at Geysir, is that for 99.9% of the time the geysers are just a hole in the ground surrounded by mud, fences and people... not an ideal recipe for a great composition. The best that i could come up with was to find a "least unattractive" patch of mud as a foreground and then try to time it so that I could catch the geyser in full eruption (waiting until it seemed to be "due" and then shooting continuously).
Well, that's it for this time. Next time I will conclude my Iceland trips with a post focusing on ice.
I would like to thanks all my readers for liking, sharing and commenting on my posts during this year and to wish you peace and happiness during the festive season.
Vestrahorn - a day in the life
In October I made my 3rd trip to amazing Iceland and during that trip I made multiple visits to the Stokksnes peninsula to photograph beautiful Vestrahorn. As this is one of my absolute favourite destinations I decided to give it a blog post all of its own.
When flying to Iceland you will probably land at Keflavik, the main international airport, which is right on the south west corner of the country. Stokksnes on the other hand is right on the south east corner of Iceland so you need to travel just over 500 more kilometres to get your first view of the beautiful peaks of Vestrahorn. It is worth it.
Many Icelandic hot-spots receive an overwhelming number of tourists, no matter the season, and that creates a lot of challenges for photography as well as for the local environment. Vestrahorn seems to suffer slightly less from that for a few reasons.
The result is that this place has a less frantic feeling to it than many other destinations and allows you to relax into your task a bit more easily.
Over the past 18 months I have been entering some online photography competitions on various different platforms, including "GuruShots" and "Photocrowd". This has sometimes been a boost for my photography as it has encouraged me to shoot more and I have also found that the results provide feedback of a sort... and in other ways it has been a distraction because all the time spent entering the competitions could instead be spent taking more pictures. One of the most positive things has been that I have got to "know" (mostly through related facebook groups) a few other photographers from all over the world who participate in the same competitions. On this trip I had the opportunity to actually meet one such friend/rival in person at Vestrahorn.
Unnur Arnarsdóttir is an Icelandic landscape photographer who lives just a few kilometres away from Vestrahorn and has a number of very beautiful images from this part of the world. In my opinion her pictures from the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon are as good as any of the many thousands of images I have seen from that famous location. I encourage all my readers to go and have a look at her pictures on flickr. Unnur's other hobby might also provide benefits for anyone who is starting to feel the bite of winter, her Etsy store contains a variety of items hand knitted from Icelandic Lopi wool.
Unnur and I met at Vestrahorn in the late afternoon, hoping for interesting colours in the sky after sundown. The atmosphere of our planet did not quite perform to its full potential on this occasion but we were at least treated to some soft and gradually darkening shades of blue.
After my previous visit to Vestrahorn I realised that every single one of my Vestrahorn pictures had the entire set of mountains in the frame, which seemed to be a rather limited interpretation of the possibilities. This time I tried to also find at least some compositions which did not need to include the whole mountain range.
The hundreds of small dunes on the black volcanic sand beach, each covered in long wispy grasses, provide many different possible foregrounds in your composition, although getting just the right arrangement of dunes in the frame is rather challenging.
One thing that I worry about is whether the dunes will survive many more years of visitors, there were many areas where the banks of dunes had hundreds of footprints and the grass was getting rather trampled... without the grass roots to provide some structure and solidity to this shifting landscape it might be too easy for this environment to disappear on the wind.
Searching for the perfect shot needs to be balanced against being respectful of the beautiful places that photographers like to visit. I have started to pay more attention to the potentially damaging behaviour of tourists and photographers and I have also seen some consequences as more and more areas are fenced off or obviously damaged at different locations. The role that photography plays in this is also a concern, beautiful pictures from beautiful places just encourage more and more people to visit those places and the rise of social media has just accelerated the whole cycle.
If, for some reason, the tidal reflections and the grassy islands in a sea of black sand don't appeal to you, then there is still the possibility to be fascinated by the waters of the Atlantic washing relentlessly into the bay on the eastern side of the area. This is one of the more subtle and gentle beaches in Iceland allowing you to operate under the fear of getting slightly wet rather than the fear of getting slightly dead which keeps you on your toes at places such as Reynisfjara.
There is something fascinating and hypnotic about shooting seascapes. Every wave is unique and the pattern of its arrival and departure provides a personal fingerprint of a moment that will never be repeated. A slightly longer exposure can give a sense of calm by blurring the water while also showing the patterns of movement... but with a too long exposure you can lose all sense of the dynamic action.
As you move further away from the mountains you come to a rocky area at the end of the beach and the ground rises to a higher plateau where an air defence radar station is situated. This radar station is one of four which jointly provide coverage of the whole of Iceland and a sizeable surrounding area. From the top of the hill you get a more panoramic view of the bay.
As the light faded away we went back to our cars and I talked with Unnur for a while before she headed for home. It was a great pleasure to meet her! I decided that I should go back out into the darkness and try to get a few more shots as the stars started to appear.
A few hours later I was back among the dunes at Stokksnes again, waiting for the moment when the sun first hits the top of the mountain, bathing it in a warm glow while the lower parts of the scene remain in shadow.
There were a lot of clouds on this morning, providing very interesting conditions as the sun came and went every few seconds with different parts of the scene being illumiated in turn. Mixed conditions like this sometimes offer the best opportunities for photography.
I required 2 cappucinos from the nearby Viking Cafe just to get acceptably awake before spending my day doing other things (stay tuned for details in upcoming posts) but I was back once again at Vestrahorn for the sunset... and this time the light was more cooperative. It started well before sunset with some lovely pink highlights in the wispy clouds.
As the sun neared the horizon I tried to catch the moment when the grassy dunes were illuminated for the last time that day.
The sun soon passed out of view below the horizon in the west and beautiful orange and pink colours intensified in the east.
Over the following hour the orange and pink turned into purple before finally giving way to a normal night with no trace of what had just happened.
I thought at the time that I was leaving Vestrahorn behind for this trip... but a couple of days later a remarkable aurora forecast (Kp 6) made me take a 3 hour detour in the late evening. I was a little late for the most active and well defined auroras, but it was still a magnificent sight.
Well, I hope that you have enjoyed this post from Vestrahorn. You can follow my future posts by returning to this site, signing up to my mailing list (below) or by following my new photography page on Facebook.
Until next time!
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