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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P.P.S. If you thought this was terrible, why not share it with your enemies on social media.
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.
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!
Earlier this month, during my trip to the west of Iceland, one great highlight was a whale watching boat trip, organised by Laki Tours, in the waters of the North Atlantic off the Snaefellsness peninsula.
After some extreme weather caused a postponement, the trip was rescheduled to the final day of my time in Iceland and was also moved from Grundarfjörður to Olafsvik in order to be closer to the most recent sightings of whales.
There seemed to be about 50 other people gathering for this trip at the appointed time and place, one by one our names were checked and we were given a weatherproof all-in-one suit to wear for the voyage. I wondered whether I would need this seeing as I was already wearing more layers than ever before.... but at the prospect of being in the open air on the open ocean for a few hours in winter conditions I decided just to put the suit on top of what I already had. Good decision.
After we boarded the boat, it was time to choose where to stand. As I was hoping to take pictures of any whales that we might see I wanted to try and have a good vantage point that would be as free as possible of people so that I could be a bit flexible in my own position. Based on this guesswork, and an assumption that the whales could appear in any direction at any time, I decided to start off at the back of the boat on the lower level... which was deserted compared to the forward sections of the boat.
Luckily this day was the calmest and clearest of my seven day spent in Iceland... but there was still a pretty strong wind. This was just right to allow the many sea birds in the area to either position themselves against the wind and hover motionless without effort... or fly with the wind at their back and achieve remarkable speed.
As we made our way from Olafsvik, heading west in a line roughly parallel to the shoreline of the Snaefellsness peninsula but a couple of miles offshore, the sea quickly imposed its own rhythm on the boat. For those, like myself, who have not spent a great deal of time on boats, the rolling and heaving might take a little while to get used to... but after a few minutes it became a lot easier to deal with. This was however the North Atlantic and it was most important to have something to hold on to if you were to remain upright and onboard (both of which seemed like a good idea).
The guides for our trip kept us well informed at all times, using the PA system of the boat to firstly explain what we were doing and where we were going, then to indicate the location of any sightings (using points of the clock relative to the boat - e.g. "killer whales at 3 o'clock") and also to provide great information about the animals we were seeing and points of interest on the shoreline that we were passing. The guides showed real knowledge and expertise, they were scientists and conservationists rather than tour guides and that made a big positive difference to the experience.
It was not long before the first killer whales were sighted, at 12 o clock... not much use for me at the back of the boat... and at 6 o'clock - now we are in business.
The first sight of these amazing animals was a great moment... but it immediately became clear that this was not going to be easy from photography point of view. I am very used to fast moving and unpredictable targets, birds provide a great example of that kind of challenge... but when you are photographing birds you usually have the option of remaining still while trying to follow them.
In this case the boat was generally moving in a certain direction, but rolling and heaving to a greater or lesser extent while doing so. The sea was also moving significantly, the waves easily high enough to conceal a fin or a tail for a second or two. The whales themselves also move, and spend the majority of the time underwater... which of course renders them invisible. Finally the photographer is also moving, trying to compensate for the motions of the ship and maintain a view of the expected whale location.
Luckily, the whale sightings were regular and frequent. Possibly 20 or 30 occasions in total during the 3 hour trip although not all of those were visible from all parts of the boat. This allowed for some practice and a chance to try and refine the ideas of how to photograph them. An additional challenge was the randomness of where they would appear. They could be 100m away... or suddenly appear 10-15m away. For this a zoom lens was a real benefit so that you could adapt to the situation. I used a 100-400mm lens but if I was doing it again I think that a 70-200mm f4 might be a good choice. With longer focal lengths the motion of the ocean and the movement of the whales made it extremely hard to keep the target in the frame... especially when it was necessary to hold on to the boat with one hand. A 70-200 f4 would still give some reach and some flexibility while being a little bit smaller and lighter, all of which would be helpful in keeping the target in the frame.
Next, we had a great positive surprise, a sperm whale had been sighted - the first one of the season.
Our guide was most excited by this and told us what to expect, a big breath and then the flukes raised high into the air as it dived for the depths. I positioned myself and watched... following the whale with my right eye through the viewfinder and the other eye directly. I heard the guide commentating on the event, I saw it with my left eye... and watched with horror through the viewfinder as the motion of the boat positioned someone else between my camera and the whale at just the wrong moment. My left eye saw the iconic sight of the mighty tail above the water... my right eye saw the camera taking an out of focus picture of the jacket of the person in front of me. At this point some descriptive words expressing a hint of disappointment may have escaped my lips but I shall not record those here.
There was no time for remorse... the action was happening thick and fast... a killer whale was following us.
Now I could certainly say I had pictures of killer whales... but what I wanted was good pictures of killer whales. I tried to evaluate what that would be now that I understood the possibilities a bit better. There were two things coming to my mind, firstly I wanted to see the head of the whale... not just the fin, not just the tail... the head. This was a bit tricky because you have to be shooting at the time the whale breaks the surface, not reacting after the event... and up until that instant they are almost completely invisible. The second thing that came to my mind was to find an opportunity to capture whales with a bit of a wider view, showing the mainland and the snow covered mountains in the background. That was a less demanding shot... but required the right angle to avoid the harsh sunlight and also required a cooperative whale.
The experience of seeing these animals continued to be awesome while the perfect pictures continued to be elusive... fin, tail, out of focus, out of frame, fin... I started to question whether these particular whales actually had heads.
At last... a whale with a head!
Then I found a new difficulty :) I spotted a killer whale a fraction of a second before it emerged, it was close enough, I did my part with the camera, I got a shot.... and realised that the splashes of water that accompanied its emergence would prevent the whale's head from being visible... but now at least I had a picture with a blowhole visible.
This was the closest I got to a good picture. I think that it would be easier a second time, and with a combination of skill and luck it would be possible to get some fantastic pictures from these trips, but it is far from easy.
The scenery on the shore was quite beautiful as we made our way back to Olafsvik. It was not the first occasion on this trip that I saw a church in the middle of nowhere at the foot of spectacular mountains... and it would not be the last.
Throughout our journey, the sea birds were flying happily overhead. I find identifying gulls to be very confusing as there are many different kinds and they change their look more than once on their way from juvenile to adult, inconveniently resembling other species at other stages. So... I am ready to be corrected in my identification attempts for the following individuals.
Overall this trip was a breathtaking experience. It was simply fantastic to be out in the Atlantic with these beautiful animals in their natural environment. The Laki Tours guides, with their obvious expertise and genuine affection for the whales made a great contribution to the experience and I think they made it as accessible as possible for all participants. I cannot recommend this highly enough, if you have the chance to go on one of these tours then be sure to grab it with both hands... or on second thoughts you should leave one hand free to hold on to the boat... but you know what I mean.
Until next time,
The second part of my West Iceland trip was focused on photographing the iconic Kirkjufell mountain and my base for three nights was the town of Grundarfjörður, only a 5 minute drive from Kirkjufell. I had also booked a whale watching boat trip with Laki tours which I hoped would allow me to photograph killer whales.
I allowed myself multiple days to ensure that I had a chance for different weather conditions and hopefully some auroras or starscapes at the iconic location, but I also had thoughts of driving north to see the cool rock formations at Hvítserkur if I had time to spare.
As I write this it still sounds like it was a good plan.
Upon arriving at Kirkjufell for the first time I felt... nothing much. I have visited many places where the experience of being there is amazing, but it is difficult to find a photographic composition that captures the feeling. For me Kirkjufell is the opposite. The Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall and the Kirkjufell mountain provide possibilities for a great looking photograph, but in real life the place just did not speak to me.
The waterfalls, with the mountain peak in the background make for a compact and well balanced frame with around 25mm focal length. With a wider lens and a slight change of angle it is possible to make room for stars or auroras.
When approaching the place from the west you can see that the mountain which looks so symmetrically shaped from a certain angle, is nothing of the sort from most other angles. I had been looking for many kilometres to try and get the first glimpse of the mountain... turns out I had seen it all along and disregarded it as one of the "normal" mountains.
The waterfalls are in two groups, one slightly higher up the hillside and one slightly lower. From the famous pictures you get the impression that they are large and close to the mountain. In reality the scene is not so compact... the waterfalls are small and far away from the foot of the mountain - there is maybe 400-500m in-between. This is quite possible to solve from a photography point of view with the right choice of focal length, angle and perspective... but it left me a bit disappointed visiting in real life.
At Kirkjufell I was ready for photographing the scene in clear conditions, and I was ready for photographing the scene in icy and snowy conditions... but what greeted me was an ugly mixture. The waterfalls were iced over to a grotesque level... the water still flows despite the ice so it was just adding layer after layer of ice on top of each other. It sounds cool... but it looked stupid. The mountain was clear of snow but there were old patches of dirty snow here and there through the scene. The magic of post processing can deal with those to some extent but still the scene was quite messy. The weather was also unpleasant. Hmmm.
I retreated to my accommodation and checked out where I would have to be for my whale watching trip the following day, that now took on the role of the thing I was looking forward to most.
The weather was closing in and a storm was coming... that is sometimes very good news from photography point of view, depending on whether the conditions provide visible drama or just provide darkness and reduced visibility. On this occasion the storm provided nothing positive. The sunset time was obliterated, and so was the sunrise as very heavy winds and constant snow took control of the area. Visibility was about 75 metres and there were thigh-deep snow drifts here and there with other patches totally clear.
My car was blocked in by a snow drift so I left on foot and fought my way to Cafe Emil (great coffee and home made cakes) in the middle of town for my morning coffee. The walk was about 400m, during which time I saw three cars being pulled out of snow drifts by vehicles which I can only describe as monster trucks.
I could see no sense in driving in these conditions and decided to wait out the storm, looking rather enviously at great auroras and clear starry skies in the previous night's pictures from one of my friends who was in the south of Iceland at the same time.
As the morning progressed there were a number of new arrivals in the cafe. They were all wondering what had happened and I was able to understand from their conversations that the storm was very local... a few kilometres in either direction and things looked quite different.
After lunchtime the visibility improved a bit and, having extricated my car, I went back to Kirkjufell where the scene was quite different than the day before, but still not exactly beautiful.
The high winds and minimal visibility had unsurprisingly caused the cancellation of my whale watching trip, I rebooked it for two days later, the last full day of my trip, so I really had to hope for no further weather disruptions.
As evening fell, the weather calmed down a lot, and started to clear. I was finishing a rather good pizza at 59 Bistro Bar in the town when the aurora app on my phone alerted me to the northern lights possibilities for the evening and I was soon on my way back to Kirkjufell.
I arrived at the empty car park and made my way towards the waterfalls. Although the car park was empty I could not be sure that there would not be other photographers in the area so I slowly made my way up the icy trail without using my torch... a torch beam walking through your picture without your control is a total disaster for 90% of night photographs and the last 200m of the trail would be in the frame of anyone shooting the mountain at night. As it happened I was alone when I got to my position, but I set myself up in the dark, having learned to operate my equipment in darkness for just such a situation.
-- complaints section: skip ahead if you rather not read them --
Then it started. Headlights in the car park 400m away... shining into the scene... left on for many minutes. Then, one by one, other photographers made their way up the trail. Torches on full beam, shining here there and everywhere. More headlights, more torches. Perhaps 20 people in total, but one at a time or in small groups. Gradually they arrived beside me. Torches to find the way. Torches to set up their tripod. Torches to change their camera settings. Torches left on the ground shining into the scene while they mess around and talk to each other. Torches to my direction to see who was there (blinded!). The initial fuss took nearly half an hour, which felt like half a day to me... after that it was only occasional as someone needed to change their settings. I was not amused.
If you allow your eyes to get used to the dark and know your equipment you can function perfectly well in real darkness and not interfere with anyone else. If you have to briefly use a light then most lights have lower settings that can be used and also you can direct the beam in a way which doesn't disturb others. If there are some other people out at night causing a lot of light then thats one thing, but you would hope that other photographers might have some understanding of the consequences of their actions and act with a bit more consideration.
-- end of complaints section --
Eventually it was possible to take some pictures, but the northern lights were quite weak by that time and the clouds were coming and going.
On the way back to the hotel I tried to capture the auroras from the other popular Kirkjufell view, it looks almost like a sharks fin when viewed from the other side of the bay.
The following day provided a fresh start. After cloudy beginnings the weather became pleasant and sunny although still violently windy. The storm and the rearrangement of the whale watching had put an end to my ideas of traveling north to Hvítserkur but I felt like I could safely explore a bit closer to my accommodation.
I drove to Stykkishólmur where there is an interesting (but maybe not attractive) modern church in a nice little village.
I then decided to drive towards Ytri Tunga, a beach where there was a good chance to see seals, this having been recommended to me by the staff in Fosshotel Hellnar earlier in the trip. The weather was still bright and sunny but it had started to snow lightly and visibility was a bit difficult when the air was full of snow and the sun was in your eyes. The road conditions were still fine so I continued on my journey. When I arrived at Ytri Tunga, noting a car stuck in the snow near the car park and choosing my parking place carefully, it was indeed possible to see seals playing in the surf. Unfortunately the only angle to photograph them was strongly backlit which was not ideal... but it was fun to watch them for a while.
By now the conditions started to be a bit more extreme, the wind increased again and the snow was beginning to fall more heavily. I thought it wise to head for home.
One of the hazards of traveling in such an extreme but unfamiliar destination is that you can't always tell which routes to avoid. The shortest way back to Grundarfjörður meant taking highway 54 to Olafsvik so I set off on that route, encouraged by the sight of the occasional other vehicles taking the same route. This was not a good idea.
The road conditions became steadily worse as I continued, and I considered turning back, but there was a lot of snow and no places to turn. I could see that there was just a couple more kilometres to go so I decided to continue. As I came round a bend there was a sudden white out, the wind-blown snow and the low sun cutting the visibility to about 15m. I could still see the tall yellow poles at the side of the road so I followed those, I did not brake but I stopped accelerating, controlled a loss of traction pretty well and stayed perfectly in my lane while my car ploughed gently to a stop in the 85cm of snow that had blown in a large drift across about a 10 metre stretch of highway. Stuck. I could not move forward. I could not move back. Hazard lights on. Laugh at myself while feeling mortified that I had become one of those idiot tourists. Become somewhat concerned about my situation and start to put my thoughts in order.
It was about 45 seconds before a snowplough pulled alongside and the driver explained how he was going to pull me out. Clear snow from the front of the car. Find and uncover the recovery point. Find the hook in a tool set near the spare tyre. Attach hook to recovery point. Attach tow rope. Engine in neutral. Back to clear road. Remove rope, remove hook, cover recovery point. Thank my rescuer... many many times.
I would like to thank my rescuer once again here. What he did was hugely helpful, but the way he did it was also very impressive. He was friendly, patient, efficient and did not seem irritated in the slightest. He told me, with a smile, that he had already pulled out many tens of cars during that day, and by the time I was free there were three more cars within 100m waiting their turn for rescue. I imagine he dealt with those just as helpfully and efficiently.
The rest of the return to Grundarfjörður was comparatively uneventful, which was fine by me.
Somewhat reluctant to repeat the circus from the night before, I studied the weather forecasts. I decided to skip the evening session and forget the sunrise, hoping that I could get good conditions and some peace and quiet by going to Kirkjufell at 0400 the next morning. That would allow me about 90 minutes during the full night and the astronomical twilight where it would be optimal conditions for shooting any auroras or starscapes... with any luck no other idiot would be foolish enough to choose to shoot at this ungodly hour instead of in the equivalent light of the evening.
In something of a change of fortunes, this was a good decision :)
The sky was at least partly clear, some wispy clouds came and went. There were noticeable but not dramatic auroras. There were an incredible amount of stars... and it was possible to see the tail of the Milky Way. There were many good elements to play with.
As the astronomical twilight (the period when the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon) progressed, the auroras faded away, but the clouds also thinned and it was possible to see the Milky Way more clearly.
When I look through the photos that I took during this period, I can see that it is not a universally good idea to get up in the middle of the night after many consecutive days with insufficient sleep. I don't think I was thinking as clearly as I could have when it comes to composing my shots and if I was to be critical then I feel a little bit like I have baked some premium ingredients (i.e. kirkjufell + auroras + Milky Way) into a very ordinary cake.
After a couple of hours additional sleep I left my accommodation and was returned to something approaching consciousness by the excellent coffee in Cafe Emil. The rest of the day would have two main parts, the first and most exciting would be the whale watching trip while the second was the more tedious prospect of driving for many hours to get somewhere close to Keflavik airport ahead of my return flight in the morning.
I think that the whale watching deserves its own blog post, so I will leave details of that for next time. Stay tuned.
The wind was still quite heavy, the road conditions were questionable, and I would have to do much of the driving in the dark, so I tried to limit my stops on the return journey as much as possible. I tried to time it so that I could take a final look at the black church in Búðir at around sunset time. The snow over the previous days had given a new look to the area and it was nice to be there again... despite the three drones zipping about over my head as I tried to take some final pictures.
As I arrived there the afternoon sun was leaving its final marks on the snow covered mountains and the white covering gave the place a peaceful look.
The combination of the heavy winds and the plentiful snow meant that there were many wind-sculpted snow dunes in the area and for my final picture of the trip I tried to make use of those.
Overall, this trip was absolutely fantastic. Iceland is an amazing place to be and provides wonders around every corner, it was great to be there once again. It is not, however, an easy place to be when the weather is harsh and I felt like every day was a battle against something or other. It was tough. From photography point of view it is a great challenge, and one that I am happy to have taken although I consider the results to be a bit of a mixture - some successes and some disappointments.
Thanks for following my blog.
Until next time.
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