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!
An Icelandic Adventure
Normally I prefer to be flexible in my arrangements, and don't require much pre-planning... but even for me deciding to go to Iceland with less than 20 hours notice was a bit last minute. The weather in Finland was depressing, and not having made an early appointment for changing to winter tyres meant that I was somehow limited in what I could do... so I decided that it was time for another trip. Flights and accommodation were checked for a number of places that were on my to-visit list and the decision was made - I left for Iceland the following morning.
I have seen many pictures from Iceland, and some of my photographer friends speak about it in the same terms that I refer to Lofoten, as a photographic paradise, but I had been holding off on booking a trip there... somehow unsure about how (and when) best to do it. I decided that it would be best to stop procrastinating and just go there, thinking of it as a scouting trip, with an intention to learn as much as possible so that I could make a proper plan for the next time. The first time visiting a new location has the benefit of maximum excitement due to everything being new, but the penalty of a lot of time spent finding out which places best capture your imagination and how things work in that destination... the second time often delivers the best results from photography point of view, at least for me.
My plan for the trip was to follow highway 1 round the entire southern coast of the country as far as the town of Höfn (about 450km), and then return by the same route, stopping overnight on the way at Vik and Hali and at Hali and Selfoss on the way back.
As I landed in Reykjavik, the weather was pretty disgusting... extremely windy and pretty wet. The temperature was about 5 degrees, but with the wind and the moisture in the air it was really cold. Soon enough I was on the road, stopping at the spectacular waterfall of Seljalandfoss on the way to Vik.
Seljalandfoss is the first of many spectacular cascades that you can see from the highway as you make your way around the island, and it was absolutely packed with tourists, even on this rather ugly day in the off season. It may look deserted in the picture above, but that is due to the magic of a very long exposure... as long as the people are moving it is possible to turn them into ghosts with an exposure of many tens of seconds. One special feature of this waterfall is that you can walk behind it, opening up some great angles for photography, but in this kind of weather, with the wind blowing all the spray towards you, it was impossible to make any use of those possibilities.
The town of Vik, with the nearby Reynisfjara beach, was my next stop. Reynisfjara is a beautiful but dangerous location, the black sands, basalt columns and interesting sea stacks providing the beauty, while the possibility of "sneaker" waves (suddenly coming 10-15m further up the beach than all other waves) provided the danger. After a gently sloping start to the beach, it drops away very rapidly, and if one of those waves catches you there is no getting back... the next landmass to the south is Antarctica. By this time the weather was truly horrible, and the sea was wild, the chances for any sunset colours were replaced with a selection of thunderous greys.
The next day was brighter, but no less windy. The wind was strong enough to be a real problem for photography, even a comparatively heavy tripod could not keep the camera still reliably and many attempted pictures were ruined by the vibrations. I had studied the weather forecast before leaving, but had been more interested in the the rain and cloud than I had about the wind. The geography of the southern coast of Iceland is such that the mountains, volcanoes and glaciers that make up the interior of the country are bordered by extremely flat and exposed plains, and there is very little natural shelter.
After leaving Vik, I started on the journey towards one of my most anticipated locations, the glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón. I expected the journey to take a couple of hours, but it is quite difficult to make good speed on the Icelandic roads because you end up stopping every few kilometres when the next amazing sight catches your eye. The 90km/h speed limit and occasional one-way-at-a-time bridges on the highway also limit your progress. I alternated between stopping (and feeling like I should get going again) and driving on (wishing I had stopped) for much of the morning, the waterfall at Foss á Siðu being one of the places where I was happy that I did stop.
Thankfully I managed to keep going forward sufficiently to arrive at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon with a couple of hours to spare before sunset. This is a truly "out of this world" destination, a place that takes your breath away. The massive Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier deposits its building-sized iceberg offspring into this lagoon, from which there is a relatively narrow and shallow passage to the ocean. The icebergs therefore need to melt significantly before they can escape to the ocean, and form an amazing iceberg traffic jam in the waters of the lagoon. These huge and impressive objects come in all shapes and sizes, and colours that range from clear or white through all different shades of blue, with some that are more dominated by dark residue that has been picked up during the relentless progress of the glacier.
As well as the slowly melting masses in the lagoon, the shores of the lagoon, the channel to the ocean, and the sea shore itself are littered with smaller ice sculptures, some of which are extremely beautiful. Each visit yields a different view as the magical structures are constantly melting, changing and being replaced with new versions.
The following morning, I spent a long time and walked a number of kilometres in search of icebergs that would meet my criteria. They should be stationary, interesting looking and far enough away from other objects that it would be possible to isolate them in the frame. After a couple of disappointments (one iceberg, which I thought would work well, catastrophically degraded, splitting into two pieces, during a 10 minute exposure... ruining my shot), I found a trio of ice sculptures, about 20 metres off shore, grounded on the bottom of the lagoon, and eroded by the tides to create an interesting illusion that they were balancing on the surface of the water. One 306 second exposure later (I aimed for 300 and got a bit sloppy with my timing) I had the shot I was after, by far my favourite shot from the trip.
After departing from Jökulsárlón, I headed for the less famous Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon a few kilometres up the road. This was also a spectacular location, with possibilities for better views of the glacier that fed the lagoon and also greater proximity to the mountains.
My journey continued towards Höfn where my intention was to photograph the iconic Vestrahorn mountain, a set of jagged peaks that were conveniently located such that you can picture them with many different interesting foregrounds. When viewing pictures from Iceland I had always been most taken with the Vestrahorn as a subject, the most classic views from there being with the grassy volcanic sand in the foreground, or with a reflection in the waters of the bay. I spent two days at the Vestrahorn, but was not very lucky with the light at any point.
Leaving the Vestrahorn behind it was time to re-trace my steps back towards Reykjavik. During my travels I had seen a large number of swans and based on their size I thought that they might be Bewick's swans, a species that I have not photographed before, so I was excited at the opportunity to photograph some at the roadside. A quick google, and a look at the pictures, soon told that they were in fact Whooper Swans (Finland's national bird), so I was denied the possibility for species number 166 of 2017. Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to photograph the Whoopers in typical Icelandic autumn colours (even though the longest lens I had with me, at 85mm, was not ideal for the task).
My next stop on the journey was to revisit the glacier lagoon, and it was there that things took a turn sharply for the worse. I was on the beach, trying to find the right composition for a coastline picture. I thought that I had a good idea of the look I was aiming for, but the best angle was proving elusive. I took the following picture...
... and then decided that it would look better if I moved a couple of steps to the right. I repositioned my tripod and was about ready to take the picture when I managed to bump into the tripod, sending the whole package (camera + lens + tripod) tumbling into the surf, the sea having decided to take a couple of steps to the left while I took a couple of steps to the right. The camera was submerged for less than a second... but that was enough... it seems to be totally dead. The picture above was it's final act. I did what I could to try and dry the equipment, and I did have a second camera with me, but the incident was a bit of a shock and it rather reduced my enthusiasm for the rest of the day.
The next day, the wind was once again really howling, making photography into a real challenge. The waterfall at Foss á Siðu had no idea of it was coming or going.
A quick stop at Vik allowed for one final shot of the sea stacks and cliffs as the afternoon sun got lower in the sky before I continued around the coast towards Selfoss.
The last destination on the busy itinerary was the mighty waterfall at Skogafoss, where I hoped to see a rainbow in the spray before the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Once again there were hundreds of people to contend with, but I got there with a few minutes to spare and was treated to a double rainbow.
Overall Iceland was a spectacular and fascinating destination, and the trip was extremely memorable, but it was also a very difficult trip. The weather absolutely refused to cooperate (ok... it was November... what did I expect) with the extreme wind being a challenge that I was not able to deal with easily. The accident on the beach, killing my camera and damaging a lens and a tripod was a real low point, and now I get the unwelcome new experience of dealing with insurance claims.
I learned a lot on this trip, and it will be much easier to go to Iceland next time. One thing that I would definitely do differently is to lower my ambitions for covering so many kilometres. There are such a lot of additional attractions between the attractions that you know about that you cannot do justice to the locations when trying to cover too much, especially at this time of year when the days are already quite short.
Well, that's it for this time, thanks a lot for your interest in my blog, any comments are most welcome.
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