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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