Photo Road Trip to Iceland’s South Coast

I’d hoped the South Coast would be the highlight of my Iceland trip — and it was. This part of Iceland was extraordinary and not just because of the warm sun. There are several marquee photo locations along the coastal plain, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, Black Sand Beach, Dyrholaey Peninsula, Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach.

But there’s also simple beauty along Route 1. The little pull-offs you discover won’t be flashy — but can be a delight because you’re noticing composition and balance in the small things others overlook. Improvising. For an enthusiast, a few days of shooting along the South Coast is pure heaven.
some notes

Ring Road pulloff… You don’t need a fancy waterfall to get your juices going, just a sense of land and light

A little warm sun does wonders after 5 days of wind, cold rain, snow. Watching the vast landscape unwrap as the miles unfold, that is a tangible pleasure. You notice the scale of the coast, the high plateau (there on the left), then the white of the glacier behind, the stream beds of black obsidian, and stately clouds. You start to imagine Norse gods striding the floodplain, trolls turned into stone.

Driving the 4-wheel rental southeast from Reykjavik that afternoon was the perfect antidote for a cold LA boy. Yes, I was starting my drive three hours later than planned. But that was necessary, that’s me getting my act together.

When I had walked out of the Reykjavik airport that first morning and ran into real Iceland weather, I realized how bad my clothing choices had been. Iceland can be brutal in March, that’s why I spent time that morning on the main shopping drag, Laugavegur Street, getting warmer gear (esp. for head and face), a map and trip food. Being aware of the necessities of solo traveling — that’s why I had opted for the 4-wheel drive in the first place.

Once I was fully packed, I called Lagoon Car Rental for pick up. The attentive Lagoon service person picked me up, did the paperwork, then took time to walk me around the Duster. I rarely rent a 4-wheel and wanted to check on the shifting, the GPS, the various idiosyncrasies. She also gave me a heads up to hold on tight when opening the car door. It’s not uncommon for a car door to get ripped off by a strong gust. I mentioned to her I appreciated her thoughtful tips. (An hour later, that tip saved me some dough.)

Trusty Duster

My trusty 4-wheel. … notice the width of the shoulder.

I was already familiar with the other challenge of driving in Iceland. Tourists (like me) love to pull over on those narrow roads and take a photo. That can be annoying when someone else does it and with these roads, risky behavior. Driving conditions are challenging enough in March without having the guy in front slow to a crawl for no apparent reason. There’s also an issue with losing control of the car on the shoulder. The shot above shows the width of the average road shoulders on Route 1, about 2-3 feet. The rest is unsupported gravel with little or no traction.

This pull-off marks where the Ring Road drops down to the low lands of the coastal plain. It’s also the spot where I almost lost the car door — the wind was blasting that hard.

By noon I was on my way, letting the GPS guide me out of the city center over the plateau and down into the lowlands of South Coast. On the road again.

…to be continued

Do a photo tour or choose your own path

Visiting Iceland, a photographer has three choices, to do general day tours to the marquee locations, take dedicated photo enthusiast tours or rent a vehicle and shoot Iceland on your own terms.

I did a couple of standard day tours and they’re worth the money. For $50-$200, you get carted around to the famous spots with someone else handing the logistics and giving you insights on the place and people. The tour quality around Iceland is fairly high.

But as a photographer a one-size-fits-all tour has issues. You’ll be moved when the group is bored, you won’t have control over when you’ll visit that photo spot (kinda important, that one), and some spots won’t be of particular photographic interest. So I treat these tours as location scouting. I’ll get some good images on a general tour but often to get a definitive image, I’ll probably have to return when the time is right.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Dritvik

Taken on a general tour of Snaefellsnes Peninsula — I was complaining about the fierce cold the entire tour but I couldn’t have gotten this shot on a warm, sunny day.

Doing the photo enthusiast tours solves all those issues. The guides are pros, other folks from in country or a pro from the US who comes regularly. They’ll take you to a great set of photo locations when the light is good and they’ll give as much assistance is you need. Plus you’ll be with a small group of photographers. They may not all be pros but they are there because they appreciate the craft. Down side of these tours, they can be nosebleed pricey.

The third choice is to do your own pre-trip research, rent a car, get lodging, find places to eat. More hassle but a fairly cheap way to do things … and total freedom. The unique nature of the landscape seems to feed your creativity. So if someone suggests you visit a location you never heard of, it’s nice to have the freedom to go for it.

And really, it’s not that hard doing your own photo tour. If you made it to Iceland in the first place, you’re savvy enough to find a B&B and rent a car. The Ring Road is good (depending on the season), the local accommodations are fine and the people you meet make all the difference. Icelanders you meet know their country, they’re helpful and may speak better English than you. So if you do decide to travel on your own, you’ll get plenty of support.

The B&B host I stayed with in Vik gave me the full map tour after breakfast. I peppered him with lots of questions and picked up ideas none of the guidebooks mentioned.

Doing the tour research

Of course if you go your own way, you can’t just wander down to the front desk and have them take care of it all. You’re doing your own research both logistical and in terms of your shoot locations.

For me, the first step in my South Coast walkabout was looking at Iceland photos and seeing where those places are. I set up a Pinterest page just for Iceland here. I looked at where the tours were going. I looked for out of the way spots as well as the marquee photo locations. After all, there’s a reason the famous waterfalls attract photographers — even i you have to use Photoshop for crowd removal. (Why doesn’t Lightroom have a slider for that?)

So I study potential shoot locations, look at the images, do the planning, all based on my artistic interests. It didn’t take long to realize the more interesting spots and plot each on a map of the South Coast.

Lodging

A few lodging tips. First, the country has become a hot location and there are less lodging choices than there are potential visitors. So book early.

Don’t rush. Expect that the drive will take longer, that you’ll need to eat and get gas and hang out at the BnB. Don’t treat your personal photo tour like a forced march. Enjoy the place.

I suggest that for a 3 day to 3 week road trip, you’ll want to plant yourself at one or two central locations within that corner of the country. For my South Coast trip I knew I had to take one day for spots along the road south (Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls), another day or two at Vik, then another day for the locations further west like Glacier Lagoon. At each spot I found lodging relatively close to those photo locations.

Renting the car in Iceland

So I put together a roughed out itinerary, booked the guest houses through AirBNB, and got on line to price car rentals. I wasn’t sure if I needed to spend the extra $ to rent a 4-wheel, so I contacted the rental places.

They all recommended that I get a 4-wheel since I would be there at the end of March. Yes, their job is to suggest the pricy option; but it made sense. In March, you can definitely get hit by a snow storm, even on the South Coast. A 4-wheel was another $20 a day but for a 3 day rental, it was worth it for the piece of mind.

[In fact, for one of my group tours, they had to drive a second bus in from Reykjavik because the first couldn’t handle the snow and wind we ran into. Iceland in March.]

 

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