Reynisfjara, known in Internet parlance as Vik Black Sand Beach, is one of the premiere photo locations in Iceland. Yes, it’s just a beach shot. But the beach is an endless expanse of blue-black set off by distinctive sea stacks .. and the dark North Atlantic. And oh yeah, there are those ebony black basalt columns that frame it all.
Reynisfjara even has a legend attached, that the big sea stacks are trolls that were coming home after a night of dark purpose. They were caught, outside after dawn — which as we all know, turns a troll to stone. … “See kids, that’s them out there in the waves.”
On that first night in country I was at the Vellir Guesthouse, just east of Vik off the Ring Road. Being on LA time, I was wide awake by 4 AM. That made the decision to do a dawn shoot at Black Sand Beach easy. And being Iceland in May, dawn was already over when I left the guasthouse at 4:15. I checked the light to the east: clear skies, dawn colors were OK, cold wind. Cold wind. Stowed everything in the Dacia and headed east on Rt 1.
I’d chosen Vellir to be close to the best photo spots. So in 2 miles I was already at the Rt 215 turnoff — there’s a big sign for the Black Beach Restaurant. The drive goes down to a gravel parking lot next to the restaurant. At 4:20, I was the only one there. I guess there weren’t many folks in Vik who were eager to wake 4 hours early for 20 degree wind chill.
Before heading down to the beach, I read the signs about how dangerous Reynisfjara can be.
I made my first visit to Reynisfjara in March 2017. I already knew the basic design components of the place from photo sites like 500px. Even so, that March I made the mistake of arriving at quarter to 9. And what with the light conditions and a band of selfie stick users, I hadn’t gotten anything I loved.
Approaching a new location
But on this visit I had a clean slate to work from. Sure, I was aware of the different visual elements at Vik from seeing other people’s work. But I have a whole process I use as a prepare to shoot that helps me understand how I should frame a location — and capture how that place engaged me.
I used to do theater. And part of our preparation for a role was knowing that you need to put the lines, the blocking in the back of the mind and listen to what the other actor is giving you. You take your cues from their energy.
And for the landscape photographer, the “energy” is all around you, in the wind, the wave action, the light. The first ting I noticed as I got out of the car was the wind curtain through my down jacket. Got it. I pulled the camera pack out and headed down.
At Vik it’s a short walk along the black cinder path before you’re at the black sand. But before someone heads out I’d suggest stopping at the Iceland tourism signs and their explanation of “sneaker waves.” Now to me, “sneaker wave” suggests someone in high top Keds. But the fact is, the surf at Vik is some of the worst you’ll find in Iceland. Because Vik is shaped like a spear, a hook that reaches deep into the North Atlantic. And pretty much every year, the sneaker waves will pull a tourist to a cold death.
So when I got to the beach, my gear pack got stowed above the high water mark. I’d rather run after a floating camera bag.
I got the tripod up and popped on my 24-105mm f4 (a Sigma).
Breathing the place in
On cold days in Iceland, it’s hard not to notice the wildness of the place, the clean, stripped down beauty. The wind was whipping the waves into white froth. There was full cloud cover to the west, the east was starting to clear. Birds flying around the sea stacks, occasional waves forcing me to back up. It was a lot to take in.
The view west towards the Dyrholaey peninsula (above) was lovely. But the eastern view, with so many design elements and the dawn light, that was the play. And with no climbing tourists, the intriguing basalt columns were the perfect foreground element. That part was already in my head, the columns and sea stack relationship, the waves coming in. Plus there was a rose coloring in the eastern clouds, above the blue. That’s the moment.
On this day, the cliffs, wave action, sea stacks and light were the elements I wanted to focus on, to balance.
The above shot was a good first effort for me. The stark silhouette, a breaking wave, birds flying around the trolls. But the dawn light wasn’t great. The composition worked, the alignment of stacks, the clouds, wave coming in. But the basalt columns, my foreground element on the left, didn’t feel right, not enough of something.
I wandered closer to the basalt. That’s one of the fun things about going wide angle, you can get quite close to a landscape feature, give it more focus, without losing the rest of the composition. I liked this one. You could see how much those columns have been shaped by the ocean. … But let’s keep exploring.
Then I got hit by the combination of high tide and a sneaker wave. It was good I had left my gear bag that far up the beach, that I hadn’t been working closer to where the waves hit. Kinda cool (esp. my feet).
I decided to see what would happen if I slowed my shutter speed a bit — just to play with how the foamy surf would look against the black sand. A slower shutter can add dynamism to the image — or not. So, playing aggressively with a longer shutter speed.
This shutter choice creates a certain blur. It’s a cool effect, a sense of acceleration. But it has an undertone of edge, jitter, that overpowers the rest of the composition.
So I dialed back the shutter speed to .2 sec and pulled the trigger as the foamy surf was coming in. Since that section of the beach is closest to the camera, it has more of a blur than the breaking wave at right-center. But my biggest discovery was what happens when you give those black columns even more real estate. Now the sky’s getting better too.
For my fav shot, I kept the same slower shutter but caught the incoming wave just as it reaches its full height. A point of rest. There is a bit of motion in the breaking wave (center-right) but the overall feeling is settled, suspended. I also like the balance between columns and the trolls — and having that gold and blue overhead was the bonus.
In post, I added a bit of sheen and focus to bring out the ebony in the basalt. And I cooled off the sky so none of the color or cloud texture was blown out.
PS. By 5:30 it was time to head back to bed for some shut-eye before the (free) guesthouse breakfast. 😉 But I did stop at the little church that’s just north of Reynisfjara Beach to take advantage of the sky.