Shooting Vik Black Sand Beach

Reynisfjara, otherwise known as Vik Black Sand Beach, is one of the most popular photo locations in Iceland — as a visit to the 500px enthusiast site will confirm. The beach is a beautiful expanse of blue-black punctuated by distinctive sea stacks. Legend has it that the sea stacks were trolls that got caught outside after dawn broke and were turned to stone.

My first visit to Reynisfjara beach was a couple of years ago. I could see the potential of the place. But I didn’t show up until about 9 am (duh) and there were enough bodies walking the beach and climbing the basalt columns to limit my photo choices.

March 2017

March 2017

First visit to Black Sand Beach, March 2017

So on my first full day in Iceland I showed up at the beach at 4:15 am. … Not that I was trying to prove my seriousness as a pro shooter. Truth is, I was seriously jet lagged and by 3:30 I was fully awake. At 4:05 I was driving Rt. 1, by 4:10 I was heading south on Rt. 215 following the sign for the Vik beach (and restaurant).

I parked, pulled out my pack and tripod. The temperature was hovering just above freezing and there was the usual wind. I tried not to think about how crappy my gloves were.

I read the little welcoming signs, noticed the warning about “sneaker waves,” rogue waves (wearing sneakers) that can send an unsuspecting visitor to their death. When I got to the beach, I made sure to leave my gear pack above the high water mark. I’d rather walk 20 feet to grab a ND (neutral density) filter than run after a floating camera bag. I got the tripod up and decided on my 24-105mm f4 (the Sigma version).

Breathing the place in

Vik Black Sand Beach

Black Sand Beach looking west to Dyrholaey

The beach is the southern-most point in Iceland and the fierce waves have pulled in more than a few folks. You feel the wildness of the place, and the stripped down beauty.  On that morning, the wind was whipping the waves into white froth. There was still plenty of cloud cover. 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 in its way, but then that’s Iceland. The eastern view, with so many moving parts, was the obvious choice. And with no climbing tourists, the distinctive basalt columns were the perfect foreground element.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/250 sec., F8

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. A lot better than on my earlier trip. But the light wasn’t great yet and the composition felt mushy, maybe a bit cluttered.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/100 sec., F8

Good overall balance, this one’s definitely a keeper. … But let’s keep exploring.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/125 sec., F8

Then I got hit by the combination of high tide and a sneaker wave. Clearly I needed a bit more black sand.

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. I began playing aggressively with a longer shutter speed.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1.6 seconds, f22, ND filter

This slow shutter choice creates some serious blur in the waves and gives the feeling of velocity. It’s a cool effect but here it seemed to overpower the rest of the composition.

Vik Black Sand Beach

.2 sec, F16

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. And being adjacent to the basalt columns, the wave motion stands out in relief.

Vik Black Sand Beach

.2 sec, F16 (with more post work)

For my fav shot, I kept the same slower shutter but managed to catch the incoming foam just at its apex. There is a bit of motion in the breaking wave (center-right) but the overall feeling is more settled. I also gave the columns on the left more real estate. This element is just as intriguing as the sea stacks and I was starting to realize that.

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.

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 on Rt. 215 to take advantage of the color in the sky.

Church N or Black Sand Beach

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