Seastacks and Smoke: A Photographer’s Journey in a Time of Plague

The Idea for this journey began during the (almost) endless lockdown the South Bay. And not just beaches. I couldn’t even hike the Peninsula or photograph the tidal pools that are just down the hill. The planned photo trip to Scotland, a distant memory.  I decided that once I could, I needed to get myself out into nature. Someplace different, away from crowds and rules. I was thinking photo road trip, further away than the Southwest or Big Sur, closer than Scotland.

I settled on the Pacific Northwest. Not hard to get to, a minimum of logistical hassle. Just fly up to SeaTac, rent a car, go west on the Olympic Peninsula till I hit the Pacific — then drive south 1,300 miles. Taking a few days in each area to shoot whatever interested me, then head south another 50-100 miles and plant myself in the next cool spot … Rialto Beach,  Cannon Beach, Cape Kiwanda, Heceta Head, … , for 3 1/2 weeks.

One rule on the journey was to stay safe — follow the guidelines, take the same care I would in LA County, even thought this section of coastline was one of the safest in the country. I knew there would be some enormous hassles, lots of restaurants closed, state parks closed, masks everywhere — till you’re out in nature. Then you can breath in ocean air and remember what it’s like to compose an image.

The Northwestern Coast, it turns out is even more than I imagined. Quiet dunes, sea stacks, ancient lava, waves painting pastel beaches, all surrounded by old growth forest. It was just what the soul required. There were other tourists, mostly folks from Oregon or Washington. And everyone seemed to enjoy the cliffs and hidden beaches without too much worry about Covid.  The entire journey was a rediscovering one’s center in nature, color and the pursuit of good light.

A Shared Communion, Rialto Beach
Just below the tippy-top corner of the continental US and you’ll find Rialto Beach. The area up here is all Native reservations, Olympic National Park, thick forest, sea stacks. The beach is rimmed by massive tree trunks bleached white by sea and sun. At it’s northern end, you’ll see a couple of massive monoliths. And if you’re there at twilight, you’ll glimpse a universe lit in amber gold.

My work treats the camera as a starting point. The file provides a high def blueprint, classically composed, of shot locations I’m intrigued by. And in post, I explore the deeper layers and nuances that exist beyond the muddy shadows and flatness the camera gives. My post production acknowledges the way the camera captures light, color and movement in time but also remembers the mythic power of the Hudson River School and ancient Chinese landscape painting. Ultimately, I want to immerse the viewer in a feeling, a immersion in Nature that’s purely my own — my own sense of texture, design … harmony.

Sisters of Stone, Rialto Beach
For eons, the seascapes on the Olympic Peninsula have shared the flow of time and tide. Hard, volcanic sea stacks standing witness each day. And the two monoliths do seem to have personalities, they’ve been near neighbors for millions of years.

Each artist makes post production choices. Even the guy who gets the file out of camera and goes straight to PRINT is making a choice. If you shoot Raw, you make plenty of choices since the file starts off bland and murky. We landscape shooters (mostly) shoot Raw anyway because the format stores three times the amount of light/color info. So the algorithmic software tools are part of the process.

As a landscape photo artist, I use post as part of a personal path. That camera has one eye, not two. Canon’s one eye sees half what I can in the dark shadows, half as much nuance in the sky. So I put that file on the Photoshop table and shape it like a director might in turning script into play.

I don’t add stuff that isn’t there at pixel level, no composites. But I touch each image as a painter would, adding layers, creating an interior world using brushes Ansel never imagined.

Pastel in Blue and Green, Olympic NP
Brambles and wildflowers crowd beyond the forest and into light.

In ancient India, a good work of art should capture the flavor breath of human experience, the rasa, in its parts and whole. So a pieced of landscape art created by the artist’s hand would evoke the essential nature of that place. The sound of waves on the beach, the dampness of earth, the texture of brambles and of wildflowers … the pleasure of a morning on the Olympic Peninsula.

That’s the challenge. To capture the flavors of that pastel beach using a photog’s crude tools.

Light along the Sol Duc

Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means, And green and golden
I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams. Dylan Thomas
Sunlight in a mountain stream, Sol Duc

Water flowing through time, over wet stones and soft moss on a sunny morning.

Walking into Light, Cannon Beach
Each of us comes to the beach for her or his own reasons and with their own perceptions.

At moments we become fused with light, as we walk through panes of wet color, towards that golden chamber.

Morning, Silver Point Overlook
A pale beaches along the Oregon coast provides a necessary solitude.
Cape Kiwanda Sunset
To the north, whispers of clouds get pushed on a rising wind.

One of my watercolorist friends wondered how a pastel could be so … amazingly detailed. I guess what I do is bend the visual notes in the direction of a different genre. Like how a blues harpist might bend a note. But it’s not so people will say, “Oh, it looks like a painting.” No, I want to evoke painting’s depth, texture, techniques, in order to capture the inner dimension of a place and time. Inner experience in a 50 MP file. Somehow, when I mix the two genres, the viewer enters a more imaginative realm. A tone poem, a visual haiku.

Cape Kiwanda Sunset
The wind-blown seas sculpt the limestone cliffs. Just above, visitors perch and chat as the sun slips into evening.
Seagulls and Haystack Rock
The birds at Cape Kiwanda circle in the evening light. They’ll settle quickly — and then fly back up with some new reason to complain.
The rocks are used to it all by now.
Hecate Head, A Light on the Oregon Coast

Another lighthouse picture. How trite. At sunset. But there’s something real going on. A raw-edged coastline, waves driven by the wind. The glow of a fresnel light, a beacon for those in peril on the sea.

Hemlock Road Overlook

This place wasn’t in the travel books or covered on Instagram. It was a road pull-off for the Hemlock Road Overlook a five second shot. Till your mind says, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”

Evening, Bandon Beach Overlook
A place like Bandon is a landscape photographer’s playground. The sea stacks, the tides, the changing light.
They’re all in motion. You take it all in then go down off the cliffs and start to play.
Seagull Study #3, Bandon Beach
Rock, wave, orange foam … light
Blue Hour, Bandon
I don’t know what he was thinking, the young guy standing out on the ridge. The sun long down, most folks on their way to home or hotel. But there’s something to be said for floating in somber tones of yellow, ochre, deep blue … and a sprinkling of flowers.

Meyers Creek Beach, Sunset
Meyers Creek Beach, Sunset
A curve of flowing water, a gathering of sea stacks,
The reflection of pink clouds. What more do you need?
Secret Beach, Samuel Broadman SP
The smell of cedar at a spot overlooking Secret Beach.
Arch Rock, Samuel Broadman SP
Goat Rock Beach, Evening
Every kind of migrating bird comes by the estuary at Goat Rock Beach.
And at evening, settles in for the night.
And it’s safe enough, even with fires along the Sonoma Coast.
Sunlight and Fire, Sonoma Coast
Fires in the east and south, sunset to the west.
Picnic at Goat Rock Overlook
Sunset and Fire, Sonoma Coast at Jenner
A fire, growing all afternoon, begins the capture the sky.
And the locals are there to capture it.
Last truck out of Jenner

Sam Boardman SP and the Southern Beaches

The very bottom of the state has some of the most impressive moments of any in Oregon. Just above Brookings is a warren of trails and coves surrounded by dense forest. It’s a lot to take in folks can spend a week getting . And north of that are more expansive of the rough cut beaches, Gold and Meyers River, barely inhabited spots trimmed with dunes and native grasses and the iconic coastal rock outcrops.

Natural Bridges Viewpoint
A solo adventurer wanders along the seascape arch, takes in the amber glow.
Above Arch Rock
Sunset, Secret Beach
Meyers Creek Beach, Sunset
A flush of native grass in the dunes waves in the evening light.
Meyers Creek Beach #2
Pink Clouds and the Curve of Flowing Water
After sunset and there’s a glimpse of those wispy clouds in the tidal stream. A beach tone poem

Loving Bandon Beach

On the southern side of the Oregon Coast, Bandon Beach is a standout. The beach seems endlessly long but it’s got plenty of areas to explore thanks to the distinctive sea stacks like Wizard’s Hat and Face Rock. I found myself starting by shooting from the long bluff above the beach then heading down to explore the sea stacks more closely while I moved in and out depending on the flow of tides. And it doesn’t hurt that all this beauty is no more than a few minutes from lodgings and restaurants.

Morning, Bandon Beach Overlook
Evening, Bandon Beach Overlook
Bandon Beach
Rock and Wave, #1
Rock and Wave, #2
Sea Gull #1
Bandon Beach
Blue Hour, Bandon Beach

Central Oregon Coast

The coastal area from the Newport area down to Yachats has one cool photo location after another. Yaquina and Heceta Head, the lighthouses that guard that rough-edged coast, are worth a photo walkabout. Seal Rock Rec area is worth experiencing at sunrise or sunset. Round it all off with the views from Cape Perpetua and the iconic Thor’s Well. It’s good stuff.

Yaquina Head Sunset
… And a profusion of wildflowers dance in the evening breeze.
Yaquina Seascape
… When there’s a wide canvas like you see at Yaquina, a pano is the only choice. The expansiveness also helps to evoke the peace of this place.
Yaquina Head looking south
Seal Rock Recreational Area
Thor’s Well Sunset
… The best view of this iconic tidal pool comes at high tide. That’s also when you’ll want to wear water-resistant apparel. Here, I’m trying to frame the Thor’s mark on nature within the coastal context.
Evening, Heceta Head Viewpoint
…There is no lighthouse along the Coast more beautifully connected to the landscape than Heceta. This particular viewpoint on it is just a quick road pulloff with cars popping in for a minute to grab a quick shot. But take some time here to take it all in, it’s worth it.
Sunset, Heceta Lighthouse
… Heceta is such an engaging head. It sits there with a sprinkling of tiny buildings, the lighthouse keeper’s cottage being down the path. And you can even head up the hill a bit and are engaging with the rocky coast from the lighthouse’s POV.
Pulloff Below Heceta Head
… My biggest surprise on this trip was how expansive the beaches could get– and how beautifully these expansive vistas were framed by nature’s green edging.

Cape Kiwanda area Images

For anyone driving the Oregon coast who’s interested in photography, Cape Kiwanda is a must see. This state preserve located on the outskirts of Pacific City, is one of the most distinctive geological areas along the coast. The limestone cliffs are like sculptures shaped by thousands of years of wave action. And the Cape’s color palette works beautifully against the deep blue of the Pacific. I spent two full days shooting here and farther north around Walden Island and wished I had spent longer.

Cape Kiwanda Overlook
Cape Kiwanda looking north
Cape Kiwanda and Haystack Rock, Far End
A Sculpture in Time
Cape Kiwanda, The View at Sunset
Wind and Wave
A Path, Whalen Island
Whalen Island, Evening
Sunset, Cape Kiwanda
Chief Kiwanda Rock
Sunset, Cape Kiwanda

Images of Cannon Beach, Oregon

Cannon Beach, First Night
Cannon Beach After Sunset
Haystack, Final Evening
Sunset Show, Cannon Beach

Hug Point morning
Silver Point Overlook

Portfolio image #1: Seljalandsfoss

I never did get a portfolio level photograph at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on my May trip; after two days I was heading east on the Ring Road again. I caught Seljalandsfoss on a May morning, wind cold and blowing hard, I was seeing the place through eyes that’d already seen 20 hours of travel. Some interesting shots came out of it that first day and that isn’t trivial. I felt what I shot.

But I already knew Seljalandsfoss was capable of being one of those spacial places to shoot, one of those glorious, iconic shots to be had — I just hadn’t gotten it on my March or May trips. So when I did the Ring Road again in August, I stopped at some fav locations for a third bite of the apple. Seljalandsfoss was my final have to have before flying home.

I was eating at the cafeteria in Vik that final night (Icelandic char) and notice the weather had cleared. Good chance for a real Iceland sunset out at Seljalandsfoss. [I have a whole system in the evenings when I’m traveling, figuring which spot to shoot that evening.] 

I scooted out of Vik by 7:15PM, did the drive west in under 40 minutes. When I got there, the last tour buses were leaving (look closely). It was only a few minutes before sunset. I grabbed my wide angle and tripod, jogged past a few photogs, dialed in my settings as I walked, headed into the cave. … Like I was doing a live performance. Showtime.

…………………

The dense mist behind the waterfall takes on an almost womb-like atmosphere. And you’re instantly wet. But get past that and it’s really a magical spot to be in. First because the mouth of the falls faces southwest. And sunset light filtered through mist is the magic. And then you see what that light does to the blanket of green moss…

I headed deeper down the path, watching how the balance point of waterfall, stream, moss and sunset changed. At one place on the muddy path, I felt to stop. This spot made me imagine that the cave itself had its eye on the light show.

[I’m sure there are some out there who question this passion for getting the shot. But it’s not some strange addiction (regardless of what Freud says). It’s just the feeling you get when you enter the zone — Watson the game’s afoot” or something. hey, who doesn’t like a sunset. This spot gave me the perfect line: waterfall, stream curving towards the sun and that concentrated yellow glow.

I stood, back against wall, so as to pull in those velvety, mossy boulders. That misty moss made me want to take my shoes off and wade in. (Of course I had to pull all that detail out of the image in post.) And of course, I had to wipe the lens off after each shot. I didn’t bring a dry cloth so my shirt did the job.

Didn’t do that many shot variations, the sun being so close to the horizon. Plus, I was pretty sure I had what I wanted.

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A photograph is a distillation of light, color, shape, balance … feeling.    [1/40th sec, f13, 19mm]

 

 

Welcome to Iceland

I left passport control at Iceland’s Keflavik International at about 5:20AM dragging my suitcase and camera pack. There was supposed to be a guy at the airport entrance holding sign with my name on it. Nope. So I dumped my stuff next to the Welcome to Iceland desk, got a donut, switched my phone to the local network and left a message … and a second, at the car rental office.

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Keflivik Airport statute, phone shot. Pretty cool for airport art but  I could tell they were cold.

By 6:20, the car keys were mine and my suitcase and camera gear were loaded. I had gone low budget (by Iceland standards) with a Dacia Logan station wagon. So I headed out slow from the airport, remembering how to drive in snow, and drive stick, on roads I didn’t know.

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A classic behind the wheel phone shot from just east of the city. This section of Rt. 1 is a 4 lane highway.

After half an hour, I hit Rt. 1, the legendary Ring Road that circles the island, Iceland’s answer to Route 66. This (mostly) 2 lane blacktop winds through 840 miles of primal landscapes and I was gonna photograph that and more. But after an 8 hour flight from LA and 24 hours without sleep, I was running on empty.

My job

My goal on this 14 day road trip wasn’t to do the guidebook stuff, the tours, museums, restaurants, accommodations. I wanted to get a portfolio of kick-ass landscape photos. The guidebooks and travel marketing don’t get into the details photo enthusiasts care about: best photo locations, times to shoot — location scouting. So I end up doing my own location scouting on Instagram, 500px and Pinterest. 

You never fully understand that spot until you’re there, camera in hand. But you can certainly discover Iceland’s “marquee” photo locations just by looking at the amazing shots that are on-line. Once you are there, the job is to see it fresh and photograph it under the conditions that are there at that instant in time. 

After all, Iceland isn’t a list of spots to shoot — which is what you’d think if what you know about a place is how it’s presented in the media. It’s an immensely varied place as landscape.

So, since before my two Utah books. I’ve made myself a more interesting goal, to discover the 99% of a country that’s not in the guidebooks — the little roadside pull-offs, the places the locals connect to. The country living out each day. If you can start seeing what you’re given, regardless of weather or the requirements of the trip, you can get images you won’t find on Instagram.

 

That’s why on this visit, I had no particular assignment. Just the desire to create a portfolio, an Iceland portfolio that would capture the mythic quality of the place and that distinctive color palette. I figure if the quality is there, I’ll be supported. After all, being out there, getting lost in the mood of a place, the flow of nature … that’s the core DNA for landscape photographers.

Discovering the South Coast

An hour and a half in, I arrived at Selfoss, the regional hub for the South Coast with a bustling 7,000 inhabitants. I was thinking about getting some real breakfast here and using the facilities. But nothing was opened yet (not even the KFC) so I pressed on.

After Selfoss, you’re in big sky country, huge expanses of farmland on the right, long ridges of mesa-like plateau on the left. My South Coast visit the previous March for location scouting had been a total delight. But on this morning, the clouds were getting pushed along by a storm in the North Atlantic, even the car was getting pushed around. The farmland meadows were like matted tundra from weeks of cold rain and snow. Muted colors, lots of black and white.

Iceland isn’t postcard pretty on a day like this, but it’s real. Not the Iceland of the brochures, it’s the Iceland that gets served up 90% of the time. After all, Iceland’s basically a piece of black lava planted between the North Atlantic and Arctic Circle.

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Iceland presents so many compositions that are clean and stripped down: here, a harsh-edge mountain pressing against a curve of road.

Road Shots

I pulled over along the way for pictures, a favorite activity for Ring Road travelers. It’s the kind of thing that drives Icelanders nuts (rightly so). Visitors will often stop right there on the road for a quick shot. They don’t see anyone coming and every turn in the road seems to have an awesome vista. The problem is most Iceland roads only have a couple of feet of shoulder so you can’t just pull over. So people stop right there on Rt 1.

The correct approach when you need to take a picture is to look for a farm road or driveway pull-off. Get the shot (while staying close to your vehicle) and then get back on the road. Easy-peasy and it’s what your Mom would tell you to do. And since you’re off the road, you can concentrate on the landscape you’ve been given.

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Another roadside pullout. Classic leading line photo

But enough backstory. I was a couple hours into the trip now, 30 hours into my long day’s journey. And there was the famous Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the left.

Seljalandsfoss

Iceland gets about 5 million visitors a year. That’s a lot of folks coming to a country that’s barely larger than Maine. About 90% of them stay in Reykjavik and do day tours to marquee locations like Seljalandsfoss and the Golden Circle. So photo locations that are within a couple of hours of the city get a LOT of visitors. That’s rule #1 for photographing Iceland, shoot before 9:30 or after 6.

I was there before 8:30, so no tour buses, only a handful of cars in the lot, not many folks with lime green parkas. … But the porta potty was open for business and I made a deposit. Note: There’s a parking fee at the lot.

It was cold an rainy by now and what I wanted was a shower and some hot tea. But my room at the guesthouse wouldn’t be done till afternoon. So I was going to shoot the two important waterfalls on the South Coast, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, before checking in. [Yes, foss is the word for waterfall.] The southwest-facing Seljalandsfoss waterfall is the first one you see as you drive along Route 1 — that and a few smaller ones that pour off the glacial plateau.

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The path up to Seljalandsfoss and its cave. May had been far wetter than usual.

Lay of the Land. Seljalandsfoss doesn’t have a lot of water power but the 220 ft. vertical drop provides visual impact. Some tourists believe they turn the waterfalls off at night. Yeah, that’s a frequently asked question. But that’s not true. When I arrived the waterworks were as you’re seeing.

There’s also a quite wonderful cave behind the falls covered in velvety moss and bathed in waterfall mist — just follow the muddy trail. Note: If you want to shoot the falls from behind, bring protection for your camera, a wide angle lens and something to wipe your lens.

Seljalandsfoss faces southwest. So it can be a great sunset shoot if the weather cooperates. But there are good photo ops from anywhere along the trail.

Given the lay of the land my gear choices were obvious, my walking around lens, a Sigma 24-105mm — and for the cave, a wide-angle, my Canon 16-35 f2.8 and tripod.

Some shot notes

It was in the mid-30s now and the wind was pushing the falling water around with a heavy hand. I pulled on my inadequate LA gloves. And by now it was raining. I wasn’t a happy camper. I thought about heading in behind the falls. But my down jacket was already getting wet, the cave would be darker and wetter. Plus I had a decent cave shot from my March visit.

So instead of trying to make the inside the cave shot work, I noticed the obvious, the wind. So I followed the stream out from the waterfall to get some perspective on the scene.

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Seljalandsfoss at 1/2 sec. exposure. Adding a slightly slower exposure time emphasized the speed of the stream and power of the wind. Now the falls were wispy, like a candle on the edge of being snuffed out.

I used the tripod and played with slower shutter speeds for a while. Uh. Kinda cool.

Then it started to snow, now the scene was all white polka dots. I knew I had two full days along the South Coast so I decided not to bother with Seljalandsfoss until light and the weather would cooperate. Instead I heading over the bridge and down the path to the Gljufrabui waterfall.

Gljufrabui

Gljufrabui about 500 meters down the trail from Seljalandsfoss. It’s less known, all you can see from the outside is a small stream flowing from a slit in the cliff face. But walk inside and the cave turns out to be a slot canyon with a waterfall falling through the “ceiling.” It’s definitely worth checking out.

Tech Notes: Gljufrabui is as misty as the Seljalandsfoss cave. And it’s darker. So bring a cover for your camera, a good cloth wipe for the lens and, if you don’t enjoy standing in glacial run-off, water-resistant footwear.

I chose a longer shutter speed for this shot, to catch the distinctive way the waterfall shapes itself, so the tripod was a necessity. But you can also get great shots hand-held.

Wet places aren’t good for cameras. So I got camera, tripod, release, settings nailed down outside the cave entrance. Then walked the tripod into the cave, put together a composition, took the shot. And things went fast: take a shot, dry the lens, adjust composition, take a shot, dry lens, repeat …

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Gljufrabui Cave, .6 sec, f10

By now my down jacket was sopping wet. My feet had been submerged in a glacial stream for what seemed an hour (and was probably 7 minutes). I walked back out to the river bank, and pulled the lens cap out of my pocket with shivering hands … and it fell, slowly, into the dark stream. Plunk.

Lens caps don’t float. Searching the river rocks with numb hands didn’t help. It was gone. S**t, s**t, s**t. Fact is, lens caps are important little pieces of plastic — especially with fancy lenses in a harsh landscape. The only place (as far as I knew) that stocked 82mm lens caps was the camera shop in Reykjavik, along the main shopping drag. That drive would waste most of a day.

I headed slowly back towards the parking lot. You could say I was frustrated. But the beauty of the place kept intruding on my whining. Just looking at Seljalandsfoss at the far end of the gravel path. Almost eternal – they don’t even turn the water off in winter.

Then I notice a little hay barn just opposite Gljufrabui. Nothing fancy, a ramshackle barn packed with hay, Iceland bjork (birch) trees to the side. I took it in, almost creeping up on the place. Not a shot you’ll see on Instagram, but pure Iceland. Sweet.

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As I headed back I realized, I should call the guesthouse. Hey, I’m less than an hour away, it can’t hurt to ask if there’s a room ready. I definitely needed the sleep.

So I called Guesthouse Vellir. My host answered, she was quite willing to oblige a weary traveler. Well, that made my day. I told her I’d be there by 1.

Welcome to Iceland
………………………….

South Coast Overview

Map

My South Coast planning  map

The section of Ring Road from Reykjavik to Vik is about a 3 hour drive. And there’s farms and countryside that are worth exploring. Little moments and grand vistas. But for a landscape photographer, the 40 miles from Seljalandsfoss to Vik are the key locations. Here’s the Cliff Notes (heading east):

Seljalandsfoss waterfall. In this part of the valley, every few miles seems to have small, highland streams cascading down from the glacial plateau. Seljalandsfoss’ special asset is the fact you can also photograph from the cave behind.

Plus, as extra credit, a third of a mile down the path is Gljufrabui, the “cave” with a waterfall dropping through the opening above.

Skogafoss waterfall. The falls in the tiny town of Skogar are almost as high as Seljalandsfoss but more full bodied. So the place also gets busy during tour bus hours. Skogar has lodging, restaurants, an impressive museum and, of course, Skogafoss – making it a nice home base alternative to Vik. There’s also a little known falls just past the Skogar Museum called Kvernufoss. (And yes, “foss” is Icelandic for waterfall.)

Solheimasandur Plane Wreckage. The stripped down aluminum carcass is all that remains of an American DC-3 airplane that crash-landed in the lava dunes here. It’s a “must see” if you’re into bleak, end-of-world photography or have kids with too much energy. I wouldn’t have done the two mile walk but I knew if I didn’t make the trek, there would’ve been a chorus of disappointment. … There will probably be other tourists so bring your wide angle — or show up early.

Dyrholaey. The cliffs of Dyrholaey can get overlooked by the guidebooks. But for someone who’s got the bug, Dyrholaey is a visual feast: the lighthouse view, that sea arch, puffin nesting cliffs, overlook of the Vik sea stacks, etc.

Reynisfjara/Vik Black Sand Beach. Reynisfjara provides an impressive expanse of black sand beach and basalt cliffs, punctuated by trollish sea stacks and the dangers of the North Atlantic. An enthusiast can get a lovely shot here in the hour after dawn.

Off the beaten track.The South Coast is more than a photo greatest hits album. There are secluded beaches, an amazing view from the butte behind Vik, each bend in the road seems to surprise.

Tip: Get onto your fav photo social media site and search on any of the above photo locations.

Next: Portfolio image #1: Seljalandsfoss

Photo Walkabout at Fjaðrárgljúfur

Fjaðrárgljúfur–very Icelandic name, is a jewel of a river canyon in southeastern section of the island. It’s just 2 miles off the Ring Road, a few miles west of the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur and one of a few classic photo spots between Vik and the Glacier Lagoon/Hofn area.

But it’s not a spot many tours get to, mostly just Icelanders and Ring Road travelers. Oh yeah, Justin Bieber used this unique Geopark as main location for one of his music videos — and landing the canyon on the travel world’s radar screen.

The park itself isn’t much, just a trail along the canyon edge. But something about it, the fluid canyon shapes, that’s almost otherworldly. The trail runs for about a mile and ends at a dramatic overview of the slide-like waterfall. It’s an experience regardless of the weather and a pleasant repast from the Ring Road drive.

Location: Follow Iceland Rt 1 west from Kirkjubæjarklaustur for two miles till you see a small sign for the park on the right. It’s Rt 206. Follow it for a couple of miles, it turns to gravel and ends at the park’s parking lot. GPS: N63° 46′ 16.026″ W18° 10′ 19.506″

Photo notes: You can go wide angle or zoom to capture the canyon’s curves. The canyon runs north/south so there’s not as much value being there during Golden Hour. Given the controlled access, there’s no issue with people getting into the shot.

Fjaðrárgljúfur, part of Katla Geopark

Fjaðrárgljúfur, looking upstream. I emphasized the curve of the left hand wall and the river as the obvious leading line.

The trail up starts at the parking lot. You can’t stray from the well-marked path; the grasslands are too delicate given the foot traffic. There are well defined overlooks along the way for photos (and selfies). Luckily, even when an overlook is busy, you can get a fairly clean shot of the canyon area.  Note that the more delicate promontories of the canyon have been made off limits since the Bieber video.

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Iceland in the summer. All I’m doing with the composition is following the curve of the geology into the distance. In post I softened the foreground grassland, lightened the canyon shadows and brushed in extra clarity, cooled off the sky — just getting the image to look the way the day felt.

Two studies. The canyon’s charm is all about the strange shapes — kinda like what you find at Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, but way bigger. The challenge is how you put these elements together.

It’s easy to go wide and include too much landscape for a clear composition. With these two studies I pushed in closer on some core shapes and colors. That gave extra emphasis to the grassland and juxtaposed the expanse of green against a few of the blue-black of  lava columns.

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At the high point of the canyon, the entire canyon is laid out before you. You can’t get it all in unless you go fish-eye. I decided to focus on this one curve in the river. The biggest challenge was how shadowed and contrasty the canyon was in late morning. That meant lightening up on the dark areas in post and added weight to the lava columns. One I’d eliminated the flatness of Raw, it was like entering a different realm.

The canyon ends just a bit further down the trail at the waterfall. The shot below is taken at the fenced overlook. It’s another view that has a wealth of complicated shapes. But the thing that worked best for me was to use the cliff that juts out on the left as a foreground element that leads the eye to that waterslide of a falls. I crop out everything on the right side and went square so as to emphasize the other visual relationship, that clear, blue lake at the bottom right. In post, I balanced out the dark and light spots and added texture to the visual surfaces, that lovely moss.

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At the Klaustur Roundabout

East of Vik, the Ring Road scenery is fairly average by Iceland standards. Southeast Iceland is mostly farmland, black sand beaches and miles and miles of lava fields covered in thick, green moss. A little weird that moss. When you get to a traffic circle, you’ll see the tiny the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur (church farm cloister). 

Klaustur, the local nickname for the town, is quickly forgotten by the roadtrip visitor – they’re biding their time, heading east to Glacier Lagoon. But look closely and you’ll has a thousand years of history, a cataclysmic eruption and Fjaðrárgljúfur, a Geopark that’s a visual feast and was the setting for a Justin Bieber video.

The roundabout is central hub for a church, market, bank, tourist center, fast food joint and gas station, several guesthouses, even a hotel. I decided to stay there, at the Klaustur Guesthouse, because it’s so close to the river canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur, my favorite shot location in the area.

But my plan was to shoot this canyon in the evening light. So I stopped by the gas station/fast food joint for lunch and to see if the town offered anything for the curious tourist. 

I ordered the grilled chicken sandwich and lemonade and continued talking to my server, a young guy from Hungary. He started off with a story about his grandfather and the Nazis worthy of Tarentino. Then conversation turned to life for a guest worker in Iceland; he and the others here were summer workers from Eastern Europe. They made good money and my new friend was an enthusiastic explainer of the local sights. So I got the scoop on what to do.

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Of moss and history. It’s believed that Klaustur was where a group of Irish monks settled before the Norse arrived in the Ninth Century. By 1186 a Catholic cloister was founded in the area. Their farm was on the ridge, set next to the lake, Systravatn (“water of the sisters”). Just below that was the locally famous sight Systrafoss (“waterfall of the sisters”). The Laki volcano, few miles north of all this, was the site of a massive eruption in 1783, one of the worst in European history. All of these pieces of history are written in the stone and and culture of the town.

Guesthouse Klauster and Systrafoss falls as seen from a pull-off on Rt. 1.

It was too early to check in Klaustur Guesthouse so I stopped by the Visitors Center on the way — it’s at 10 Klausturvegur road, just off the roundabout. Besides the local travel flyers and books, they have a little exhibit going, 10 or 12 types of moss under glass bell-jars — plus the excellent video on the Laki volcano. 

The volcanic eruptions that happened at Laki from the summer of 1783 till early 1784 were the largest of the last thousand years in Europe. For a full 8 months, 42 billion tons of lava, 120 million tons of poison gases and ash blasted out of the fissure at Laki, killing 25% of Iceland’s population. The hydrogen fluoride gases killed 80% of the country’s sheep and 50% of the horses and cattle.

The release of the sulfur dioxide gases also had a cataclysmic effect in Europe. The thick haze decreased the amount of sunlight by enough to make that winter a deadly one in Europe. Even in North America the effects were significant, causing the Mississippi River to freeze over at New Orleans.

The months of dark haze caused crop failure as far away as Egypt. The famine in France was more deadly, one of the causes of the French Revolution. Remember “Let them eat cake?” Marie-Antoinette may not have said the iconic line, but the famine was real and deadly, even for the queen. According to the documentary, the Laki volcano killed a million people world-wide. 

Klaustur, just south of the epicenter, was the town hardest hit. The scope of the lava flow was immense by any standards and the farmers in the area were devastated. After a month and a half of nightmarish damage, the people were certain their lives were over. That Sunday in July 1783, they gathered at the Klaustur church with a major lava flow bearing down on them.

The pastor, Jon Steingrimsson, delivered the sermon. He understood clearly that this nightmare was God’s doing, that evil was walking the Earth. And he gave his eldmesse, his “Fire Sermon,” demanding that the congregation look within, acknowledge their sins. He must have been particularly effective in urging the congregation to re-dedicate themselves to God. By the time the service was over, the lava had stopped. The worst of it was over.

After 20 minutes, the historical video was over as well. So I checked out the display on the ecology of moss and lava. And yes, moss is another part of the Laki story. The moss I saw that day was nature’s answer to the miles and miles of new-made lava. The eruption of 1783 is still recent in terms of geological history. And ever since, the moss has slowly turned black stone into vegetative earth. 

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The pull-offs in this area offer several vantage points for photographing how the Laki event looks today. The experience, miles of moss and black lava, is almost otherworldly — and hard to capture in a composition. But finding a bit of hillside allowed me to make sense of the amorphous blobs and use Rt. 1 as a leading line.

I headed to the guesthouse to check in. The Klaustur Guesthouse is just down the Klausturvegur road from the visitors center. The folks at the front desk know all about the town’s history and mentioned that path behind the guesthouse leads past the waterfall and up the plateau. So once I showered, I headed up the trail, camera in hand. 

An old sod-roof shed, a path into a dark wood, the sound of a waterfall. In Iceland, the old world, the land of the Sagas, is just at the edges of our modern time.
Forests are hard for the camera to make sense of — too many design elements mushed together. But I opened up the lens, narrowed the DOF to capture the mood.
Systrafoss from the trail viewpoint. Not sure who the model on the rock was. 
From higher up the trail, the substratum of Laki lava gets obvious.

The trails behind Klaustur Guesthouse are open to anyone; this landscape is a piece of history. The walk is popular with families and couples. Nothing spectacular by Iceland standards. But a pleasant walk in a quiet forest has its own rewards.

And that’s Klaustur, the cloister town, the village at the traffic circle. Very little of this stuff makes its way into the guidebooks. The tour buses drive by, on their way to Skaftafell National Park and Jokulsaron Glacier Lagoon. But Pastor Steingrimsson and his Fire Sermon are a part of every Icelander’s heritage and Klaustur is a tourist destination for them.

Up next: Photo Walkabout at Fjaðrárgljúfur river canyon

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