Photo Walkabout at Fjaðrárgljúfur
Posted on February 5, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the Klaustur Roundabout
Posted on January 31, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Notes on a Portfolio Review
Posted on November 8, 2018
I spent last weekend at the Javits Center in New York. New York has never been a favorite spot for me. The crowds, the priciness of it all, always make me feel the place is overrated.
The one reason I went to New York, New York was the PhotoExpo, for the Portfolio Review sessions happening there. The main convention floor had areas for the big camera brands, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, etc, and booths for the various retailers from B&H Photo to Moab photo paper to copyright lawyers.
I wandered through the convention booths every so often, mostly to see the latest and greatest products. I tried out new ultra wide lenses from Tamron (a 15-30mm) and Sigma (14-24mm). I did some research on photo papers, tried out various Sony mirrorless cameras in the Best Buy area. (Yes, pro/enthusiast photo gear has become a focus for Best Buy.)
There were also nonstop seminars and workshops, sessions on street photography and fashion that made use of the city, sessions that dealt with how #timesup and #metoo would relate to the photography universe. Much of the educational sessions were timely if expensive for what you got in an hour. The one paying seminar, a $150 class on advance camera techniques like lens stacking, wasn’t fully baked.
But the portfolio reviews were what I needed to help me define my photography approach as a business. I’ve been treating my photo work as business for 5 or 6 years now, starting with my Utah photo guidebooks. And as my approach has evolved, I’ve taken my writing to a more personal level as well. And I’ve been asking how I can use the business side of what I do to support my creative goals. So showing my Iceland portfolio to an assortment of photo industry professionals was what I needed.
The Portfolio Review
The structure for the portfolio reviews was that the participants signed in and got the table number for the reviewer who would be working with you for that 20 minute time frame. Basically speed dating for your career. There were about 30 different reviewers working the room at any given time.
So shake hands, plunk your portfolio down on the table (whether it was loose prints, photo book, tablet, computer), and start talking. I had two actionable goals for the sessions, to jump-start my Iceland book idea and learn other ways of getting my images out to a wider public, especially through gallery shows or a web site.
There were only two reviewers who worked with photo books, one an editor at Rizzoli. I met with both of them. Four or five folks worked with galleries. Two were associated with publications that look for photo content — Bloomberg Pursuits, Culture Trip — and a few agents who were looking for bigger game. Some folks were more useful than others but having 12 people with an eye for the medium giving you feedback was a great takeaway unto itself.
Takeaways From the Conference
Quality of the work. No one had a problem with my more traditional landscape compositions. There was only one person, an agent, who wasn’t wowed about the quality of the work — didn’t think it was punchy enough. (She won’t be on my Christmas list.) The reviewers who seemed to have the best instincts said they really liked my stuff and only suggested that a tighter crop here and there or to use different printer paper.
Presentation of my work. For me, the 12×18 prints with 3/4″ white border was the way to go. Reviewers also seemed to like clamped together books of images. Tablets were less popular with reviewers because they’re one step removed from the medium but no one actively minded using a tablet of computer.
I did have images on two different types of paper — something I know wasn’t optimal but only one reviewer took me to task for that. The idea is that it’s good to have a consistency of look and feel.
Social. A couple of folks pointed out that social media engagement can be helpful, especially good Instagram numbers. So I’m cleaning up that part of my game, getting rid of images that don’t carry their weight, updating older shots that needed my current level of post.
Book Proposal. Both of the photo book specialists had useful points. They said that the book market has changed given the lack of independent booksellers. Now the publishers make sure books have a good chance of making money. The academic or artist photo book isn’t enough — unless it’s a book by a celebrity photog like Avadon, etc.
They want to see a proposal that shows your approach will appeal to a wider audience, that the cost of the book is appropriate, what part of the bookstore the book will fit into — basically show them your work will drive business their way.
Galleries. No one said you have to show at my gallery. The one gallery owner (she’s in SoHo) said most galleries in the city have such high overhead that they can’t take a chance on folks without a major track record. Several folks pointed out that there are lots of venues for work beyond galleries, businesses, cafes, etc.
Other Outlets for Images. One of the reviewers mentioned that my work would be of interest to art consulting services. Big companies of all kinds buy art but aren’t going to work with individual artists. They give their specs to a consulting service that can pull in artists and photogs working in various styles.
Photo Web Site. One reviewer also suggested that Smugmug is a rotten choice for a photography web site for me. That’s something I’ve been thinking for years. But I know from personal experience that commerce web sites can be a pain to set up and run. She suggested that I could try Format.com — and they do seem to have a fairly nice turnkey approach with various formats and the ability to take payments and track orders in some basic way.
As far as content I choose, she thought that structuring photos based on shot locations might be too narrow. That many of my potential clients really don’t care if you have Iceland or Vermont pics. They want the material to be more theme oriented. So I’ve organized some of my current Smugmug projects to be more theme oriented.
She also said I should look at issue.com. I’m not sure if that one is as applicable for my business but their material does have content that’s worth browsing.
Bottom line, know the bottom line for your work.
The Northern Fjords, Pt 1
Posted on September 1, 2018
The north is a rough glove of mountains separated by long fjords. Like the east, there are small villages in each, some charming, some just workaday. But in the north, you must leave Rt 1 to drive those coastal two-lanes. The Ring Road heads east to west (more of less) and is half the drive. But I like the mix of cliff road and ocean and driving Trollaskagi, the troll peninsula, was the obvious choice for me.
Photo locations (listed east to west)
Grimsey Island day tour (taking the ferry from Dalvik). The island on the Arctic circle is home to a wide range of birds, puffin, guillemots, arctic terns.
Siglufjordur. The scenic town at the north end of the Trollaskagi peninsula — and my stop for the night. Siglufjordur has several restaurants, a nice harbor area, good hiking and the Herring Era Museum. Siglo is at the same latitude as central Alaska.
Hofsos. The little fishing village on the west side of the Trollaskagi peninsula features a cute harbor area, a beach with basalt columns and a scenic pool.
Grafarkirkja. The oldest turf church in Iceland is located 3 miles south of Hofsos on the east. Watch closely or you’ll miss it.
I didn’t leave the metropolis of the north until almost 2PM. But once Akureyri and Rt 1 are behind, it’s only about a 1 1/4 hour drive to get to Siglufjordur, the fishing village that’s almost due north. Siglufjordur seems to be the most picturesque of the northern towns and I wanted more images of small town Iceland — so I was spending the night there at an AirBnB .
The northern road, Rt 82, isn’t twisty like Rt 1 gets in the eastern fjords. My first little stop-off was a little overlook-park just a km south of Dalvik. Dalvik’s claim to fame is that the ferry to Grimsey Island leaves from there.
As per rule #1, I didn’t stay in the parking lot. I headed down the hill and along the river bank. No spectacular scenary but the bushes along the wet river bank had a roughness I liked. And once I stopped looking for a shot, there were some peaceful moments.
Just above this location I noticed another overlook. And since it was a balmy 44 degrees that afternoon, I wandered way down hill from the road-side parking area. From the top overlook, you can see hints of distinctive sea cliffs and the distant mountains. And as I headed down between the red-brown bushes, the scope of the cliffs and a curved beach became clear.
By now, I was on my knees half the time, right in there with the reddish ground cover. And the longer I stayed, the closer I got to the cliffs. The view 60 yards below the overlook was a world away from the parking lot view. It was a hike back to the parking lot but who cares when you (maybe) got one or two nice images.
Once you drive past the town of Olafsfjordur, the road turns into Rt 76. You need to go (slowly) through a couple of tunnels under the mountain (the tunnels in Iceland have traffic cameras. Once out of the tunnels, you’re in Siglufjordur. The town’s known for its Herring Era Museum and fishing is still a mainstay though the herring have moved on.
When I got to Siglufjordur that evening, I didn’t do the restaurant route. I had found an AirBnB rental, something you don’t see often in small town Iceland. And once I connected with the owner, I discovered I had full use of the kitchen. I walked down to the market down the block and picked up some cereal and a micro dinner treat. The inexpensive dinner and room meant I saved over a hundred bucks that day.
And after rest and dinner, I wandered out camera in hand.
Next morning I visited the old herring boat for one final shot before continuing my drive along the coast.
Hofsos is half way down the other side of the Trollaskagi peninsula. A tiny town with a small harbor area and a scenic (and inexpensive) pool. There’s also a an important genealogical center, the Vesturfarasetrid, that Americans and Canadians of Icelandic descent use to research their roots.
I parked up by the harbor and did a short photo shoot of the basalt columns that are just below the harbor. Not quite Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway but a good excuse to get the camera out and stretch one’s legs.
An old sod church. About two miles south of Hofsos on Rt 76 is Grafarkirkja, the oldest church in Iceland. Parts of it date back to the 17th Century. The sod church is a bit off the road on the east side, out in a valley in the middle of nowhere. It makes for a memorable photo.
Eight miles south of Hofsos on Rt 76 is a surprisingly large car museum called, Samgonguminjasafn Skagafjardar. I did a fair amount of auto show photography while I was working for Cars.com and it’s a fun challenge. I’d suggest starting with a wide angle lens to get more visual impact and eliminate background junk.
Holar. About 10 miles below Hofsos is Rt 767, the road leading to the town of Holar. The historic town was important center for Catholicism for centuries. Monks studied there and it had an important cathedral until the Reformation came to town. The present cathedral is from the mid 1700s , the interior has some impressive German carvings. Hardly anyone lives there now but except folks at the agricultural collage.
Saudarkrokur Black Sand Beach. There’s a scenic black sand beach in the lowland about a mile east of Saudarkrokur. I had seen a photo of it in my internet research. So I was looking for the pull-off from Rt 75 and I parked just in from the road, a spot the locals use. From here you’re at the bottom of the fjord with a great view of the mountains to the north.
Alternative route: Stay on Rt 1
I chose to take the long route between Akureyri and Blonduos to the east. The drive along Trollaskagi was worth it and I wanted to explore the peninsula to the west, Skagaheidi, and photograph the lighthouse there.
Staying on Rt. 1 isn’t as appealing as the coastal drive but it’s somewhat faster. There are scenic areas along that section of the Ring Road. For instance, Rt 1 heads up a pretty valley about 20 miles west of Akureyri called Oxnadalur that’s worth a pull-off: 65.570691, -18.547477.
Glaumbaer. Further west is the pass-through town of Varmahlid. Nothing special there. But drive 5 miles north on Rt 75 is Glaumbaer, an excellent turf farmhouse museum that the shows what Iceland life was like in the 19th Century. It’s a recreation, but nicely done.
Vincent Thomas Bridge: Two choices
Posted on August 20, 2018
Once the band of Night Hawks was finished with the fountain display on Harbor Blvd., we walked down Swinford St. till we got to a little lagoon area. There are a bunch of wooden posts rotting in lagoon, the LA Harbor cranes are just on the other side … and the mighty Vincent Thomas Bridge towers above.
I came late to the party, one too many fountains. But the group’s cool about sharing shooting spots. In fact these Night Hawks events all seem to have a supportive interaction with none of the turf battles you see at a spot like Mesa Arch. The main thing I (and everyone) attends to is not walking into someone’s shot.
I’d done this lagoon location about 9 months ago — and used the shot in my Dekor Gallery show. So on Thursday, I mostly played with subtleties of composition and shutter speed. From all my expeditions out to LA and Long Beach Harbors, I know that the water gets a nice sheen after 15 seconds or more of exposure. So I played with long exposure shots.
I kinda like including all four of the container cranes in the frame. It gives them more primacy in the image, weighting the eye in that direction. On the other hand going tighter with the same idea, i.e. bridge and cranes reflection, gives the image more impact.
This one above was fairly similar to the shot I did for my gallery show in March:
The earlier shot is more zoomed in on the crane and bridge, less concerned with the scope of the bridge. The main difference between the two images is shutter speed, the one from nine months ago doesn’t care about that issue. Going long exposure is sorta overdone these days. But in this situation, with lagoon water already untroubled, you almost don’t notice the effect of a 30 second shutter. Instead your attention goes to the upper half of the image.
And in this situation, the smoothing effect of long exposure heightens the visual abstraction, heightens the play of color, smooths out the image’s dynamic range. On the other hand, at 1/50 sec., the light reflection in dark water is quite painterly and closer to what the eye sees. Both choices work.
Vincent Thomas Location #2
After shooting at the lagoon for a bit we each went NE on Front St. for a quarter mile and turned left onto Knoll Dr. This hill is home to a baseball field and higher overlook for viewing Vincent Thomas. Here you’re able to catch the cars driving the bridge — and more importantly, the car head and tail lights. So a long exposure gives some cool light trails.
On this evening, there was a huge construction light set up on the bridge. It steals focus and is a hassle to remove in Photoshop. Plus, for some reason the cars were being held up on the bridge. So to get any decent light trails, you had to see when traffic was allowed to move.
On the other hand, this is a great angle to shoot the bridge from, a location I didn’t know how to get to previously. I’m sure I’ll be back once construction is less annoying and be able to explore more approaches.
Vincent Thomas Nite Shoot #1, Fountain Studies
Posted on August 18, 2018
I joined forces with the Night Hawks group, signing up for a photo adventure the Creative Photo Academy does. It’s the Paul’s Photo guys organizing a night shoot at some LA photo spot (for not much money) and everyone shoots their little hearts out. Mark Crase was on hand from the Academy to keep the cats together and for photo questions. Last Wednesday was a Night Hawks visit to a local San Pedro favorite, the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
I’ve shot Vincent Thomas at night before — I had a shot of that in my March gallery show in San Pedro. But I was hoping the Night Hawks would get me a new view to shoot.
We met up at about 7:30 at the fountains along Harbor Blvd. in SP. Basically these fountains are like a small town version of the Bellagio’s. The challenge is how to turn all that into composition. Here are some of my fave shots from that sequence.
The fountains have a pretty good design all things considered. Lots of nice angles, good use of the spotlights in the fountain. And once I got the lay of the land, I wandered down to this end to make the most of those elements. Plus the sun was giving off warm colors. I went with the long exposure to smooth out the light reflections in the water.
Once the fountain began it’s sequence I found I had to shorten the shutter speed in order to record a smaller segment of the water dance. Going for 20 seconds (or 5) means you get too many different water effects one on top of the other. But tightening the shutter speed and triggering at the beginning of a new sequence gave me a cleaner look.
Second fountain dance
With darkness hiding all the crappy buildings in the background, I moved to this side of the fountain. By now, the lit wall around the edge of the fountain was golden bronze and I spent some time using that shape against the line of palms — while getting as much reflection as possible.
I was shooting the main fountain area once the show started again, without much luck. These fountain effects aren’t choreographed to please photographers. But I did get a few things.
Once the show got going I had more luck catching how the audience engaged with the fountain.
Next: Moving on to the Vincent Thomas
Akureyri, Iceland’s Northern Metropolis
Posted on July 23, 2018
If you’re driving the northern end of the Ring Road, Akureyri will be the best resource for everything from travel needs to accommodations. Akureyri is like other towns on the north coast. It’s at the end of a long fjord and has a mountainous backdrop. It has a long history in Iceland and as a fishing port. But…
… But with a population of almost 20,000, the town is huge compared to the rest of the north. It has a distinctive church, supermarkets, restaurants, swimming pool, banks, tour operators, clothing and bookstores, harbor, museums, hospital, airport (with regular flights to Reykjavik), actual nightlife, etc.
Being centrally located, most of the guidebooks mention that Akureyri is a good choice to stay. And the town does have reasonably priced accommodations (included AirBnB). But my accommodation approach was to stay close to the good landscape shooting locations. That gave me more chances for the Golden Hour light.
So for me, Lake Myvatn, 1 1/4 hours further east, was the better choice. Myvatn has the natural beauty, volcanic areas, and is right between Godafoss and Dettifoss. That said, after a week on the Ring Road, my visit to Akureyri felt like indulgence and I could have spent the entire day eating, shopping and sightseeing.
Photo Choices Around Town
Lystigardur. There’s a good botanical garden a short walk south of the main square. It showcases the indigenous plants as well as more exotic ones and is a great place to recharge.
Kjarnaskogur. This forest park is a popular spot for residents — about 7 km south of town. Take the main road past the airport and airplane museum and turn onto Rt. 831.
Camera Shop. Yes, Akureyri has a camera store, Pedromyndir. They have batteries, chargers, filters, tripods, memory cards, bags, lenses for Nikon and Canon, GoPro cameras and accessories. The folks who work there are real photographers and have fair prices. And getting a new lens cap there meant my 16-35mm lens was protected for the first time in a week. The store is at 16 Skipagata just across the street from the main parking lot in town. Phone: +354 462-3520, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tip: The Berlin Cafe is a great location for breakfast, snacks and coffee. They also make excellent smoothies.
Next Up: The Northern Fjords
Lake Myvatn, Jewel of the North
Posted on July 21, 2018
Lake Myvatn (pronounced me – vaht) is the blue gem in the intriguing volcanic area of north-northeast Iceland. Just an hour east of Akureyri, the small 14 sq. mile lake is nutrient, making it an attraction for migrating birds. The lake’s too far for most of the tour buses but it gets plenty of Icelanders and savvy tourists. For photographers, the Myvatn area offers a range of landscape possibilities and it’s worth two days (or more) for the Ring Roader.
Myvatn (like Thingvellir) is a marker for where the North American and European continental plates separate. The lake formed by a volcanic eruption 2300 years ago. And you’ll find everything from volcanic craters and lava columns by the lake. A few miles east, the landscape turns ochre to sulfur gray to lava black.
The lake side is deep green. Yes, there are small hotels and BnBs along the lake road, most in the tiny village of Reykjalid. The town has a small supermarket, gas station, visitor center. The area has various places to eat, an assortment of day tours, a fancy natural bath — and all the natural sights.
Going south from the town on Rt 848 are volcanic cones and lava columns along the water and into the green fields. Further south and east are the nutrient-rich wetlands feasting grounds for a vast range of wildfowl — including 15 or so species of ducks. The lake’s name my (midge) vatn (lake), is a result of the clouds of midges that come in summer.
Further afield, you’ll find Godafoss waterfall to the west and Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls about an hour’s drive east of the lake.
Photo locations (listed east to west)
Dettifoss & Selfoss. These classic waterfalls are a 40-60 minute drive east of Myvatn depending on which a access road you take. So if Myvatn is your home base, these natural wonders are on your short list.
Krafla. The Krafla area, northeast of Myvatn, includes a big lava field, crater lake, mud pots and a geothermal power station. Geologically, Krafla is how land looks in the first centuries after being created. Photographically the area is all about going abstract, going wide angle. Go 3 miles east of the lake on Rt 1, then take Rt 863 north for 7 km.
Hverarond. The distinctive brown-orange landscape called Hverarond (or Hverir) is worth a couple hours of walking and/or photo walkabout. There’s lots of mud pots, lava and sulphur streams here. But I was able to be there just before sunset and realized that this shot location makes the most of Golden Hour. Another location that likes wide angle. Tho a 24-70mm will work as well … or a 70-200, or…. Just off the Ring Road about 2 1/2 miles east of the lake.
Shooting Volcanics. I’m always hesitant to photograph stuff like mud pots. The colors are always strangely interesting (if not pretty). But the volcanic elements don’t always fit easily into a composition. So my approach here was to find clear design elements within the complexity.
With its unique coloring (and not so charming smell) this location deserves a couple hours of exploration. But like any enthusiast, I wanted to make the most of Iceland’s Golden Hour. So I decided to return again and do the place justice.
Shooting the Lake
West of Hverarond the Ring Road descends into the lake valley. This is where the turnoff for Jarðböðin við Mývatn, the Myvatn version of the Blue Lagoon, is located. The baths aren’t quite as spa-like as the Reykjavik attraction but there’s food, a great view, less tourists and less price inflation.
Grjotagja Cave. Just west of that turnoff is Rt. 860, the road that takes you to Grjotagja Cave, the hot springs that were featured in Game of Thrones.
East side of lake. A mile further west of the cave area, you’re at the junction of Rt. 1 and 848. Rt. 848 is the ring road around the eastern/southern half of the lake. That’s where Reykjahlid is located. But as you continue south, you begin to see the mixture of lake and volcanic views. There’s lot’s to work with.
Southern end of the lake.
Godafoss. Thirty miles west of Reykjalid on Rt 1 is another of the marquee waterfalls, Godafoss. It is a godly waterfall as its name might suggest. But the history of the “god-falls” name is that one of the forefathers got Christian and dumped all his statues to the Norse gods here.
Tech Specs: I got to Godafoss an hour after dawn. The falls are east-facing but the hills to the east were still blocking the sun. I took my time getting set up. Godafoss can be shot from either side of the river. But the main parking is to the north, just off Rt. 1. And that location opens up the composition (in my opinion) with some interesting foreground elements to choose from. I played around with long exposure but those seemed to have less impact.
I also drove over the bridge to the south side parking. On that side you can shoot from the cliffs or river’s edge. I didn’t get anything worth sharing.
Aldeyjarfoss. Twenty miles upstream from Godafoss is another impressive waterfall, Aldeyjarfoss. The landscape there is nothing but barren rock, much of it basalt. Plus the drive south along Rt 842 or 843 takes a while. But people have gotten good shots here.
Not too far from Lake Myvatn:
Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon. The most expansive canyon in Iceland comes into its own just below Dettifoss. The Hafraigilsfoss waterfall is located there, a couple of miles downstream from Dettifoss.
Ásbyrgi Canyon. Eighteen miles north of Dettifoss, is a couple mile long horseshoe-shaped depression with sheer walls. Legend has it that the canyon is a footprint of Odin’s 8 legged horse, Sleipnir. The place definitely has a mythic quality and a great area for hiking.
Húsavík Whale Watching. An hour’s drive north of Myvatn on Rt. 87 is Husavik, the whale watching capital of Iceland.
Next: on to Akureyri and the northern fjords.
Northwest Iceland, a Visit to Dettifoss Waterfall
Posted on July 1, 2018
The section of the Ring Road from Egilsstadir to Lake Myvatn was my least favorite drive. You leave the east coast, head past lush farm lands and drive through fields of black lava for much of the two hours it takes to get to Lake Myvatn.
There is one important photo location along this section of Ring Road, the Dettifoss waterfall. Dettifoss is about 85 miles east of Eglisstadir, 25 miles from Lake Myvatn, and the most powerful waterfall in Iceland. Plus, it’s adjacent to Selfoss, a waterfall of equal beauty.
Logistical issues. Dettifoss and Selfoss are something of a rarity in Iceland, they can be approached easily from either side. Rt. 862, the western approach, is shorter and paved. It gets the lion’s share of tourists. This western viewpoint doesn’t give much glimpse of the gorge below.
From the east side, you can walk right up to the cliff edge and aren’t as hampered by the managed overlooks. Unfortunately, Rt 864 is a longer drive down a dirt road. The route is also less accessible. This section of the Ring Road is at a higher altitude so there are snow issues for most of the year. I had planned to shoot Dettifoss from both sides. But when I came in early May, 864 was closed; the sign saying (in nicer words) if you get stuck on this road, you’ll need a second mortgage to pay the towing fees. So I went with the flow.
Best light. On the other hand, I discovered that Dettifoss’ western view is the better choice in the afternoon. The river, Jokulsa a Fjollum, flows south to north so you’re shooting with the sun behind you. The eastern view will get better light in the morning and a better view upstream. Of course this being Iceland, you’re likely to be shooting on an overcast day.
Layout. An easy walk from the parking lot takes you to a couple of fenced off overlooks. The first overlook is just above the falls. The downstream overlook gives a cleaner composition. It’s easier to get the entire falls into frame.
This framing gave me some nice leading lines into the image. And since there was a perfect rainbow, I used it. I did play around with shutter speeds at this spot. This waterfall is a powerhouse and I wanted a (somewhat) slower shutter speed to suggest movement in the water without sacrificing definition. So for me, anything slower than 1/20 second gave too much smoothing to the falls for my taste.
One note: The swirling black and white along the cliff edge (center) are patterns in the snow. I’m not sure how they got created but I like the effect. Also, notice that the rainbow stops in midair.
As far as post, I mostly just lightened up the shadows in the lower third of the image.
Another nice thing about this shot location is that it’s a twofer. The Selfoss waterfall is just a ten minute walk upstream. (You’ll see the path off to the left as you head back towards the parking lot.)
Selfoss has just as much water flow as Dettifoss (duh) but the layout allows you to shoot from the cliff edge. Plus, Selfoss has a number of smaller falls leading the eye up to the central area of it. So there are any number of ways you can compose the image successfully.
At 1/500 sec., the foreground waterfall becomes lattice-like and the turbulence in the river is nicely detailed. So this approach seemed to capture what made Selfoss so unique at that moment.
Between the two waterfalls, the gorge narrows and the river moves fast. So I spent longer working this location, seeing how a longer exposure would impact the motion of water. Here’s an example of that.
For me, the slower shutter speed was too weird. I don’t mind the fall’s blur on the right side. But that 1/10th sec exaggerates the river motion. It’s a powerful photographic choice. But I get almost sea sick looking at it and I can’t imaging anyone having this image on their wall. I could have gone for a much longer exposure, 1-5 minutes. But then I lose all the detailing in the river. And those powerhouse rapids are what captured my attention that afternoon.
None of this is meant to say how these two waterfalls “ought” to be photographed. These perceptions are what moved me on that afternoon. With different lighting, different water levels, I would have gone with another approach. The point is to engage with a place, let it “speak” to you, then use your tools to capture the feeling.
Post. For the two Selfoss images, my core adjustments were to equalize the effects of the light differences. The cliffs getting direct sun were a bit harsh and blown out, the cliffs and water in shadow were too dark. That’s a common challenge for us.
While shooting, I was talking with a young couple about the challenges of photographing a scene like this. They were enjoying the moment, I was thinking out loud. I probably mentioned how dark the shadows were getting. It was 6:30 by now but the two ladies could still see every detail in the rocks (on the right side) with no trouble. The camera was registering all that as black since I didn’t want the sky getting blown out. People often think you should just “photograph what’s there.” But what the eye sees isn’t what the camera can deliver. That’s the point of post production, the point of shooting in RAW.
After shooting Selfoss, I headed down into a final black plain towards Lake Myvatn, my stop for the night. The deep blue lake is a relief after the lava flats. As I noticed early on, in Iceland you don’t have to drive far before the landscape transforms.
Hafraigilsfoss waterfall. If you have more time, Hafraigilsfoss waterfall is just a couple of miles downstream from Dettifoss. At this point you’re within Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon which goes on for miles to the north. It’s a popular hiking area. The two roads to Dettifoss, 862 and 864, parallel the canyon. But after Dettifoss, Rt. 862 becomes a dirt road as well.
The Hike to Svartifoss Waterfall
Posted on June 26, 2018
Skaftafell National Park (now part of Vatnajökull National Park) is most known for the scenic Svartifoss, a basalt-columned waterfall at the base of Iceland’s largest glacier field. Hint: the hike to Svartifoss is also worth your attention. It’s good to keep the eyes open. Plus, other sections to the park have their own views, including glacier vistas. Skaftafell’s a worthwhile stop on a Ring Road tour.
I didn’t bother to show up at Skaftafell till about 9AM. If it’s a rainy day, there’s no point in catching the dawn light. So I slept in, enjoyed Skaftafell Hotel’s free breakfast and tossed my suitcase in the trunk. (I was at a guesthouse just east of the Glacier Lagoon that evening.)
Layout. The park is just a few miles off Rt. 1 and there’s lots of parking (you can pay for that at the park’s visitors center). The help desk folks are all knowledgeable.
A big piece of the park is glacier and there are several companies located to the left of the parking lot that do tours each day. In addition, there are a number of hiking trails criss-crossing the non-glacier section of park, that long spit of land (above).
The rangers all seem to be total pros. The guy I spoke with gave me some good tips as to the more photogenic trails. The S2 trail goes to Svartifoss, S1 goes along the flatlands to the base of the glacier. S5 heads up a ridge that overlooks the glacier and the eastern mountain range. That’s what I ended up doing.
The paved Svartifoss trail starts just left of the Visitor Center. It has a fair amount of vertical elevation at first, then the trail levels out. For me, things got interesting even in that first section of the climb, where there’s a small bridge over a mountain stream. From the bridge, the view was nice but with too many branches and brambles to get a clean shot. So instead of following the crowd up to the marquee event, I found a path down and in front of the bridge and below the overhang.
From here I was close to the stream and some good foreground choices. With a 15-35mm wide angle, the shot just fell into place.
By now it was raining again so I grabbed the poncho from my day pack. After the terrain levels there are a couple of waterfall overlooks to the left, for Hundafoss and Magnusarfoss waterfalls. (Foss means waterfall.) Both falls have lots of vegetation so getting a clean photo is tricky. This one turned out OK.
Not long after these waterfalls, you can see Svartifoss up valley.
Most images you see of Svartifoss are taken from either that bridge or along the creek. Here I preferred to include more of the valley. Part of that was just the situation. The vegetation was just starting to take on that red-brown spring coloring. Plus from higher up, the valley, bridge, mountains behind become part of a context that humans are a tiny part of. These images remind me of the old Chinese pen and ink watercolors, a traveling monk lost in a vast landscape.
But here’s an example of a more standard Svartifoss landscape shot from below.
The waterfall and the basalt columns are a more central part of the image from this viewpoint. But the creek itself is visually busy with all the boulders. If I do a 500px search for Svartifoss, the images that hold my attention are mostly the long exposure ones. Doing a longer exposure here would have hidden some of the busyness in the creek behind the gossamer texture. But I haven’t seen many Svartifoss images that grabbed me.
I made one final discovery walking back. The Svartifoss creek and the trail were perfect leading lines for a photo of the entire area.
Doing the S6-S5 trail
For a longer stay at the park, it’s worth it to hike a few miles more on the S5 trail — up to the glacier overlook. The easiest way to get there, if doing the Svartifoss trial (S2), is to look for a sign for Sjonarnipa. This is the S6 trail that runs into S5 (the trail number isn’t marked as such). It’s a nice trail that does a slow climb up the wide ridge.
After @ a mile and a half, you’re at an overlook of the glacier, Skaftafellsjokull, and the eastern mountains. Nice.
And heading back to the visitors center along S5 rather than going back the Svartifoss route the view continues.
Tip: After all that hiking, there’s a nice cafeteria (soup, sandwiches, dessert) attached to the Visitors Center that’s a good value and a great place to chill.