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.
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.
Posted on June 23, 2018
There were several times on the road when I was reminded of my Yankee side — that part of me that takes a hard look at things, tells you to own up when you screw up. And I had one Yankee moment on the trail up to the Svartifoss waterfall.
Early on, I came to a bridge over a creek. I took the place in: a rushing stream, red-brown bramble lining the banks, rain clouds above. Of course I had to shoot it.
By now, I was under the bridge, close to the water. A wide angle was the choice, i.e. my 16-35mm that no longer had a cap. I looked the glass over as I screwed the lens in place.
My slip of a hand on that cold day was still a bother. It was an easy mistake that had non-trivial consequences. This two week shoot was important to me, as business and as creative opportunity. I’ve planned it up the kazoo. And this essential lens could easily get damaged given the spring conditions. Plus I hadn’t heard of a single store on the Ring Road that would have DSLR lens caps. (I found one a week later up in Akureyri.)
Point taken. I got my head back into photographing the little stream.
Five shots later, the 24-105mm was on my Canon, the 15-35mm was in my pack (in one of those little lens bags). I had pulled out my poncho. Yes, there was a steady rain by now and yes, I had remembered to bring rain gear. As I walked, I returned to thinking how I could be more attentive, mindful. …
… My father used to say you always take care of your tools. Clean the paint brush you used. Put the hammer back where it came from. Basic dad stuff, basic life lessons. The early landscape photo pioneers had the same practical perspective on things, maybe that’s what made them pioneers. I started making mental notes of stuff I needed to attend to.
Stuff I need to attend to, a personal list
- Put the lens back where it belongs when you switch to a new one … same for ND, CPL filters, cable release, etc.
- Put your lens cap into your left-hand pants pocket (my system) when you’re shooting.
- Bring water.
- Bring extra gear, poncho, windbreaker, etc., if there’s a chance you’ll need them.
- Bring a camera cover in Iceland, you’ll need it at some point during the day.
- Check your camera settings before you start shooting.
- Take the location in, breathe it in, before you start shooting.
- Keep the rest of your gear close at hand.
- Don’t take unnecessary risks. Travel safely.
- Don’t always stay on the path (or in the scenic overlook’s parking lot), explore.
- Be respectful of property, ask the owner before you intrude on their land.
- Be supportive of your fellow photographers. Don’t walk into their shot, don’t trash talk on their gear. Appreciate where they’re at, share insights. It’s a community.
- Don’t pull the trigger until you’re seeing the composition you want.
- Think outside the box. Try shooting at ground level, from above, with different settings.
- Recheck settings as you go.
- Check that your lens is clean, often.
- Stow everything where it belongs when you’re through with that location.
These are my notes to self, your mileage will vary. I added one more note to the list when I got to Snaefellsness: Zip up your gear pack fully when it’s not in use, so that new Sigma lens won’t drop out and the UV filter won’t be destroyed. Yep.
This list is a work in progress. And I know there are a hundred other points I could have mentioned. But you can only keep so much in RAM.
Posted on June 21, 2018
After 1 1/2 days shooting Dyrholaey, Vik Black Sand Beach and the waterfalls, I was ready to continue down the Ring Road. My next stopping point was Skaftafell Hotel, just down from Skaftafell National Park, an hour and a half northeast of Vik. The trip turned out to be full of unplanned discoveries.
Ninety miles isn’t much. During the first leg, the landscape isn’t much different from the western side of the South Coast. You’re driving through a wide swath of rich farmland sprinkled with sheep and horses that’s overlooked by the usual mesa. After that, the massive footprint of Vatnajokull Glacier pushed the Ring Road down towards the coast.
So the plan was to stop half way and do a 2-3 hour photo shoot at Fjaðrárgljúfur, a 2 million year old canyon park, then head into glacier country and Skaftafell Park. I had done a quick trip to the canyon on my first trip to Iceland, getting there just before dusk (see slideshow below). Fjaðrárgljúfur had a certain magic and I knew the location would be even better with good light.
But before easing down the road, I needed to upgrade my cold weather gear. I swung by the store, Icewear, to pick up some serious gloves and a balaclava mask on my way out of Vik. Icewear is as big as any REI store in LA. Finding all that cold weather gear in a town of 200 is kind of impressive.
About 40 miles east of Vik, Rt 1 crosses a lava area that is covered with dense green moss. It’s an intriguing area, most of it fenced off for environmental reasons. It’s worth a stop at one of the road pull-offs.
Closed for renovation
When I got to the turnoff for Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, I was in for a surprise. A park ranger was waving visitors over to explain that the canyon was off-limits except for the bridge at the bottom of the stream. The wooden boardwalk that goes along the entire eastern rim was getting a major renovation.
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, the canyon is one of Iceland’s unique photo experiences. Plus this was my one chance to shoot this park, what with me doing the Ring Road. I wanted to see if there was any leeway.
Our ranger was a total pro, articulate, thoughtful, hunky. He explained that as an American, I would understand how important and delicate the ecology of a park can be. He mentioned that it gots 500,000 visitors in 2017, way more than the current wooden boardwalk can’t handle, especially with all the spring rains.
My new ranger friend told me the view from the bridge would be worth it. Knowing that the bridge is located at the bottom end of the canyon, I begged to differ. “Do you think a photo taken from the far end of the Grand Canyon captures the magic of the place?” He got my point. He did allow me to head down to the base of the bridge and wander up river if I wanted. The water was way too cold for that but I did get one or two shots at river level.
Not the photo I wanted. But I gained a bit of insight into the challenges Iceland faces in preserving its unique landscape. Plus he gave me a ride back up to my car. We shook hands. He continued working with the new visitors, I continued up the Ring Road.
Along the way
With only 50 miles to my hotel, I had plenty of time to kill. So I kicked back and enjoyed the classic southern countryside, golden-green farmland framed by a mountain plateau… plus a wind-swept waterfall.
Just another road pull-off, not a place that’s in any guidebooks or on any tours. But balancing the fence posts with the plateau made it one of my favorite images.
Then I pulled up and parked for a closer look at the falls, called Foss a Sidu.
The area past this point was private land so I didn’t intrude. Just took six shots of this delicate falls. In half the images, the water doesn’t make it do the ground, the wind gusts kept sweeping the falls away.
Twenty miles further on and the Iceland landscape is transformed from farmland to a black sand river delta. I spotted a butte set against the expanse of brown-black earth — another photo location that’s not in the guidebooks. I found a safe pullout just over the bridge. My first image was to the east.
Shooting north, the view is of a long plateau and a tongue of the Vatnajokull Glacier.
Afternoon exploration, Hof
By now I was close to my hotel and ready for a late lunch. I checked in and grabbed something at the restaurant/store across the road. I had decided to do Skaftafell and the Svartifoss waterfall the next morning when I was rested. So that afternoon, I drove further east on Rt 1 to take a look at another of the area’s points of interest, the turf church at Hof.
The church itself was closed but the trees and old graveyard made for a shot that could have been in The Hobbit.
This whole area has some intriguing mountains so I explored another 10 km down the Ring Road. There was something about the snow covered peaks fronted by golden tundra grass. But one of my working rules is not just to shoot a cool mountain or waterfall by itself. I need to put any visual element into a more complex artistic context. So I didn’t pull over until I found the missing element, a dirt road that led the eye into the mountains.
It had been a long day so I rested before dinner. But Iceland had more in store for me, the evening light. I walked outside and noticed sunlight filtering down to the glacier behind Skaftafell National Park. Sweet.
A closer look.
And further down the road.
I got back to my room just after nine. It had been an interesting day, a perfect road trip day. My only must-see photo location had been a washout, called on account of spring rains. But the photos I had were uniquely my own … just me seeing something that other folks on the road had driven past. Not bad.
Posted on June 19, 2018
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.
Posted on June 13, 2018
Dyrholaey (and Vik) are the southern tip of Iceland and the North Atlantic seas are particularly dangerous here. On this south-facing Dyrholaey overlook, the rock outcrop was being punished by an onslaught of wind and wave. That conjunction of high wind and high seas was what made this overlook intriguing on this particular visit.
That’s one thing I care about, seeing what elements of nature are in play at a photo location. On most days this southern overlook is pretty — rocks, waves, sea stacks in the distance, but nothing unique. But capture the forces of nature in a way that has visceral impact and the image can grab the imagination.
I didn’t bother with a tripod, the wind was too strong. Plus any shutter speed below about 1/300 turned the wave action into a blur. My first step was to set up a workable composition that would include some foreground context, the distant sea stacks and that sky. Then just wait till the next wave hits and shoot the watery explosion at the right moment. I didn’t bother with continuous shooting, the waves moved slow enough for me to (generally) hit the moment. And who wants to wade through 500 images of the same seascape.
Some of the shots were duds. But several of the wave explosions captured the feeling, the drama, of being out there. This image reminded me how heavy-handed the wind was (something I could feel in my bones).
This second shot had more of the elements I was going for, including one of the last rays of sunlight highlighting the wave. The sea stacks in the distance (left side) are in front of Vik Black Sand Beach.
Even at the tail end of a wave, the harsh conditions are obvious with this image.
I lucked out with this final image of the day. The wave explosion is particularly dramatic and the foreground cloud is bathed in sunlight.
Post production notes
I decided not to brighten the final image too much. The shot was taken just after sunset and pushing the exposure much higher would have eliminated the “blue hour” feeling. What I mostly did was to pull out the detail in the wave explosion with more clarity, sharpness, white. I also did some “painting” of the wave shape to make it more three dimensional. The final touch was to enhance the reflected light from the cloud in the ocean.
Posted on June 11, 2018
Iceland’s East Coast seems to be the least visited section on the Ring Road. It’s on the other side of the country from Reykjavik so you don’t see the tour buses. And it doesn’t have as many “sights” and tourist infrastructure. But from my perspective as a photographer, all that’s to the good.
The eastern coast is classic Iceland though, long fjords punctuated by little fishing towns, snow tipped mountains and photo pull-off spots — if you take the time to see them. And spending a day or two enjoying the fjord country, stopping here and there, are why we do road trips.
Most folks do the east with a stopover at Hofn at the southern end and the regional center, Egilsstadir, on the north. You can do the trip in a few hours. But I wanted to explore the Stokkesnes area just above Hofn on a photo walkabout. Stokksnes was overcast and rainy when I was there but I saw a bit of the magic of the place and worth a stop for the photographer.
And I had heard that the most charming of the towns along the east is Seydisfjordur, a short drive east of Egilsstadir. So I broke the eastern fjords into a two days with my first night in Djupivogur, my second in Seydisfjordur.
About 25 miles past Stokksnes, you run into another little known photo op, a black sand beach located by the Hvalnes Lighthouse. By now the rain was heavier so I continued onto Djupivogur.
This section between Hofn and Djupivogur has a rawness to it. And on a cold day in May, I could have just driven to my warm hotel, that’s what I really wanted to do. But by now I was realizing that you take whatever Iceland gives you, that the place is just south of the Arctic Circle and not a comfy tourist destination. And once I got my head around that fact, I started to see the beauty in the bleakness.
Djupivogur. Forty five minutes north of the lighthouse, you’re fully into fjord country at the town of Djupivogur. Djupivogur has a couple of nice places to stay and eat, a working harbor area, impressive swimming pool and 500 or so residents. I checked in at the Hotel Framtid, an old style place with wood-frame walls and an excellent restaurant. And, since it had finally stopped raining, I wandered along the harbor.
Flashes of Mortality
My day had started with shooting Diamond Beach at 6 AM, then a couple hours in the cold rain at Stokksnes so I was ready for a nice meal. And the Framtid Hotel definitely did the job. Their restaurant has a great view of the harbor and fjord and great (and pricey) food for a town of a few hundred folks.
Their cauliflower soup was quite excellent. But I wasn’t. I’m not totally sure what triggered the attack, maybe exhaustion. Suddenly the posh dining room started spinning, my heart spiked, I was sweating. I tried to get the waiter’s attention. This was a serious attack and I had to get back to the room. When he didn’t come around, I made my way out of the restaurant, told the man at the front desk to bill the room. I made my way down the long corridor hugging the wall so I wouldn’t fall.
The problem wasn’t the soup, not even the road fatigue. I had been having attacks of dizziness, nausea, loss of hearing for months on and off. And just before I left, my ENT doctor told me that I probably had a hole in the bone that separates the inner ear from the brain, a rare condition called Superior Semicircular Canal Dehiscence.
For the most part, the biggest hassle of this condition was a low grade motion sickness, no big deal. This perception that the “room is spinning” was something I had only experienced twice before, both times when I had pushed myself hard and done stimulants like caffeine. So this incident was concerning, it indicated things were progressing.
The symptoms did’t last long. I spent twenty minutes revisiting the soup, got cleaned up and went to bed. The next morning I was totally fine.
I didn’t need to think too much about my options. The spinning visual field symptom was rare. The other symptoms, loss of hearing, mild motion sickness, were things I had been dealing with for months. And there was no way I could fix any of this here on the road.
The only treatment would have required getting a Iceland doctor up to speed, doing a CT scan, neurosurgery, a month of recovery. (I’m saying this having gone through neurocranial surgery 5 days ago.) My only takeaway was to listen to the body, get extra rest, make the most of my time. Life goes on.
The next morning was another easy day. An hour and a half drive along the coast, lunch at Egilsstadir, then on to my next night’s stay, Seydisfjordur.
Eastern Fjords, Day Two
At this point Rt. 1 hugs the coast, heading inland on one side of the fjord then heading east on the other side. It’s lovely country to drive through with plenty of nice pull-off possibilities. In fact, just on the other side of the fjord from Djupivogur, I found a waterfall that I haven’t found mentioned in any of my resource materials, not even in the excellent Concise Guide to the Waterfalls of Iceland.
The next fjord:
Each fjord seems to have it’s own tiny fishing village with occasional tourist points of interest (the guidebooks cover this stuff better than I possibly could).
Tip: Most of the villages aren’t big enough to sustain much interest. But the little town of Breiðdalsvík, at the junction of Rt. 1 and 95 is a nice stopping point if only to stop at Kaupfjelagid, an old general store and cafe. The cafe is inviting and the folks who work there are helpful. In fact, that was where I found out about the national forest along Lake Lagarfljot, just west of Egilsstadir.
Eventually Rt. 1 gets tired of the fjords and heads northwest, up-valley to Egilsstadir, the only real commercial center in the East Coast.
Egilsstadir area. Egilsstadir doesn’t have much history (being founded in 1947). But it has several places to stay and eat. But there are several photo possibilities in the area: the famous Hengifoss waterfall, Lake Lagarfljot and Hallormsstadur, a lovely national forest with a bunch of hiking trails.
Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss. There are a couple of waterfalls on the lake’s far side, Litlanesfoss and further up-trail, Hengifoss. They’re about 20 miles from town on the other side of the lake. You drive right by Hallormsstadir on the way so it’s a nice twofer. Hengifoss is the better known — being the third tallest waterfall in Iceland. Litlanesfoss, with it’s basalt columns, is more photogenic in my eyes.
Seydisfjordur. Egilsstadir is also your starting point for visiting the only truly scenic town on the East Coast, Seydisfjordur. Seydisfjordur is on another fjord, 20 miles east of Egilsstadir. This fjord town was established by Norwegian fishermen in 1848. The village has some historical buildings and a thriving art community. The town also gets visited by a weekly car ferry from Denmark. I spent a lovely evening shooting there.
Skipping the eastern fjords. The eastern fjords are nice but someone who’s in a hurry can skip the northern section of the Ring Road and head straight northwest from Breiddalsvik to Egilsstadir on Rt 95. This option is only about a half hour less driving but you’ll be less enticed to stop.
Posted on June 9, 2018
There was lots of snow on the road leaving Keflavik Airport that Friday morning. I had a cheap rental car, a front wheel drive Dacia Logan. I took things slow. I hadn’t driven in snow for years — or a stick shift. And since it was just me on this Ring Road trip, I had to navigate the Reykjavik suburbs in a clunky and unfamiliar car at 6:30.
By 7AM I’d gotten to Route 1 and was heading east and south… off the plateau towards Selfoss and the South Coast lowlands. The South Coast communities along the Ring Road were still waking. It was cold, mid 30s (2 degrees C) , typical Iceland weather for March (except it was May) with wind blowing between 15 and 25 mph.
Once you’re into the South Coast, the land starts to get spare and big. Iceland’s golden southeast. Mountains and high plateaus on the left; wide-shouldered farms and black sand beaches over on the right.
I had been looking for a cafe, none were open. So I decided to power on till I got to Seljalandsfoss, the popular waterfall tour stop. Seljalandsfoss is a 2 hour drive from the airport at 90 kmph speed limit (standard throughout Iceland).
Rt. 1 / Ring Road. The Ring Road is a 2 lane blacktop for most of it’s 840 miles. The road is well taken care of. But it can be tricky to drive, especially in a rental. And as you drive, you’ll notice the road has no shoulder, just a foot of blacktop outside the lane lines — then the sloped grading. So if you leave your lane, you’re looking at a 6-8 foot drop-off.
Knowing that fact made me more hesitant to push my speed much past 100 kph even if that section of road is clear and straight. There’s too little margin of error. Plus the road is graded as 2 lane blacktop, not highway. That means any time you go faster than 90, you feel it.
Ring Road Safety: Pull-offs. The lack of a shoulder makes it essential that you take extra care when pulling over. Tourists in Iceland have gotten a bad rep for stopping their cars there on the road to take pictures. Trouble is, there are lots of scenic spots along the road that don’t have a safe pull-off.
So as I drive, if I absolutely must photograph a spot along the road, I slow down just a bit and look for safe places to park. Often there’s a farm road or the occasional raised gravel areas right next to the road. There are also lots of pull-offs with parking for spots the highway planners decided were scenic.
Road pull-offs are one of the hallmarks of a true scenic highway. Pull-offs are also an opportunity for true photo enthusiasts to show what they’ve got. Instead of being a packaged site like a waterfall, a roadside pull-off spot doesn’t even exist until a good photographer sees it and shoots it. They’re like instant photo improvisations. But do safe pull-offs.
So I was on my way to the first marquee photo location, Seljalandsfoss. (Fossbeing the Icelandic word for waterfall.) Two hours from Keflavik International. Still an hour to the Guesthouse Vellir, my final destination for that day.
Three hours isn’t much driving for the day when doing a Ring Road trip. And this was Day 1 of 14; doing a 7 day Ring Road is a different beast. But let’s remember that I flew out of LA on Thursday at noon. So when I started the drive, I was already fried.
That’s one reason I had scheduled a second day along the South East Coast. First because Iceland’s South Coast deserves it, it’s a treasure trove for landscape photogs. Second, because if you do a 9 hours flight from LA, you need to take a day, minimum, to work past the jetlag.
Posted on June 7, 2018
Just north of Höfn is Stokksnes, a little peninsula that’s one of the more intriguing photo sites along the east coast. It gets mentioned in a few guidebooks because of the Viking film set that’s on the property and the Viking Cafe. But Stokksnes is a true find for landscape enthusiasts.
I won’t speak for the Viking film set, I haven’t done that. But the black sand beach and small bay provides a whole range of photo locations when paired with the Vestrahorn Mountains just behind. Vestrahorn is craggy and foreboding, like a Norse myth or Grimms fairytale. And it’s worth a few hours of your time if you’re driving up the coast.
I made it to Stokksnes in mid-morning after stocking up on supplies at Netto, the Höfn supermarket. It had been raining and overcast for a couple of hours by then. So I almost didn’t bother to drive down the dirt road. The lady at the Viking Cafe offering to let me drive in without the fee just to check things out. But I paid the 8 bucks and drove in hoping things might clear up.
For the first hour, the rain was steady and the mountains were shrouded. I mostly stayed in the car. A guy parked next to me, wandered down to the beach. He came back. Then a woman came up from the beach in a wetsuit, dragging a surfboard.
Turned out they were visiting from the west coast of Canada. Surfing in mid thirty degree weather is no big deal for her. She warmed herself up and headed out again. I put on my poncho and down coat and followed her. She was making a game effort out there but the wind was making the surf too choppy for any clean runs.
It had been an hour and I still hadn’t seen the mountains. So I made my goodbyes and headed back towards the Ring Road. And then there were a few breaks in the cloud cover.
I could see this would be as good as it gets so I pulled over and took some shots, using the row of sand dunes as a leading line heading towards the mountains. [Later, in post, I used the dehaze adjustment to pull out more of the mountain peaks.]
The southern side of Stokksnes has some wetlands that stretched out into the North Atlantic. I used the straw colored grasses in front as an organizing design element — trying to capture the strange mood of the place.
It isn’t a shot of Stokksnes I’ve seen anywhere. And my guess is there are plenty of other possibilities here. I headed back to Rt. 1 knowing I’d have to come again and do a full walkabout.
Stokksnes is about 3 miles north of Höfn on Rt. 1. A little sign for theViking Cafe has you turn right and head down the dirt road. Park at the Cafe.
Some on social media have groused about paying a few bucks to enter Stokksnes. But hey, it’s someone’s land, their livelihood. The fee keeps the tour buses away. And for the cost of a piece of cake, I can shoot a spot that’s unique and challenging; and maybe walk away with some images I’m proud of. I don’t see the downside.
Posted on June 3, 2018
My “Welcome to Iceland” day had been frustrating. Navigating Reykjavik’s slushy streets, remembering stick shift skills, the long drive down the South Coast with not one coffee shop open, then the Seljalandsfoss waterfall shoot getting (mostly) rained out. None of those things are fun when someone’s been up for 24 hours.
What a difference a shower and three hours of sleep and meditation can make. I woke almost fatigue free to find the sun was making an appearance. And I was looking forward to a tasty guesthouse dinner … and an evening shooting at Dyrholaey, one of my top 5 favorite spots in Iceland.
Guesthouse Vellir. If I were doing a TripAdviser review, Guesthouse Vellir would score nicely. They let me check in early, the staff was welcoming and useful, the (almost) spacious bedrooms had a clean Nordic look, good Wifi, plus a well put together breakfast that’s free with your stay. What more do you want? Oh, yeah, and located close to Vik, Dyrholaey, Skogafoss.
Our hostess and her Polish helper often prepared dinners for folks not eating out. So I splurged a bit: with fish, salad, perfect soup, great Icelandic breads. Quite nice.
Speaking of weather. During dinner, we talked about the weather and the local sights. The obvious question, “is it usually this cold and rainy and snowy in early May?” “Oh gosh no.” The last few weeks had been a source of disappointment to them as well, this was a flashback to their March weather. We commiserate.
Which got us into a recurring leitmotif of the Iceland trip, the realization that you can experience snow, rain, hail or sun, all within the same hour. I’ve only visited one spot with weather this mercurial, Scotland. Scotland, of course is a close neighbor.
So it’s true that Iceland’s weather changeability could be seen as a bit of a negative. But our hostess’ response to that, “on the other hand, wait 15 minutes and you’ll have a different weather experience … to take pictures of.” Fair trade.
After that I had a chat about the Ring Road with a German couple. They were also doing the road trip, doing it clockwise so they could see the end of what I was just beginning.
To the Lighthouse
So I left the charming dinner with happy stomach and the information that this weather isn’t the classic Iceland in May weather. No, I was being allowed to see how things are for the 9 months that aren’t summer. That’s a good thing in a way.
Golden Hour. Driving down I could see the wet weather had disappeared. Instead there was lots of sunlight coming through the clouds. Now I was hopeful.
Of course the definition of “Golden Hour” changes this far north. In early May, sunset happens at around 10 PM (more or less). So by 7 or 8 PM, the side lighting and color are starting to happen.
I got to Dyrholaey by 7:40. It’s only a 5 minute drive east from the guesthouse to the turn-off on the right that’s signed, Dyrholaey. Watch closely, roadsigns tend to be small. Then head down 218 till it dead ends there on the cliffs.
That’s all Dyrholaey is, a mountainous piece of rock that juts into the sea, like a Gibraltar but smaller and flat topped. It’s part time bird sanctuary, lighthouse — and a perfect overlook to the Vik Black Sand Beach. There’s a gravel road going up (something most rentals can handle with ease). No town, no concessions, just a couple of parking areas … and a fancy new pay toilet.
A few shooting locations at Dyrholaey
Dyrholaey has at least 5 landscape locations that I continue to go back to as the weather, tide and light change. And yes, I know I’m just scratching the surface in my exploration.
Lighthouse. One of the classic Iceland shots, take it.
Overlook, black sands and ocean. To the west, the cliffs offer a phenomenal view of black sand beaches and ocean waves that seems to stretch out to Reykjavik. (See featured image)
The cliffs. These cliffs are a (sometime) bird sanctuary, an ecosystem and a photo op.
Seeing puffins this first evening was a gift. I’d wanted a good Puffin shot, no denying that. Humans seem to have been engineered to find these plump little birds cute. But you know they’re also a deeply philosophical bird, existentialists; it’s there in their eyes. That’s why they’re so perfect for portrait work.
As I shot, I got to know my subjects; where they were coming from, where they were going. Yep. I understood that they belonged further down along the cliff wall rather than here, off the path at the top. I realized this enterprising young couple was eager to claim one of the better cliff houses before the nesting crowds arrived. … And who likes performing for the tourist paparazzi on a cold May night? The two only stayed because they knew I was a kindred spirit — and they saw that navigating these cliffs in 40 mph winds would be a Darwinian faux pas.
Dyrholaey from below. The parking lot further down the hill leads to a couple of overlooks, the rocks and cliffs of Dyrholaey (from below).
Overlook, Reynisfjara Beach. This second overlook, to the southwest, is of the Vik Black Sand Beach and its famous sea stacks.
Dyrholaey is currently my favorite Southeast Coast photo spot. Of course, Vik Black Sand Beach is way more photographed (judging by the photo sites).
Photo Ops. I’m posting some representative shots, but they’re just what I was playing with that night. A decent landscape enthusiast will find all kinds of ways of making this spot their own.
Time spent. Dyrholaey is worth a 2-4 hour visit. A generous variety of the views, placed in a landscape known for it’s spare charm. Then factor in how this rock really resonates during Golden Hour or when a storm blows through.
Palette. The palette here, blue-black beaches, vast blue ocean, foam-lashed waves, makes any good composition look better. The obvious challenge, mid-day sun. So see what the light’s doing when you visit — and make adjustments as conditions change.
Time and tide. Both here and down at the Vik side of the beach, the black sand canvas gets worked by the tide. And from this height, white surf and black sand are a visual dance. At low tide, full expanse of Reynisfjara Beach and that lone sea stack become almost mythic. At high tide, you’re given a sea foam creation to work with.
Hiking. No hiking involved for this location. You just need a car that can go on dirt roads. No hiking = all enjoying and shooting.
Working out of the car. Both the upper and lower locations are close to their respective parking lots. So if you need that tripod, just go get it. Corollary, you can bring more camera gear that you would if hiking were involved.
Post. Getting the right level of black, of darkness in the plains of sand is a key, same goes for getting the right balance of blue-slate into the ocean color — and making sure the sunset doesn’t get blown out. Most of my Lightroom (LR) work at Dyrholaey has been about light levels and color. … Not that LR will allow any image to match the nuanced light show on display that evening.
The wind at Dyrholaey. The wind. With a country this far north, the temperature along the Ring Road hovers mostly between 25 and 40, for 2/3 of the year. In summer, things get up into the 50s and the countryside smiles. So temps aren’t so very bad. But the wind… It blows a LOT in this country and that’s why Nordic level outerwear is so popular.
But for the photographer, who can be out at one cold location for 3 and 4 hours at a time, the wind is an ongoing factor. That evening, the wind at Dyrholaey was blasting at 20-40 mph (it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit), that changes everything.