Shooting Vik Black Sand Beach

Reynisfjara, known in Internet parlance as Vik Black Sand Beach, is one of the most popular photo locations in Iceland — as a visit to the 500px site will confirm. The beach is a generous expanse of blue-black set off by distinctive sea stacks and the dark North Atlantic. The final major design element is the basalt columns that frame the black sand. It’s an excellently nice view. And with some luck in your dawn colors, you might have something that can be hung on a wall and savored.

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.”

It’s always tough to get a decent rest that first night in a country, especially with a 7 hour time difference. So my first morning at Vik started before 4AM with me wide awake. I didn’t mind, this was the morning for a dawn shoot at Black Sand Beach. I checked the light to the east: clear skies, dawn colors were OK, cold wind. Stowed everything in the Dacia and headed east on Rt 1.

I’d chosen a guesthouse that would be close to the best photo spots. So it was only a couple of miles to 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. Before heading down to the beach, I read the signs about how dangerous Reynisfjara can be.

Expectations

Reynisfjara is another iconic Iceland photo location so lots of photographers from around the world have their shot of the Vik Black Sand Beach. And if you’re spending bucks to photograph a place, you’ve seen versions of the place before traveling — I certainly had before my visit in March 2017.

That March, I made the mistake of arriving just before 9AM. But for a variety of reasons, light conditions, selfie sticks, I hadn’t gotten anything I liked.

March 2017

This had been a nice moment, spray in the air, low tide so a long expanse of beach, morning light is nice but undramatic. You can see what a cool spot this is. But I hadn’t done justice to the place, something had been missing. This time I was there (almost) at down, no one climbing on the basalt columns, no one there at all. Payback time.

Road trip visit

Like lots of enthusiasts and pros, I do a bit of preparation for a shot location I care about. I’m somewhat aware of the different visual elements from seeing other people’s work. but once I’m there, I try and see the place fresh.

It’s kinda light how a stage actor works. They know the lines, the blocking, the subtext. But once they’re live, they want to take in what the other actor is giving them — then play off of that energy. Just being in the moment. So I took in the weather, the ocean, the wind, and slowly got my head into gear.

I read the little welcoming signs. Noticed the warning about “sneaker waves,” the image of waves wearing high top Keds came to mind.  But I wasn’t feeling flip. The surf is strong here, Iceland’s tip reaches deep into the North Atlantic. And statistically, Reynisfjara pulls a tourist to a cold death almost every year.

When I got to the beach, I made sure to leave my gear pack above the high water mark. I’d rather walk 20 feet to grab a ND (neutral density) filter than run after a floating camera bag. I wasn’t too worried about getting carried away myself. If my focus is on the basalt columns, I will have to be shooting at the back end of the beach.

I got the tripod up and popped on my 24-105mm f4 (a Sigma).

Breathing the place in

Vik Black Sand Beach

Black Sand Beach looking west to Dyrholaey — this is not a place for sunbathing and sand castles.

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.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/250 sec., F8

On this day, the cliffs, wave action, sea stacks and light were the elements I wanted to focus on, to balance.

The above shot was a good first effort 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.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/100 sec., F8

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.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/125 sec., F8

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.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1.6 seconds, f22, ND filter

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.

Vik Black Sand Beach

.2 sec, F16

So I dialed back the shutter speed to .2 sec and pulled the trigger as the foamy surf was coming in. Since that section of the beach is closest to the camera, it has more of a blur than the breaking wave at right-center. But my biggest discovery was what happens when you give those black columns even more real estate. Now the sky’s getting better too.

Vik Black Sand Beach

.2 sec, F16 (with more post work)

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.

Church N or Black Sand Beach

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First Evening

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.

The road to Dyrholaey, Rt. 218 is off Rt 1 (see upper left)

Dyrholaey

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.

Upper area

Lighthouse. One of the classic Iceland shots, take it.

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The lighthouse with the Vik sea stacks in the distance. And no, these aren’t lights from within the lighthouse, its reflections in the glass of the sunset (just behind me).

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.

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Puffins at Dyrholaey:  They make great subjects if you can connect them to their environment, i.e., the background.

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.

Lower area

Dyrholaey from below. The parking lot further down the hill leads to a couple of overlooks, the rocks and cliffs of Dyrholaey (from below).

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Overlook, Reynisfjara Beach. This second overlook, to the southwest, is of the Vik Black Sand Beach and its famous sea stacks.

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Thoughts 

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.

 

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