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 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.