Photo Walkabout at Fjaðrárgljúfur

There is a jewel of a river park a few miles west of Kirkjubæjarklaustur that’s a perfect photo location between Vik and the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Southeast Iceland. Justin Bieber used the Geopark as a unique location for one of his music videos, landing the little canyon on the world media’s radar screen.

Fjaðrárgljúfur’s parking lot’s just a couple of miles off the Ring Road. The trail takes you along the edge of an otherworldly river canyon for about a mile and ends at an overview of a high waterfall. I’ve stopped here every time I’ve driven southeast Iceland and it’s an experience regardless of the weather.

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

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

Fjaðrárgljúfur, part of Katla Geopark

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

The trail up the hill starts at the parking lot. The path is man-made and roped off on the sides so that the crowds don’t damage the grassland — a huge issue during the spring rains. There are overlooks along the way for photos but the more delicate trails into the canyon have been made off limits since the Bieber video.

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

Two studies. The canyon’s charm is all about the strange shapes — kinda like what you find at Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona. The challenge is how you put these elements together. I found if I go wide and include too much of the canyon’s complexity, the composition gets overloaded. With these two studies I also gave extra emphasis to the grassland, juxtaposing the expanse of green against a few of the blue-black of  lava columns.

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At the high point of the canyon it’s easy to do too much — get everything into one image. I decided to focus on this one curve in the river. The biggest challenge was how shadowed and contrasty the canyon was.  Once I lighten up on the dark areas in post and added weight to the lava columns, it was like entering a different realm.

The canyon ends just a bit further down the trail at the waterfall. The shot below is taken at the fenced overlook. It’s another view that has a wealth of complicated shapes. But the thing that worked best for me was to use the cliff that juts out on the left as a foreground element that leads the eye to the waterslide of a falls. I crop out everything on the right side.

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Vik to Skaftafell, the Journey East

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.

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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.

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Shooting the moss-covered lava was challenging. It’s tactile and otherworldly but too amorphous to fit easily into a composition. Finding a bit of a foreground design and pulling in a distant mountain plateau seemed to work.

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.

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

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.

Waterfall in SE coast, 60 miles east of Vik in Sidu

1/800 sec., F8,  63°51’9.282″ N 17°53’17.322″ W

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.

Waterfall in SE coast, 60 miles east of Vik in Sidu

1/30 sec., F18,    63°51’14.61″ N 17°52’16.128″ W

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.

Eastern District

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.

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For this composition I used the curve of straw colored grass along the dune to lead the eye in.

Shooting north, the view is of a long plateau and a tongue of the Vatnajokull Glacier.

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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.

Hof Sod Church

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.

Rt 1 pull off southeast of Hof

A leading line into composition

Evening light

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.

Skaftafell Park

A closer look.

Skaftafell Park

And further down the road.

Pond south of Skaftafell Park along Rt 1

This time looking east with the stream as a leading line and anchored by the rough vegetation.

Pond south of Skaftafell Park along Rt 1

A variation

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.

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