Portfolio image #1: Seljalandsfoss

I never did get a portfolio level photograph at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall on my May trip; after two days I was heading east on the Ring Road again. I had gotten Seljalandsfoss images that captured my loopy mood on that first day — and capturing the mood of a place isn’t a trivial thing. But the average person won’t hang a dark, moody Iceland shot in the den.

However, one trick you learn is to keep a shot location card catalogue in your head. That way you can come back to spots that have potential under the right conditions. And I knew that the behind-the-falls shot can be almost otherworldly at sunset.

So when I did the Ring Road again in August, I stopped at some fav locations for a third bite of the apple. And on my final night in Vik, I noticed the weather clearing up. A real Iceland sunset was being served up at Seljalandsfoss.

I scooted out of Vik by 7:15PM, did the drive west in under 40 minutes. When I got there, the last tour buses were leaving (look closely). It was only a few minutes before sunset. I grabbed my wide angle and tripod, jogged past a few photogs, dialed in my settings, headed into the cave — with heart pounding.

From in there, the dense mist and moss provides a womb-like atmosphere. I headed deeper down the path, watching how the balance point of waterfall, stream, moss and sunset changed. At one place on the muddy path, I stopped. This spot made me imagine that the cave itself had its eye on the light show; hey, who doesn’t like a sunset. This spot gave me the perfect line: waterfall, stream curving towards the sun and that concentrated yellow glow.

I stood, back against wall, so as to pull in those velvety, mossy boulders. That misty moss made me want to take my shoes off and wade in. (Of course I had to pull all that detail out of the image in post.) And of course, I had to wipe the lens off after each shot. I didn’t bring a dry cloth so my shirt did the job.

Didn’t do that many shot variations, the sun being so close to the horizon. Plus, I was pretty sure I had what I wanted.

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A photograph is a distillation of light, color, shape, balance … feeling.    [1/40th sec, f13, 19mm]

 

Welcome to Iceland

There was supposed to be a guy at the airport entrance holding sign with my name on it. Nope. By 5:30AM, I’d left passport control at Iceland’s Keflavik International, suitcase and camera pack in hand. So I dumped my stuff next to the Welcome to Iceland desk, got a donut, switched my phone to the local network and left a message … and a second, at the car rental office.

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Keflivik Airport statute, phone shot. Pretty cool for airport art but I could tell they were cold too.

By 6:30, the car keys were mine and my suitcase and camera gear were loaded. I had gone low budget (by Iceland standards) with a Dacia Logan station wagon. So I headed out slow from the airport, remembering how to drive in snow, and drive stick, on roads I didn’t know.

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A classic behind the wheel phone shot from just east of the city. This section of Rt. 1 is a 4 lane highway.

After half an hour, I hit Rt. 1, the legendary Ring Road that circles the island, Iceland’s answer to Route 66. This (mostly) 2 lane blacktop winds through 840 miles of primal landscapes and I was gonna photograph that and more. But after an 8 hour flight from LA and 24 hours without sleep, the body was running on empty.

My job

My goal on this 14 day road trip wasn’t to do the guidebook stuff, the tours, museums, restaurants, accommodations. I wanted to get a portfolio of kick-ass landscape photos. The guidebooks and travel marketing don’t get into the details photo enthusiasts care about: best photo locations, times to shoot — location scouting. So I end up doing my own location scouting on Instagram, 500px and Pinterest.

You never fully understand that spot until you’re there, camera in hand. But you can certainly discover Iceland’s “marquee” photo locations just by looking at the amazing shots that are on-line. Once you are there, the job is to see it fresh and photograph it under the conditions that are there at that instant in time. 

After all, Iceland isn’t a list of spots to shoot — which is what you’d think if what you know about a place is how it’s presented in the media. It’s an immensely varied place as landscape.

So, since before my two Utah books. I’ve made myself a more interesting goal, to discover the 99% of a country that’s not in the guidebooks — the little roadside pull-offs, the places the locals connect to. The country living out each day. If you can start seeing what you’re given, regardless of weather or the requirements of the trip, you can get images you won’t find on Instagram. The spirit of a place doesn’t need to be a bells and whistles shot.

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That’s why on this visit, I had no particular assignment. Just the desire to create a portfolio, an Iceland portfolio that would capture the mythic quality of the place and that distinctive color palette. I figure if the quality is there, I’ll be supported. After all, being out there, getting lost in the mood of a place, the flow of nature … that’s the core DNA for landscape photographers.

Discovering the South Coast

An hour and a half in, I arrived at Selfoss, the regional hub for the South Coast with a bustling 7,000 inhabitants. I was thinking about getting some real breakfast here and using the facilities. But nothing was opened yet (not even the KFC) so I pressed on.

After Selfoss, you’re in big sky country, huge expanses of farmland on the right, long ridges of mesa-like plateau on the left. My South Coast visit the previous March for location scouting had been a total delight. But on this morning, the clouds were getting pushed along by a storm in the North Atlantic, even the car was getting pushed around. The farmland meadows were like matted tundra from weeks of cold rain and snow. Muted colors, lots of black and white.

Iceland isn’t postcard pretty on a day like this, but it’s real. Not the Iceland of the brochures, it’s the Iceland that gets served up 90% of the time. After all, Iceland’s basically a piece of black lava planted between the North Atlantic and Arctic Circle.

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Iceland presents so many compositions that are clean and stripped down: here, a harsh-edge mountain pressing against a curve of road.

Road Shots

I pulled over along the way for pictures, a favorite activity for Ring Road travelers. It’s the kind of thing that drives Icelanders nuts (rightly so). Visitors will often stop right there on the road for a quick shot. They don’t see anyone coming and every turn in the road seems to have an awesome vista. The problem is most Iceland roads only have a couple of feet of shoulder so you can’t just pull over. So people stop right there on Rt 1.

The correct approach when you need to take a picture is to look for a farm road or driveway pull-off. Get the shot (while staying close to your vehicle) and then get back on the road. Easy-peasy and it’s what your Mom would tell you to do. And since you’re off the road, you can concentrate on the landscape you’ve been given.

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Another roadside pullout. Classic leading line photo

But enough backstory. I was a couple hours into the trip now, 30 hours into my long day’s journey. And there was the famous Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the left.

Seljalandsfoss

Iceland gets about 5 million visitors a year. That’s a lot of folks coming to a country that’s barely larger than Maine. About 90% of them stay in Reykjavik and do day tours to marquee locations like Seljalandsfoss and the Golden Circle. So photo locations that are within a couple of hours of the city get a LOT of visitors. That’s rule #1 for photographing Iceland, shoot before 9:30 or after 6.

I was there before 8:30, so no tour buses, only a handful of cars in the lot, not many folks with lime green parkas. … But the porta potty was open for business and I made a deposit. Note: There’s a parking fee at the lot.

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The path up to Seljalandsfoss and its cave.

Lay of the Land. Seljalandsfoss doesn’t have a lot of water power but the 220 ft. vertical drop provides visual impact. Some tourists believe they turn the waterfalls off at night. Yeah, that’s a frequently asked question. But that’s not true. When I arrived the waterworks were as you’re seeing.

There’s also a quite wonderful cave behind the falls covered in velvety moss and bathed in waterfall mist — just follow the muddy trail. Note: If you want to shoot the falls from behind, bring protection for your camera, a wide angle lens and something to wipe your lens.

Seljalandsfoss faces southwest. So it can be a great sunset shoot if the weather cooperates. But there are good photo ops from anywhere along the trail.

Given the lay of the land my gear choices were obvious, my walking around lens, a Sigma 24-105mm — and for the cave, a wide-angle, my Canon 16-35 f2.8 and tripod.

It was in the mid-30s now and the wind was pushing the falling water around with a heavy hand. I pulled on my inadequate LA gloves. And by now it was raining. I wasn’t a happy camper. I thought about heading in behind the falls. But my down jacket was already getting wet, the cave would be darker and wetter. Plus I had a decent cave shot from my March visit.

So instead of trying to make the inside the cave shot work, I noticed the obvious, the wind. So I followed the stream out from the waterfall to get some perspective on the scene.

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Seljalandsfoss at 1/2 sec. exposure. Adding a slightly slower exposure time emphasized the speed of the stream and power of the wind. Now the falls were wispy, like a candle on the edge of being snuffed out.

I used the tripod and played with slower shutter speeds for a while. Uh. Kinda cool.

Then it started to snow, now the scene was all white polka dots. I knew I had two full days along the South Coast so I decided not to bother with Seljalandsfoss until light and the weather would cooperate. Instead I heading over the bridge and down the path to the Gljufrabui waterfall.

Gljufrabui

Gljufrabui about 500 meters down the trail from Seljalandsfoss. It’s less known, all you can see from the outside is a small stream flowing from a slit in the cliff face. But walk inside and the cave turns out to be a slot canyon with a waterfall falling through the “ceiling.” It’s definitely worth checking out.

Tech Notes: Gljufrabui is as misty as the Seljalandsfoss cave. And it’s darker. So bring a cover for your camera, a good cloth wipe for the lens and, if you don’t enjoy standing in glacial run-off, water-resistant footwear.

I chose a longer shutter speed for this shot, to catch the distinctive way the waterfall shapes itself, so the tripod was a necessity. But you can also get great shots hand-held.

Wet places aren’t good for cameras. So I got camera, tripod, release, settings nailed down outside the cave entrance. Then walked the tripod into the cave, put together a composition, took the shot. And things went fast: take a shot, dry the lens, adjust composition, take a shot, dry lens, repeat …

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Gljufrabui Cave, .6 sec, f10

By now my down jacket was sopping wet. My feet had been submerged in a glacial stream for what seemed an hour (and was probably 7 minutes). I walked back out to the river bank, and pulled the lens cap out of my pocket with shivering hands … and it fell, slowly, into the dark stream. Plunk.

Lens caps don’t float. Searching the river rocks with numb hands didn’t help. It was gone. S**t, s**t, s**t. Fact is, lens caps are important little pieces of plastic — especially with fancy lenses in a harsh landscape. The only place (as far as I knew) that stocked 82mm lens caps was the camera shop in Reykjavik, along the main shopping drag. That drive would waste most of a day.

I headed slowly back towards the parking lot. You could say I was frustrated. But the beauty of the place kept intruding on my whining. Just looking at Seljalandsfoss at the far end of the gravel path. Almost eternal – they don’t even turn the water off in winter.

Then I notice a little hay barn just opposite Gljufrabui. Nothing fancy, a ramshackle barn packed with hay, Iceland bjork (birch) trees to the side. I took it in, almost creeping up on the place. Not a shot you’ll see on Instagram, but pure Iceland. Sweet.

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As I headed back I realized, I should call the guesthouse. Hey, I’m less than an hour away, it can’t hurt to ask if there’s a room ready. I definitely needed the sleep.

So I called Guesthouse Vellir. My host answered, she was quite willing to oblige a weary traveler. Well, that made my day. I told her I’d be there by 1.

Welcome to Iceland
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South Coast Overview

Map

My South Coast planning  map

The section of Ring Road from Reykjavik to Vik is about a 3 hour drive. And there’s farms and countryside that are worth exploring. Little moments and grand vistas. But for a landscape photographer, the 40 miles from Seljalandsfoss to Vik are the key locations. Here’s the Cliff Notes (heading east):

Seljalandsfoss waterfall. In this part of the valley, every few miles seems to have small, highland streams cascading down from the glacial plateau. Seljalandsfoss’ special asset is the fact you can also photograph from the cave behind.

Plus, as extra credit, a third of a mile down the path is Gljufrabui, the “cave” with a waterfall dropping through the opening above.

Skogafoss waterfall. The falls in the tiny town of Skogar are almost as high as Seljalandsfoss but more full bodied. So the place also gets busy during tour bus hours. Skogar has lodging, restaurants, an impressive museum and, of course, Skogafoss – making it a nice home base alternative to Vik. There’s also a little known falls just past the Skogar Museum called Kvernufoss. (And yes, “foss” is Icelandic for waterfall.)

Solheimasandur Plane Wreckage. The stripped down aluminum carcass is all that remains of an American DC-3 airplane that crash-landed in the lava dunes here. It’s a “must see” if you’re into bleak, end-of-world photography or have kids with too much energy. I wouldn’t have done the two mile walk but I knew if I didn’t make the trek, there would’ve been a chorus of disappointment. … There will probably be other tourists so bring your wide angle — or show up early.

Dyrholaey. The cliffs of Dyrholaey can get overlooked by the guidebooks. But for someone who’s got the bug, Dyrholaey is a visual feast: the lighthouse view, that sea arch, puffin nesting cliffs, overlook of the Vik sea stacks, etc.

Reynisfjara/Vik Black Sand Beach. Reynisfjara provides an impressive expanse of black sand beach and basalt cliffs, punctuated by trollish sea stacks and the dangers of the North Atlantic. An enthusiast can get a lovely shot here in the hour after dawn.

Off the beaten track.The South Coast is more than a photo greatest hits album. There are secluded beaches, an amazing view from the butte behind Vik, each bend in the road seems to surprise.

Tip: Get onto your fav photo social media site and search on any of the above photo locations.

Next: Portfolio image #1: Seljalandsfoss

The Hike to Svartifoss Waterfall

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.

Skiaftafell

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).

Trails

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.

On path to Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

1/15 sec., F22 (All images are handheld, I didn’t bother with the tripod for the shutter speed I was going with.)

On path to Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

1/5 sec., F22. From under the bridge

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.

Hundafoss waterfall Skaftafell National Park

Magnusarfoss waterfall, 5. sec., F22

Not long after these waterfalls, you can see Svartifoss up valley.

Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Svartifoss waterfall from the ridge, 1/400 sec., F20

Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park. 1/250 sec., F11

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.

Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Svartifoss from creek level. 1/25 sec., F20

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.

View trail to Svartifoss waterfall, Skaftafell National Park

Southern view, Skaftafell National Park. 1/500 sec., F11

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.

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After @ a mile and a half, you’re at an overlook of the glacier, Skaftafellsjokull, and the eastern mountains. Nice.

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And heading back to the visitors center along S5 rather than going back the Svartifoss route the view continues.

Chinese Temple Dog

 

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.

 

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Welcome to Iceland

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.

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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.

Shooting Waterfalls

I guess it’s possible to do landscape photography in Iceland and not shoot waterfalls (foss in Icelandic), but it wouldn’t be as much fun. New York art dealer types think images of waterfalls are cliched. But their idea of getting out in nature is a trip to the Hamptons. For a landscape photographer, the waterfall is a lovely compilation of the essential forces of nature, geology, water, erosion, light. For the photog in Iceland, the waterfall is a genre unto itself.

Given all the rain, the glaciers and a volcanic shape, Iceland has thousands of waterfalls. There are 100 or more that are named and worth visiting if you’re in the area. And like Niagara and Iguazu Falls, the more impressive ones in Iceland have personalities.

Godafoss, the God waterfall, is water falling along a curve. It’s also a name with a history, of Icelanders rejecting the old gods in favor of Christianity. Kirkjufellsfoss, the falls next to church-shaped mountain, is almost always shot with the mountain. Like Ben and Jerry, the two gain power by their proximity. Dettifoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Europe.

The Art of It

Proximity is the secret with shooting almost any waterfall because they are by definition about relationship. This creature exists as a total flow. The river reaching the lip of a high plateau, the falling part, the landing place, the lower river, it’s all of a piece. And as visual artists, our job is to choose how much of that complex shape we’ll capture within the frame.

That’s the general problem most photographers have, framing the essence of a falls. Anyone can take an OK pic of a waterfall. Waterfalls have inherent drama and even a bad picture of Gullfoss will impress.

But pointing and shooting aren’t enough for a good image. Instead of just putting the falls into a 2 dimensional frame, I generally try and think of the stages of the waterfall as taking place within three dimensions — like the beast is in real life. I want the eye to go on a journey back to the origin or on towards the downstream goal.

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Skogafoss from above

By taking the eye along a journey into the frame, we’re just using the mind’s natural tendency to dive into a reality. So, in the image above, the cliff edge is our foreground. Behind that, the water captures our attention and pulls us towards the mist and the rainbow and the ground below and finally, to the surrounding landscape.

Gullfoss, lower viewpoint

Take a sec to see how this Gullfoss image pulls the eye into the frame. …

First, the left and right river banks are leading lines, as is the little fence and walkway at bottom left. The churning white of the falling water also gets our attention because I set the shutter speed slow enough to cause motion blur in the central section. And of course, the green-blue coloring in the water also captures the eye, especially in a landscape so totally black and white. The eye wants to move upstream before becoming immersed in the details of this 3-level waterfall.

The inherent challenge with photography is that the initial image is essentially flat. The camera can only see in 2-D. Plus the RAW file flattens out color, contrast, sharpness even more. So the composition and the post-production needs to work overtime to give the image the immersive quality of our initial experience.

 

 

Iceland’s South Coast: Step 1, the Car

 

I knew doing a solo road trip through Iceland makes perfect sense for a photographer. — if only because other choices have drawbacks. Group tours are a great value, a perfect introduction to a new culture and good experiences for a tourist. But these tours in any country also force the photographer to work around a tourist schedule.

Doing one of the tours for photo enthusiasts is another way to experience the country, the most perfect way for photographers. You get to the location at the perfect time, you get lots of tips about shooting that spot, you end up with lots of awesome shots.

But the photo tours cost some serious money. And I knew that I could do location research and shooting on my own — having done the two Utah books and lots of blog posts on that subject. So my March road trip to the South Coast was a trial balloon, a proof of concept. I would do a three day road trip as location research for my book.

Step 1 for Road Trip, Rent a Car

Given my general lack of knowledge about this island in the North Atlantic, getting the car rental nailed down was important. I needed to see if a 4-wheel would be necessary in March, I wanted to make sure about a GPS… and then there was the price.

Car rentals aren’t generally cheap in Europe and Iceland is no exception. Plus with the range of roads and how many photo spots are located on gravel or 4-wheel drive roads, insurance costs are on the high side.

I emailed a few car rental places and they told me that the South Coast roads, don’t generally get too snowed for obvious reasons, low altitude, further south, Gulf Stream. But, if it does snow and you don’t have 4-wheel, the wind will knock you all over the road.  I got the 4-wheel.

There are lots of car rental companies in Reykjavik and I ended up with a local company that was highly recommended (and not overpriced) called Lagoon Car Rental. And we set things up so that when I was ready, their person would pick me up at my hotel, get me on the road and let me drop the car off at the airport (as you’d expect). I was going straight back to  the US that evening.

So at the appointed time, the young lady from Lagoon was there to pick me up. We chatted a bit on the way, about what growing up in Iceland is like, with me throwing out questions and observations. She walked me though the paperwork, no surprises there. And gave me the keys to the 4-wheel (a free upgrade;-).

Given the fact that I only drive a 4-wheel on rare occasions, I asked her to walk me though the gearing and the GPS. And I was on the road. Good car, good price…  and folks easy to work with. Their contact info:  info@lagooncarrental.is, +354 515 2220. 

Iceland: Logistical Matters

Lots of people don’t want to bother with planning. They want to book a flight and hotel and then wing it. And in a way, that’s what the savvy traveler does — engage oneself in the moment of a place , the one on one interaction with an environment. Anything rather than the mind-numbing approach of following a rigid list of Must Sees in Paris.

And if you’re just gonna go from hotel to beach and back again, the old don’t-plan-anything approach can pretty much work. (Except for booking hotel, flights, island travel, etc.) But that’s not in the cards if you’re doing an Iceland road trip.

Unless you’re doing tours (where the company does the logistics), a creative/photo oriented road trip requires planning, detailed planning … which allows you to then take a full two hours to engage with a photo location or go on a hike or do a blog post.

You need to build time into a good Ring Road trip — but time in specific spots. If photography is a guiding issue, you’ll want to know which photo locations are where on your road map — otherwise you’ll get your accommodations all wrong.

Now that detailing of a trip isn’t a hassle if you don’t make it one (and if I ever put this little travel book together). All your really doing is knowing what the cool spots are, thus giving yourself the time to explore them.

Logistics are pure karma, part of the creative path. Deal with that part and you (such a savvy traveler), can improvise. You can decide that this historical village is worth it and that waterfall, whose name you can’t pronounce, is one too many. Set aside enough time and you get to have a moment of pure creativity in a place you’ve never seen before… and that’s about as good as it gets.

You plan it before hand based on best knowledge then listen to your instincts when you’re on location.

Where to stop

I need a clear understanding of my itinerary stops before I book a BnB. But what are the best photo opportunities for landscape photographers? The photo tours don’t publicize those details for obvious reasons.

The various guidebooks can give me the general points of interest. But this is a photo tour and guidebooks provide almost no help when it comes to photo points of interest.

The Iceland itinerary companies out there provide a few recommendations for photos, they know where the tour buses go. But they have no idea about the crucial photo issues:

  • What makes a good photo location
  • How much shoot time is this location worth
  • What time of day is best for that shot location

So, since I haven’t written the Iceland book, I need a good idea of potential shot locations (with my internal stack-ranking) and where they’re clustered. That’ll tell me what towns to stay at and for how long.

The Map

To handle this level of logistical planning I took a large map of the island and placed representative photos of the various photography locations where they are on the map. That allowed me to visualize my personal favorites in the context of travel times and lodging.

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Now, think for a second about maps. They’re not just a guy thing unless someone wants to give one of the great tools of life over to the other sex. No, a map is a graphical metaphor for the physical landscape. That makes it important for landscape photogs on every level.

See, when I travel to a place, I want to develop an internal sense of where everything is — the way I have in the place I come from. The closer my internal framework is to life, the easier travel gets.

So when I look at my little scrapbook-like map, I can imagine what each day looks like. I look down at the peninsula at the bottom left of the map, the one with that big  spot of red ink for Reykjavik, and a couple of inches to the left of that, Keflavik International Airport.

Now the map let’s me think the steps through as drive-time and stops: Get into the airport at that god-awful time, get the rental car, head to Route 1, follow it down the South Coast a couple hours, past some waterfalls and then the little BnB. I’ll want to chill there for a few hours after all those hours of traveling. Then some food before doing an evening photo shoot at those two waterfalls (the tour buses will have left) or maybe wander down to Vik and the Black Sand Beach.

A map gives the brain an objective reference point, not a bad thing.

Researching my photo locations

I did plenty of exploring on the Internet before my trip last March. I was particularly interested in spots that are popular on the photo web sites like 500px, Viewbug and Instagram. It’s helpful to check out the work of other photographers. First because you want a sense of what a waterfall or town or historical spot is really like. After all, there are hundreds of waterfalls on the island, some more spectacular (or charming) than others. So you start to see what the “marquee” photo locations are and where they’re located.

I also did searches of Iceland day tours and photo tours. These sites tell you which places the tourist industry thinks of as most enticing and photogenic (but they don’t share any of the logistics).

But it doesn’t take long to realize that these web sites (like the web itself) are biased. The locations that get all the web traffic, the “marquee” locations, are dramatic — and easy day trips from the city. The web pages you see reflect the businesses and people who want to drum up business, not actual need.

These are also sights that get the massive numbers of tour buses. And as a photographer, I want to know that. For instance, two waterfalls in the south, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, are super popular with the tours, even in winter. And most of the Instagram shots feature thousands of tourists. Some of that can be cleared up in Photoshop, but a better solution is to visit that location before 9 AM or after 6, when the buses are heading back to Reykjavik.

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Skogafoss

A marquee shot or a pull-off

If I were a purist, I could avoid the popular spots altogether. After all, what fun is it to shoot a spot that’s been done and overdone by Instagram. Why set up a tripod and risk being hit by selfie sticks and run over by exuberant tourist. Fair question.

Shooting these locations during tourist hours is no fun. So shooting when the buses are gone is one choice. For other marquee locations like Gullfoss (on the Golden Circle), the tourists aren’t such an issue because you and the hordes are shooting from the cliffs above.

It’s true that the marquee locations have been done to death. So I probably won’t have anything unique to say. But what do I care? It’s a cool location, it has its own set of challenges, its an excuse for me to get in the zone… as long as I know when to visit. That’s another reason I’m doing this book research.

And in Iceland, there’s a country full of sights, amazing sights, that just don’t get the traffic. There are no tours to these spots. Some of my fav images from March were places not in the guidebooks, just pull-offs on the Ring Road. Each was a challenge no other photog has ever faced. Each forced me to see value in unexpected places.

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Road pull-off, South Coast

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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House just opposite Seljalandsfoss

The photo landscape of the Ring Road

Once we take Reykjavik out of the equation with 90% of the population, we have a number of photo worthy spots along the Ring Road.

Reykjavik to Vik. The South Coast has none of the fjords you see in the rest of the country and no ports. The area from 8 to 6 on the clock of Iceland is an alluvial plain with farms and black sand beaches. Given it’s closeness to the city, the area is hugely popular for tours (and photographers) with a couple of famous waterfalls and at the bottom tip, the beaches and sea stacks around the tiny town of Vik.

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Reykjavik to Vik, the South Coast

Vik to Hofn. From Vik to Hofn (6 to 4 o’clock), there’s a monster glacier just inland and, of interest to photographers, a national park, more waterfalls, Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach.

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Skaftafell, Diamond Beach, Hofn

Eastern Iceland towns. The eastern side just north of Hofn doesn’t get many tourists. But if you stay along the coast instead of taking Route 1 inland, you’ll find that each of the scenic fjords has a fishing village or two and several have some charm. This is the real country, the way things were before Iceland got discovered by the global economy.

Northeast from Eglisstadir to Akureyri. From 2 up to 12 on the clock, the Ring Road pulls away from the coast and climbs into high country. Not many people up here until you get due north, to the scenic Lake Mavatn and Akureyri. There are a number of amazing waterfalls, more historical sights, low level volcanic activity, lots of empty road. And Akureyri, at 20,000, is the second largest “city” in Iceland, so shops, restaurants, a few little museums, people.

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Northern Iceland: Lake Mavatn, Akureyri, the northwestern fjords

Northwestern Fjords. West of Akureyri you’ll find more little fishing villages along the northwestern fjords, plus scenic islands, whale watching, historical sights. Like Eastern Iceland, these sights are detours off Route 1 along the peninsula roads.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula Detour. After the north, Route 1 heads back towards Reykjavik. But doing a turn off along the way gets us to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It’s another popular day tour from the city. Plus it has several significant landscape locations (Kirkjufellsfoss, Helnar, Budar church, etc.). Plenty of excellent photo adventures, enough to warrant a couple of days.

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Snaefellsnes Peninsula & lower West Fjords

The West Fjord area, north of Snaefellsnes on the map above, is the most unspoiled. It is a phenomenal area but is far off the Ring Road that for many, it won’t be worth the extra travel time. That said, Hornstradir National Park is unique and I’ll go at some point just because.

Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is also off the Ring Road, basically north east of the city. Most folks do this area on one of the tours. But it’s also an easy day trip to do on your own in a rental car. And since the Golden Circle is close to Reykjavik, it needs to be done at the beginning or end of the road trip. There are no easy roads over the center of Iceland. It’s mostly high country and home to several glaciers.

A few logistical data points

Planning for a Ring Road self-guided photo tour is a different beast. Consider:

  • You’re staying at hotels or BnBs across all of Iceland.
  • Accommodations for lodging books up months in advance for many spots — especially for summer travel.
  • The best lodgings (quality, price, etc.) go first.
  • Route 1, the Ring Road, is 828 miles long. Once you drive outside the Reykjavik metro area, Route 1 becomes a 2 lane blacktop with skinny shoulders.
  • If you do the whole thing, you’ll have 2-3 hours of pure drive time on many of the days.

 

 

 

 

 

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