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.

………………………………..

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland Trip: Germ of an Idea

Like all good projects, this Iceland book started from need. I’m not sure where the need came from, maybe (in vague form) from seeing images on some of the better photo sites (500px, viewbug, etc). But over several years, I tracked Iceland as a place worth exploring. So by the time my sis said she was taking her crew there, I already knew the land of ice needed to be high on the photo journey list.

My first week there (and there) last March was what trigged the real need. The vastness of the landscapes, the raw color palette, made me want to stretch myself creatively. But with a couple of books on Utah photography and my travel blogging, I wanted to do more than just work the camera. I thought, why not write a book with several moving parts, sure, coffee table images, but also a personal travel account, a How To for creative exploration, a photographic road trip.

Iceland’s become one of the ultimate destinations for photo enthusiasts. Obviously. Everyone who goes there seems like they’re in photo overdrive. Tourists on the day tours from Reykjavik, the photo enthusiasts (both local and international), the folks doing the Ring Road; they’re all shooting.

That doesn’t mean Iceland is overexposed (sorry). After all, this is a small country  with fantastic visual elements. The land is plain in many ways, it’s a cold, volcanic stone in the North Atlantic. But it’s immensely evocative, Nordic myth evocative, Ansel Adams without having to go black and white.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Dritvik

Taken on a general tour of Snaefellsnes Peninsula

That trip last March, that intense, cold week, gave me glimpses of its possibilities. And I decided that I needed to do an entire portfolio, using Iceland’s Ring Road as a guiding principle for this photographic road trip.

Ring Road

Now, doing a Ring Road book is not a new concept. Look on Amazon, look at Pinterest. But what I have in mind isn’t a Ring Road itinerary book.

The idea is simple, to do a road trip along the Ring Road, photograph as you go, blog the experience — from the germ of the idea to the planning, the photo shoots, people, life leading to a final portfolio and who knows, a gallery show. Capture something fundamental about the place in word as well as image.

And who will care

Shooting Iceland is one of the big ones. Lots of us have done photo tours in Monument Valley, Zion, Yosemite, etc. I love those kind of tours. And you can do a comparable level of photography on Iceland’s South Coast, Golden Circle or Snaefellsnes Peninsula. But why just do a day or two? Iceland’s a whole country with enormous creative challenges — and touring the Ring Road without the tour guide can take one’s work to the next level.

So my idea is to share my shot location research at every step. And, as with my Utah photo / travel books, to get into travel logistic, lighting, composition issues, personal insights. So someone who visits Iceland for a day or a week can use my location research during their stay.

The one thing I don’t want is to write a guidebook. There are plenty of those already. So little or no coverage of hotels or places to eat. Just my thoughts on stuff that will interest enthusiasts and savvy travelers.

Generally photographers avoid giving much detail about their favorite locations or how they work. (As if there are any secret left in a world where 7 billion people have a camera.) It’s better to err on the side of openness. So I talk with enthusiasts a lot, I read the blogs, I look at stuff on social media. The international photo community is a vast resource and fellow enthusiasts are a core element in my creative process.

I also see this project as fulfilling a need. Sure, plenty of folks do Iceland trips and blog about it, or post to Facebook, or tweet or Instagram or Pinterest. Much of it is like: Yeah, we did the trip to the Godafoss waterfall, took this exit off the Ring Road, wandered over from the parking lot, here’s some shots. [Instagram/Facebook/Other] The images can be good but the writing isn’t usually that helpful or that entertaining.

A picture is worth a thousand words… but good writing can evoke a hundred cultural nuances; it can be a good read. That means going beyond the guidebook level writing, sharing useful insights, personal moments. What I’m after is something in the style of Steinecks’ Travels with Charley, or maybe Thoreau on a road trip. (Hey, if I can’t dream big, what’s the point.)

I’m also trying to dream big when it comes to the photography. Most Iceland photos you see on Google or Instagram aren’t great. (I’m being gentle now.) Yes, you’ll see some good shots at a marquee location like Godafoss or Longranger. But take a look at the other Iceland stuff that photog shot. See if they were able to capture the little moment by the side of the road or the vibrancy of the little fishing villages in the early morning. That’s the hard part. That’s where the craft is.

You will see excellent work from Iceland photo pros. The guys (usually) who do $1000 a day tours to the South Coast or Snaefellsnes Peninsula are worth a close look, just do an (Iceland tours) search.

But us tourists shouldn’t expect that level of perfect. As any photo enthusiast knows, when you live in a place, go to those locations week in and week out, you’ll get images a visitor can’t touch.

The first time visitor can’t play that game. And why should they try? If you’re in Iceland for the first time, and you’re there 24×7, you don’t have the ideal conditions you get on a fancy photo tour – where the guide drives you to the marquee location at the perfect time of day and plants you on the sweet spot.

If you’ve been on one of these tours, you know that a good enthusiast can come away with some great portfolio shots, some of them better than what the guide took that day. Hey, even the not-so-good photographer can capture a great image if they’re coached.

On the other hand, if I need handholding, I’m not going to learn as much as I will by doing all the creative groundwork from scratch. Going to a photo location, breathing the place in, following the light, seeing the image as pure composition. … And doing that process day in and day out whether I’m at Glacier Lagoon or some pull-off.

That’s how you take your work to the next level. That’s how an Ansel Adams did it when he wasn’t at Yosemite. Not that I’m Ansel. I’m more interested in developing my own vision anyway.

But that was all the backstory for this Ring Road trip, to develop a portfolio out of my 2 weeks in country and to write about it with the tools that a few decades of professional writing has given me.

God knows, there are Icelandic photographers that could (probably have) put together coffee table books that evoke this pristine country beautifully. But they aren’t professional writers. Their coffee table book generally have artsy text that, let’s be honest, no one reads. I’m after something else entirely.

What I want to do is take the enthusiast on the creative journey I’m going on from initial concept to final portfolio. I want the writing to give the enthusiast photographer all the logistical info, cool shot locations, plus lighting and composition ideas that they’d get on a fancy (i.e. $$$) photo tour.

And at the end I want the photog to see what I made of all that while sharing the tools they need to develop their own take on things. That’s the plan.

Fjaðrárgljúfur, part of Katla Geopark

Fjaðrárgljúfur, just of the Ring Road in southeast Iceland

Photo Road Trip to Iceland’s South Coast

I’d hoped the South Coast would be the highlight of my Iceland trip — and it was. This part of Iceland was extraordinary and not just because of the warm sun. There are several marquee photo locations along the coastal plain, Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, Black Sand Beach, Dyrholaey Peninsula, Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach.

But there’s also simple beauty along Route 1. The little pull-offs you discover won’t be flashy — but can be a delight because you’re noticing composition and balance in the small things others overlook. Improvising. For an enthusiast, a few days of shooting along the South Coast is pure heaven.
some notes

Ring Road pulloff… You don’t need a fancy waterfall to get your juices going, just a sense of land and light

A little warm sun does wonders after 5 days of wind, cold rain, snow. Watching the vast landscape unwrap as the miles unfold, that is a tangible pleasure. You notice the scale of the coast, the high plateau (there on the left), then the white of the glacier behind, the stream beds of black obsidian, and stately clouds. You start to imagine Norse gods striding the floodplain, trolls turned into stone.

Driving the 4-wheel rental southeast from Reykjavik that afternoon was the perfect antidote for a cold LA boy. Yes, I was starting my drive three hours later than planned. But that was necessary, that’s me getting my act together.

When I had walked out of the Reykjavik airport that first morning and ran into real Iceland weather, I realized how bad my clothing choices had been. Iceland can be brutal in March, that’s why I spent time that morning on the main shopping drag, Laugavegur Street, getting warmer gear (esp. for head and face), a map and trip food. Being aware of the necessities of solo traveling — that’s why I had opted for the 4-wheel drive in the first place.

Once I was fully packed, I called Lagoon Car Rental for pick up. The attentive Lagoon service person picked me up, did the paperwork, then took time to walk me around the Duster. I rarely rent a 4-wheel and wanted to check on the shifting, the GPS, the various idiosyncrasies. She also gave me a heads up to hold on tight when opening the car door. It’s not uncommon for a car door to get ripped off by a strong gust. I mentioned to her I appreciated her thoughtful tips. (An hour later, that tip saved me some dough.)

Trusty Duster

My trusty 4-wheel. … notice the width of the shoulder.

I was already familiar with the other challenge of driving in Iceland. Tourists (like me) love to pull over on those narrow roads and take a photo. That can be annoying when someone else does it and with these roads, risky behavior. Driving conditions are challenging enough in March without having the guy in front slow to a crawl for no apparent reason. There’s also an issue with losing control of the car on the shoulder. The shot above shows the width of the average road shoulders on Route 1, about 2-3 feet. The rest is unsupported gravel with little or no traction.

This pull-off marks where the Ring Road drops down to the low lands of the coastal plain. It’s also the spot where I almost lost the car door — the wind was blasting that hard.

By noon I was on my way, letting the GPS guide me out of the city center over the plateau and down into the lowlands of South Coast. On the road again.

…to be continued

Do a photo tour or choose your own path

Visiting Iceland, a photographer has three choices, to do general day tours to the marquee locations, take dedicated photo enthusiast tours or rent a vehicle and shoot Iceland on your own terms.

I did a couple of standard day tours and they’re worth the money. For $50-$200, you get carted around to the famous spots with someone else handing the logistics and giving you insights on the place and people. The tour quality around Iceland is fairly high.

But as a photographer a one-size-fits-all tour has issues. You’ll be moved when the group is bored, you won’t have control over when you’ll visit that photo spot (kinda important, that one), and some spots won’t be of particular photographic interest. So I treat these tours as location scouting. I’ll get some good images on a general tour but often to get a definitive image, I’ll probably have to return when the time is right.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Dritvik

Taken on a general tour of Snaefellsnes Peninsula — I was complaining about the fierce cold the entire tour but I couldn’t have gotten this shot on a warm, sunny day.

Doing the photo enthusiast tours solves all those issues. The guides are pros, other folks from in country or a pro from the US who comes regularly. They’ll take you to a great set of photo locations when the light is good and they’ll give as much assistance is you need. Plus you’ll be with a small group of photographers. They may not all be pros but they are there because they appreciate the craft. Down side of these tours, they can be nosebleed pricey.

The third choice is to do your own pre-trip research, rent a car, get lodging, find places to eat. More hassle but a fairly cheap way to do things … and total freedom. The unique nature of the landscape seems to feed your creativity. So if someone suggests you visit a location you never heard of, it’s nice to have the freedom to go for it.

And really, it’s not that hard doing your own photo tour. If you made it to Iceland in the first place, you’re savvy enough to find a B&B and rent a car. The Ring Road is good (depending on the season), the local accommodations are fine and the people you meet make all the difference. Icelanders you meet know their country, they’re helpful and may speak better English than you. So if you do decide to travel on your own, you’ll get plenty of support.

The B&B host I stayed with in Vik gave me the full map tour after breakfast. I peppered him with lots of questions and picked up ideas none of the guidebooks mentioned.

Doing the tour research

Of course if you go your own way, you can’t just wander down to the front desk and have them take care of it all. You’re doing your own research both logistical and in terms of your shoot locations.

For me, the first step in my South Coast walkabout was looking at Iceland photos and seeing where those places are. I set up a Pinterest page just for Iceland here. I looked at where the tours were going. I looked for out of the way spots as well as the marquee photo locations. After all, there’s a reason the famous waterfalls attract photographers — even i you have to use Photoshop for crowd removal. (Why doesn’t Lightroom have a slider for that?)

So I study potential shoot locations, look at the images, do the planning, all based on my artistic interests. It didn’t take long to realize the more interesting spots and plot each on a map of the South Coast.

Lodging

A few lodging tips. First, the country has become a hot location and there are less lodging choices than there are potential visitors. So book early.

Don’t rush. Expect that the drive will take longer, that you’ll need to eat and get gas and hang out at the BnB. Don’t treat your personal photo tour like a forced march. Enjoy the place.

I suggest that for a 3 day to 3 week road trip, you’ll want to plant yourself at one or two central locations within that corner of the country. For my South Coast trip I knew I had to take one day for spots along the road south (Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls), another day or two at Vik, then another day for the locations further west like Glacier Lagoon. At each spot I found lodging relatively close to those photo locations.

Renting the car in Iceland

So I put together a roughed out itinerary, booked the guest houses through AirBNB, and got on line to price car rentals. I wasn’t sure if I needed to spend the extra $ to rent a 4-wheel, so I contacted the rental places.

They all recommended that I get a 4-wheel since I would be there at the end of March. Yes, their job is to suggest the pricy option; but it made sense. In March, you can definitely get hit by a snow storm, even on the South Coast. A 4-wheel was another $20 a day but for a 3 day rental, it was worth it for the piece of mind.

[In fact, for one of my group tours, they had to drive a second bus in from Reykjavik because the first couldn’t handle the snow and wind we ran into. Iceland in March.]

 

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