Lake Myvatn, Jewel of the North

Lake Myvatn (pronounced me – vaht) is the blue gem in the intriguing volcanic area of north-northeast Iceland. Just an hour east of Akureyri, the small 14 sq. mile lake is nutrient, making it an attraction for migrating birds. The lake’s too far for most of the tour buses but it gets plenty of Icelanders and savvy tourists. For photographers, the Myvatn area offers a range of landscape possibilities and it’s worth two days (or more) for the Ring Roader.

Myvatn (like Thingvellir) is a marker for where the North American and European continental plates separate.  The lake formed by a volcanic eruption 2300 years ago. And you’ll find everything from volcanic craters and lava columns by the lake. A few miles east, the landscape turns ochre to sulfur gray to lava black.

The lake side is deep green. Yes, there are small hotels and BnBs along the lake road, most in the tiny village of Reykjalid. The town has a small supermarket, gas station, visitor center. The area has various places to eat, an assortment of day tours, a fancy natural bath — and all the natural sights.

Going south from the town on Rt 848 are volcanic cones and lava columns along the water and into the green fields. Further south and east are the nutrient-rich wetlands feasting grounds for a vast range of wildfowl — including 15 or so species of ducks.  The lake’s name my (midge) vatn (lake), is a result of the clouds of midges that come in summer.

Further afield, you’ll find Godafoss waterfall to the west and Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls about an hour’s drive east of the lake.

Photo locations (listed east to west)

Dettifoss & Selfoss. These classic waterfalls are a 40-60 minute drive east of Myvatn depending on which a access road you take. So if Myvatn is your home base, these natural wonders are on your short list.

Krafla. The Krafla area, northeast of Myvatn, includes a big lava field, crater lake, mud pots and a geothermal power station. Geologically, Krafla is how land looks in the first centuries after being created. Photographically the area is all about going abstract, going wide angle.  Go 3 miles east of the lake on Rt 1, then take Rt 863 north for 7 km.

Hverarond. The distinctive brown-orange landscape called Hverarond (or Hverir) is worth a couple hours of walking and/or photo walkabout. There’s lots of mud pots, lava and sulphur streams here. But I was able to be there just before sunset and realized that this shot location makes the most of Golden Hour. Another location that likes wide angle. Tho a 24-70mm will work as well … or a 70-200, or….  Just off the Ring Road about 2 1/2 miles east of the lake.

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Wide angle of Hverarond just before sunset. I’m not sure what was flowing in the graphite-gray stream but that became a leading line to pull the eye into the otherworldly location.

Shooting Volcanics. I’m always hesitant to photograph stuff like mud pots. The colors are always strangely interesting (if not pretty).  But the volcanic elements don’t always fit easily into a composition. So my approach here was to find clear design elements within the complexity.

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Hverarond #2. Playing with foreground/background layering of the various eco elements.

With its unique coloring (and not so charming smell) this location deserves a couple hours of exploration. But like any enthusiast, I wanted to make the most of Iceland’s Golden Hour. So I decided to return again and do the place justice.

Shooting the Lake

West of Hverarond the Ring Road descends into the lake valley.  This is where the turnoff for Jarðböðin við Mývatn, the Myvatn version of the Blue Lagoon, is located. The baths aren’t quite as spa-like as the Reykjavik attraction but there’s food, a great view, less tourists and less price inflation.

Grjotagja Cave. Just west of that turnoff is Rt. 860, the road that takes you to Grjotagja Cave, the hot springs that were featured in Game of Thrones.

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Grjotagja Cave. The cave entrance is on the east so I got here (early) in the morning allowing me to avoid other visitors. I worked my way as far as I could to the side (watch for the low ceiling) and used a tripod.

East side of lake. A mile further west of the cave area, you’re at the junction of Rt. 1 and 848. Rt. 848 is the ring road around the eastern/southern half of the lake. That’s where Reykjahlid is located. But as you continue south, you begin to see the mixture of lake and volcanic views. There’s lot’s to work with.

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Midway on east side, shooting north.

East side of Lake Myvatn

Hverfjall. On the east side of Rt. 848 is Hverfjall, a volcanic cone. It’s also a hiking destination.

Pond off road on east side of Myvatn

Pond just east of the Lake Myvatn ring road.

Southern end of the lake.

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Myvatn at 3 AM

Godafoss. Thirty miles west of Reykjalid on Rt 1 is another of the marquee waterfalls, Godafoss. It is a godly waterfall as its name might suggest. But the history of the “god-falls” name is that one of the forefathers got Christian and dumped all his statues to the Norse gods here.

Tech Specs: I got to Godafoss an hour after dawn. The falls are east-facing but the hills to the east were still blocking the sun. I took my time getting set up. Godafoss can be shot from either side of the river. But the main parking is to the north, just off Rt. 1. And that location opens up the composition (in my opinion) with some interesting foreground elements to choose from. I played around with long exposure but those seemed to have less impact.

I also drove over the bridge to the south side parking. On that side you can shoot from the cliffs or river’s edge. I didn’t get anything worth sharing.

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Godafoss, 1/200 sec., f6.3

Aldeyjarfoss.  Twenty miles upstream from Godafoss is another impressive waterfall, Aldeyjarfoss. The landscape there is nothing but barren rock, much of it basalt. Plus the drive south along Rt 842 or 843 takes a while. But people have gotten good shots here.

Not too far from Lake Myvatn:

Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon. The most expansive canyon in Iceland comes into its own just below Dettifoss. The Hafraigilsfoss waterfall is located there, a couple of miles downstream from Dettifoss.

Ásbyrgi Canyon. Eighteen miles north of Dettifoss, is a couple mile long horseshoe-shaped depression with sheer walls. Legend has it that the canyon is a footprint of Odin’s 8 legged horse, Sleipnir. The place definitely has a mythic quality and a great area for hiking.

Húsavík Whale Watching. An hour’s drive north of Myvatn on Rt. 87 is Husavik, the whale watching capital of Iceland.

Next: on to Akureyri and the northern fjords.

 

Northwest Iceland, a Visit to Dettifoss Waterfall

The section of the Ring Road from Egilsstadir to Lake Myvatn was my least favorite drive. You leave the east coast, head past lush farm lands and drive through fields of black lava for much of the two hours it takes to get to Lake Myvatn. 

There is one important photo location along this section of Ring Road, the Dettifoss waterfall.  Dettifoss is about 85 miles east of Eglisstadir, 25 miles from Lake Myvatn, and the most powerful waterfall in Iceland. Plus, it’s adjacent to Selfoss, a waterfall of equal beauty.

Logistical issues. Dettifoss and Selfoss are something of a rarity in Iceland, they can be approached easily from either side. Rt. 862, the western approach, is shorter and paved. It gets the lion’s share of tourists. This western viewpoint doesn’t give much glimpse of the gorge below.

From the east side, you can walk right up to the cliff edge and aren’t as hampered by the managed overlooks. Unfortunately,  Rt 864 is a longer drive down a dirt road. The route is also less accessible. This section of the Ring Road is at a higher altitude so there are snow issues for most of the year. I had planned to shoot Dettifoss from both sides. But when I came in early May, 864 was closed; the sign saying (in nicer words) if you get stuck on this road, you’ll need a second mortgage to pay the towing fees. So I went with the flow.

Best light. On the other hand, I discovered that Dettifoss’ western view is the better choice in the afternoon. The river, Jokulsa a Fjollum, flows south to north so you’re shooting with the sun behind you. The eastern view will get better light in the morning and a better view upstream. Of course this being Iceland, you’re likely to be shooting on an overcast day.

Layout. An easy walk from the parking lot takes you to a couple of fenced off overlooks. The first overlook is just above the falls. The downstream overlook gives a cleaner composition. It’s easier to get the entire falls into frame.

Dettifoss Waterfall

1/20 sec., F20

This framing gave me some nice leading lines into the image. And since there was a perfect rainbow, I used it. I did play around with shutter speeds at this spot. This waterfall is a powerhouse and I wanted a (somewhat) slower shutter speed to suggest movement in the water without sacrificing definition. So for me, anything slower than 1/20 second gave too much smoothing to the falls for my taste.

One note: The swirling black and white along the cliff edge (center) are patterns in the snow. I’m not sure how they got created but I like the effect. Also, notice that the rainbow stops in midair.

As far as post, I mostly just lightened up the shadows in the lower third of the image.

Selfoss

Another nice thing about this shot location is that it’s a twofer. The Selfoss waterfall is just a ten minute walk upstream. (You’ll see the path off to the left as you head back towards the parking lot.)

Selfoss has just as much water flow as Dettifoss (duh) but the layout allows you to shoot from the cliff edge. Plus, Selfoss has a number of smaller falls leading the eye up to the central area of it. So there are any number of ways you can compose the image successfully.

Selfoss Waterfall

1/500 sec., F8

At 1/500 sec., the foreground waterfall becomes lattice-like and the turbulence in the river is nicely detailed.  So this approach seemed to capture what made Selfoss so unique at that moment.

Between the two waterfalls, the gorge narrows and the river moves fast. So I spent longer working this location, seeing how a longer exposure would impact the motion of water. Here’s an example of that.

Selfoss Waterfall

1/10th sec., F22

For me, the slower shutter speed was too weird. I don’t mind the fall’s blur on the right side. But that 1/10th sec exaggerates the river motion. It’s a powerful photographic choice. But I get almost sea sick looking at it and I can’t imaging anyone having this image on their wall. I could have gone for a much longer exposure, 1-5 minutes. But then I lose all the detailing in the river. And those powerhouse rapids are what captured my attention that afternoon.

None of this is meant to say how these two waterfalls “ought” to be photographed. These perceptions are what moved me on that afternoon. With different lighting, different water levels, I would have gone with another approach. The point is to engage with a place, let it “speak” to you, then use your tools to capture the feeling.

Post. For the two Selfoss images, my core adjustments were to equalize the effects of the light differences. The cliffs getting direct sun were a bit harsh and blown out, the cliffs and water in shadow were too dark. That’s a common challenge for us.

While shooting, I was talking with a young couple about the challenges of photographing a scene like this. They were enjoying the moment, I was thinking out loud.  I probably mentioned how dark the shadows were getting. It was 6:30 by now but the two ladies could still see every detail in the rocks (on the right side) with no trouble. The camera was registering all that as black since I didn’t want the sky getting blown out. People often think you should just “photograph what’s there.” But what the eye sees isn’t what the camera can deliver. That’s the point of post production, the point of shooting in RAW.

…………………..

After shooting Selfoss, I headed down into a final black plain towards Lake Myvatn, my stop for the night. The deep blue lake is a relief after the lava flats. As I noticed early on, in Iceland you don’t have to drive far before the landscape transforms.

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Lake Myvatn is just beyond the mountains.

Hafraigilsfoss waterfall. If you have more time, Hafraigilsfoss waterfall is just a couple of miles downstream from Dettifoss. At this point you’re within Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon which goes on for miles to the north. It’s a popular hiking area. The two roads to Dettifoss, 862 and 864, parallel the canyon. But after Dettifoss, Rt. 862 becomes a dirt road as well.

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