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

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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

At the Klaustur Roundabout

East of Vik, the Ring Road scenery is fairly average by Iceland standards. Southeast Iceland is mostly farmland, black sand beaches and miles and miles of lava fields covered in thick, green moss. A little weird that moss. When you get to a traffic circle, you’ll see the tiny the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur (church farm cloister). 

Klaustur, the local nickname for the town, is quickly forgotten by the roadtrip visitor – they’re biding their time, heading east to Glacier Lagoon. But look closely and you’ll has a thousand years of history, a cataclysmic eruption and Fjaðrárgljúfur, a Geopark that’s a visual feast and was the setting for a Justin Bieber video.

The roundabout is central hub for a church, market, bank, tourist center, fast food joint and gas station, several guesthouses, even a hotel. I decided to stay there, at the Klaustur Guesthouse, because it’s so close to the river canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur, my favorite shot location in the area.

But my plan was to shoot this canyon in the evening light. So I stopped by the gas station/fast food joint for lunch and to see if the town offered anything for the curious tourist. 

I ordered the grilled chicken sandwich and lemonade and continued talking to my server, a young guy from Hungary. He started off with a story about his grandfather and the Nazis worthy of Tarentino. Then conversation turned to life for a guest worker in Iceland; he and the others here were summer workers from Eastern Europe. They made good money and my new friend was an enthusiastic explainer of the local sights. So I got the scoop on what to do.

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Of moss and history. It’s believed that Klaustur was where a group of Irish monks settled before the Norse arrived in the Ninth Century. By 1186 a Catholic cloister was founded in the area. Their farm was on the ridge, set next to the lake, Systravatn (“water of the sisters”). Just below that was the locally famous sight Systrafoss (“waterfall of the sisters”). The Laki volcano, few miles north of all this, was the site of a massive eruption in 1783, one of the worst in European history. All of these pieces of history are written in the stone and and culture of the town.

Guesthouse Klauster and Systrafoss falls as seen from a pull-off on Rt. 1.

It was too early to check in Klaustur Guesthouse so I stopped by the Visitors Center on the way — it’s at 10 Klausturvegur road, just off the roundabout. Besides the local travel flyers and books, they have a little exhibit going, 10 or 12 types of moss under glass bell-jars — plus the excellent video on the Laki volcano. 

The volcanic eruptions that happened at Laki from the summer of 1783 till early 1784 were the largest of the last thousand years in Europe. For a full 8 months, 42 billion tons of lava, 120 million tons of poison gases and ash blasted out of the fissure at Laki, killing 25% of Iceland’s population. The hydrogen fluoride gases killed 80% of the country’s sheep and 50% of the horses and cattle.

The release of the sulfur dioxide gases also had a cataclysmic effect in Europe. The thick haze decreased the amount of sunlight by enough to make that winter a deadly one in Europe. Even in North America the effects were significant, causing the Mississippi River to freeze over at New Orleans.

The months of dark haze caused crop failure as far away as Egypt. The famine in France was more deadly, one of the causes of the French Revolution. Remember “Let them eat cake?” Marie-Antoinette may not have said the iconic line, but the famine was real and deadly, even for the queen. According to the documentary, the Laki volcano killed a million people world-wide. 

Klaustur, just south of the epicenter, was the town hardest hit. The scope of the lava flow was immense by any standards and the farmers in the area were devastated. After a month and a half of nightmarish damage, the people were certain their lives were over. That Sunday in July 1783, they gathered at the Klaustur church with a major lava flow bearing down on them.

The pastor, Jon Steingrimsson, delivered the sermon. He understood clearly that this nightmare was God’s doing, that evil was walking the Earth. And he gave his eldmesse, his “Fire Sermon,” demanding that the congregation look within, acknowledge their sins. He must have been particularly effective in urging the congregation to re-dedicate themselves to God. By the time the service was over, the lava had stopped. The worst of it was over.

After 20 minutes, the historical video was over as well. So I checked out the display on the ecology of moss and lava. And yes, moss is another part of the Laki story. The moss I saw that day was nature’s answer to the miles and miles of new-made lava. The eruption of 1783 is still recent in terms of geological history. And ever since, the moss has slowly turned black stone into vegetative earth. 

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The pull-offs in this area offer several vantage points for photographing how the Laki event looks today. The experience, miles of moss and black lava, is almost otherworldly — and hard to capture in a composition. But finding a bit of hillside allowed me to make sense of the amorphous blobs and use Rt. 1 as a leading line.

I headed to the guesthouse to check in. The Klaustur Guesthouse is just down the Klausturvegur road from the visitors center. The folks at the front desk know all about the town’s history and mentioned that path behind the guesthouse leads past the waterfall and up the plateau. So once I showered, I headed up the trail, camera in hand. 

An old sod-roof shed, a path into a dark wood, the sound of a waterfall. In Iceland, the old world, the land of the Sagas, is just at the edges of our modern time.
Forests are hard for the camera to make sense of — too many design elements mushed together. But I opened up the lens, narrowed the DOF to capture the mood.
Systrafoss from the trail viewpoint. Not sure who the model on the rock was. 
From higher up the trail, the substratum of Laki lava gets obvious.

The trails behind Klaustur Guesthouse are open to anyone; this landscape is a piece of history. The walk is popular with families and couples. Nothing spectacular by Iceland standards. But a pleasant walk in a quiet forest has its own rewards.

And that’s Klaustur, the cloister town, the village at the traffic circle. Very little of this stuff makes its way into the guidebooks. The tour buses drive by, on their way to Skaftafell National Park and Jokulsaron Glacier Lagoon. But Pastor Steingrimsson and his Fire Sermon are a part of every Icelander’s heritage and Klaustur is a tourist destination for them.

Up next: Photo Walkabout at Fjaðrárgljúfur river canyon

Final days before leaving for Reykjavik

I’ll be headed to LAX at 9 AM Thursday, two days. Not much time suddenly. I’ve already starting packing, the big one we have. Yes, I’m trying this bigger suitcase approach out for Iceland. … why…

If I’m staying in a country for 2 weeks, in Iceland, with the near constant weather changes — and clothing changes, all the photography equipment, a tripod, and all the just plain stuff we each feel we need to keep close. There’s no way all that’ll fit in a pack and a carry-on bag.

And with the Iceland Ring Road, a big suitcase isn’t a problem. You’re driving with it most of the day, stowed away but easily accessible. You only need to drag it into the guesthouse. You keep your camera gear in a well chosen day pack.  And it’s just more pleasant with the big suitcase to have everything you might need.  

Tripod Talk

It turns out that it’s generally fairly easy having a tripod along the Ring Road. I hate bringing a tripod on a long hike — like the hike up to Subway (Zion NP) from below. It’s a steady 4 mile hike up a wet rocky creek bed (and then back). And that tripod get’s heavy by mile 2.

But in Iceland, there’s an amazing number of photographic possibilities that can be reached with no more than a short hike. And let’s remember that two of Iceland’s most popular photo landscapes are waterfalls and seascapes. And that means tripod.

Not to say you can’t thoroughly enjoy the country with only a tablet or phone camera. I shoot a lot with my phone camera, those shots are part of the social media communication and a useful record of GPS location and even what Apple’s algorithms made of the at that shoot location.

Shutter speed is fun to play with… even if tripods are a pain in the butt. The thing is, time duration, i.e. the open shutter, is an essential tool for presenting the dynamics of nature. How much blur to you show for a hummingbird wing, how gossamer to make the waterfall or tidal pools. Those choices resonate in the creative mind.

Thinking about itinerary

So here are some of my current impressions for those planning their own Ring Road walkabout.

Research materials. Given my location and image research, I know a lot about potential landscape locations. I know (many) of the spots the photo tours go to, a lot of equally cool locations too far for a Reykjavik day tour to bother with. I’ve read the travel articles, guidebooks and Pinterest. And I know what Iceland spots show up on a spin through Instagram, 500 px or ViewBug. And because I did all that stuff and saw where it all was on the map, I started to know my itinerary.

Staying on the Road? Research these photo locations and you realize they aren’t all on the Ring Road. How could they be, it’s a whole country. Godafoss and Skogafoss waterfall are (basically) on the road, Lake Myvatn is, Hofn, Joklaross Glacier Lagoon, Black Sand Beach, etc. Lots of important sights and fun pull-offs.

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The Golden Circle is within the Ring Road, a one day mini tour. Snaefelsness Peninsula and the fjord areas are but unique unto themselves and worth the detour. So to capture the full flavor of the place, I’m making several detours — done purely to satisfy my own creative interests.

What to see? I’ve spent a couple of weeks now going through the guidebooks, Pinterest and web for anything Iceland. All to help me see this place more fully in my mind’s eye: for interesting little Ring Road towns, black sand beaches, coastal shot locations, waterfalls of some distinction, connections to the past, connections to the Icelandic DNA, whatever that means.

Where to stop? I’ve also had to nail down my BnB/hotel/AirBnB stops. Iceland isn’t a place where you just drive up to the motel that has the Vacancy sign lit up. Thirty miles beyond Reykjavik what you have is little towns, tiny towns mostly compared even to a Mayberry. They’re spread thin along Rt 1 and do not have much capacity, not if you’re visiting during the warmer season.

Plus, whatever lodging research you do gives you a sense of how the sights and the towns line up along the road. In two days, I will know that information directly but for now I’ve got an internal framework.

Route 66. The Ring Road is kinda like the old Route 66 in ways. You have these quite small towns strung out across a tough landscape. Most owe their existence to agriculture/ husbandry, fishing and more and more, tourism and culture. And the Ring has a kind of culture of its own, a way the traffic moves, the way businesses engage with the tourist visitor and the way that Iceland as a country exists in it’s own day to day rhythms  — along that same Ring Road.

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An itinerary. And at this point I’ve put together a day to day itinerary with all my potential shot locations, all the (maybe) interesting towns, public pools (hot spring fed), museums. I even have the gps coordinates for my lodging and photo sites so I can just dial that in to the car’s system.

A sense of place. I’m starting to get to the character of each area. The island has enormous diversity with each area, whether city, Westfjords, South Coast, Golden Circle. I need to attend to the textures of each. Even in the short week I spent in March there, I was constantly being surprised at how the landscape and feeling of place changed as the kilometers slipped by — from the higher elevations of Thingvellir to the low farmland of the South Coast.

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Planning vs. Improvising

I really have done far more travel planing than usual for this trip. The motivation was the project, the excitement about shooting this unique landscape, this igneous, black pebble resting between the Atlantic and the Arctic. And because my focus is so geared to creating an Iceland portfolio, I’ve asked myself (and the internet) what parts of this country appeal to me creatively and personally. For me, the less tamed, less visited places have a strong pull. But these places don’t show up on screen 1 of Google.

For me, up front research was essential. The danger is that the extra research and the filled-in itinerary get in the way of the enjoyment. That’s the “…if it’s Thursday, this must be Belgium” approach that happens on highly planned tours which rushes people from place to place — till battle fatigued sets in. Uhh.

A road trip itinerary. This “death march” approach to travel is painful. And it can happen all too easily when you’re doing a road trip. You generally figure you need to get to the next BnB   every night. But for me it’s better to mix it up, take an extra 2 hours here, don’t go there till tomorrow morning.  And really 14 days is a fairly easy pace for the Ring Road, as long as you don’t do too many detours. Even with the longer excursions I’m doing, my next lodging I will be (on average) about 100 miles away, about a two hour drive with no stopping. Doing the Ring Road in a week — that can be a death march.

That’s the point of me knowing the more interesting cultural and photographic spots along the way. I don’t need to stop at any of them, just stay in the hotel till it’s time to drive to the next one. I can also spend all my time at a waterfall or sea stacks. I won’t know how things will go until I see what the weather, road conditions and light are like.

The light. And, since the next lodging is only 50 or 100 miles, I can do a quick drive by of a shot location and then double back later in the day or the next morning. That’s important. Because my whole approach is to visit photo spots when the light is good, otherwise why shoot it?

This doesn’t mean I don’t shoot a spot when its overcast or not Golden Hour, just the opposite. Many of my best Iceland photos from March were shot at Snaefelsness Peninsula when we had a foreboding sky and 30 mph winds. I was cold and rushed on the tour but capturing those waves blasting against the black sea stacks was delicious.

But the  one criteria for most of my BnB choices was to stay close to the landscape locations I most wanted to visit. It’s a bit more expensive to stay close to the marquee sights. But that proximity allows you to wander over in the evening or just after rolling out of bed in the morning — when the light is perfect and there’s not a tour bus to be found. Sweet.

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For the next 2 weeks, Facebook will be my main social outlet.

The lure of Kauai

Growing up an Army brat (and with parents who were brats), the Hawaiian islands were part of our family history, our travel DNA. My mother came here just before the war. And my Mom’s rendition of the old Honolulu show tune, “When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop,” seemed to capture the spirit of Old School Hawaii. I’ve often wished I had a recording of her version; the last line, “Hattie’s sure to die from too much gin,” is etched in my brain forever.

I liked our trips the the islands, in a family vaca kind of way. But as a writer of a travel/photography blog and the occasional book, I’ve begun to see Kauai, Maui, Hawaii and even Oahu with a new respect. The islands are as intriguing to me as a landscape photographer as Iceland or the Southwestern national parks. Plus, I appreciate the range of nature-related experiences that are available.

Hawaii’s an easy trip from the West Coast, not too pricey if you go the condo route. More important, the islands work on lots of levels: cultural, personal, creative/artistic. But 2 or 3 months ago, when I was trying to imagine the shape of our next little trip, Kauai in particular kept coming to mind.

We’d been to the other 3 islands in the last five years. But M had never done Kauai, so she wondered how it stacked up against The Big Island and Maui (her fav). I hadn’t been on Kauai in over 15 years, when I did an outdoorsy solo trip.

I’ve come so many times and know the basics, beach, luau, snorkel tour, restaurants, a smidgeon of Hawaiian culture and ecology — all that good stuff. And all those choices become more personal if I add in photography and a helping of creative exploration. That was my idea.

Anini Beach, Afternoon Swim

Anini Beach, Afternoon

An Old Photo in an Album

My first Kauai experience had been a family trip there in the mid-90s, a few years after Hurricane Iniki had leveled much of the island. That trip didn’t do much for me, no time on my own to explore.

The second trip to Kauai did stay in my head, partly because of a photograph. That trip had included a scuba trip, the NaPali Coast hike, the Waimea Canyon and Overlook drive and general forays around in my rental car. I started to see that deeper side of the island that time, but I never went all that deep.

But the thing from that trip that stayed in imagination was when I took that photo of the Waimea Canyon overlook and a little helicopter.

Waimea Canyon, @2002

Scan of old photo

I only had a P&S, not 35mm; film, so no Lightroom or Photoshop. But I loved that shot. I so clearly remember that overlook. Seeing those cliffs and valleys glowing in late morning light. Zooming in on those massive barrel shaped canyon walls, all that iron-red lava. The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” indeed. I was just starting to around with composition back then and when the copter entered the frame, well…

I blew it up to 8×10 and plopped it into an album. The quality looked fine to me then. Now, with the photo technology, post prod tools — and more important, with my training and experience, something is missing. The image isn’t flashy, I’d delete it these days. But it has a core of experience. Obviously, on a technical level the image is flat and crude. The moment of creative discovery held so much more than was captured with a mid-90s point and shoot.

That was another motivation for wanting to visit Kauai again, to shoot that location now — now that my equipment is landscape photography grade and I’m a bit better at seeing composition. I wanted to go back, to do justice to Kauai as photo location. So I returned and M came with me.

1st signed Wiamea Canyon lookout

Wiamea Canyon 2017

Going Deeper into a Place

Ultimately, the idea of returning to Kauai for a third time (first for my wife) kept pulling my attention. Most of the earlier trips to Oahu, Maui and Hawaii happened as family vacations. Three generations of family. Everyone did beachy stuff and sightseeing, the occasional museum, snorkeling, a little hiking.

And don’t get me wrong, these were great as family vacations. But all the photography-oriented trips I do now, my  blog posts on Iceland from this last March (or my Zion/Bryce and Arches/Canyonlands books) have taught me to see these classic locations as places of self discovery.

I think the best shot locations have a balance or geology, light, compositional elements, culture, experience. So another motivation for Kauai was to see the island at that level.

And as I sit here in Poipu, I’m starting to figure out what pulls me in. On some level, I’m becoming more enticed by the simple. I’m not letting myself get as sucked into the media-driven angst and the political. Yeats’ line, “… the center cannot hold” is a true statement of our out-of-sorts time. But I won’t let that be my reality.

I’m learning to not let the endless media hand-wringing define me. Instead I’ve been staying more centered, doing stuff that’s as close to fully positive as I can muster. And part of that process is maintaining a creative focus that mirrors the sense of balance I choose to move towards. Kauai seemed a good choice for that internal work.

Hanalei by Farmers Market

Taro Field, Hanalei

Garden Isle

Kauai, the “Garden Isle,” is spoken of as the most fully Hawaiian of the four main islands — because it’s the least touristy, most laid back — closest to the Hawaii of old. Not surprisingly, it’s the least populous of the big 4 with about 70,000 residents. Oahu, location of Honolulu, has about a million folks and gets the lions share of visitors. And the lack of population density allows nature to become primary, to take center stage.

Kauai has also practiced been a Hawaiian Island longer. The island was formed about 6 million years ago as the Pacific Plate shifted and volcanos created new land. Oahu formed a couple million years later, Maui a couple million years after that. The baby, The Big Island, was formed half a million years ago and continues to have lava flows.

As the older sibling, Kauai has a more lived in attitude. Six million years of tropical rain have hidden the lava base under thick jungle and create weathered valleys — the most obvious being Waimea Canyon. So the density of nature and natural colors creeps into your spirit when you’re here. And when a photographic artist puts the attention on these elements, it can have a healing effect on photographer and audience.

And after all, that’s a core value of landscape photography, using nature to remind us that harmony and order exist. Going to Kauai allows me to immerse myself in this aspect of life.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

The weathered core of time

Photographing Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula

As a photographer, I treat a destination like Iceland with enormous respect. I research the place with as much depth as I can muster: do searches of tours (both enthusiast-oriented and general), read up on the culture, talk to friends. And mostly try to connect the best images I find (often on Pinterest) with logistical issues.

And for me, the two areas that held the most charm artistically were the South Coast and Snaefellsnes peninsula. I decided early on to do several days along the South Coast with a 4-wheel rental. The place is a few hours from Reykjavik and has 6 or 8 excellent photo locations. But the Snaefellsnes photo sites were harder to get hard data on – so I decided to do a one day tour.

Reykjavik Excursions, like all the major providers, picks you up at your hotel fairly early, @7:30. And after getting folks checked in, it’s off for the (very long) day.  The peninsula is north-west of the city, over two hours away. So our guide spent the first hour or so doing an overview of the country. Some notes:

Historically, fishing has been the most important industry, not surprising given the island’s location along the northern edge of the Gulf Stream. Iceland had to fight other nations (particularly the UK) to maintain this industry from being overfished during the “Cod Wars.”

The country’s location also gave this little country (330,000 people) two big airports absolutely free. During WW2, the Brits built the city airport for a base in the mid-Atlantic. Soon after, the American’s built what became the international airport would become a prime base for NATO during the Cold War. (In fact, the American troops didn’t leave the country until 2006.) That also meant Iceland got more money under the Marshall Plan.

The airports and a mid-Atlantic location also led to the country having a far larger presence in the airline industry (with Icelandair) than its size would warrant.

All the troops led to a TV station that played American film and TV. One reason the natives speak such good English.

The country gets all it’s energy from renewables, esp. geothermal.

Tourism is now the largest industry and in the last few years (since the volcanic eruptions put Iceland on everyone’s radar screen).

The country still has some dairy and sheep farming but it’s difficult to make a living in this traditional way even for folks whose family’s have been involved for years. There are any number of Icelandic horses and some are still used for sheep roundups. Most are for personal use or for tourists.

Our guide also answered the question everyone had on their minds, why’s it so expensive. Partly the answer is the cost of importing so many goods. Part of the problem is infrastructure. A country half the size of Great Britain has to have roads and harbors all over the place. But Iceland has less than 1% of the population.

Approaching Snaefellsnes

As we climbed into the higher elevations, our guide pointed out the light reflectors by the side of the road. Each about a meter high and maybe 20 meters apart on the side of the road.  The snow is an issue for half the year in this area (as in most of the country). And during snowstorms, the reflectors are the only thing telling drivers if they’re still on the road.

The wind is also a huge factor. Once you leave the lowlands, the wind can blast a car or truck of the road fairly easily. In fact, just the day before our tour a bus was blown over.

 

Torrance Farmers Market: Americana Reconsidered

The Torrance Farmers Market, Saturday edition, is the largest in the South Bay. Not quite as large as Santa Monica (or as urban) but with more food options and (generally) live music. In addition to the farmers and the shoppers, you can often find a ball game happening. It’s a bit Norman Rockwell, but in a multicultural universe.

Details. The market goes for earlier than I get there till about 1 PM. It’s at Wilson Park on Crenshaw between Carson and Sepulveda. The main lot gets crowded and I generally park in the Korean church lot.

I prefer to bring my little Fuji X-T2 over my Canon 5D MIII. It’s not so much the weight as the logistics of public photography. A little mirrorless doesn’t make folks think their pic will be spread all over the internet by someone from the National Enquirer, and it won’t be. People get into a certain zone here and part of my job is to let them go with that.

The South Bay is a voraciously diverse melting pot of multicultural harmony. And each visitor to this version of Norman Rockwell has their own deal with the world.  For these kinds of pics, I try to give each  his or her due.

Action Figures

Wilson Park is Saturday headquarters for kids and family sports. This flag football game was of particular interest on this misty morning. And I got to use the X-T2’s low speed burst to track the action. A sampling of those shots.

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More Action figures

People shots

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Strawberry Man

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Big Sur and the Central Coast With Camera, Final Thoughts

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
—Leonard Cohen

At some point I want to publish something on Highway 1 photo locations from Monterey and Big Sur to points south. This piece of highway is known as one of the ultimate road trips. But it’s far more than the driving-up-the-coast media myth. And my recent time on the highway to Sur reminded me yet again how a camera can act as a door into the creative mind.

For most of us, the Central Coast is part Hollywood dream, part reality. Even if we drive it on a weekend, we don’t know it. But like Walden took shape for Thoreau, spending real time in this area, engaging in nature, can unlock the creative juices in wonderful ways.

But what makes this piece of landscape unique? How does it resonate as a place to create art? I can’t speak for anyone else. But my experience, why I keep returning, is that the locations along this archetypal highway are so purely, abstractly Nature and physics. They resonated in a more primal way than almost anywhere I’ve been on the Coast.

This sliver of coast, starts (for the sake of argument) at Morro Rock, the focal point for endless forays into bad photography. The road, curving past the golden hills God leased to the Hearsts, takes a visitor to waterfalls and hidden coves, ancient cliffs and endless ocean. At the north end, the ribbon of highway spills into the raw coastal Monterey Peninsula and one of the richest eco-systems of our country.

As a whole, the land here is a study in pure composition and the dynamic force of ocean. Doing justice to that reality in a photo is impossible — and a lovely pleasure to attempt.

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Inception

I’ve traveled Hwy. 1 lots of times since moving to the South Bay. And I’ve been wanting to do this road the right way. Even before writing the Utah landscape photography books, I’ve known that to do my best work, I need to plant myself in a place — be a photographic Thoreau. Drive-by photography (which is the norm for most here) doesn’t cut it. So I’ve been thinking of doing a week or more along this stretch of highway.

My creative focus really crystalize once I decided to do a Monterey Peninsula photo tour with Mark Comon.  Mark has done this trip for years and I knew he would have plenty to share. Doing any good photographer-oriented tour gives you a real leg-up when it comes to shot locations. And an expert like Mark is a wealth of knowledge on the artistic and logistical issues of an area. So I decided to make that tour the first three days of my week of exploration.

The Photo Tour

My approach meant heading up on Interstate 5 on a Sunday in October to join the tour.  We got settled in at Carmel Mission Inn and Mark gave us the overview of the agenda and tour locations in that area, Garapata State Beach, Point Lobos Reserve, Asilomar State Beach, Carmel Mission, Bixby Bridge. All amazing photo locations. Plus we had a chance to spend time at the studio of Kim Weston, grandson of the great Edward Weston and an inspiring photographer in his own right.

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I’ve photographed several of the spots before. But working with the photo group like Mark’s puts you on your best behavior. Plenty of time at each spot, plenty of photo knowledge from Mark, feedback from the other shooters, a real focus on technique. And in the evening, more time to connect with the enthusiast community. (Which may be the most important takeaway.)

When I’m shooting on my own, I don’t always have the luxury (or desire) to carry a full kit and tripod. If you’re shooting at Subway slot canyon (in Zion NP), you have to carry a tripod and wide angle, that’s plenty on an eight mile hike. But for the Carmel locations, it was easy to take a range of lenses plus polarizer, neutral density filter, etc., because the locations were all so close. And Mark’s folks were serious about getting to a spot and thinking about composition and technique before shooting. What a concept.

So our 3 1/2 days on tour challenged me to constantly up my game. There really is nothing more useful to an enthusiast than a well-run photo tour regardless of your skill level.

Next Stage

End of photo tour, goodby hugs, contact info exchanged. Some folks going home, some continuing with the Mark Comon/Kim Weston class. Me doing a 3 day walkabout down the coast. I started that Thursday shooting Lovers Beach in Pacific Grove and then moved down-coast through Pebble Beach to Carmel.

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I got to Lovers Beach early enough that the Peninsula was still locked in fog. That gave the coast the sense of moody abstraction that is a hallmark of the area.

For Lovers Beach, I decided to do one of my walkabouts. My walkabout approach has certain rules:

  • Behave as I would on a professional shoot
  • Follow (as much as possible) my creative intuitions
  • Shoot in close to real time
  • Attend to the changing dynamics of nature (waves, wind, tides, light) on a moment-to-moment basis
  • Ride my camera setting as situations change
  • See the composition, then shoot, then analyze the result and make adjustments
  • Document how the human element engages with Nature

Some of these creative adjustments are standard for any good enthusiast. But I like to remind myself of these ideals so my internal computer is running the latest software for that shoot location.

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My Lovers Beach walkabout got me totally stoked and I felt good about the whole session. The approach also allowed me to stay in the creative zone for two hours straight with an occasional break to snack and hydrate and remind myself to listen.

After that there was time to wander through Pacific Grove and then shoot along the western beaches, mostly Asilomar. I ended the day by doing the 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach. That part was decidedly underwhelming.

Heading down the coast

The rest of my time was spent further down the road, in heart of Big Sur and the lower Central Coast. The coastline that Hwy. 1 follows is (if taken as a whole) one of the richest eco-systems in North America. But like a glacier, much of this natural dynamism is found below the surface. The crustaceans and endless kelp fields, fishes and happy otters flow through the coves of the coast.

I’ve gotten some decent photos from the pull-offs along the way. But I didn’t see this road trip as the national treasure it is. (And really, why doesn’t our country have road trips that are designated national treasures?)

And as I mentioned above, I choose to treat each pull-off as a potential shoot rather than just jump out of the car, take a few shots and drive to the next spot. Some spots weren’t worth more than a look-see. But it takes only 5 or 10 minutes to gauge a place and take in that vista. And, if the location warrants, I would go through a full analysis of what I liked about the place, which shot location would be the best starting point, and begin to explore compositions.

Several spots in the Big Sur part of the coast were a creative goldmine given the gray morning and sea mist.

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The Cayucos location was one spot that I’ve never noticed before that I totally loved. I spent over an hour there.

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Thoughts on Shooting

Because anyone who’s into road trips or photography (or is a poet at heart) can take this creative guide for their own purpose, spend a weekend or a month in this place. I don’t think anyone needs to be a photo enthusiast to visit this spot. But having a creative path to follow helps.  Whether you are poet, painter or photographer,  breathing in the Highway 1 locations can act like a Walden experience for creative exploration.

Here are a few steps I take at locations along the road to get me into the creative mind:

Don’t fight tourists. Don’t even think of doing the drive on a weekend in summer. You might as well be driving up to Malibu on PCH. Go for a week during the off-season. The nay-sayers would say, “But there’s never an off-season for the Central Coast. You can have traffic jams in November.” True. But on weekdays between November and the end of April, you can find relative seclusion. And for many photographers, a great shot of the rough cliffs in fog is worth ten picture postcard days in July.

Forget the destination. So, you’ve reserved a place to lay your head; you’ve booked that in advance. And once you’re settled in Cambria, Big Sur, Pacific Grove, etc., make the decision to forget the time and simply follow your instincts.

Breathe in, don’t drive.  Yes, you will drive to one destination or another, this is a road trip. But spend 90% of the time at a place. Pull over when intuition tells you. Take that spot in. Walk into nature, see if that little pull-off or park can intrigue. If you’re just getting a few snaps at one stop and the next, you’re doing something wrong.

The cliffs and seascapes unwrap over a hundred miles of two-lane. The trick is minimize the driving and maximize the creative silence. And that really isn’t so hard to do if you cover the area in a week rather than two days.

Plant yourself for longer periods if you can. Thoreau spent a year at Walden, just aligning himself with the seasons. Henry Miller didn’t do drive-by work, he made that a home base and turned the experience into a book. Edward Weston photographed Point Lobos State Reserve time and again over the years. He was at one beach there so often, they named it after him.

So forget about spending hours driving while your on the Central Coast. Drive for half an hour to Julia Pfeiffer State Beach. Go before the crowds hit and figure on spending a few hours. Realize that if it’s a Tuesday morning in March photograph, that beach waterfall will be all yours.

Learn to see the physical and artistic dynamics of each location. There are plenty of places with cool landscapes. But few mountain or desert vistas allow you to see the presence of Nature this intimately, viscerally. These parks and pull-offs are ocean ecosystems. They change moment-to-moment. And for photographers, that means that your composition is going to change each second. The ocean blasts itself against a cliff face, a flock of heron winds it’s way past, the fog gives way.

Seeing the Shooting Dynamics of Sur

The coves along this road are physics in pure form. The moon pulls at the ocean, the cliffs slowly erode, fog rises, the light filters in, and below the waves, the eco-system goes with the flow. It’s your job as an artist to plant yourself in the midst of that, to frame these impulses of matter and energy into composition.

For me, it helps to think I’m standing there right at the center of a spinning merry-go-round composing the perfect alignment of wooden horse and child. The whole picture is in constant motion. You can’t control that. But you can set your tripod so as to frame the spinning wheel or ocean and cliff in a way that pleases you — knowing the various elements of wave and wind will repeat now and again. And you’ll be ready.

That’s really all you can do, prepare yourself and then improvise. And that’s just what the pros do, set up at a good spot, crank off several images to cover the possibilities, then recompose.  And in one of those shots, a sea otter will be perfectly happy coasting along the curve of that next wave. Here’s a bit of my interior thought process when I’m out.

OK. Why does this spot appeal? … How do I frame it … and what are the elements I want to include anyway? Yeah, I want to align these two massive structures in my foreground, I want that distant cove as background, ..maybe go a bit higher there. Let’s get the timing right when that wave hits… maybe if I slow down the shutter speed it will heighten the impact. Guess I need to use my neutral density filter. …Let’s frame it tighter so there’s no clutter.

These are the kinds of things that take you on a creative journey. It’s all process for the photographer and it’s all physics — and composition.

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