Posted on June 19, 2018
Reynisfjara, known in Internet parlance as Vik Black Sand Beach, is one of the most popular photo locations in Iceland — as a visit to the 500px site will confirm. The beach is a generous expanse of blue-black set off by distinctive sea stacks and the dark North Atlantic. The final major design element is the basalt columns that frame the black sand. It’s an excellently nice view. And with some luck in your dawn colors, you might have something that can be hung on a wall and savored.
Reynisfjara even has a legend attached, that the big sea stacks are trolls that were coming home after a night of dark purpose. They were caught, outside after dawn — which as we all know, turns a troll to stone. … “See kids, that’s them out there in the waves.”
It’s always tough to get a decent rest that first night in a country, especially with a 7 hour time difference. So my first morning at Vik started before 4AM with me wide awake. I didn’t mind, this was the morning for a dawn shoot at Black Sand Beach. I checked the light to the east: clear skies, dawn colors were OK, cold wind. Stowed everything in the Dacia and headed east on Rt 1.
I’d chosen a guesthouse that would be close to the best photo spots. So it was only a couple of miles to the Rt 215 turnoff — there’s a big sign for the Black Beach Restaurant. The drive goes down to a gravel parking lot next to the restaurant. At 4:20, I was the only one there. Before heading down to the beach, I read the signs about how dangerous Reynisfjara can be.
Reynisfjara is another iconic Iceland photo location so lots of photographers from around the world have their shot of the Vik Black Sand Beach. And if you’re spending bucks to photograph a place, you’ve seen versions of the place before traveling — I certainly had before my visit in March 2017.
That March, I made the mistake of arriving just before 9AM. But for a variety of reasons, light conditions, selfie sticks, I hadn’t gotten anything I liked.
This had been a nice moment, spray in the air, low tide so a long expanse of beach, morning light is nice but undramatic. You can see what a cool spot this is. But I hadn’t done justice to the place, something had been missing. This time I was there (almost) at down, no one climbing on the basalt columns, no one there at all. Payback time.
Road trip visit
Like lots of enthusiasts and pros, I do a bit of preparation for a shot location I care about. I’m somewhat aware of the different visual elements from seeing other people’s work. but once I’m there, I try and see the place fresh.
It’s kinda light how a stage actor works. They know the lines, the blocking, the subtext. But once they’re live, they want to take in what the other actor is giving them — then play off of that energy. Just being in the moment. So I took in the weather, the ocean, the wind, and slowly got my head into gear.
I read the little welcoming signs. Noticed the warning about “sneaker waves,” the image of waves wearing high top Keds came to mind. But I wasn’t feeling flip. The surf is strong here, Iceland’s tip reaches deep into the North Atlantic. And statistically, Reynisfjara pulls a tourist to a cold death almost every year.
When I got to the beach, I made sure to leave my gear pack above the high water mark. I’d rather walk 20 feet to grab a ND (neutral density) filter than run after a floating camera bag. I wasn’t too worried about getting carried away myself. If my focus is on the basalt columns, I will have to be shooting at the back end of the beach.
I got the tripod up and popped on my 24-105mm f4 (a Sigma).
Breathing the place in
On cold days in Iceland, it’s hard not to notice the wildness of the place, the clean, stripped down beauty. The wind was whipping the waves into white froth. There was full cloud cover to the west, the east was starting to clear. Birds flying around the sea stacks, occasional waves forcing me to back up. It was a lot to take in.
The view west towards the Dyrholaey peninsula (above) was lovely. But the eastern view, with so many design elements and the dawn light, that was the play. And with no climbing tourists, the intriguing basalt columns were the perfect foreground element. That part was already in my head, the columns and sea stack relationship, the waves coming in. Plus there was a rose coloring in the eastern clouds, above the blue. That’s the moment.
On this day, the cliffs, wave action, sea stacks and light were the elements I wanted to focus on, to balance.
The above shot was a good first effort for me. The stark silhouette, a breaking wave, birds flying around the trolls. But the dawn light wasn’t great. The composition worked, the alignment of stacks, the clouds, wave coming in. But the basalt columns, my foreground element on the left, didn’t feel right, not enough of something.
I wandered closer to the basalt. That’s one of the fun things about going wide angle, you can get quite close to a landscape feature, give it more focus, without losing the rest of the composition. I liked this one. You could see how much those columns have been shaped by the ocean. … But let’s keep exploring.
Then I got hit by the combination of high tide and a sneaker wave. It was good I had left my gear bag that far up the beach, that I hadn’t been working closer to where the waves hit. Kinda cool (esp. my feet).
I decided to see what would happen if I slowed my shutter speed a bit — just to play with how the foamy surf would look against the black sand. A slower shutter can add dynamism to the image — or not. So, playing aggressively with a longer shutter speed.
This shutter choice creates a certain blur. It’s a cool effect, a sense of acceleration. But it has an undertone of edge, jitter, that overpowers the rest of the composition.
So I dialed back the shutter speed to .2 sec and pulled the trigger as the foamy surf was coming in. Since that section of the beach is closest to the camera, it has more of a blur than the breaking wave at right-center. But my biggest discovery was what happens when you give those black columns even more real estate. Now the sky’s getting better too.
For my fav shot, I kept the same slower shutter but caught the incoming wave just as it reaches its full height. A point of rest. There is a bit of motion in the breaking wave (center-right) but the overall feeling is settled, suspended. I also like the balance between columns and the trolls — and having that gold and blue overhead was the bonus.
In post, I added a bit of sheen and focus to bring out the ebony in the basalt. And I cooled off the sky so none of the color or cloud texture was blown out.
PS. By 5:30 it was time to head back to bed for some shut-eye before the (free) guesthouse breakfast. 😉 But I did stop at the little church that’s just north of Reynisfjara Beach to take advantage of the sky.