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.

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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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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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Vik to Skaftafell, the Journey East

After  1 1/2 days shooting Dyrholaey, Vik Black Sand Beach and the waterfalls, I was ready to continue down the Ring Road. My next stopping point was Skaftafell Hotel, just down from Skaftafell National Park, an hour and a half northeast of Vik. The trip turned out to be full of unplanned discoveries. 

Ninety miles isn’t much. During the first leg, the landscape isn’t much different from the western side of the South Coast. You’re driving through a wide swath of rich farmland sprinkled with sheep and horses that’s overlooked by the usual mesa. After that, the massive footprint of Vatnajokull Glacier pushed the Ring Road down towards the coast.

So the plan was to stop half way and do a 2-3 hour photo shoot at Fjaðrárgljúfur, a 2 million year old canyon park, then head into glacier country and Skaftafell Park. I had done a quick trip to the canyon on my first trip to Iceland, getting there just before dusk (see slideshow below). Fjaðrárgljúfur had a certain magic and I knew the location would be even better with good light.

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But before easing down the road, I needed to upgrade my cold weather gear. I swung by the store, Icewear, to pick up some serious gloves and a balaclava mask on my way out of Vik.  Icewear is as big as any REI store in LA. Finding all that cold weather gear in a town of 200 is kind of impressive.

About 40 miles east of Vik, Rt 1 crosses a lava area that is covered with dense green moss. It’s an intriguing area, most of it fenced off for environmental reasons. It’s worth a stop at one of the road pull-offs.

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Shooting the moss-covered lava was challenging. It’s tactile and otherworldly but too amorphous to fit easily into a composition. Finding a bit of a foreground design and pulling in a distant mountain plateau seemed to work.

Closed for renovation 

When I got to the turnoff for Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, I was in for a surprise. A park ranger was waving visitors over to explain that the canyon was off-limits except for the bridge at the bottom of the stream. The wooden boardwalk that goes along the entire eastern rim was getting a major renovation.

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, the canyon is one of Iceland’s unique photo experiences. Plus this was my one chance to shoot this park, what with me doing the Ring Road. I wanted to see if there was any leeway.

Our ranger was a total pro, articulate, thoughtful, hunky. He explained that as an American, I would understand how important and delicate the ecology of a park can be. He mentioned that it gots 500,000 visitors in 2017, way more than the current wooden boardwalk can’t handle, especially with all the spring rains.

My new ranger friend told me the view from the bridge would be worth it. Knowing that the bridge is located at the bottom end of the canyon, I begged to differ. “Do you think a photo taken from the far end of the Grand Canyon captures the magic of the place?” He got my point. He did allow me to head down to the base of the bridge and wander up river if I wanted. The water was way too cold for that but I did get one or two shots at river level.

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

Not the photo I wanted. But I gained a bit of insight into the challenges Iceland faces in preserving its unique landscape. Plus he gave me a ride back up to my car. We shook hands. He continued working with the new visitors, I continued up the Ring Road.

Along the way

With only 50 miles to my hotel, I had plenty of time to kill. So I kicked back and enjoyed the classic southern countryside, golden-green farmland framed by a mountain plateau… plus a wind-swept waterfall.

Waterfall in SE coast, 60 miles east of Vik in Sidu

1/800 sec., F8,  63°51’9.282″ N 17°53’17.322″ W

Just another road pull-off, not a place that’s in any guidebooks or on any tours. But balancing the fence posts with the plateau made it one of my favorite images.

Then I pulled up and parked for a closer look at the falls, called Foss a Sidu.

Waterfall in SE coast, 60 miles east of Vik in Sidu

1/30 sec., F18,    63°51’14.61″ N 17°52’16.128″ W

The area past this point was private land so I didn’t intrude. Just took six shots of this delicate falls. In half the images, the water doesn’t make it do the ground, the wind gusts kept sweeping the falls away.

Eastern District

Twenty miles further on and the Iceland landscape is transformed from farmland to a black sand river delta. I spotted a butte set against the expanse of brown-black earth — another photo location that’s not in the guidebooks. I found a safe pullout just over the bridge. My first image was to the east.

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For this composition I used the curve of straw colored grass along the dune to lead the eye in.

Shooting north, the view is of a long plateau and a tongue of the Vatnajokull Glacier.

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Afternoon exploration, Hof 

By now I was close to my hotel and ready for a late lunch. I checked in and grabbed something at the restaurant/store across the road. I had decided to do Skaftafell and the Svartifoss waterfall the next morning when I was rested. So that afternoon, I drove further east on Rt 1 to take a look at another of the area’s points of interest, the turf church at Hof.

Hof Sod Church

The church itself was closed but the trees and old graveyard made for a shot that could have been in The Hobbit.

This whole area has some intriguing mountains so I explored another 10 km down the Ring Road. There was something about the snow covered peaks fronted by golden tundra grass. But one of my working rules is not just to shoot a cool mountain or waterfall by itself. I need to put any visual element into a more complex artistic context. So I didn’t pull over until I found the missing element, a dirt road that led the eye into the mountains.

Rt 1 pull off southeast of Hof

A leading line into composition

Evening light

It had been a long day so I rested before dinner. But Iceland had more in store for me, the evening light. I walked outside and noticed sunlight filtering down to the glacier behind Skaftafell National Park. Sweet.

Skaftafell Park

A closer look.

Skaftafell Park

And further down the road.

Pond south of Skaftafell Park along Rt 1

This time looking east with the stream as a leading line and anchored by the rough vegetation.

Pond south of Skaftafell Park along Rt 1

A variation

I got back to my room just after nine. It had been an interesting day, a perfect road trip day. My only must-see photo location had been a washout, called on account of spring rains. But the photos I had were uniquely my own … just me seeing something that other folks on the road had driven past. Not bad.

The Eastern Fjord Country

Iceland’s East Coast seems to be the least visited section on the Ring Road. It’s on the other side of the country from Reykjavik so you don’t see the tour buses. And it doesn’t have as many “sights” and tourist infrastructure. But from my perspective as a photographer, all that’s to the good.

The eastern coast is classic Iceland though, long fjords punctuated by little fishing towns, snow tipped mountains and photo pull-off spots — if you take the time to see them. And spending a day or two enjoying the fjord country, stopping here and there, are why we do road trips.

Logistics

Most folks do the east with a stopover at Hofn at the southern end and the regional center, Egilsstadir, on the north. You can do the trip in a few hours. But I wanted to explore the Stokkesnes area just above Hofn on a photo walkabout. Stokksnes was overcast and rainy when I was there but I saw a bit of the magic of the place and worth a stop for the photographer.

And I had heard that the most charming of the towns along the east is Seydisfjordur, a short drive east of Egilsstadir. So I broke the eastern fjords into a two days with my first night in Djupivogur, my second in Seydisfjordur.

About 25 miles past Stokksnes, you run into another little known photo op, a black sand beach located by the Hvalnes Lighthouse. By now the rain was heavier so I continued onto Djupivogur.

This section between Hofn and Djupivogur has a rawness to it. And on a cold day in May, I could have just driven to my warm hotel, that’s what I really wanted to do. But by now I was realizing that you take whatever Iceland gives you, that  the place is just south of the Arctic Circle and not a comfy tourist destination. And once I got my head around that fact, I started to see the beauty in the bleakness.

Before Djupavegur

Pull-off @ 20 miles past Stokksnes

Before Djupavegur

Djupivogur. Forty five minutes north of the lighthouse, you’re fully into fjord country at the town of Djupivogur. Djupivogur has a couple of nice places to stay and eat, a working harbor area, impressive swimming pool and 500 or so residents. I checked in at the Hotel Framtid, an old style place with wood-frame walls and an excellent restaurant. And, since it had finally stopped raining, I wandered along the harbor.

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Djupivogur harbor as seen from a nearby hill.

Flashes of Mortality

My day had started with shooting Diamond Beach at 6 AM, then a couple hours in the cold rain at Stokksnes so I was ready for a nice meal. And the Framtid Hotel definitely did the job. Their restaurant has a great view of the harbor and fjord and great (and pricey) food for a town of a few hundred folks.

Their cauliflower soup was quite excellent. But I wasn’t. I’m not totally sure what triggered the attack, maybe exhaustion. Suddenly the posh dining room started spinning, my heart spiked, I was sweating. I tried to get the waiter’s attention. This was a serious attack and I had to get back to the room. When he didn’t come around, I made my way out of the restaurant, told the man at the front desk to bill the room. I made my way down the long corridor hugging the wall so I wouldn’t  fall.

The problem wasn’t the soup, not even the road fatigue. I had been having attacks of dizziness, nausea, loss of hearing for months on and off. And just before I left, my ENT doctor told me that I probably had a hole in the bone that separates the inner ear from the brain, a rare condition called Superior Semicircular Canal Dehiscence.

For the most part, the biggest hassle of this condition was a low grade motion sickness, no big deal. This perception that the “room is spinning” was something I had only experienced twice before, both times when I had pushed myself hard and done stimulants like caffeine. So this incident was concerning, it indicated things were progressing.

The symptoms did’t last long. I spent twenty minutes revisiting the soup, got cleaned up and went to bed. The next morning I was totally fine.

I didn’t need to think too much about my options. The spinning visual field symptom was rare. The other symptoms, loss of hearing, mild motion sickness, were things I had been dealing with for months. And there was no way I could fix any of this here on the road.

The only treatment would have required getting a Iceland doctor up to speed, doing a CT scan, neurosurgery, a month of recovery. (I’m saying this having gone through neurocranial surgery 5 days ago.)  My only takeaway was to listen to the body, get extra rest, make the most of my time. Life goes on.

The next morning was another easy day. An hour and a half drive along the coast, lunch at Egilsstadir, then on to my next night’s stay, Seydisfjordur.

Eastern Fjords, Day Two

At this point Rt. 1 hugs the coast, heading inland on one side of the fjord then heading east on the other side. It’s lovely country to drive through with plenty of nice pull-off possibilities. In fact, just on the other side of the fjord from Djupivogur, I found a waterfall that I haven’t found mentioned in any of my resource materials, not even in the excellent Concise Guide to the Waterfalls of Iceland.

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Road pull-off, Eastern Fjord country

The next fjord:

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Ring Road pull-off. The raggedy-edge coastline and mountainous fjords are part of what makes the East so distinctive.

Each fjord seems to have it’s own tiny fishing village with occasional tourist points of interest (the guidebooks cover this stuff better than I possibly could).

Tip: Most of the villages aren’t big enough to sustain much interest. But the little town of Breiðdalsvík, at the junction of Rt. 1 and 95 is a nice stopping point if only to stop at Kaupfjelagid, an old general store and cafe. The cafe is inviting and the folks who work there are helpful. In fact, that was where I found out about the national forest along Lake Lagarfljot, just west of Egilsstadir.

Eventually Rt. 1 gets tired of the fjords and heads northwest, up-valley to Egilsstadir, the only real commercial center in the East Coast.

Egilsstadir area. Egilsstadir doesn’t have much history (being founded in 1947). But it has several places to stay and eat. But there are several photo possibilities in the area: the famous Hengifoss waterfall, Lake Lagarfljot and Hallormsstadur, a lovely national forest with a bunch of hiking trails.

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The arboretum in Hallormsstadir. With so few forests in Iceland, hiking in this forest park is a perfect change of pace. The tourist info center in Egilsstadir has maps. 

Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss. There are a couple of  waterfalls on the lake’s far side, Litlanesfoss and further up-trail, Hengifoss. They’re about 20 miles from town on the other side of the lake. You drive right by Hallormsstadir on the way so it’s a nice twofer. Hengifoss is the better known — being the third tallest waterfall in Iceland. Litlanesfoss, with it’s basalt columns, is more photogenic in my eyes.

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Litlanesfoss with its basalt cliffs. Hengifoss waterfall in the distance

Seydisfjordur. Egilsstadir is also your starting point for visiting the only truly scenic town on the East Coast, Seydisfjordur. Seydisfjordur is on another fjord, 20 miles east of Egilsstadir.  This fjord town was established by Norwegian fishermen in 1848. The village has some historical buildings and a thriving art community. The town also gets visited by a weekly car ferry from Denmark. I spent a lovely evening shooting there.

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Evening, Seydisfjordur (here with a 60 second exposure)

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One of the art shops, along the rainbow road to the church

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Seydisfjordur church

Skipping the eastern fjords. The eastern fjords are nice but someone who’s in a hurry can skip the northern section of the Ring Road and head straight northwest from Breiddalsvik to Egilsstadir on Rt 95. This option is only about a half hour less driving but you’ll be less enticed to stop.

Welcome to Iceland

There was lots of snow on the road leaving Keflavik Airport that Friday morning. I had a cheap rental car, a front wheel drive Dacia Logan. I took things slow. I hadn’t driven in snow for years — or a stick shift. And since it was just me on this Ring Road trip, I had to navigate the Reykjavik suburbs in a clunky and unfamiliar car at 6:30.

By 7AM I’d gotten to Route 1 and was heading east and south… off the plateau towards Selfoss and the South Coast lowlands. The South Coast communities along the Ring Road were still waking.  It was cold, mid 30s (2 degrees C) , typical Iceland weather for March (except it was May) with wind blowing between 15 and 25 mph.

Once you’re into the South Coast, the land starts to get spare and big. Iceland’s golden southeast. Mountains and high plateaus on the left; wide-shouldered farms and black sand beaches over on the right.

I had been looking for a cafe, none were open. So I decided to power on till I got to Seljalandsfoss, the popular waterfall tour stop.  Seljalandsfoss is a 2 hour drive from the airport at 90 kmph speed limit (standard throughout Iceland).

Rt. 1 / Ring Road. The Ring Road is a 2 lane blacktop for most of it’s 840 miles. The road is well taken care of. But it can be tricky to drive, especially in a rental. And as you drive, you’ll notice the road has no shoulder, just a foot of blacktop outside the lane lines — then the sloped grading. So if you leave your lane, you’re looking at a 6-8 foot drop-off.

Knowing that fact made me more hesitant to push my speed much past 100 kph even if that section of road is clear and straight. There’s too little margin of error. Plus the road is graded as 2 lane blacktop, not highway. That means any time you go faster than 90, you feel it.

Ring Road Safety: Pull-offs. The lack of a shoulder makes it essential that you take extra care when pulling over. Tourists in Iceland have gotten a bad rep for stopping their cars there on the road to take pictures. Trouble is, there are lots of scenic spots along the road that don’t have a safe pull-off.

So as I drive, if I absolutely must photograph a spot along the road, I slow down just a bit and look for safe places to park. Often there’s a farm road or the occasional raised gravel areas right next to the road. There are also lots of pull-offs with parking for spots the highway planners decided were scenic.

Road pull-offs are one of the hallmarks of a true scenic highway. Pull-offs are also an opportunity for true photo enthusiasts to show what they’ve got. Instead of being a packaged site like a waterfall, a roadside pull-off spot doesn’t even exist until a good photographer sees it and shoots it.  They’re like instant photo improvisations. But do safe pull-offs.

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So I was on my way to the first marquee photo location, Seljalandsfoss. (Fossbeing the Icelandic word for waterfall.)  Two hours from Keflavik International. Still an hour to the Guesthouse Vellir, my final destination for that day.

Three hours isn’t much driving for the day when doing a Ring Road trip. And this was Day 1 of 14; doing a 7 day Ring Road is a different beast. But let’s remember that I flew out of LA on Thursday at noon. So when I started the drive, I was already fried.

That’s one reason I had scheduled a second day along the South East Coast. First because Iceland’s South Coast deserves it, it’s a treasure trove for landscape photogs. Second, because if you do a 9 hours flight from LA, you need to take a day, minimum, to work past the jetlag.

First Evening

My “Welcome to Iceland” day had been frustrating. Navigating Reykjavik’s slushy streets, remembering stick shift skills, the long drive down the South Coast with not one coffee shop open, then the Seljalandsfoss waterfall shoot getting (mostly) rained out. None of those things are fun when someone’s been up for 24 hours.

What a difference a shower and three hours of sleep and meditation can make.  I woke almost fatigue free to find the sun was making an appearance.  And I was looking forward to a tasty guesthouse dinner … and an evening shooting at Dyrholaey, one of my top 5 favorite spots in Iceland.

Guesthouse Vellir. If I were doing a TripAdviser review, Guesthouse Vellir would score nicely. They let me check in early, the staff was welcoming and useful, the (almost) spacious bedrooms had a clean Nordic look, good Wifi, plus a well put together breakfast that’s free with your stay. What more do you want? Oh, yeah, and located close to Vik, Dyrholaey, Skogafoss.

Our hostess and her Polish helper often prepared dinners for folks not eating out. So I splurged a bit: with fish, salad, perfect soup, great Icelandic breads. Quite nice.

Speaking of weather. During dinner, we talked about the weather and the local sights. The obvious question, “is it usually this cold and rainy and snowy in early May?” “Oh gosh no.” The last few weeks had been a source of disappointment to them as well, this was a flashback to their March weather. We commiserate.

Which got us into a recurring leitmotif of the Iceland trip, the realization that you can experience snow, rain, hail or sun, all within the same hour. I’ve only visited one spot with weather this mercurial, Scotland. Scotland, of course is a close neighbor.

So it’s true that Iceland’s weather changeability could be seen as a bit of a negative. But our hostess’ response to that, “on the other hand, wait 15 minutes and you’ll have a different weather experience … to take pictures of.” Fair trade.

After that I had a chat about the Ring Road with a German couple. They were also doing the road trip, doing it clockwise so they could see the end of what I was just beginning.

To the Lighthouse

So I left the charming dinner with happy stomach and the information that this weather isn’t the classic Iceland in May weather. No, I was being allowed to see how things are for the 9 months that aren’t summer. That’s a good thing in a way.

Golden Hour. Driving down I could see the wet weather had disappeared. Instead there was lots of sunlight coming through the clouds. Now I was hopeful.

Of course the definition of “Golden Hour” changes this far north. In early May, sunset happens at around 10 PM (more or less). So by 7 or 8 PM, the side lighting and color are starting to happen.

The road to Dyrholaey, Rt. 218 is off Rt 1 (see upper left)

Dyrholaey

I got to Dyrholaey by 7:40. It’s only a 5 minute drive east from the guesthouse to the turn-off on the right that’s signed, Dyrholaey. Watch closely, roadsigns tend to be small. Then head down 218 till it dead ends there on the cliffs.

That’s all Dyrholaey is, a mountainous piece of rock that juts into the sea, like a Gibraltar but smaller and flat topped. It’s part time bird sanctuary, lighthouse — and a perfect overlook to the Vik Black Sand Beach. There’s a gravel road going up (something most rentals can handle with ease). No town, no concessions, just a couple of parking areas … and a fancy new pay toilet.

A few shooting locations at Dyrholaey

Dyrholaey has at least 5 landscape locations that I continue to go back to as the weather, tide and light change. And yes, I know I’m just scratching the surface in my exploration.

Upper area

Lighthouse. One of the classic Iceland shots, take it.

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The lighthouse with the Vik sea stacks in the distance. And no, these aren’t lights from within the lighthouse, its reflections in the glass of the sunset (just behind me).

Overlook, black sands and ocean. To the west, the cliffs offer a phenomenal view of black sand beaches and ocean waves that seems to stretch out to Reykjavik. (See featured image)

The cliffs. These cliffs are a (sometime) bird sanctuary, an ecosystem and a photo op.

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Puffins at Dyrholaey:  They make great subjects if you can connect them to their environment, i.e., the background.

Seeing puffins this first evening was a gift.  I’d wanted a good Puffin shot, no denying that. Humans seem to have been engineered to find these plump little birds cute. But you know they’re also a deeply philosophical bird, existentialists; it’s there in their eyes. That’s why they’re so perfect for portrait work.

As I shot, I got to know my subjects; where they were coming from, where they were going. Yep. I understood that they belonged further down along the cliff wall rather than here, off the path at the top. I realized this enterprising young couple was eager to claim one of the better cliff houses before the nesting crowds arrived. … And who likes performing for the tourist paparazzi on a cold May night? The two only stayed because they knew I was a kindred spirit — and they saw that navigating these cliffs in 40 mph winds would be a Darwinian faux pas.

Lower area

Dyrholaey from below. The parking lot further down the hill leads to a couple of overlooks, the rocks and cliffs of Dyrholaey (from below).

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Overlook, Reynisfjara Beach. This second overlook, to the southwest, is of the Vik Black Sand Beach and its famous sea stacks.

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Thoughts 

Dyrholaey is currently my favorite Southeast Coast photo spot. Of course, Vik Black Sand Beach is way more photographed (judging by the photo sites).

Photo Ops. I’m posting some representative shots, but they’re just what I was playing with that night. A decent landscape enthusiast will find all kinds of ways of making this spot their own.

Time spent. Dyrholaey is worth a 2-4 hour visit. A generous variety of the views, placed in a landscape known for it’s spare charm. Then factor in how this rock really resonates during Golden Hour or when a storm blows through.

Palette. The palette here, blue-black beaches, vast blue ocean, foam-lashed waves, makes any good composition look better. The obvious challenge, mid-day sun. So see what the light’s doing when you visit — and make adjustments as conditions change.

Time and tide. Both here and down at the Vik side of the beach, the black sand canvas gets worked by the tide. And from this height, white surf and black sand are a visual dance. At low tide, full expanse of Reynisfjara Beach and that lone sea stack become almost mythic. At high tide, you’re given a sea foam creation to work with.

Hiking. No hiking involved for this location. You just need a car that can go on dirt roads. No hiking = all enjoying and shooting.

Working out of the car. Both the upper and lower locations are close to their respective parking lots. So if you need that tripod, just go get it. Corollary, you can bring more camera gear that you would if hiking were involved.

Post. Getting the right level of black, of darkness in the plains of sand is a key, same goes for getting the right balance of blue-slate into the ocean color — and making sure the sunset doesn’t get blown out. Most of my Lightroom (LR) work at Dyrholaey has been about light levels and color. … Not that LR will allow any image to match the nuanced light show on display that evening.

The wind at Dyrholaey. The wind. With a country this far north, the temperature along the Ring Road hovers mostly between 25 and 40, for 2/3 of the year. In summer, things get up into the 50s and the countryside smiles. So temps aren’t so very bad. But the wind… It blows a LOT in this country and that’s why Nordic level outerwear is so popular.

But for the photographer, who can be out at one cold location for 3 and 4 hours at a time, the wind is an ongoing factor. That evening, the wind at Dyrholaey was blasting at 20-40 mph (it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit), that changes everything.

 

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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.

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