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

Photo Walkabout at Fjaðrárgljúfur

Fjaðrárgljúfur–very Icelandic name, is a jewel of a river canyon in southeastern section of the island. It’s just 2 miles off the Ring Road, a few miles west of the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur and one of a few classic photo spots between Vik and the Glacier Lagoon/Hofn area.

But it’s not a spot many tours get to, mostly just Icelanders and Ring Road travelers. Oh yeah, Justin Bieber used this unique Geopark as main location for one of his music videos — and landing the canyon on the travel world’s radar screen.

The park itself isn’t much, just a trail along the canyon edge. But something about it, the fluid canyon shapes, that’s almost otherworldly. The trail runs for about a mile and ends at a dramatic overview of the slide-like waterfall. It’s an experience regardless of the weather and a pleasant repast from the Ring Road drive.

Location: Follow Iceland Rt 1 west from Kirkjubæjarklaustur for two miles till you see a small sign for the park on the right. It’s Rt 206. Follow it for a couple of miles, it turns to gravel and ends at the park’s parking lot. GPS: N63° 46′ 16.026″ W18° 10′ 19.506″

Photo notes: You can go wide angle or zoom to capture the canyon’s curves. The canyon runs north/south so there’s not as much value being there during Golden Hour. Given the controlled access, there’s no issue with people getting into the shot.

Fjaðrárgljúfur, part of Katla Geopark

Fjaðrárgljúfur, looking upstream. I emphasized the curve of the left hand wall and the river as the obvious leading line.

The trail up starts at the parking lot. You can’t stray from the well-marked path; the grasslands are too delicate given the foot traffic. There are well defined overlooks along the way for photos (and selfies). Luckily, even when an overlook is busy, you can get a fairly clean shot of the canyon area.  Note that the more delicate promontories of the canyon have been made off limits since the Bieber video.

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Iceland in the summer. All I’m doing with the composition is following the curve of the geology into the distance. In post I softened the foreground grassland, lightened the canyon shadows and brushed in extra clarity, cooled off the sky — just getting the image to look the way the day felt.

Two studies. The canyon’s charm is all about the strange shapes — kinda like what you find at Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, but way bigger. The challenge is how you put these elements together.

It’s easy to go wide and include too much landscape for a clear composition. With these two studies I pushed in closer on some core shapes and colors. That gave extra emphasis to the grassland and juxtaposed the expanse of green against a few of the blue-black of  lava columns.

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At the high point of the canyon, the entire canyon is laid out before you. You can’t get it all in unless you go fish-eye. I decided to focus on this one curve in the river. The biggest challenge was how shadowed and contrasty the canyon was in late morning. That meant lightening up on the dark areas in post and added weight to the lava columns. One I’d eliminated the flatness of Raw, it was like entering a different realm.

The canyon ends just a bit further down the trail at the waterfall. The shot below is taken at the fenced overlook. It’s another view that has a wealth of complicated shapes. But the thing that worked best for me was to use the cliff that juts out on the left as a foreground element that leads the eye to that waterslide of a falls. I crop out everything on the right side and went square so as to emphasize the other visual relationship, that clear, blue lake at the bottom right. In post, I balanced out the dark and light spots and added texture to the visual surfaces, that lovely moss.

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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.

………………………………..

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.

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