Welcome to Iceland

I left passport control at Iceland’s Keflavik International at about 5:20AM dragging my suitcase and camera pack. There was supposed to be a guy at the airport entrance holding sign with my name on it. Nope. 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.

By 6:20, 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, I 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.

 

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.

It was cold an rainy by now and what I wanted was a shower and some hot tea. But my room at the guesthouse wouldn’t be done till afternoon. So I was going to shoot the two important waterfalls on the South Coast, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, before checking in. [Yes, foss is the word for waterfall.] The southwest-facing Seljalandsfoss waterfall is the first one you see as you drive along Route 1 — that and a few smaller ones that pour off the glacial plateau.

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The path up to Seljalandsfoss and its cave. May had been far wetter than usual.

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.

Some shot notes

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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At the Klaustur Roundabout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up next: Photo Walkabout at Fjaðrárgljúfur river canyon

Final days before leaving for Reykjavik

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

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

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

Tripod Talk

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

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

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

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

Thinking about itinerary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Planning vs. Improvising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland: Logistical Matters

Lots of people don’t want to bother with planning. They want to book a flight and hotel and then wing it. And in a way, that’s what the savvy traveler does — engage oneself in the moment of a place , the one on one interaction with an environment. Anything rather than the mind-numbing approach of following a rigid list of Must Sees in Paris.

And if you’re just gonna go from hotel to beach and back again, the old don’t-plan-anything approach can pretty much work. (Except for booking hotel, flights, island travel, etc.) But that’s not in the cards if you’re doing an Iceland road trip.

Unless you’re doing tours (where the company does the logistics), a creative/photo oriented road trip requires planning, detailed planning … which allows you to then take a full two hours to engage with a photo location or go on a hike or do a blog post.

You need to build time into a good Ring Road trip — but time in specific spots. If photography is a guiding issue, you’ll want to know which photo locations are where on your road map — otherwise you’ll get your accommodations all wrong.

Now that detailing of a trip isn’t a hassle if you don’t make it one (and if I ever put this little travel book together). All your really doing is knowing what the cool spots are, thus giving yourself the time to explore them.

Logistics are pure karma, part of the creative path. Deal with that part and you (such a savvy traveler), can improvise. You can decide that this historical village is worth it and that waterfall, whose name you can’t pronounce, is one too many. Set aside enough time and you get to have a moment of pure creativity in a place you’ve never seen before… and that’s about as good as it gets.

You plan it before hand based on best knowledge then listen to your instincts when you’re on location.

Where to stop

I need a clear understanding of my itinerary stops before I book a BnB. But what are the best photo opportunities for landscape photographers? The photo tours don’t publicize those details for obvious reasons.

The various guidebooks can give me the general points of interest. But this is a photo tour and guidebooks provide almost no help when it comes to photo points of interest.

The Iceland itinerary companies out there provide a few recommendations for photos, they know where the tour buses go. But they have no idea about the crucial photo issues:

  • What makes a good photo location
  • How much shoot time is this location worth
  • What time of day is best for that shot location

So, since I haven’t written the Iceland book, I need a good idea of potential shot locations (with my internal stack-ranking) and where they’re clustered. That’ll tell me what towns to stay at and for how long.

The Map

To handle this level of logistical planning I took a large map of the island and placed representative photos of the various photography locations where they are on the map. That allowed me to visualize my personal favorites in the context of travel times and lodging.

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Now, think for a second about maps. They’re not just a guy thing unless someone wants to give one of the great tools of life over to the other sex. No, a map is a graphical metaphor for the physical landscape. That makes it important for landscape photogs on every level.

See, when I travel to a place, I want to develop an internal sense of where everything is — the way I have in the place I come from. The closer my internal framework is to life, the easier travel gets.

So when I look at my little scrapbook-like map, I can imagine what each day looks like. I look down at the peninsula at the bottom left of the map, the one with that big  spot of red ink for Reykjavik, and a couple of inches to the left of that, Keflavik International Airport.

Now the map let’s me think the steps through as drive-time and stops: Get into the airport at that god-awful time, get the rental car, head to Route 1, follow it down the South Coast a couple hours, past some waterfalls and then the little BnB. I’ll want to chill there for a few hours after all those hours of traveling. Then some food before doing an evening photo shoot at those two waterfalls (the tour buses will have left) or maybe wander down to Vik and the Black Sand Beach.

A map gives the brain an objective reference point, not a bad thing.

Researching my photo locations

I did plenty of exploring on the Internet before my trip last March. I was particularly interested in spots that are popular on the photo web sites like 500px, Viewbug and Instagram. It’s helpful to check out the work of other photographers. First because you want a sense of what a waterfall or town or historical spot is really like. After all, there are hundreds of waterfalls on the island, some more spectacular (or charming) than others. So you start to see what the “marquee” photo locations are and where they’re located.

I also did searches of Iceland day tours and photo tours. These sites tell you which places the tourist industry thinks of as most enticing and photogenic (but they don’t share any of the logistics).

But it doesn’t take long to realize that these web sites (like the web itself) are biased. The locations that get all the web traffic, the “marquee” locations, are dramatic — and easy day trips from the city. The web pages you see reflect the businesses and people who want to drum up business, not actual need.

These are also sights that get the massive numbers of tour buses. And as a photographer, I want to know that. For instance, two waterfalls in the south, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, are super popular with the tours, even in winter. And most of the Instagram shots feature thousands of tourists. Some of that can be cleared up in Photoshop, but a better solution is to visit that location before 9 AM or after 6, when the buses are heading back to Reykjavik.

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Skogafoss

A marquee shot or a pull-off

If I were a purist, I could avoid the popular spots altogether. After all, what fun is it to shoot a spot that’s been done and overdone by Instagram. Why set up a tripod and risk being hit by selfie sticks and run over by exuberant tourist. Fair question.

Shooting these locations during tourist hours is no fun. So shooting when the buses are gone is one choice. For other marquee locations like Gullfoss (on the Golden Circle), the tourists aren’t such an issue because you and the hordes are shooting from the cliffs above.

It’s true that the marquee locations have been done to death. So I probably won’t have anything unique to say. But what do I care? It’s a cool location, it has its own set of challenges, its an excuse for me to get in the zone… as long as I know when to visit. That’s another reason I’m doing this book research.

And in Iceland, there’s a country full of sights, amazing sights, that just don’t get the traffic. There are no tours to these spots. Some of my fav images from March were places not in the guidebooks, just pull-offs on the Ring Road. Each was a challenge no other photog has ever faced. Each forced me to see value in unexpected places.

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Road pull-off, South Coast

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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House just opposite Seljalandsfoss

The photo landscape of the Ring Road

Once we take Reykjavik out of the equation with 90% of the population, we have a number of photo worthy spots along the Ring Road.

Reykjavik to Vik. The South Coast has none of the fjords you see in the rest of the country and no ports. The area from 8 to 6 on the clock of Iceland is an alluvial plain with farms and black sand beaches. Given it’s closeness to the city, the area is hugely popular for tours (and photographers) with a couple of famous waterfalls and at the bottom tip, the beaches and sea stacks around the tiny town of Vik.

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Reykjavik to Vik, the South Coast

Vik to Hofn. From Vik to Hofn (6 to 4 o’clock), there’s a monster glacier just inland and, of interest to photographers, a national park, more waterfalls, Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach.

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Skaftafell, Diamond Beach, Hofn

Eastern Iceland towns. The eastern side just north of Hofn doesn’t get many tourists. But if you stay along the coast instead of taking Route 1 inland, you’ll find that each of the scenic fjords has a fishing village or two and several have some charm. This is the real country, the way things were before Iceland got discovered by the global economy.

Northeast from Eglisstadir to Akureyri. From 2 up to 12 on the clock, the Ring Road pulls away from the coast and climbs into high country. Not many people up here until you get due north, to the scenic Lake Mavatn and Akureyri. There are a number of amazing waterfalls, more historical sights, low level volcanic activity, lots of empty road. And Akureyri, at 20,000, is the second largest “city” in Iceland, so shops, restaurants, a few little museums, people.

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Northern Iceland: Lake Mavatn, Akureyri, the northwestern fjords

Northwestern Fjords. West of Akureyri you’ll find more little fishing villages along the northwestern fjords, plus scenic islands, whale watching, historical sights. Like Eastern Iceland, these sights are detours off Route 1 along the peninsula roads.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula Detour. After the north, Route 1 heads back towards Reykjavik. But doing a turn off along the way gets us to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It’s another popular day tour from the city. Plus it has several significant landscape locations (Kirkjufellsfoss, Helnar, Budar church, etc.). Plenty of excellent photo adventures, enough to warrant a couple of days.

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Snaefellsnes Peninsula & lower West Fjords

The West Fjord area, north of Snaefellsnes on the map above, is the most unspoiled. It is a phenomenal area but is far off the Ring Road that for many, it won’t be worth the extra travel time. That said, Hornstradir National Park is unique and I’ll go at some point just because.

Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is also off the Ring Road, basically north east of the city. Most folks do this area on one of the tours. But it’s also an easy day trip to do on your own in a rental car. And since the Golden Circle is close to Reykjavik, it needs to be done at the beginning or end of the road trip. There are no easy roads over the center of Iceland. It’s mostly high country and home to several glaciers.

A few logistical data points

Planning for a Ring Road self-guided photo tour is a different beast. Consider:

  • You’re staying at hotels or BnBs across all of Iceland.
  • Accommodations for lodging books up months in advance for many spots — especially for summer travel.
  • The best lodgings (quality, price, etc.) go first.
  • Route 1, the Ring Road, is 828 miles long. Once you drive outside the Reykjavik metro area, Route 1 becomes a 2 lane blacktop with skinny shoulders.
  • If you do the whole thing, you’ll have 2-3 hours of pure drive time on many of the days.

 

 

 

 

 

The lure of Kauai

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

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

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

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

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

Anini Beach, Afternoon Swim

Anini Beach, Afternoon

An Old Photo in an Album

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

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

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

Waimea Canyon, @2002

Scan of old photo

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

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

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

1st signed Wiamea Canyon lookout

Wiamea Canyon 2017

Going Deeper into a Place

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

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

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

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

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

Hanalei by Farmers Market

Taro Field, Hanalei

Garden Isle

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

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

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

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

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

The weathered core of time

Photographing Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaching Snaefellsnes

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

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

 

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