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

Map

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

Shooting Vik Black Sand Beach

Reynisfjara, known in Internet parlance as Vik Black Sand Beach, is one of the premiere photo locations in Iceland. Yes, it’s just a beach shot. But the beach is an endless expanse of blue-black set off by distinctive sea stacks .. and the dark North Atlantic. And oh yeah, there are those ebony black basalt columns that frame it all.

Reynisfjara even has a legend attached, that the big sea stacks are trolls that were coming home after a night of dark purpose. They were caught, outside after dawn — which as we all know, turns a troll to stone. … “See kids, that’s them out there in the waves.”

On that first night in country I was at the Vellir Guesthouse, just east of  Vik off the Ring Road. Being on LA time, I was wide awake by 4 AM. That made the decision to do a dawn shoot at Black Sand Beach easy. And being Iceland in May, dawn was already over when I left the guasthouse at 4:15. I checked the light to the east: clear skies, dawn colors were OK, cold wind. Cold wind. Stowed everything in the Dacia and headed east on Rt 1.

I’d chosen Vellir to be close to the best photo spots. So in 2 miles I was already at the Rt 215 turnoff — there’s a big sign for the Black Beach Restaurant. The drive goes down to a gravel parking lot next to the restaurant. At 4:20, I was the only one there. I guess there weren’t many folks in Vik who were eager to wake 4 hours early for 20 degree wind chill.

Before heading down to the beach, I read the signs about how dangerous Reynisfjara can be.

Expectations

I made my first visit to Reynisfjara in March 2017. I already knew the basic design components of the place from photo sites like 500px. Even so, that March I made the mistake of arriving at quarter to 9. And what with the light conditions and a band of selfie stick users, I hadn’t gotten anything I loved.  

March 2017

Approaching a new location

But on this visit I had a clean slate to work from. Sure, I was aware of the different visual elements at Vik from seeing other people’s work. But I have a whole process I use as a prepare to shoot that helps me understand how I should frame a location — and capture how that place engaged me.

I used to do theater. And part of our preparation for a role was knowing that you need to put the lines, the blocking in the back of the mind and listen to what the other actor is giving you. You take your cues from their energy.

And for the landscape photographer, the “energy” is all around you, in the wind, the wave action, the light. The first ting I noticed as I got out of the car was the wind curtain through my down jacket. Got it. I pulled the camera pack out and headed down.

At Vik it’s a short walk along the black cinder path before you’re at the black sand. But before someone heads out I’d suggest stopping at the Iceland tourism signs and their explanation of “sneaker waves.” Now to me, “sneaker wave” suggests someone in high top Keds.  But the fact is, the surf at Vik is some of the worst you’ll find in Iceland. Because Vik is shaped like a spear, a hook that reaches deep into the North Atlantic. And pretty much every year, the sneaker waves will pull a tourist to a cold death.

So when I got to the beach, my gear pack got stowed above the high water mark. I’d rather run after a floating camera bag.

I got the tripod up and popped on my 24-105mm f4 (a Sigma).

Breathing the place in

Vik Black Sand Beach

Black Sand Beach looking west to Dyrholaey — this is not a place for sunbathing and sand castles.

On cold days in Iceland, it’s hard not to notice the wildness of the place, the clean, stripped down beauty.  The wind was whipping the waves into white froth. There was full cloud cover to the west, the east was starting to clear. Birds flying around the sea stacks, occasional waves forcing me to back up. It was a lot to take in.

The view west towards the Dyrholaey peninsula (above) was lovely. But the eastern view, with so many design elements and the dawn light, that was the play. And with no climbing tourists, the intriguing basalt columns were the perfect foreground element. That part was already in my head, the columns and sea stack relationship, the waves coming in. Plus there was a rose coloring in the eastern clouds, above the blue. That’s the moment.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/250 sec., F8

On this day, the cliffs, wave action, sea stacks and light were the elements I wanted to focus on, to balance.

The above shot was a good first effort for me. The stark silhouette, a breaking wave, birds flying around the trolls. But the dawn light wasn’t great. The composition worked, the alignment of stacks, the clouds, wave coming in. But the basalt columns, my foreground element on the left, didn’t feel right, not enough of something.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/100 sec., F8

I wandered closer to the basalt. That’s one of the fun things about going wide angle, you can get quite close to a landscape feature, give it more focus, without losing the rest of the composition. I liked this one. You could see how much those columns have been shaped by the ocean. … But let’s keep exploring.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1/125 sec., F8

Then I got hit by the combination of high tide and a sneaker wave. It was good I had left my gear bag that far up the beach, that I hadn’t been working closer to where the waves hit.  Kinda cool (esp. my feet).

I decided to see what would happen if I slowed my shutter speed a bit — just to play with how the foamy surf would look against the black sand. A slower shutter can add dynamism to the image — or not. So, playing aggressively with a longer shutter speed.

Vik Black Sand Beach

1.6 seconds, f22, ND filter

This shutter choice creates a certain blur. It’s a cool effect, a sense of acceleration. But it has an undertone of edge, jitter, that overpowers the rest of the composition.

Vik Black Sand Beach

.2 sec, F16

So I dialed back the shutter speed to .2 sec and pulled the trigger as the foamy surf was coming in. Since that section of the beach is closest to the camera, it has more of a blur than the breaking wave at right-center. But my biggest discovery was what happens when you give those black columns even more real estate. Now the sky’s getting better too.

Vik Black Sand Beach

.2 sec, F16 (with more post work)

For my fav shot, I kept the same slower shutter but caught the incoming wave just as it reaches its full height. A point of rest. There is a bit of motion in the breaking wave (center-right) but the overall feeling is settled, suspended. I also like the balance between columns and the trolls — and having that gold and blue overhead was the bonus.

In post, I added a bit of sheen and focus to bring out the ebony in the basalt. And I cooled off the sky so none of the color or cloud texture was blown out.

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PS. By 5:30 it was time to head back to bed for some shut-eye before the (free) guesthouse breakfast. 😉  But I did stop at the little church that’s just north of Reynisfjara Beach to take advantage of the sky.

Church N or Black Sand Beach

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A Wind and Wave Experiment

Dyrholaey (and Vik) are the southern tip of Iceland and the North Atlantic seas are particularly dangerous here. On this south-facing Dyrholaey overlook, the rock outcrop was being punished by an onslaught of wind and wave.  That conjunction of high wind and high seas was what made this overlook intriguing on this particular visit.

That’s one thing I care about, seeing what elements of nature are in play at a photo location.  On most days this southern overlook is pretty — rocks, waves, sea stacks in the distance, but nothing unique. But capture the forces of nature in a way that has visceral impact and the image can grab the imagination.

My Approach

I didn’t bother with a tripod, the wind was too strong. Plus any shutter speed below about 1/300 turned the wave action into a blur. My first step was to set up a workable composition that would include some foreground context, the distant sea stacks and that sky. Then just wait till the next wave hits and shoot the watery explosion at the right moment. I didn’t bother with continuous shooting, the waves moved slow enough for me to (generally) hit the moment. And who wants to wade through 500 images of the same seascape.

Some of the shots were duds. But several of the wave explosions captured the feeling, the drama, of being out there. This image reminded me how heavy-handed the wind was (something I could feel in my bones).

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This second shot had more of the elements I was going for, including one of the last rays of sunlight highlighting the wave. The sea stacks in the distance (left side) are in front of Vik Black Sand Beach.

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Even at the tail end of a wave, the harsh conditions are obvious with this image. 2G7A5944

I lucked out with this final image of the day. The wave explosion is particularly dramatic and the foreground cloud is bathed in sunlight.

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Post production notes

I decided not to brighten the final image too much. The shot was taken just after sunset and pushing the exposure much higher would have eliminated the “blue hour” feeling. What I mostly did was to pull out the detail in the wave explosion with more clarity, sharpness, white. I also did some “painting” of the wave shape to make it more three dimensional. The final touch was to enhance the reflected light from the cloud in the ocean.

 

 

 

 

 

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