Shooting Vik Black Sand Beach

Reynisfjara, known in general parlance as Vik Black Sand Beach, is one of the most popular photo locations in Iceland — as a visit to the 500px site will confirm. The beach is a generous expanse of blue-black set off by those distinctive sea stacks. The third major design element, the basalt columned cliffs that frame the black sand. It’s an excellently nice view and with some dawn coloring, you’ve got something that can be hung on a wall and studied.

… The place even has a legend attached, that the big sea stacks are trolls that were coming home after being up to no good. They were caught, outside after dawning — which as we all know, turns a troll to stone. … “See kids, that’s them out there in the waves.”

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For a location as well known as Vik’s Black Sand Beach, it’s common to have seen excellent images of the place before even going. Sometimes you’ve visited the place several times already and know the composition issues like the back of the hand.

It’s a smart idea to gain some familiarity with a location before hand. But whatever my familiarity, I can generally leave my preconceptions at the door and see what I’m being served on that day in weather, light, mood.

A travel photographer generally wants to do some research before hand, even if you’ve visited the spot already. And then you want to plant yourself in the spots that grab you until you’ve done some good work. You want to show up and breath in the location, the view, the dynamics — and the current logistics.

And if it’s a good spot, you’re already hot to trot. Getting into this or that visual moment. Seeing if you got it. In the zone. [So, note to self, pls. include this in our shoot set-up.]

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Some background

My first visit to Reynisfjara beach was a couple of years ago, part of a 3 day road trip along the South Coast. I could see the potential of the place. But I didn’t show up until about 9 am, big mistake,  there were enough bodies climbing the basalt columns to frustrate.

March 2017

March 2017

First visit to Black Sand Beach, March 2017

This had been a nice moment, spray in the air, low tide so a longer expanse of beach, morning light is nice but undramatic. The top one captures more of the feeling for me, the feeling that this is one of the most visually composed spots in the world. The bottom image is close to being a moment but I may have to get it on the bench.

Road trip visit

So on my first full day in Iceland this last May, I showed up at Reynisfjara beach at 4:15 am. … Yeah, that’s just too early. Luckily, I was seriously jet lagged and by 3:30 I was fully awake. Peaked out the shutters, it’s after dawn. … By 4:10 I turned off Rt 1 and was heading south on Rt. 215 following the sign for the Vik beach (and restaurant).

I parked, pulled out my pack and tripod. The temperature was hovering just above freezing, with wind blast.

I read the little welcoming signs at the exit of the parking lot. Noticed the warning about “sneaker waves,” the rogue waves (wearing sneakers) that can carry an unsuspecting visitor to a cold death. And statistically, this beach gets a few deaths each year — a high rate in such a small population.

The surf is strong here, it’s Iceland’s tip reaching into the mighty North Atlantic. And the waves seem predictable. But on some days you get an wave that heads way up the beach. This was one of those days. 😉

When I got to the beach, I made sure to leave my gear pack above the high water mark. I’d rather walk 20 feet to grab a ND (neutral density) filter than run after a floating camera bag. I wasn’t too worried about getting carried away myself. If my focus is on the basalt columns, I will have to be shooting at the back end of the beach.

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

Breathing the place in

Vik Black Sand Beach

Black Sand Beach looking west to Dyrholaey

The beach is the southern-most point in Iceland and the fierce waves have pulled in more than a few folks. You feel the wildness of the place, and 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 in its way. But the eastern view, with so many design elements and the dawn light was the play for now. And with no climbing tourists, the distinctive 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. I also wanted to get the waves just right. This was a raw day in early May and the waves were showing some muscle.

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, which changed the composition. I like this one too. … 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. Kinda cool (esp. my feet). Clearly I needed a bit more black sand.

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 slow shutter choice creates an accelerating blur in the waves. It’s a cool effect that catches the eye. 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. And being adjacent to the basalt columns, the wave motion stands out in relief. 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 at the balance point. 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.

My main discovery was to give the columns on the left more real estate. This element, with polished ebony columns, is just as intriguing as the sea stacks. And just featuring the columns as a sea sculpture opened up the feeling of the place.

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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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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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