Iceland! It’s a place that conjures up images of longboats riding white capped waves and black mountains jutting out and over pounding dark surf. A land of vikings, volcanoes and ice. As such it has drawn photographers in their droves to explore the island which sits just south of the Arctic Circle. It has drawn so many photographers that it is hard to pick up a photographic magazine or look through the images in a photographic salon without coming across at least a few images from Iceland. It is this allure that had me chatting to some photographers around a fire, in quite the contrary location - Botswana’s Kubu Island, about their thoughts in visiting Iceland.
Two years later, almost to the month I found myself setting foot onto Iceland’s soil joined by some of those same photographers who planted the seed of visiting Iceland in the first place. We had touched down in one of the few pronounceable (for anyone who doesn’t speak Icelandic) towns on the Island, Keflavik. This is about an hours drive from the more familiarly unpronounceable capital, Reykjavik - home to just under a third of Iceland’s 350, 000 strong population. From the air we could see a ring of snow-capped mountains surrounding what to us looked like a flat plain of green and dark grey. We later found the plain to actually be churned up moss-covered prehistoric lava flow.
Collecting our vehicle, a large Volkswagen Caravelle with a decidedly agricultural looking trailer, our group of eight photographers (consisting of six ‘pseudo guests’ and myself and fellow Nature’s Light photographer Chris Allan) zipped up jackets against the cold and set forth on a shortish drive to Borgarbyggð and the idyllic setting of Hotel Husafell in the Stórarjóður Valley. Our itinerary for the next nine nights was to see as much as possible as a way of reconnoitring the island for a potential Nature’s Light workshop in 2019 and beyond. Our locations were chosen according to where we could find accommodation and the general idea to ‘see’ the south of the Island from west to east. Husafell seemed like a good start and an easy entry back into landscape photography for the group as it is only six minutes drive from the beautiful tendril like patterns of the Hraunfossar Falls.
Driving along the main road to the West, we were all struck at the extraordinary beauty of the country. A description I found to be quite apt by the end of the trip is: if a creator being were to have a beauty dial of one through ten, they cranked it all the way to eleven and broke it off before finishing the island. Everywhere you look, Iceland is beautiful. Even the horses (ponies really) look like something out of a fantasy movie in their archetypal equestrianess. The mountains are reminiscent of the kind of mountains you imagine as a child reading C.S. Lewis. The fields are straight out of an illustrator’s imagination, not actually something you expect to see in the real world. Then there are the beaches with their black sands which act as foreground to the unworldly seascape in its turquoise colouring, or type perfect in it’s rolling swell and white capped spray. Every corner we turned around I felt my jaw dropping in incredulity.
Admittedly, we hit Iceland during a gap in this year’s appalling extended poor weather spell. As one Icelander responded to me after asking how long we had been in the country (three days at that stage), “Oh, you have seen our summer!” As beautiful a country as Iceland is, the weather is what drives people away, as well as maintains high-low tourism seasons. Summer usually has the most stable weather patterns with temperatures also stabilising to a comfortable range between 2 and 17 degrees Celsius most of the time. That said, it is entirely possible to visit Iceland in the summer and not see the sun once even during a two week stay (as a previous Nature’s Light guest to Madagascar experienced during her last stay in Iceland). More on the weather below though.
Back to our actual exploration of the island. Our first night wasn’t even spent in the hotel in the end. At about 21:00PM we ventured into the late afternoon light (sunset was around 23:15PM) and made our way to the first photo shoot at Hraunfossar Falls. An immediate advantage of photographing the falls at the odd time of close to midnight was that we essentially had the area to ourselves to wander about in. This is not the case during most of the day when this and pretty much every other significant waterfall in the country is swarming with tourists. We were yet to come across ‘tour-rerists’ as we jokingly referred to them, but for the time being felt that the country was virtually ours alone to photograph.
Once the sun was down a decision was made to make the best of the first night and explore while we could. So, we continued on towards Runnar and a series of oxbow bends in a river we had passed. I would love to give the river a name, but none of the maps or apps we looked at could give us any clue, quite possibly because there are simply so many water courses that there just isn’t a name on a map. The best I can do is say that it is a minor, if beautiful, tributary of the Þðverá River. At any rate, driving down a farm road, we came across a field of peat sods which kept the group happy up till sunrise at about 03:00AM.
Our first ‘all-nighter’ ended when we arrived back at the hotel, ostensibly on day 2 of the trip, despite our not actually having slept in the hotel yet. In order to make sure that we did actually sleep during the day, a group of us decided to climb to the nearby waterfall coming down from Bæjarfell Mountain (another unnamed waterfall, at least according to ‘Gaia Earth’ — in another country it would have a name and a status). After returning from the walk and a full breakfast at the hotel, our group crashed into sleep for a much needed rest. Our broken sleep patterns (that was only just starting) resulted in the group name; ‘Sleep Deprivation Experiment’. On waking in the afternoon, the idyllic weather that we had landed in Iceland to, had turned to a thickly overcast sky with a faint cold drizzle peppering the ground. This was probably a relief to most as it meant we could sleep a little more before heading out the following day at 01:00AM to make our way to the western peninsula of land that forms like an appendage to the left hand side of the island.
Cold weather, rain and an icy wind didn’t instil the group with confidence as we made the two hour drive to Hellnar in the half dark that is the night during summer. It never actually gets fully dark in the summer months of Iceland. However, the thick cloud did make a somewhat murkier night than the nights that were still to come. Arriving at the coast with a cold mizzle in the air, we explored some of the rocky coastline that is so evocative of an imaginary viking past. The geology of the area is firmly predicated on the volcanic history of the country. Wherever you look there is evidence of pyroclastic explosions, flows and upheavals. The coastline near Hellnar is no different with a jumble of rocks that spill over a craggy cliff into the sea. In other words, despite the weather, it makes for awesome photography.
As with many of the places we visited, we seemed to only scratch at the photographic surface before speeding off to another location. This was a visit to the iconic mountain and attendant waterfall of Kirkjufell. This has to be one of the most beautiful mountains (if you can call it a mountain at 463 metres tall, but with sharply sloped sides and an extraordinarily conical shape) I have ever visited. The reason so many similar images exist of this location is that it really is the most natural composition available when you wander around it. Like many of the waterfalls that have become like pilgrimage sites for tourists there is a defined walkway around the site, meaning that exploration of compositions can be limiting. Still, despite the walkways and paths, the waterfall and mountain as background make a beguiling photographic subject; one that is hard to pass up.
Our third day turned into quite a long day in the end as after our nine hour round trip (travel and shooting) we basically jumped back into the vehicle to head off towards Hotel Ork in the small town of Hveragerði. We did this by traveling via the route 52 that took our party over the highlands towards Þvellir National Park and the edge of the European and North American tectonic plates. This is an area scattered with large lakes and sunken depression that looks like a broad valley. According to geologists (or so the information centre informed us), the valley is growing apart by a centimetre a year. Ultimately it will split Iceland in two. I am guessing not in our lifetime of course, but it is certainly the cause of the fairly regular seismic activity. Seismic activity which resulted in a fairly impressive quake near Selfoss in 2008 of 6.3 on the Richter scale. This caused a fissure to open below the site of a then being built shopping centre. The fissure is now proudly displayed through a thick glass floor of the now completed shopping centre, cheesily lit up by glowing red LED strips. Trust the Icelanders to finish the building on what is essentially a ticking geological time bomb. But then, all of Iceland probably is.
Keeping ourselves on our toes, we had less than 3 hours sleep (paying credence to the ‘Sleep Deprivation Experiment’ moniker) before we headed off to one of the must-see waterfalls in the area: Gullfoss. This enormous waterfall pours in a roaring torrent diagonally into a deep gorge, blasting spray for hundreds of metres and ensuring the area is a permanently soaked and verdantly green. Like many of the waterfalls, walkways cordon off the visitors from the very edge, and for good reason. Like most of the waterfalls, there are a lot of visitors, even at 23:00PM at night (well day actually). Any jostling and you are likely to have a fatality. So, frustrated as I was with the guided walkways, none of them detract from shooting interesting images. They are merely there as suggestions for your own safety.
From Gulfoss it is a short drive to Geysir to see…well a geyser. The geyser that gave Geysir its name hasn’t erupted in ages apparently. A nearby — we’re talking 50 metres away — spout, Strokkur, has been blowing at regular 6 minutes intervals since the name sake geyser went comparatively silent. It is apparently a lot smaller than Geysir, but was impressive nonetheless and we were able to photograph several eruptions before heading back to Hotel Ork for a well deserved rest.
Our rest was long and languished as our sleep deprived bodies desperately needed some down time. Thankfully thick cloud and rain descended after we returned from visiting Gullfoss. There was a palpable sense of relief amongst the group that we could make the excuse that a rest was in order since we couldn’t leave the hotel without getting completely soaked in the cold rain. Instead we were able to relax at last and get some rest as well as Photoshop and Lightroom time in at the very comfortable setting of the Hotel. One particular highlight was being able to visit the hot baths and sauna which are fed by thermal vents on the property itself (most hotels are situated near or above one so that they can feed their natural baths with hot water). It’s quite the experience to have rain pelting down on your head while you sit enjoying the warmth of the outdoor pool. I imagine I looked like a beaming macaque monkey as I sat there luxuriating in the warmth.
The rain didn’t exactly clear on the next day when we were set to travel to Vatnajokul National Park and the Skaftafell area. Our fifth morning started with a dawn shoot of Skogafoss, an archetypal Tolkien-esque kind of waterfall with a 25 metre girth and that plummets loudly for some 60 metres. Despite a full car park of caravans and campers we had the falls to ourselves, most likely due to the wet weather. Usually Skogafoss is positively covered in red and luminescent yellow rain jackets as coach buses draw up to spill out their platoons of tourists (hence our ‘tour-rerists’ nickname). Slightly disheartened we returned for breakfast before heading back the way we had come for the longish journey on the South ring road towards the west of the island.
A brief aside here though. The weather in Iceland is notoriously variable. This doesn’t mean that photography isn’t possible though. Although we photographed Skogafoss and other locations in rain, I was ultimately happy with the images. Bad weather often makes for some of the most powerful images. I know I often get excited about bad weather in the nearby Drakensberg Mountains for instance. Bad weather often sets the imagery apart from the clear blue sky snapshots that most tourists come out in hordes to see. A bit of sun is great to see admittedly, but for real drama less sun can sometimes be a whole lot more impressive. At the very least it means for images that can be packed with drama, rather than looking like the cover of a Quality Street chocolate box.
Despite the damp start to the day, Iceland continued to dish out vista after vista, scene after scene. It really didn’t matter that the weather meant for uniformly grey skies. We still ended up taking almost twice the required time to travel from Hveragerdi to Skaftafell due to the many stops along the way. Our arrival in the end was in the evening already, and we found ourselves rushing off to find some food further down the road, as well as another photo shoot at an old chapel with turf roof; one of the many extraordinarily photogenic buildings that we passed, and yet another anchor to a fascinating history.
If I were to divide the workshop, this would now be a logical point of the trip. We had passed through what is referred to as the Golden Circle, with your group professing to now be ‘waterfalled out’ (we weren’t actually and would still stop several more times to photograph the incredible waterfalls that Iceland throws up every few kilometres). Our next stage was probably of the more massive vistas, brilliantly displayed by the extraordinary Jokusarlon Glacial Lake, the eerily haunting mountain of Vestrahorn on the Eastern peninsula and the dramatic seaside cliffs of Dreholaey and Reynisdrangar.
Our first morning near the large Vatnojokul National Park was spent visiting the incredible Jokusarlon glacial lagoon. This is a large lagoon on the South eastern side of the park where one of the massive glacial spurs, of the giant glacier that makes up almost the entirety of the park, breaks apart into a lagoon which flows out to the ocean. We were expecting hordes of visitors, especially having seen said hordes at the waterfalls in the Golden Circle. We were more than surprised then to discover only a few die-hards like ourselves venturing out to watch the sunrise at about 03:15AM. The lagoon is breathtaking. Giant blocks of ice drift sedately over the crisp vaguely mirror-like surface of the lake. The dark water below is alabaster to the cold blues and whites of the glacial carvings. These frozen drifters creak up against each other and occasionally topple slowly over with a loud splash and crash. As they break up they drift towards the mouth of the lagoon where they are washed out to sea and are broken apart further by the action of the waves. This in turn creates one of the must-see photographic locations of Iceland; Diamond Beach.
We had arranged with the super efficient and friendly parks board for Vatnajokul, permission to use our drones at the lagoon (in hindsight we probably should have also done this for Diamond Beach). This meant that our small group which had 5 drones between us (a Phantom 4 Pro, three Magic Airs and a Spark) were able to play over the icebergs at our leisure, or at least until the batteries died. Due to the time of day and the decided lack of other people it also meant that we wouldn’t disturb anyone with the drones, which unfortunately do sound like an angry lawnmower hovering overhead.
Then it was down to Diamond Beach to photograph the amazing shards of iceberg that wash up onto the black lava sand beach. The contrast between the bright ice and the dark sand is phenomenal. One could spend ages just exploring the different compositions available. Once more, we seemed to have the run of the beach, with only one other photographer who seemed fixated with a single block of ice, staying there throughout the two hours that we wandered around. Two of our group had also had the foresight to bring along gumboots (aka wellingtons) to wade around in the surf. For the most part this was probably useful, but I did notice Jo surreptitiously pouring a boatload of water out of a boot at one point.
As had become the norm by this stage of the trip, we rushed back in time for breakfast before collapsing into our beds for some much-needed shuteye. Being a recce trip of sorts, our goal was to see and do as much as possible without actually killing ourselves. Usually the workshops we run are somewhat more defined in terms of locations and actually getting the chance to have a rest. This was not one of those, so we were relieved to be able to crawl under the covers of our respective beds and pretty much pass out.
Day 7 started with another extremely early rise of around 01:00AM in order to make our way to the East and the impressive massif that is Vestrahorn Mountain. It isn’t just me who thinks that this mountain should be featured in a movie or as the setting to some fantastical saga. So does Universal! At the foot of this iconic mountain is a replica Viking village that was built for a movie that in the end was never shot. Ultimately, the ‘Universal’ movie house bought the rights to the location, but it is yet to be viewed on screen it seems. We actually skipped the movie set and set off for the strikingly photogenic vantage point afforded from the Stofness lighthouse.
The spit of land that extends away from Vestrahorn means that you get to see the mountain in its entirety reflected in the still waters (if the wind isn’t blowing, or it isn’t raining, as was the case when we first arrived) of an estuary system at the base of the mountain. Dunes made of the archetypal black lava sands lie in grass topped waves in the foreground, while low lying clouds wrap themselves around the jagged peaks of the mountain. It's a scene straight out of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. In fact I can see Aragorn leading the Dead Men of Dunharrow across the sands with the Mountain towering above them. That’s the thing about this landscape. Every inch of it is worthy of a story, a saga, or some epic poem. The landscape resounds with drama!
Thankfully the Icelandic hotels are aware that they are dealing with nutters like ourselves. Unlike anywhere else I have traveled, we were allowed to return and crash into bed again and only leave after one in the afternoon. Everywhere else I have been guests are expected to be out of the hotel shortly after breakfast. Here we were allowed to rest enough to be able to leave in the afternoon for the longish drive back to Hella and our last accommodation, Hotel Stracta.
Our last few days were spent crisscrossing the bottom of the Golden Circle, visiting yet more dramatic cliffs, pinnacles and shorelines, as well as wandering down to the famous wrecked DC-3 aircraft at literally one in the morning (for a light-painting session of all things). We even managed to get the famous Seljalandsfoss Waterfall with the sun low on the horizon bathing the entire cliff face in a golden glow of fiery light. In a heartbeat though, our group was boarding the plane for Heathrow, and the volcanic upheaval around Keflavic was sliding out of sight.
Anyone who has read this far would be forgiven for thinking that this kind of trip is far from their idea of a holiday. At the outset, we invited previous guests along on what we call a ‘recce trip’. This is chance to explore a new location with the idea of putting together a workshop in future. The photographers who join us all know that things can go pear-shaped (and often do), that the level of instruction might be minimal, and that they are likely to not get much sleep as we dash from location to location in order to take in as much as possible. From that perspective I don’t think anyone was disappointed. We then take their input, and put together a workshop that we know will work. That we have done. In the next few weeks we’ll be launching a brand new workshop from Natures Light for Iceland. Unlike the recce, there will be time to rest, travel distances will be shorter and the instruction will be significantly deeper. I can’t wait!
Iceland is truly an extraordinary photographic location. You can barely travel down the road for more than a kilometre before wanting to leap out to photograph something. Everything is photogenic, from the waterfalls to the cliffs, to the snow-capped mountains; even the tar roads are photogenic. It has become something of an Instagram visited craze at the moment, which can be problematic at times. Waterfalls do seem to be like the Instagram Mecca for cellphone toting tourists who feel nothing at stepping in front of a carefully positioned tripod. We went at the veritable height of the tourist season, yet were still able to be completely on our own at several key locations. For this reason we are also timing our workshop for 2019 so that there are slightly fewer tourists to have to shoot round.
Having said the above though, there is not really a ‘low’ season in Iceland. Because of the incredible beauty of this island, there are always tourists, no matter the weather or the time of year. As hinted to above, the weather can also be something of a hindrance to shooting some of these incredible locations. It is entirely possible to visit Iceland for two weeks, during summer even, and not see the sun once. Having spoken to photographers who have had this experience though, all of them said that they were thinking of returning again (and for some, they had already visited multiple times). There is a reason Iceland is on most photographer’s bucket lists. When (not if) you visit you will understand why.