The weather is going to be terrible. Just prepare for it. Absolutely bloody awful. Iceland is renowned for the fickle moods of its weather. For the island, weather is like a petulant teenager, blowing hot and cold with gale force tantrums and days and days of melancholy gloom interspersed by moments of extraordinarily beautiful sunshine. At least that’s how the theory goes. In fact in 2018 the year’s weather held pretty much to this pattern. When we arrived in June of last year we were greeted with 2 days of half sunshine. “Oh, you’ve seen our summer”, exclaimed a waiter who was serving us at the famous Ork Pizzeria. So, drenched and cold we visited and shot waterfalls and mountains, streams and extraordinary vistas in the drizzle and downpour.
That was not the case this June. In some ways the weather was almost too good! As landscape photographers we tend to crave dramatic skies and sunlight that bursts through clouds to illuminate towering storms. This time around we got blue skies and balmy weather (if you can call Iceland’s summer temperatures balmy that is) for the entire two weeks that we were there. We didn’t receive a single drop of rain. Not one! It was utterly bizarre. Phenomenal for the tourists, and not quite as well-received by photographers. Still, needs must. If we have to enjoy the perfect weather, so be it.
Our 2019 ‘Chasing a Midnight Sun’ workshop started off with an odd sort of stop start motion thanks to multiple cancellations and re-routings of several of the photographer’s flights into Keflavik (thank you British Airways). Rather than arriving in a small group, our merry band arrived in dribs and drabs over the course of 4 days. Not that this is necessarily a problem in a place like Iceland. The island positively throbs with photographic opportunity the moment you step off the plane to greet the enormous stuffed puffin (toy kind, not taxidermy kind) hanging upside down over the luggage carousel at the airport.
Then you are hit with the extraordinary light as you step out to greet the Icelandic air. Our workshop is a little different to a lot of the photography workshops that take place in Iceland in that it runs close to the height of summer. Iceland is extraordinarily beautiful year round, but many of the workshops tend to run in the Spring and the Autumn. Then there is the full summer which just about everyone who has seen proclaims as the most beautiful season. Unfortunately it also coincides with the largest influx of tourists. So, we try to find that little sweet spot in between when the tourist hordes are at a slight ebb, and there are fewer dedicated photographic workshops floating around. The reason for this is the calm that you can encounter at some of the sites that we visit.
Two classic examples of this ‘calm’ are the phenomenal Skogafoss and Gullfoss waterfalls. If you try to approach these two magnificent water features during the middle of the day or at sunset you will be met by literally busloads of tourists. I kid you not when I say that there can be up to two hundred brightly clad gore-tex’ed visitors milling around the base of Skogafoss shooting instagram after instagram. Go at dawn though, and you have the falls to yourself. The same is true of Gullfoss. This enormous waterfall that pretty much generates it’s own micro-weather is teeming with people at sunset (in summer at least). Not so much at dawn though where you can actually get a wide angle shot of the waterfall without a single person in it. The problem with travelling in the height of the photography workshop season is that the other workshops know this trick too. So we try to meet the two in between, and the fact that we were often alone in extraordinary locations seems testament to the fact that it works!
The workshop started on the Snaefellsness Peninsula (the middle western spit of land if you are looking at a map of Iceland. Staying at the tiny hamlet of Hellnar gave fantastic access to the sea-stacks and coastal cliffs of Anarstapi, the towering cliff walls below Snaefellsjokul (glacier) and a short drive to the iconic Kirjufell mountain and its waterfall. Sleep deprivation set in early as we visited locations at sunset and sunrise, meaning shooting times of close to midnight and then again at 3AM. We managed this with decent rest time during the day, so that photographers still felt excited at the prospect of shoots in the small hours of the morning.
Not that you know it’s the small hours of the morning though. Shooting just below the Arctic circle this close to the summer solstice means that the night never actually gets fully dark. The best light of the day starts at around 7PM and extends till close to 11PM with dusk continuing till past midnight. The sunrise of around 3AM means that the so-called ‘Golden Hour’ lasts for a good three hours or more. Still, there was enough time to get around the peninsula, get some rest and still manage time behind the computers to put images together for review.
After three nights stay we set off back towards the Southern coast of Iceland, crossing Thingvellir National Park and the supposed edge of the North American and European tectonic plates. Thin spires of steam mark the various geysers and hot water pools that ring the large Thingvalla lake and are a constant reminder of how geologically active the island is. The tumbledown rockfalls and bare mountain sides act as another reminder of how young the island is in geological terms…and how young it will be when it ultimately riven in two or completely devoured by volcanic activity. Melodramatic maybe, but there is the sense that Iceland, like Yellowstone National Park will one day go kablooey in the most dramatic of exits.
Thoughts of pyroclastic activity were far from mind though as we trained lenses on the extraordinary Rhynisfiara and visited the Myrdalssandur and Thorsmork Valley. Again, as soon as you travel away from the well-trodden route, you are presented with the most extraordinary imaging opportunities. Looking across the glacier scraped Skarftatunga you are presented with scenes out of a movie-makers imagination (no wonder several scenes of ‘Game of Thrones’ were shot in Iceland). A highlight for our group though was looking down on the Rhynisdranga and of course visiting the gorges of the Thorsmork Valley.
From the base in Vik we travelled again westward past the massive Vatnajokul National Park to Hofn where we would be able to visit both Jokulsarlon (the well known glacier lake) and its ‘Diamond Beach’ as well as have easy access to the Vestrahorn Mountain and its distinctive profile. We stayed at the edge of the Hoffellsjokull (‘jokul’ means glacier in Icelandic) which lent itself to extremely cold mornings and evenings as the icy anabatic wind tore down the valley, delivering mind-numbing cold to limbs. It was bizarre feeling warmer at both Vestrahorn and photographing the ice on the beach at Jokulsarlon than at the hotel where we were staying.
Exhaustion finally set in on the last morning of our stay near Hofn, with only 4 of our group of 8 making it to the sunrise at Vestrahorn. No doubt this was due to the previous evening’s lacklustre light display over the mountain. Tired bones and scepticism of light conditions meant that there were literally only the four of us standing in front of the mountain when the sun rose past it’s eastern flank (although we were soon joined by another photographer, Ric Franko, who we had been leapfrogging for the previous two days).
An obscenely early morning saw us leaving Hofn so that we could get back to Jokulsarlon for another photoshoot on the way back to Hella, where we would be spending our last two nights. From Hella we had easy access to the always beautiful Seljalandsfoss (the waterfall with a cave behind it) and closer access to Gullfoss and Geysir.
Our drive out to Gullfoss was probably the most ‘night’ we saw, necessitating an early 1AM start in order to reach the falls before sunrise. The falls were exquisite, as always, but jarringly cold. This meant that most of the group managed all of 15 minutes before seeking out safety in the van. Ice cold fingers and batteries that dropped power as you watched them, were worth it though as the images of the river that those brave enough to weather the weather took, were stunning. Thankfully, as soon as you moved away from the falls the temperature ratcheted up a good 10 degrees, to the point that we were all overheating and shedding layers as we watched the Stokkur geyser explode upwards in a whoosh of boiling water and steam.
Iceland never fails to enchant. Yes, it’s one of those cliched photographic destinations (as Namibia’s Kolmanskop and Dead Vlei and Norway’s Lofoten Island are). There are some locations where the only logical composition is the same a thousand other photographers have shot before. Yet, there are also hundreds of thousands of images that haven’t been shot, that are equally as mesmerising and still look like out of some Hollywood green screen set.