Updated: Mar 7
I’ll be honest, I was feeling a little sheepish ahead of our trip to Iceland. I’d wanted to visit for years, as traditional “summer holidays” just aren’t my thing, and Iceland has always offered something different. The attitude of the people, the natural features and hot springs, the ease of access (just a cheap flight away from the UK) make it a really attractive prospect.
But… in the last couple of years especially, it’s become so popular with photographers, it had started to make me feel like I was just another in the johnny-come-lately crowd. I think when we booked it, it still seemed like a leftfield place to choose, but this year particularly I’ve seen shot after shot of Iceland amongst the wider photography community. It did make me wonder if I’d missed the boat a little. Just browsing 500px and alike, you can’t help but notice just how many photos crop up from the same few spots in Iceland. It has now really become a must-see country for the aspiring landscape photographer, and the photo world seems to be over-saturated with the images coming back from there.
But wishing I’d gone a year or two earlier isn’t going to change the fact that I didn’t. So going this year was still going to be the best I could do, and I was confident I’d be able to photograph the popular spots in my own style. Not to mention that, photos or no photos, I also wanted to see and experience the place as a holiday destination. So September finally arrived, and we were off at last.
We started in Iceland’s modest capital, which stretches the definition of the word “city” somewhat. It’s a charming and charismatic place, and the people are all very friendly. They speak perfect English, which is fortunate for me, because I can barely pronounce Icelandic, let alone understand it. Though it’s cheap to fly there, Iceland can be an expensive place to stay. The food is pricey, as are the clothing stores. But that didn’t stop me enjoying the local cuisine and splashing out on a new winter hat. I don’t tend to take a lot of city photos, but Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja cathedral is not to be missed. We trudged up the hill to reach it shortly after sunset, in order to catch it with a beautiful dark blue sky behind…
I had tried a similar technique in York earlier in the year, and with practice, it’s become my style of choice for city scenes.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Moving on from Reykjavík, we picked up a car and drove East, around the “Golden Circle” route. This is just a common name for a group of sites not far from Reykjavík. For those who want a simpler life, you can see them all in day-trips from Reykjavík. But for the photographers out there, you’ll want to hire a car and set your own schedule.
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park was our first stop. Despite its dramatic sweeping landscape, it was hard to photograph this area without knowing it well. We weren’t there for a sunrise or sunset, so that reduced the possibilities further. The wide river system and lush green spaces were a photographers dream. But not at midday with bright sunshine overhead. So I didn’t stop there very long. We did stumble upon Öxarárfoss waterfall though, which I think came out very well, processed dark and contrasty…
This is the first point at which it dawned on me that the natural light seemed to be different here to how it is at home. In the UK, if the sky is overcast, it makes everything to dull and flat. In Iceland, the light seemed to be so textured and varied, even when the clouds rolled in like this. That was a key lesson – to keep shooting in weather that would be useless at home.
From there, we went off to see Gullfoss waterfall, and Strokkur – the geyser firing every 5-10 minutes. Gullfoss was large and somewhat impressive, but it was very hard to take in from any one viewpoint, and it wasn’t very photogenic. Quite a sight, but more of a sightseeing destination than a photography one. And you could say the same for the Geysir area too, though to a lesser extent. Stokkur was great fun, but I didn’t get any photos worth sharing. I think in reality, you’d want to be there at sunrise for anything really interesting.
WATERFALLS; MIGHTY, FAIRYTALE, AND RUGGED.
So we left the Golden Circle route and headed South East towards Vik. Just West of Vik, you have two spectacular and accessible waterfalls; Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. Prioritising Selandjafoss for sunset, we drove past it and headed to Skogafoss first.
Skogafoss is a mighty symbol of Southern Iceland, and it’s absolutely huge. But it’s very tidy too, which appeals to me. There’s just something very neat about the way so much water is tumbling off the edge of a cliff, but remaining so orderly at the same time. And it transitions from thunderous waterfall to gentle river in a matter of meters. Add to that the spectacular green of the surrounding grass and moss, and the contrasting slate grey of the rocks and sand, and you have yourself a photo waiting to be taken…
I took a few closer shots, which look good in black and white, but this wide one with all the green was my favourite.
Both Skogafoss & Seljalandsfoss are very popular attractions, and taking photos without including hoards of tourists can be difficult. My approach was four-fold:
We visited in September, which is just out of the most popular tourist season, so crowds were less of a problem.
Go in the evening, when most of the coach tours and tourists have left.
Be patient, and wait for a lull in activity, when fewer people are in shot.
If the reality is, you are going to have to shoot with one or two people in shot, then just do it, and clone them out in post.
It’s also worth remembering 3 other tactics which I didn’t need to use on this occasion:
Re-compose, and try to shoot from another angle, without the people in shot. A close-up of the water, for example.
Use a filter to slow your exposure, blur the water, and make moving tourists disappear.
Embrace your fellow visitors, and make them part of the shot. Use them for scale, or to add to the message of the photo
After Skogafoss, we nipped back to Seljalandsfoss in time for sunset. Seljalandsfoss is what I would describe as a fairytale waterfall. It just looks like it’s out of a Disney film or something. It can appear dull in flat light, but when you follow the path around or behind it, and the setting sun paints the water pink like the clouds – it’s quite a sight to behold…
Our last waterfall was Svartifoss, in Skaftafell National Park. This was another struggle against the bright sunshine. The walk up to the waterfall took us around 40 minutes, at a very leisurely pace. We wandered back down in 20-30 minutes, and it took around 90 minutes in total. Svartifoss, or “The Black Falls” in English, is more notable for its iconic basalt rock formations than for the fall itself. Basalt is a quick-cooling volcanic rock, which forms towers of hexagonal black columns. At Svartifoss, they seem to defy gravity; clinging to the cliff face…
JÖKULSÁRLÓN GLACIER LAGOON
It’s fair to say that by this point we were struggling to keep up with the punishing schedule of views and tourist attractions I’d set out to see. But the best was yet to come. Jökulsárlón is a 7KM lagoon, which is gradually filling the space left from a retreating glacier. The enormous glacier continues to calve new bergs into the lagoon, which drift down the length of the lagoon, and out to sea. It’s a breathtaking sight, and an amazing holiday experience, let alone a wonderful photography opportunity.
We saw seals in the lagoon, which was apparently a rare treat. I would have loved to have had a 300mm lens with me, but alas, I was packing light, and only took the wider-angle landscapes lenses with me. We also took a zodiac boat tour on the lagoon, drifting along the glacier wall. Truly the experience of a lifetime. I very much recommend the Zodiac’s over the amphibious vehicles.
After our sightseeing, I had just enough time to capture some photos of the lagoon, before the sun dipped below the mountains to the West…
As we were losing light, we nipped over the road to the beach, which is a very popular location with landscape photographers. I was pleased that on the evening we had there, it wasn’t too crowded. It’s famous for its ‘shipwrecked’ icebergs and jet black sand, which contrast beautifully. If you’re lucky, you can combine that with the movement of the waves, and the sunset clouds to produce something like the shot below, of one lump of ice resting on the beach, soon to be reclaimed by the incoming tide.
I struggled to get the composition, timing, and shutter speed right, but I think they all came together well there. That one was shot at 1/4 of a second, but in hindsight I wish I’d slowed it down to a second. Kicking myself now, but I know for next time.
Below is a close-up of the ice laying on the shimmering black sand.
VIK AND THE ROUTE BACK WEST
From Jökulsárlón we had one more day in Iceland, and a 5 hour drive West towards Keflavík. But we did take the time to stop at Vik, and enjoy the famous black beaches and rocky stacks.
Both of the photos above were long exposures using 10-stop filters. The tide was out when we got to the beach, and the drainage lines were left in the sand, so I had to use them in a photo. They’re also another good example of the interesting light in Iceland, even when overcast. The contrast of black rock, and dynamic skies is just a gift to any photographer.
Along the route back to Vik, we also drove through miles of other-worldly moss-covered volcanic rockscapes like this. I would have loved to see them on a misty sunrise morning, but I’d never seen or heard of the area before, so I had to be opportunistic to manage anything at all. I figured that instead of battling against the harsh sunlight, I would turn it into a feature of the shot.
As we made the final few miles back towards Keflavík, the weather really turned, and showed us once again how changeable Iceland can be. But that’s part of the beauty of the place.
IT’S OFFICIAL – I LOVE ICELAND
Iceland is somewhere I’m really keen to get back to some time. We found the people and culture absolutely captivating. Aside from the friendly and welcoming nature of all the Icelanders we met, the country seemed to also have a refreshing approach to life in general. Things there were practical and built to last. It seemed like the throw-away culture which bleeds across the Atlantic to the UK has thankfully not reached Iceland yet. Our visit also sparked an interest in seeing more Scandinavian countries. Hopefully in the new year, I’ll be talking about another Scandinavian trip for September 2014. Watch this space…