In search of ever more adventurous photography experiences, I got talking to fellow landscape photographer Elliot Hook about visiting Iceland together, and we decided it would be a good idea to hike the Laugavegur trail. Despite having no real experience of this sort of thing, we were both keen to expand our horizons, and push ourselves to try something a bit out there. We hiked the trail in July/August 2018, and it was absolutely fantastic. This blog post contains a set of photos taken along the way. There will be a follow-up post containing useful information and advice for anyone wishing to hike the Laugavegur for themself. I had to split them into two posts to avoiding a books-worth of content in one post, when a lot of people are only really interested in one chapter or the other. And if you like these photos, check out Elliot's photos too.
For a little context, here's my sketch of the hiking route....
I always knew that juggling photography with this sort of trek would be hard, and that it would require compromises. I lost photo opportunities on some occasions, and sleep on other occasions. I was carrying the bare essentials in order to afford 5.5kg of photography kit. And with Iceland's fickle weather, it was always going to be a gamble as to what I could get in terms of photos. But the main attraction was getting some photos from this trek, of places and mountains which most people don't even get to see, let alone photograph. Getting off the commonly-photographed areas of Iceland's South Coast I'd visited before, and finding fresh views, with no preconceived compositions in mind. In fact despite all the research about the trail before-hand, the one thing I didn't do was look for other photos of the area. I wanted to see the landscape for myself, with fresh eyes, and photograph what I thought worked at the time, rather than try to make something work that I'd seen done by someone else before. I've fallen into that trap in the past, and it's all part of learning, but I want to move past it. Similarly, I didn't want to go 'big game hunting'; looking for a handful of dramatic attention-seeking shots, each different from the other. My aim was to come back with a set of photos sharing a common tone, colour palette, and visual style. Each understated on it's own, but which hang together well as a collection.
Day Zero: Landmannalaugar
How best to describe Landmannalaugar? A beautiful hell hole. Like some trick from the devil that promises one thing, and delivers another. It's the start of the trail, and we had a full day there before setting off on the hike, so I had plenty of ideas for photos there. It's such a varied and unique landscape, there are photos almost everywhere. But we were quite unfortunate with the weather. Heavy rain and dangerously strong winds restricted where we could go and what we could do. So my photos from Landmannalaugar ended up being extremely limited. It was very frustrating, but that's often the case with Iceland, and Landmannalaugar in particular. So we start slowly, with a couple of long-lens abstracts of the colourful (and wet) surroundings.
This slightly wider shot was the only conventional landscape photo I managed in Landmannalaugar. It feels lazy to blame the weather, but when you can't see the tops of the mountains, the rain is splattering on the camera lens, and the wind is almost strong enough to blow you over, it feels like you're fighting a losing battle. It's a brutal place.
Day One: Landmannalaugar -> Álftavatn
Day 1 was our longest hike: 22km of ups and downs along a winding mountain pass. We chose to skip the traditional overnight stop at Hrafntinnusker hut and covered two days-worth in one. This took us through lava fields, snowfields, mud, ash, shining obsidian, and active volcanic ground where the gravel beneath our feet was simmering in boiling water. That first stretch from Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker was some of the most amazing scenery I've ever witnessed, and I'm so disappointed we had to trudge through it in the rain, hail, and biting cold wind. It was futile trying to take photos. Everything would get wet through, including the front of the camera. So we had to enjoy the views and press on through it, hoping we'd get an opportunity to take photos later in the day. After a long ascent, and traversing the top of the Fjallabak mountain range, we reached Jokultungur (Glacier Tongue). The valley below was a sight to behold.
Perhaps we should have been more patient in waiting for light here, because we had every other ingredient. But the draw of a warm hut and a nice rest meant that we decided to push on (all too soon, in hindsight).
We had intended to finish the day with a sunset shoot in Álftavatn (Swan Lake), but after a long day hiking, we decided to save our energy and turn in early. We had high hopes for the following evening.
Day Two: Álftavatn -> Hvanngil
Yesterday's 22km was in order to leave us with just 5km to hike on Day 2. In the morning we had a walk into the next valley, where I didn't get any photos, but I managed to drop my camera and break the lens hood. Fortunately no serious damage done, and off we set to Hvanngil. As we left Álftavatn, I took the opportunity to capture this curious crumpled mountain range behind, which had caught my eye the day before. Obviously it started raining as soon as I took the camera out, but it made a nice change from the hail.
As soon as you near Hvanngil, the captivating Stórasúla volcano begins to reel you in. Fearing this may be the only chance I get before it rains again, I took this shot.
Then we got around the corner and found this composition. We saw a few of these glacial melt streams, with almost neon green moss running each side of it. It's like nowhere else on earth. And to find one leading up into a volcano like this is just a gift for a photo.
After checking into the hut, and taking a hot meal on board, we nipped up the nearby Hvanngilshausar fell, and I took this shot as the light was transitioning to evening light. This is a good example of the kind of shot I'd been hoping for. I don't know the name of these mountains, and I've never seen any photos of them before. They're probably rarely seen or photographed, due to the vantage point required. So I can feel true ownership of shots like this.
Soon after, we arrived at our sunset location; one which we had researched before hand, and it was worth it. For once I can't blame the light on this occasion. I could have been better prepared, and we should have arrived there sooner, but the scenery was amazing. Looking back towards Hvanngil, we could see our hut in the distance, with Stórasúla volcano looming over it. In the far distance, Storkonufell, Hattafell, and Eyjafjallajökull.
Alas, after this last shot of the evening, it was time to say goodbye to the sun. We wouldn't see it again until Reykjavik.
Day Three: Hvanngil -> Emstrur
Day 3 was an 11km trek across a black desert of volcanic ash. The only features were volcanoes and huge dunes of ash, which now covered in moss, were indistinguishable from the volcanoes themselves. Below is Storkonufell, which was stunning from every angle. Unfortunately conditions only allowed this one shot, and it was covered in cloud for the rest of the day.
We really persisted this evening, to stay out for some good light, but it just wasn't to be. As it got dark, the cloud came down to cover the tops of all the peaks. There's a lot of potential in the Emstrur area, but we were scuppered by the weather again. Still, persistence did earn me this photo, which I'm quite pleased with. Taken just before the cloud descended. This is Hattafell volcano in the centre. To the right is a dune of rock and ash, formed by past eruptions, and strong winds. In the foreground tufts of grass eek out an existence. Iceland does resemble another planet at times.
Day Four: Emstrur -> Thórsmörk
This stretch of the trek didn't offer much photography, and to be honest, the day dragged a little. But when we reached Thorsmork it was all worth it. The Icelandic spelling of Thórsmörk is Þórsmörk, and it means 'Thor's Forest' (yes, that Thor). (Well not the Chris Hemsworth one. The original one; Norse god of thunder and all that). It's just about the only area of Iceland with a remaining old-growth forest. The rest of the island was rendered treeless by the vikings several centuries ago; wood being a key resource at the time. These days I think the god of thunder spends more time in Landmannalaugar, as Thórsmörk was beautiful. I wish we'd had more time there. This was the view that welcomed us as we arrived.
After checking in at our hut, we scampered up the nearby Valahnúkur fell for sunset. The 'sun' part of the sunset was notable by it's absence, but It was up there somewhere. And the scenery was spectacular nonetheless. Below, the cloud blows over the infamous Eyjafjallajökull ice cap, dropping rain on the adjacent valley.
There are so many views of these mossy peaks and crags in Thórsmörk, it can be hard to know where to point the camera.
Here a sightseeing plane flies down the valley, adding some much needed scale to the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull behind. Every now and again we'd hear what sounded like thunder as lumps of ice the size of buildings would tumble from the glaciers in this area.
Day Five: Thórsmörk
Before our mid-morning bus back to Reykjavik, we set a 3:45 alarm clock, and struggled up Valahnúkur for sunrise. By this point my thighs were like jelly, and my knees were audibly creaking. It was definitely further than it was yesterday. We got to the top to find that the weather forecast had duped us, and cloud was obstructing the sun once again. But that wasn't going to stop me making something of the scenery.
I was still captivated by Hattafell, in the distance. We missed the opportunity to get more photos of it earlier in the trek, due to low cloud and poor light, but was still drawing my attention now, even as a smaller feature on the horizon.
Looking back in the direction we'd walked from, the green valleys of Thórsmörk and Emstrur make for a fantastic foreground, for these longer focal length views.
My final set of photos here is a contrast from the greens of Thorsmork generally. I made the most of my 400mm lens (I'd hauled it all that way, after all), and took some close-up abstracts of the nearby Eyjafjallajökull ice cap, and some of it's glaciers.
And that was it. It was tough to turn the camera off and admit the adventure was over, but time waits for no man, and neither do the busses out of Thórsmörk. So we had to call it, and get down the fell, to pack up our things and go home.
As far as photography goes, I can't say I came back with the photos I hoped I would. The weather really limited the potential of this trip, particularly on Day 1, in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, and on day 3, around Emstrur. But that's often (always) the case; the weather is really just the luck of the draw. We could have had some spectacular conditions or we could have had a week of rain. You certainly can't go to Iceland and expect good weather, so you take your chance and enjoy what you get.
That said, I think I met my goal of a set of photos which hang together as a cohesive collection. They might not be world beaters, but they're mementos of a fantastic adventure, and they capture the feel and the mood of the landscapes we encountered. So I'm pleased with that. I'd have liked a few more diamonds in there, but overall I can't complain. I certainly enjoyed the experience more than I expected. Despite our inexperience as hikers, we both made it through comfortably, and came away with a nice set of photos to boot.
As I mentioned earlier (seems like a long time ago now), I'll be following up on this blog with a nerdy post about packing lists, photography kit, itineraries, pros, cons, mistakes, and recommendations. If you're considering a trek like this yourself, you can find that here: Trekking and Photography: The Laugavegur Trail.
If you have a favourite of these photos, I'd really like to know which. I can never predict which ones will resonate with other people.
I'll sign out with one last photo from Hvanngil. I like wide-aspect landscape photos, and this was the perfect opportunity for a three-shot panorama...