The Ring Road in Autumn.
Iceland, September 2018.
Although this is a post about a photography trip along Iceland’s’ N1, Eastern Greenland was my original destination for this photography holiday and all was arranged – holiday taken from work, deposit paid, non-refundable flight to Reykjavik booked, when I received the message that the trip was cancelled. I wasn’t the happiest person around, but after a bit of sulking, I decided to put the flight ticket to good use and organize a road trip on part of Iceland’s N1, the ring road around the country.
This was my second photography tour to Iceland, not counting my 24-hour stop on my way to Greenland in February 2018. During the first, we visited the area from Stokksness in the south of Iceland to Snæfellsjökull in the west. After a bit of research, I came up with an interesting itinerary, which went from Akureyri in northern Iceland following large sections of the N1 all the way back to Reykjavik. I was revisiting the section between Stokksness and Reykjavik from my previous trip because I wanted to visit the Jökulsárlón Lagoon and adjacent black beach again, which is my version of photography heaven. All reservations for accommodations and rental car were done online, easy and no hassle.
After the Emirates flight to Stockholm and the connecting flight with Icelandair, I had one evening in Reykjavik before my domestic flight to Akureyri. Prior to my departure I had already seen that the aurora forecast showed a Kp Index of 9, indicating the highest possible Aurora Borealis activity, and the weather forecast was for clear skies, which meant ideal circumstances for shooting the Northern Lights.
The Aurora Borealis Excitement
In order to photograph the Northern Lights properly, you need to get out of Reykjavik and find a spot without light pollution. I was without transportation and decided immediately upon arrival to book a super Jeep excursion to a remote area outside Reykjavik.
It was a weekend, and there were quite a few Icelanders also preparing to catch the Northern Lights outside Reykjavik. If they, who have seen the spectacle so many times, were excited to see it, we were going to be in for a real treat.
The tour started at 10pm and, unexpectedly, clouds were coming in from sea – there’s nothing as variable as the weather in Iceland. The driver was in constant contact via radio with his buddies who were in other locations in and around Reykjavik. Around 11pm we arrived at the first stop and decided to wait there for the Northern Lights. There was hot chocolate and homemade cookies to keep our spirits up.
The Long Wait
After a wait of about 45 minutes, the clouds covered up most of the sky in this area and after some consultation the driver decided to move to a location with clearer skies. Also there we waited for about an hour and a half, constantly checking the Kp Index, which went through the roof. A spectacular aurora must have been visible somewhere, but on this evening, it wasn’t to be in the south of Iceland. This was a huge disappointment, but we’re dealing with nature, and you have to take it as it comes.
The Real Start
The next day, my road trip began after the short flight to Akureyri. I picked up a four-wheel drive at the airport and I ready to go for the eight-day, 1,500 km trip. But my first stop was in Akureyri itself, since this is one of the best whale-watching locations in the world this time of the year. I decided to join one of the smaller boats for an afternoon cruise. There weren’t too many people so there was plenty of space to move around and to move from one side of the boat to the other, depending on which side the whales were expected to surface.
We spotted the first humpback whales after about 15 minutes, a small group of three. The skipper was trying to anticipate where they would surface again to get us as close as possible. There are strict regulations in place on what the whale-watching boats can and can’t do in order to not stress the whales too much.
There were only three boats out on the bay this afternoon, so there was enough space for everyone to join the spectacle. For the next three hours, we engaged in a continuous chase of the many whales in the bay. Some we lost immediately, others we managed to follow for a few dives before they disappeared, but others came up close and swam parallel to the boat for a while. It was amazing to see these animals first-hand and so close by.
Be Ready for It…
During my trip I stayed in small four-star hotels, chalets, and bed and breakfasts. Although none of them were bad, I think they were all way overpriced for what they offered. Of course, this is all a question of supply and demand, but I wonder how long it will take before the tourists decide the prices are too high. I realize that nobody comes to Iceland for the hotels and that the hotels are merely a means of experiencing this beautiful country, but still…
The First Waterfalls
The trip continued to Goðafoss, one of the most popular waterfalls in northern Iceland, and it is easy to see why. There is a bridge nearby, so it is easy to walk from one side of the falls to the other, and on the left side of the falls there is a path leading down, so you can shoot the falls from below.
My Favourite Waterfall
Aldeyjarfoss Waterfall is about an hour’s drive from Godafoss and is my favourite of the falls I have seen in Iceland. The patterns of the basalt rocks and the locations for shooting the falls scream out for photography.
It is easy to reach, and even though it was mentioned that a four-wheel is required to reach the parking, I think a regular car would have made it just as well. The location is quite remote, and I had the place practically to myself.
My next destination was Mývatn, a very scenic lake in northern Iceland, also about an hour’s drive from Godafoss, but in the other direction. My hotel was right on the lake and I asked reception to let me know if the Northern Lights came out. During the night, every half hour a staff member of the hotel checks whether they are visible. At 10.30pm I got the call. All the other hotel guests were also running outside, but most stayed next to the road. I wanted a better location, and in the afternoon, I had spotted some small hills further down on the shore of the lake with excellent views and a nice foreground of the surrounding area. That would be my spot to finally shoot the Northern Lights.
The show had just started when I was ready to shoot. There were a few clouds, which added to the magic, and helped cover part of the rising moon. The aurora wasn’t very strong, but enough for me to pick it up on my camera.
Am Not Sure About This One
Dettifoss Waterfall was next on the list. Up to that point, I thought taking the four-wheel drive was more of a luxury than a necessity, but the drive to Dettifoss proved me so wrong. The road was bad and there’s no way a regular sedan would have made it in one piece (although there were still some who were trying their luck). Dettifoss, which is fed by the Vatnajökull Glacier, is beautiful, but above all extremely wet. It’s very difficult to shoot the waterfall properly, but further down the path there are equally pretty, smaller waterfalls, which make for interesting shooting opportunities.
Stunning as Ever
After that, it was back to the coast following the N1 again, all the way to the Jökulsárlón area. I stayed there for three nights because this was my favourite part of my first trip to Iceland. Also this time I wasn’t disappointed. The Jokulsarlon Lagoon was as stunning as ever, with the mini-icebergs calving from the Vatnajokull glacier and floating towards the sea.
This time I also visited the Fjallsárlón Lagoon, much smaller in size, but much less touristic and as scenic as the Jokulsarlon.
The Better Alternative
Having faithfully followed both the aurora and the weather forecasts, there were strong chances for good Northern Lights. I was lucky two nights in a row. My dream was to shoot the Northern Lights over the Jokusarlon Lagoon; however, having arrived there in the evening, I wasn’t the only one with that thought.
Between the lights of the cars driving in and out of the carpark and the many tablet and mobile phone lights from the tourist groups, it was impossible to take a decent photo there. I therefore quickly changed locations and drove to the other side of the bridge one kilometre down the road.
Here I had it all to myself – well not exactly, since there was one other photographer who had the same idea. When the aurora did come out, the scenery was fantastic with some clouds in the sky and the very still lagoon perfectly mirroring the skies above. The aurora wasn’t very strong, but it was good enough for atmospheric photos.
The Most Photogenic Place on Earth?
The black volcanic sand beach on the other side of the road from the Jökulsárlón Lagoon is one of my favourite places in the world to photograph. The big chunks of ice right on the waterline are so photogenic in all kinds of light.
The ice comes in all shapes and sizes, from tiny shards to huge pieces taller than a person. The larger pieces are not always on the beach – it depends on the direction of the wind and the supply of ice from the lagoon and the tide – but there has always been something interesting to shoot on the five different days, in two different seasons, I have visited this beach.
Be prepared – come with waterproof boots because the nicest photos are often taken right at the waterline where the best pieces of ice are found. Most of the tourist groups stick to the beginning of the beach, so sometimes it pays to hike a bit further down the beach to get some clear shots without pesky people in them.
Aurora Strikes Again
The second evening, I drove on the N1 to find a good location near the lagoons where I could wait for the Northern Lights to appear. They started to appear almost immediately and became stronger by the minute. Therefore, with no time to waste, I found a small pond next to the road and parked my car – this location would have to do for this evening.
It was challenging because the headlights of cars on the road were ruining shot after shot. But it was this or nothing because the Northern Lights disappear as quickly as they appear.
I will never tire of Iceland. The scenery is so unique and otherworldly that I will go back there for a third time soon.
All images © 2018 Marco Duyves