Iceland, February 2016.
Iceland has become a very popular destination for photography trips and workshops in recent years. Winter is my favourite photography season, and even though I hate the cold, I decided on a photo holiday to Iceland. One of my secret key objectives was to see the Northern Lights and hoped that ten days in Iceland would give me that opportunity.
There is an array of photo trips on offer for Iceland, and I decided on one offered by Wild Photography Holidays, based locally. I always prefer local companies because they often offer added value with their in-depth local knowledge.
After the Emirates flight to London and a three-hour flight to Reykjavik by Iceland Air, I was met by sleet and storm. After a short walk through the centre of town, I met the other participants of this photography holiday for dinner.
The next morning, we left for the western part of the country and headed in the direction of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The landscape was covered with snow, but since it hadn’t snowed recently, in many places rocks and vegetation had popped up, making it very photogenic.
One of the first things we encountered were the Icelandic horses, which are quite small and sturdy and have beautiful long manes. They are often found huddling together to protect themselves from the wind and cold.
We arrived at our hotel in Búðir just in time for lunch. Budir is a tiny hamlet with a small black church located on the rugged Atlantic coast. This was our base for the next three days for our exploration of this incredibly beautiful and varied part of Iceland.
Snaefellsnes has so much to offer. There are some of the most stunning seascapes you can imagine, with rock arches, sea stacks, and the craggy, black volcanic cliffs. The frozen or half-frozen waterfalls cry out to be photographed.
Kirkjufell, one of Iceland’s most recognised icons, is located on the northern edge of the peninsula, whilst inland you can find typical Icelandic churches and villages.
Nothing as Variable as…
The weather was, as expected, extremely variable. It was a continuous battle between sleet, rain, sunshine, snow, and high winds. The temperatures ranged from plus five degrees centigrade during the day to about minus 10 at night, but the wind chill affected all of us. The skies were clear the first night, but the Aurora forecast showed no activity at all. Some of the other participants went out that night to try their luck, but their very long exposures showed only a very faint green haze over the mountains, invisible to the naked eye.
The South, Here We Go
After three days of photography heaven in Snaefellsnes we made the long drive to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in the southern part of Iceland. On the way we passed through some stunning places.
There was the obligatory stop at the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. Because of its easy-to-reach roadside location not too far from Reykjavik, it is on many tour itineraries. But, fortunately, the busses come and go quickly and sometimes there is a window of opportunity of a couple of minutes to shoot the falls with only a few people in the shot.
Further down the road were the iconic Vik sea stacks, and with the high waves rolling in, it was great fun to try to capture the shot I had in mind.
The very photogenic abandoned farmstead we visited next is one of those locations only the local people would ever be able to take you to. The rusty equipment in the yard, the grassy roofs of the stables, and the tiny chapel kept us busy for quite some time.
A Photographer’ Dream
Late in the afternoon we arrived at the Jökulsárlón Lagoon. It was partly cloudy, and the sun was setting slowly, so we went to the other side of the road to Breiðamerkursandur Beach, the famous black sand beach that is normally covered with very photogenic ice chunks.
There must have been a hundred or more other photographers on the beach, but most of them stuck to the area near the carpark. With a five-minute walk further down the beach, you had the place almost to yourself.
This is such a fantastic place to shoot; the various colours, the grades of transparency, and the shapes and sizes of the ice on the water’s edge, are amazing. The rays of the setting sun lighting up each chunk of ice in a different way added to the beauty of the scene. You need to come prepared with high boots, however, because you will most likely be standing in water to get the best photos.
We returned twice more to this beach and each time there were different pieces of ice to shoot and the light was completely different, creating new magic.
Every evening we kept a close eye on the aurora forecast, but up to this point there was absolutely no activity whatsoever, and in any case, on most nights it was completely overcast.
A long walk away from the crowds along the Jökulsárlón Lagoon brought us to an area with many seals. Some were hunting for food, but most were just lazing on the edge of the lagoon. I didn’t bring my largest zoom lens with me on this walk and regretted this immensely.
Bring it On
On the three days we were in this area, we also visited the Stokksness headland. The black sand dunes with gold-coloured helm grasses, a sweeping beach with high waves rolling in, and the stunning cliffs in the background are a photographer’s playground.
One of the highlights of the trip was an excursion to a natural ice cave underneath one of the glaciers. These ice caves are only safe to enter during mid-winter when they are stable enough. We left very early because the first tourists would arrive at the cave around 9am, which would give us about one hour to have the cave for ourselves.
After a 45-minute drive with a super Jeep and a 30-minute walk over the glacier to the entrance of the cave, we found a film crew had just set up shop next to the cave, and the one-hour shooting time turned into 30 minutes.
This particular cave was quite small, and it was challenging to fit the entire group and have enough space and time to shoot. The mind-blowing deep sapphire blue colours inside the cave were created by sunlight penetrating through the ice cap overhead, and together with its incredible ceiling sculpted by glacial water, the cave was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
No Aurora Borealis for us this time around, but Iceland certainly does live up to its reputation of being a photographer’s Walhalla.
All images © 2018 Marco Duyves