It was back in September 2015 when I made the impulsive decision to visit Iceland.
On arriving at Reykjavik airport with my fellow travelling companions, the sight of snow all around pleased me immensely. I ventured outside while we were waiting for our tour guide to collect the Land Rover Discovery and I just stood there and enjoyed breathing in the cold, fresh air. Several minutes later we were collected and being whisked to our first destination which happened to be the hotel. Once checked in, we were planning on a quiet night to help settle us in nicely for the coming days of constant travelling and shooting but mother nature had other plans. It was so dark by 10pm, not to mention cold but suddenly the northern lights showed themselves so we made a dash for it to Kirkjufell, a wonderful mountain that looks a little like a witch’s hat. It was only 30 minutes down the road but on arrival, we noticed a lot of cars had filled the car parks. We eventually parked and wandered down to the shoreline that runs up to the nearest town of Grundarfjörður. There must have been thirty photographers all lined up waiting to capture the aurora borealis me included and then it came. I captured the image below and decided to leave in the two photographers furthest left as I liked the red and blue lights they omitted.
After an hour or so, we decided to leave the hustle and bustle of Kirkjufell behind and we were driven to a wonderful location up the road which featured an emergency mountain hut which made for a truly stunning subject in which to capture the aurora overhead. The colours of the lights were growing stronger and stronger and stronger with each passing minute. Luminous greens, purples, reds and blue hues were all dancing right above us, from one mountain summit to another. I honestly did not know which way to look first or last for that matter. I could have laid on the snow all night watching them and actually trying to find some great compositions including the hut was difficult for they were such a distraction. The dream that I had in wanting to see the aurora borealis was finally realised and honestly, it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
The late hour of 2am came and went and we returned to the hotel and bed for tomorrow would prove another eventful day. Sunrise in southern Iceland in February is around 9.30am leaving you with a little bit of a lie in to recover from a big night out, although ten years ago it would have involved alcohol, girls and a nightclub, these days, thermal leggings, a down jacket and some determination to capture the best photos I can dominate my life. My how life changes as you hit middle age.
Arnarstapi for sunrise it was then and what a sunrise we experienced. There’s a lovely little harbour, a prominent house to photograph and the wonderfully lit snow capped mountains that reside behind the harbour and that’s all I need to get my creative juices flowing.
Once sunrise had wowed us with its presence, it was a short drive up the road to visit the iconic and surely by now the world famous black church otherwise known as the Buðir Church. On arriving we noticed a few cars parked up along with a few people milling around with cameras. We pressed on to find the best composition we could and we didn’t hang about as we wanted to shoot the place free from the mass of tourists from the huge coaches that pull up. This was a wonderful location and the black church is one of three black churches in Iceland. They are black because the exterior wood is painted with pitch, just like the hull of a boat. This is to protect it from the harsh Icelandic elements. This works fairly well and buildings treated in this way have survived over 100 years. www.icelandaurora.com
Once we had our fix of the black church, we were taken to a huge coastal rock arch near Arnarstapi for sunset. The large, powerful waves crashed against the thick set rocks pillars of the archway below so I decided to stay elevated, some 80ft up on a small ledge instead.
Sunset was subtle but equally as stunning with the last throws of light bearing down over Mt Stapafell with the wonderful tones of pink illuminating the snow covered rocks. This country really is beautifully calm and peaceful at times.
The following day the rain fell and in copious amounts. I guess it had to happen so we made the best of it by driving the eight hour, 555km journey from our base in Ólafsvík to the black, volcanic beach of Jökulsárlón and just in time for sunset too. The one thing you come to realise in Iceland is that it takes some considerable effort and time getting anywhere. If you’re planning on heading out there for the first time and are looking at a map and plotting journey times, my advice during the winter is to allow yourself more time than predicted as the weather can turn nasty and there’s really only one main road around the south side of the country.
On arriving at Jökulsárlón, one of Iceland’s most popular destinations for landscape photographers, you notice that there’s an ice lagoon on one side of the bridge and the beach on the other. The ice bergs form in the lagoon and move slowly under the bridge out into the ocean where they get washed up on the beach. On my visit, there were not very many icebergs in the lagoon, probably due to the mild temperatures (it only dropped to -7 degree on one of the seven days). That’s positively tropical for Iceland in February.
Here’s an image of a wonderful purple sky during the last throws of light. The movement in the water was amazing as the white foam dropped through the black sand instantly. This was definitely one of the highlights of the week for me.
Day three arrived and it was a Sunday morning and with the promise of a glorious sunrise, we all ventured down to the hugely impressive Vestrahorn, a wonderful 454 metre mountain that lies in the south=east of the country and on the peninsula of Skarðsfjörður and Papós. This mountain is known for the colourful brown grasses that hug the coastline and grow out of the black volcanic sandy beach. Some time after we arrived, the sun slowly made its way up and beyond the horizon, allowing the peaks of the Vestrahorn to be illuminated. It’s at moments like these that you could just sit down and marvel at how beautiful this planet can be but I was armed and dangerous with a Canon 5D MK3 and so I had little time to stand around and admire the view as such.
Once sunrise was out of the way, a brief stop at a local petrol station was in order as we needed coffee and some breakfast. These impromptu stops at service stations for food were frequent and very much the norm when out on the road and were very welcome too, even if the cost of food is high and the coffee served in paper cups that are far too small. Our next stop was back to Jökulsárlón to meet Oskar, our ice cave guide and driver for the afternoon. En-route we stopped off by the roadside to capture some Icelandic horses which are just beautiful and very photogenic too although it was the reindeer that caught my eye. They were walking slowly across the snow covered fields in the distance and I could not help but imagine them as camels in the Sahara. The similarities were uncanny.
After photographing the horses, it was time to head on over to Jökulsárlón to meet Oskar and his impressively sized Nissan Patrol 4×4, although despite its size, there were only around 6″ of leg room in the rear seats. Oskar is the owner ofwww.iceguide.is an adventure experience based company. He was one of the original guides of the ice caves when he and a friend discovered the ice cave that we were driving to now. He said that the recent explosion of the tourism industry saw the ice cave receive at least seven tour companies running several tours a day meaning that the ice cave is rarely empty these days. Oskar much preferred the time when the ice cave was a hidden gem under the glacier. On arriving at the entrance, snow had fallen a couple of weeks ago, therefore blocking off the vast majority of the entrance to the ice cave. On entering down a narrow tunnel you do step into a larger area which leads down another slim tunnel into the final room. I stayed within the main entrance area because I saw lots of potential images where the light fell beautifully on the blue ice. Eventually, I found a five-minute window in which I could run around with my camera and tripod uninterrupted by tourists (although I was one myself).
After the wonderful experience of witnessing first hand the ice cave in all its glory, we ventured back to Jökulsárlón lagoon where we stayed until 10.30pm in the hope of witnessing another aurora. We had waited patiently, along with perhaps another fifty photographers, all along the shoreline of the lagoon. This place is sure popular I remember thinking to myself. It was cold but not freezing, although we photographers do tend to do a lot of standing around waiting for something to happen and as such, our bodies tend not to generate a lot of heat, unlike hikers cyclists and climbers who also enjoy the great outdoors. As 10pm rolled by, we decided that enough was enough, the aurora was not to be seen and so the tripod legs were being closed for another evening when suddenly a huge arc of green light lit up the sky. I could not believe it. Tripods at the ready and for the next hour, we waited patiently for the right photo. One of the reasons for heading to water when photographing anything brightly lit in the sky is that reflections are guaranteed and for me that can only make the image more interesting and exciting to look at as the photo below proves.
Iceland is one huge geothermal island complete with volcanos and hot springs. Having visited New Zealand twice, 2003 and 2008 (I am another visit soon), I was very much reminded of my time spent in NZ and the really happy memories that I have, when I was stood at the Strokkur geyser waiting for it to erupt. The Strokkur geyser is located in the south-west part of Iceland and is one of the country’s most powerful geysers. It shoots seriously hot water up to forty metres into the air every five to ten minutes. See the video I shot of it erupting here.
Once we left the geyser to the horde of tourists that turned up a good hour or so after us, we visited Gullfoss, the huge, huge waterfall that is located in the Golden Circle. Gullfoss (meaning golden falls) is one of Iceland’s top tourist attractions. On arriving you are greeted by an impressive cafe and shop and two paths that take you either down to the falls or to the ledge high up from the water. On the day we visited, sadly the lower path that takes you right beside the falls was closed. This was the only form of health and safety I witnessed in Iceland really. So from some distance away, I bolted on my long lens to capture some close-up shots of the falls.
As huge as Gullfoss was, for some reason it did not connect with me. Perhaps it was the over-commercialism of the location or the fact that I could not get near it but there were other waterfalls that I enjoyed a lot more. Nice to see but good to move onto more exciting places. Our next visit was to the much smaller falls of Bruarfoss, a lovely short walk through some trees from the roadside reveals this lovely little canyon in which the water runs freely. The one thing I have to say about Iceland that I love and that’s the colour of the water. It’s quite incredible. The greens in the water look almost unreal. Bruarfoss had only a handful of photographers present plus us five to add to the tally but we all seemed to work around each other in capturing our shots. Here are a couple of images of the falls.
Our final stop of the day involved a short drive to a fantastic little place along a river, which was lined on either side by some wonderful rock formations. Oxararfoss is another waterfall (there’s millions of them in Iceland) and here we spent the final throws of light for the day. It is only a ten-minute walk from the car and photography workshop groups were turning up to shoot the falls with only a minimal amount areof light left in the sky. Here is an image of Oxararfoss .
My final day had arrived and I was particularly keen to visit Skogafoss, the huge 200ft waterfall and to my mind, the most popular of all of them and certainly the one I see more of on social media. It did not surprise me to learn that it is located only a two-minute walk from the main road and that a cafe, toilets, and a huge car park are located nearby. On arriving at 9.45am, we found only three other cars but more importantly, no tour buses, yet. As I donned my waterproof clothing as I wanted to stand as close to it as possible complete with my red Haglof Roc waterproof jacket, the first tour bus crammed with Chinese tourists arrived. I knew that I only had two minutes to run to the river, get my camera out of my bag and onto the tripod and all set up complete with LEE filters and ready to capture a shot. I just made it, puffing and panting but I made it.
One of the most inventive compositions from any of the locations that I visited occurred here at Skogafoss and I cannot even take the credit for it. I was flicking through some of the images posted on Facebook the night before and I came across an image by Damian Black Photography in which he showed an image of the falls from halfway up. So I did the same except his shot was taken in the middle of summer whereas mine was taken in the middle of winter but otherwise very similar indeed. So thank you Damian, much appreciated. Here’s my version of his shot below. Notice the rock on the left? It does look like the head of a troll complete with icicles for a beard.
I would like to add at this point that the ledge that I am standing on is only three feet wide and pretty slippery (although I was wearing microspikes) but still, nothing focuses the mind more than a long fall from a great height.
Seljalandsfoss was to become our next waterfall to visit and again another 200 footer. This is the one I was most looking forward to visiting as you are able to actually walk behind it. Now in the summer, I can imagine a million tourists all standing there behind the falls looking outwards at another million tourists but on the day I visited and in the treacherous conditions that were present, there was only a handful of people prepared to attempt to walk behind it. The wind was blowing directly into the rock face or in other words, directly into me. Trying to set up the camera and keep it dry was almost impossible but here’s a shot I did manage to capture.
And another image captured from the side of the waterfall.
And so as my week in Iceland was drawing to a close, we had one last location to visit and what a location. Sea stacks at Reykjanestá complete with pounding waves and a beautiful sunset. I was determined to go out in a blaze of glory or as things turned out, under water and £3,000 of water damaged camera equipment. I felt fortunate not to have suffered at the hands of Iceland all week. I had not hurt myself, damaged any of my equipment or even felt ill, perhaps this was a sign. I ventured down to the shoreline and into a lovely little shallow bay where there were plenty of lovely smooth boulders to photograph. I monitored the waves for a while before getting down to the water’s edge and setting up. I placed my camera bag on a rock behind me and for a glorious ten minutes, I was at one with the ocean, well that was until two five foot rogue waves steamrollered in and knocked me off my feet. I grabbed the camera bag which at this point was floating away, the camera smashed against the hard unforgiving rocks and I was face down in the water desperately trying to find my feet which proved very difficult between the large boulders and pure white sea foam restricting my view.
Seconds later I was able to stand up after the water had receded. I was absolutely drenched head to toe in freezing water and assessing the damage to my camera followed. I stood there thinking to myself, “What a bloody idiot” but thankful that at least this happened at the end of the week and not at the start. Giles came over and assisted me back to the car by very kindly carrying my tripod. A quick recall of events to the boys occurred before heading back to the hotel to shower.
Here are a couple of shots I managed to get before going for a swim, the bottom image having been captured a few seconds before I got hit.
We were due to leave the hotel at 5.45am the following morning for the airport but my mobile phone had suffered in the water too and decided to switch itself off overnight leaving me no alarm to wake to at 5am. As a result, I overslept and was woken by one of my fellow travelling companions banging on my door at 6.05am. I hastily threw everything into my suitcase including all of my wet clothing and we made it to the airport on time, just.
On landing back in the UK a little over two hours later, I began to reflect on what an amazing experience it was to spend a week in Iceland. The highlights undoubtedly are the sheer beauty of the place, it truly is outstanding. The aurora borealis that I witnessed the first night will stay with me forever, it was just mind blowing and the lovely, simple way the Icelandic people live. A no-nonsense approach to life that I found quite refreshing and appealing.
Would I return to Iceland in the future? Absolutely. I am heading back in December 2016 for a week in preparation for an eight-day workshop I am running out there in conjunction with Tony Higginson in March 2017. Price £2,200 Thursday 9th – Thursday 16th March 2017. If you’re interested in joining me on this Iceland photography workshop, click here for full details. Places are selling fast.
Well, that’s it for now. I hope that you have enjoyed my blog on my week spent in Iceland. Feel free to share it if you wish and thank you for all your support. It means a lot. Until next time, keep shooting and keep smiling.
Best wishes Melvin
p.s. The insurance has paid out for my camera and I took delivery of a Canon 5Ds. I have created a short video blog giving my thoughts on it. Click here to see the video.
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