I visit Iceland twice a year, during the autumn and winter months and both times of the year offer me and my clients something entirely different. The autumn offers up some gorgeous colours in the landscape while allowing safe and swift passage throughout the country in order to photograph the many stops that we undertake. Whereas the snow and icy winter months offers unpredictability, excitement, and a journey to some degree, into the unknown.
This brief blog will feature images taken by me on my week long winter workshop to the western and southern parts of Iceland and our quest to find and photograph the mysterious aurora borealis. Did we find it? Read on to find out more.
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Come and join me in Iceland 26th-31st October 2019 £1,295. CLICK HERE for full details.
Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Western Iceland
Iceland has many iconic locations on offer for the landscape photographer, namely Jökulsárlón with its ice lagoon and world famous Diamond Beach, the 1,500ft mountain of Vestrahorn at Höfn on the south-east coast, the 200ft waterfalls of Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, and who could forget the stunning Reynisdrangar sea stacks at Vik. However for me, the wonderful western stretch of land situated north-west of the country’s capital Reykjavik, otherwise known as Snaefellsnes Peninsula, packs more than its fair share of beautiful locations with its star of the show being the legendary and now famous Kirkjufell mountain (as featured in season six and seven of the Game of Thrones TV series).
I spend two days in this gorgeous part of the country with my workshop clients because I want them to experience as many of the locations that is possible without feeling rushed. My favourite places are the churches of Budir, Hellnar and Ingjaldshólskirkja, the sea arches of Arnarstapi and Svörtuloft, not to mention the impressive huge pair of rock pinnacles called Londrangar. Arnarstapi also has a little harbour and a lone white house at the base of Mt Stapafell. Other locations include the triangular emergency mountain shelter that stands at the top of the ’54’ mountain pass and of course who could forget Kirkjufell mountain and its waterfalls Kirkjufellfoss (‘foss’ meaning waterfall in Icelandic).
So here are a few images from Snaefellsnes Peninsula during January 2019.
The Waterfalls of the South Coast
If there’s one thing that Iceland has plenty of, it is huge waterfalls and they come in a variety of heights and widths but the two most famous ones in Iceland and certainly the most accessible are Sejlandsfoss and Skogafoss and the newly discovered Kvernufoss which is located near Skogafoss. There is something raw and frightening about huge waterfalls. The sheer power of nature thundering over the edge of a cliff face or a gorge and crashing down below is a hugely exciting and humbling experience to witness in person. Sejlandsfoss is a 200ft waterfall that you arrive at first when travelling west to east on the south coast. This waterfall is famous for giving you the opportunity to walk behind it, which I have done but subsequently got absolutely drenched in the process. In the winter however, due to the huge amounts of ice and snow, the paths that lead you to the base and behind the waterfall are closed, for your safely obviously. I am noticing a higher degree of health and safety starting to materlise in Iceland but that is to be expected with the rise in popularity and visitor numbers but there are still beautiful photographs waiting to be taken.
Skogafoss seems to be a more popular waterfall to photograph, not least because the car park is free whereas there is an 800ISK charge levied at Sejlandsfoss now (approx £5.00). Skogafoss is also 200ft in height but it is wider than Sejlandsfoss and it offers you the opportunity to take the steps right up the the very top of the waterfall, which affords you spectacular views of the surrounding scenery. It can be quite challenging to get a shot of this waterfall without people in it, especially those wearing red jackets (I wear a red jacket, oops) but I often shoot the scene at thirty seconds (long exposure using a Nisi ten stop filter) and this blurs out all those who move often enough and well, Photoshop and Lightroom have the clone tool for a reason. Then there is the seemingly recently discovered Kvernufoss waterfall which is located near to Skogafoss. This is a smaller, beautiful waterfall that nestles in a nearby gorge and Googling the name will reveal where it is so I shall say no more.
Black Beaches and Sea Stacks, Vik
If Iceland is famous for one thing, it is its black volcanic, sandy beaches. To put it mildly, they look fantastic. The contrast between the white foamy waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing up onto a pure jet black sandy beach only to watch the excess foam generated in the water appear to sink through into the sand leaving no trace of its existence, is one of the main reasons why these beaches look so clean, simple and pure when photographed. One serious word of warning though, treat these beaches with the ultimate respect because I they’ll not only take your camera equipment if you’re not paying attention but also your life. I would consider Reynisfjara Beach in Vik to be the most dangerous but stay sensible and keep a constant lookout and stay a reasonable distance away from the water’s edge and you should be absolutely fine.
But for all the warning signs that loiter on the edge of the car park, there is still no denying that this beach is truly stunning. The sea stacks of Reynisdrangar allow some stunning compositions and opportunities to capture some stunning images, at both sunrise and sunset. One of the huge advantages of Vik is that it offers several vantage points form which to shoot from. At sunrise I would recommend capturing the dawn of a new day at Reynisfjara Beach as the sun comes up behind the sea stacks. Mid-day, head over to the cliff tops of Dyrhólaey and Kirkjufjara and shoot both east and west and at sunset, back through downtown Vik to the little car park at Schwarzer Strand for a shot of the sea stacks as the sun sets behind them. Vik is the gift that just keeps on giving. I simply love the place.
The Mighty Vestrahorn, Höfn
If I had to list my top three locations in Iceland to photograph, the Vestrahorn would be in it. Reaching a height of 454 meters (1,500 feet), Vestrahorn stands majestically on the headland of Stokksnes while looking over the black, volcanic sandy beach. The tide of the ocean here is gentle and much more peaceful than at other beaches while the marram grass that co-exists in the sand dunes make for some excellent photographic opportunities. The gabbro-rock mountain is best suited to sunrise shooting as the sun slowly lights up its rocky, snow covered peaks. There is also Batman mountain that lurks behind and offset to Vestrahorn. Called that due to its peak looking remarkably similar to the Batman logo. It’s genuinely uncanny. Vestrahorn. It really one one hell of an amazing place.
p.s. There is an electronic barrier located at the Viking Cafe that requires paying before you can gain access to the long road that takes you down towards the radar station where you park and shoot from. Cost is 800ISK at the time of writing (approx £5.00).
Ice Lagoon and Diamond Beach, Jökulsárlón
Diamond Beach, Jökulsárlón is to my mind, one of the most impressive, amazing, awe-inspiring places I have ever visited but only when there is are lots of icebergs on the beach. Pulling up in the free, vast car park which is essentially a lava field (like most of Iceland I have to add), you are afforded views of huge shiny and sparking chunks of ice that sit ideally on the black, volcanic sandy beach, some as big as cars. Some are crystal clear while others radiated the most intense blues and greens. It is such a remarkable experience standing there running your hands over ice that is over 1,000 years old.
Across the road and on the other side of the road bridge is the ice lagoon, made famous by two James Bond movies, Timothy Dalton’s 1985 A View To A Kill but far more impressively, Pierce Brosnan’s 2002 Die Another Day in which the famous car chase scene between the green Jaguar and the silver Aston Martin was filmed on the frozen lagoon.
People often ask me how ice ends up on the beach. Here is my brief explanation. The ice lagoon at Jökulsárlón lies within the Vatnajökull glacier national park and the glacier’s name is Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Ice drops off the glacier into the lagoon, slowly feeds its way out of the channel, under the road bridge and into the ocean where it is eventually thrown onto the beach. Amazing isn’t it? From a landscape photographers perspective, to have two stunning locations to capture on camera, the black beach and the lagoon is simply a dream come true and little wonder why Jökulsárlón is Iceland’s number one destination for photographers and tourists alike.
I had scheduled to spend two sunsets and a sunrise at Jökulsárlón during my workshop in January (2019) and with good reason. You ideally require more than one bite at the cherry at these locations to maximise the chance of capturing some magical light in and around the icebergs. On my visit, not only were we treated to a stunning sunset and a subtle but wonderful sunrise but it was the kp5 aurora boeralis solarstorm that happened around 10.30pm on the Thursday evening that completely blew me and everyone around us away. The intensity of the display was something I have never witnessed before and the range of colours, shapes and patterns that were visible was something that I know I shall remember for the rest of my life. I find watching the aurora borealis in full flow quite an emotional, spiritual experience and to share that with those who are with you is very special indeed. It makes what I do for a living all the more enjoyable and rewarding that’s for sure.
Random Images On The Road
To finish my blog on my week spent in Iceland in January 2019, I thought that I would share a couple of images that I spotted while driving along the south coast ring road. Iceland presents many, many opportunities to capture some stunning scenes although you’re biggest issue is finding somewhere to park safely because pulling up on the road itself to take photographs is considered dangerous, especially when there is snow and ice on the ground. But here is a small selection of my impromptu captures.
So there in a nutshell are my photographs from an amazing seven days in Iceland. When I mention that I run workshops in Iceland, people often reply by saying that they feel that they have seen all that there is to see from the many, many thousands of images online and that the country holds no mystic for them but I respond by saying photographs are merely permanent reminders of the memories you make and it is these moments in time that will stay with you forever. However beautiful an image is, nothing can beat the experience of standing there in the wilds of a frozen landscape, with the wind in your hair and the exhilaration of witnessing scenery that is beyond compare.
Go and visit Iceland (ideally with me on one of my Iceland landscape photography workshops) and experience all that it has to offer you and I promise you this, that you will leave a part of you behind ready to be reunited upon arrival on your next visit. For me, that is one of the greatest joys in visiting such a remarkable country twice a year. How blessed am I?
I hope you enjoyed reading this blog, please feel free to share it with your friends or those considering visiting the land of fire and ice. Thanks for reading and please leave a comment below. I respond to all those who do.
Best wishes Melvin
P.S. Come and join me in Iceland 26th-31st October 2019 £1,295. CLICK HERE for full details.