Its fair to say Iceland has been high on my list for places to visit for some time. Its mystical landscapes of towering waterfalls and looming mountains seem ever present on landscape photography websites, particularly Instagram. So I decided to embark on a solo photography trip here, with the aim of seeing the main sites around the island in a mere 5 days of travelling. To save costs I would be camping each night except for the final night before my flight home.
As I would be traveling solo with only short (< 2 mile) hikes to viewpoints I decided to take what some might describe as an excessive amount of camera gear. I've been really enjoying using my Bronica SQ recently for landscapes and so taking this was a no-brainer along with a full compliment of lenses (50, 80, 150, 250 and a 2x TC). I'd bought the 250mm on a bit of a whim for my last Scotland trip, and I was very happy with its results, so I'd decided to purchase the 2x TC to get me to 500mm in the hope that I may be able to capture some Puffin shots with it. As projecting 35mm slides is something I've been really enjoying recently I also took my Nikon F5 loaded with Provia 100 and shared lenses with my D7100 DSLR (20mm Ai, 35mm AFD, 50mm AFD 80-200mm AFD and a Tokina 11-16).
Day 1 - Keflavik to Vik
The day started badly. Luton Airport appears to be one of the worst one can fly from, stretched for capacity and a with constant glut of passengers travelling on 'low-cost' airlines, which almost proved to be a terrible false economy for myself at least. Despite arriving quite early by taxi from north London at 5am there was already a traffic jam to get to the drop off section. Once inside the lines to check bags was like nothing I'd ever seen in any airport, in any continent, with the line snaking around the cramped airport like an anaconda. Thanks to the heroics of one Easyjet employee in opening a dedicated lane for the soon to be departing Iceland flight I did somehow get onto the flight.
Landing in KEF airport one tip is to make use of the large duty free supermarket in arrivals, that is if you require any alcohol for your trip, as you will otherwise need to find a government run liquor store. After taking advantage of this I went to pick up my rental car which I'd booked online as a Suzuki Jimny 4x4. You might not need a 4x4 in Iceland, particularly in Summer if you do not plan to deviate from the main 1 highway, but I definitely wanted a vehicle with some decent ground clearance to navigate the potentially pot hole filled gravel tracks to some of the more remote locations I wanted to visit (e.g. Dettifoss). I didn't really have time to venture inland on the F roads which turned out to be a good thing. A free "upgrade" to a Dacia Duster which is a 4x4 greeted me with plenty of signs saying "this vehicle is not suitable for F roads - do not drive there - subject to heavy fines" in large lettering. I'd also been told that car rental companies in Iceland were pretty militant when it came to assessing damage to the vehicle upon return. I elected for the full insurance to alleviate any worries of chipped windscreens let alone anything worse.
Starting the trip I went straight from the airport into Keflavik to stock up on my food supplies for the week. Sticking to budget food (think pot noodles, tinned fish, cheese and bread) it wasn't too expensive - I might have spent less than £100 on food for 5 days. Bonus is the "cheap" supermarket in Iceland. After picking up a camping gas canister from a N1 Petrol station I was now fully stocked for the week ahead camping.
Making sure to keep to the relatively slow (by UK standards) speed limit of 90 km/h I commenced the journey, passing the power station that creates the famous "Blue Lagoon" and thinking I'd stop here on my return journey (a mistake as I did not end up with time). Its certainly a pretty surreal looking power station, something that wouldn't look out of place in a sci-fi movie, and I think there is some good photographic potential here. There's always next time I suppose. Then I travelled onwards around the coastal road towards the first waterfall of my trip, Seljalandsfoss.
After a pretty uneventful drive seeing this 60m high falls is definitely pretty exciting. It was also an eye opener to the number of tourists that would be experiencing this too, the coastal route here was pretty empty, but on the main Route 1 rental cars were ever present and needless to say the car park was pretty full. This is a cool waterfall as there is a walking track behind it which is a pretty unique experience in Iceland. For photography its a little hard to capture due to the number of people around and also that they have roped off the slopes next to the waterfall, preventing you from framing some of the classic compositions of this shot.
Next for waterfall number 2 - Skogafoss! I found this one a bit more impressive. Its height is the same as Seljalandsfoss but its far wider and powerful. I spent some time photographing at its base although its really hard to get a composition without any other tourists in it. I then proceeded to climb the steep staircase to a viewing point at the top of the falls. This was cool to see, but what I did not expect was a walking track along the upper river that fed the falls. I spent close to an hour up here capturing the meanders in the river and was actually a highlight of the day from a photography perspective.
Proceeding further along Route 1 the rain began and the overcast sky became dimmer. I reached Vik and set up my tent in the pouring down road with windy gusts bringing chills to my body. As I thought about the sunny 30 degree heat my home in England was having it must be said that I did ask myself what I was doing here.
Day 2 - Vik to Hofn
The sleeping mask and shot of jack daniels before bed combination appeared to did wonders in assisting me to sleep through the midnight sun. The weather in Vik was still pretty miserable and I left my tent to pack up later. I retraced yesterdays journey 20 minutes and turned off to Reynisfjara - the Black Sand Beach with towering hexagonal basalt columns. The light was overcast and indistinct. Although arriving at 8am I hadn't managed to get to the beach as early as I had wanted I was still the second car to arrive so I pretty much had the whole beach to myself for around 30 minutes before the other visitors started multiplying. There were plenty of composition options, obviously the basalt columns you will see as you arrive, but also further down the beach with the ominous looming stacks in the sea towards the far end of the beach. As I was walking back an unexpected surprise occurred. A small Puffin, looking absolutely exhausted, washed up onto the beach and calmly stood recovering some energy. It stayed for some time allowing me to capture a number of shots on the Bronica and digitally also.
A short drive away from the beach is Dyrhólaey, a clifftop refuge for many nesting Puffins. It also offers great viewpoints back onto Reynisfjara and cliffs the other side. One of my favourite shots taken here is of an incredible basalt arch that looks like the spiny tail of a jurrassic age dinosaur.
Proceeding onwards into marginally better weather I arrived at the epic Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. The jagged sides to this crevasse are a sight to behold. This area shows signs of the impact of increasing tourist footfall, the soil is very compacted now and many of the old cliff edge viewpoints are roped off and workers use garden forks to air-ate the soil in an effort to encourage grass to reappear. A moderate hike to a viewing platform built above the canyon offers a great lookback and also a charming waterfall. This is cool but bad for tripod photography. The metal platform is cross hatched and so it is hard to find a configuration for the tripod legs to not slip through. In addition people walking will vibrate the platform that slow shutter speeds would likely be blurry. After a good amount of time here I went to leave the small car park. However a large camper van had managed to drive itself into a ditch and had got itself stuck, precariously tipping to the side. Parked cars on the other side of the narrow lane left very little margin to pass between. After 20 minutes of deliberation a 4x4 eked it through the gap. I thought I may as well try my luck and did manage to pull through thankfully. It could have been a long wait to get the camper towed out.
Next stop Skaftafell, a large national park, with glaciers easily accessed from the route 1. There is a viewpoint by the road but driving around 20 minutes down a pot-hole strewn dirt road will bring you right upto the head of a glacier. The texture of the fissures in the ice gives plenty of photographic opportunities. The weather though didn't cooperate and after only 45 minutes here I had to retreat back to my car.
The final stop of the day would be the "Iceberg Lake" Jökulsárlón. Huge chunks of glacial ice break off and into the lagoon, eventually to float out to sea. I arrived around 9pm - the sky had cleared out to a fine blue and the sun was glorious. A telephoto lens is recommended here in order to focus in on the structural details of the icebergs which you can photographs from both sides of the single track bridge. Once you are content here you can cross the road to the beach where the tide washes back many pieces of ice to the beach making for some great compositions of the waves crashing in on top of them. Wellies would have been very welcome to photograph here. Instead I spent my time running back from the camera as the waves came in!
Day 3 - Hofn to Myvatn
The campsite at Hofn is really close to my early morning destination of Vestrahorn which I am led to believe is a very photogenic place from all of the incredible photos readily available online. Unfortunately a thick blanket of cloud prevented me from even seeing the mountains the other side of the bay. The towering black sand dunes peppered with grass however were still very fun to photograph. Sometimes its the subtle subjects that I appreciate the most.
After returning to pack up my tent I proceeded on a 3 hour drive to Hengifoss, stopping along the way for a few more waterfall shots. I took a dirt road shortcut away from Highway 1 which did not live up to the strong warnings my Lonely planet guidebook proclaimed. It was an easy, if foggy and muddy ride. My white Dacia Duster was completely brown by the time I reached Hengifoss.
Its around a 45 minute hike to Hengifoss which is one of Iceland's highest falls. Its colourful rock face is a nice backdrop to the waterfall. Litlanesfoss is on the way and spectacularly pours out from an opening of majestic basalt columns. Despite drones being banned at many sights in Iceland, there was one being flown as I photographed Litlanesfoss. I guess it had been put onto an autopilot mode to circle around a proposing guy and his soon-to-be fiancee. Me, with my attention to my Bronica, did not immediately notice the low height and incoming trajectory of this drone and it came very close to making an acquaintance with my head.
It was another significant drive then on to Dettifoss. After turning from route one it took around an hour on a dirt road to arrive at the parking area. This waterfall has the most volume of any in Europe and it was easily my favourite of the trip. I first proceeded past and hiked over to Selfoss which is the upper gorge before Dettifoss and is lined by waterfalls from the river above. It was an incredibly impressive sight, despite the poor light and intermittent rain.
Although it didn't feel like it, the night was drawing in. I drove on to the lake at Myvatn to a fantastic campsite there right by the lake but made a stop in the geothermal area just before. It felt pretty eerie to be standing in the midnight sun with the geothermal steam drifting up out of the ground.
Day 4 - Myvatn to Olafsvik
The morning saw me head upto Krafla a giant volcanic crater near the Myvatn lake. The road there passes a geothermal plant that would make a great backdrop for a 70s sci-fi movie. I headed up the crater rim and decided to get some detail shots with my 250mm lens on the Bronica. I also tried my 2x TC on this lens to get some images of the power plant and some nearby mountains. I'll write a blog post later on the 2x Bronica TC and the results. The TC actually jammed on the lens whilst I was up on the top of the ridge. Somehow I managed to keep frustration at bay, with some quick searches on the internet I found this to be a commonly reported problem, and eventually using my pocket knife I was able to force the release.
As I had lots of ground to cover (and miles to drive) I decided to skip a walk around the opposite lava field and proceeded onwards to Hvitserkur - a giant double arch rocky outcrop on a beach on the northern Icelandic coast. I had to make an emergency visit to an Avis car rental depot in Akureyri after the engine light in my 4x4 turned on. False alarm - unsurprisingly the Dacia Duster has far more sensors than its reliability could handle. A small sensor failure could only be flagged by a critical alert.
The fully overcast early afternoon skies along with the tide being out was not the ideal shooting conditions for this location, but the arch was still cool nonetheless. This I had realised by this point would sum up many of my photo locations. I was covering so much ground and on such a ambitious schedule that I simply wouldn't be able to be at most locations at the optimal time of day, and even if I were, the weather would not necessarily cooperate.
Kirkjufell is a classic iceland scene. A towering mountain with a very picturesque waterfall in the foreground. At sunset the light disapears on the horizon just above the waterfall and cascades the last bursts of sunlight up the side of the mountain face. Truth be told, from the pictures seen online I thought it'd be obvious where to stop for the photo. As it turns out I drove right past it, initially dismissing the small waterfall I had seen from the road. I turned around and by the time I got up to the waterfall, looking at Kirkjufell, there was already a gaggle of photographers all set up already with cameras on tripods. There was barely any room left with everyones spot staked out. Around 15 minutes later a busload of photographers turned up who managed to squeeze in the few gaps. In one of the most bizarre photography experiences I've had so far I almost saw two photographers get in a fight about a few people who had set their cameras up in front of the roped off line, and therefore in the field of view of the ultra wide angle lenses of a couple of other photographers. I could see both sides - the cameras in front of the ropes had been places some three hours ago, but on the other hand it is pretty selfish to think the rules dont apply to you and just sit there in everyones way. Its one of the less pleasant things about photographing in such a popular location for me, and also highlights an absurdity in the photography community - we all want our own slight variation of that classic shot.
Day 5 - Olafsvik to Keflavik
There is a nice local campsite in Olafsvik with a shower and nice WC facilities. From here I continued on the Snaefeness peninsula. Unfortunately the Snæfellsjökull glacier that inspired Jules Verne was shrouded by thick clouds, but there were a few nice coastal viewpoints. Its a nice detour to avoid doubling back on oneself from Kirkjufell.
I finished the trip by taking the golden circle, which is a marketing term for the sights relatively near Reykjavik - Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gulfoss. To be honest, after the rest of the sights I had already seen, and the 10x number of people at these, I was underwhelmed with the exception of Gulfoss. Even though I'd seen what seemed like a million waterfalls by this point, I'd be lying to say that Gulfoss did not impress me greatly with its grand canyon and rainbow above the falls.
Iceland is a photographers paradise. There are so many interesting geological features to capture and it doesn't take much of a detour to find unique places to capture. Whilst its well worthwhile seeing the key sights, its worth bearing in mind to set your expectations that the number of other photographers and tourists will likely be high there, particularly in summer. Therefore its essential to visit the sights you are most concerned with capturing in early morning or late at night.
For my trip, I knew it would be a stretch to try and see as many sights as I did. It certainly was a trip that involved a serious amount of driving, and little window at each sight to wait a few hours for improvements in light or weather. Iceland is epic, but with overcast dull light, there is a good chance of disapointing photos. After all, this isn't a photographer's disneyland, where the conditions are on demand. If I am to visit again on a photography trip, I'd probably do less sights and stay in one area longer - probably on the south between Vik and Hofn and venture inland on some F roads.
My favourite sight was probably Dettifoss, closely followed by Jökulsárlón and the glaciers by Skaftafell. I'm still digesting the photos rom the trip. Its funny how initially when I get back my developed and scanned film I am generally disappointed, and then after a couple of weeks they grow on me as I appreciate their subtlety more.