The early history of Iceland is documented in the various Saga stories that tell the tales of the early settlers to this wonderful country in the North Atlantic nestled between the two continents of Europe and America. It would seem that each of my trips to Iceland turns into its own saga of adventures that make the trips memorable for many, many reasons.
My last visit to the island in December resulted in a first night spent sleeping in a car due to the high winds and drifting snow and I was sure that nothing so drastic could happen visiting in March, the week before the onset of Spring. Reading the in-flight magazine on the journey out, Iceland is the second windiest country in the world behind the Falkland Islands and only an hour or so later we were treated to evidence that this is the case as the aircraft was diverted from Keflavik Airport near Reykjavik to Egilstaddir on the far East of the country where we sat on the tarmac for three hours waiting for the hurricane force winds and snow to dissipate. Eventually we were given the all-clear to fly back to Keflavik where the conditions had marginally improved, albeit we had to fly through those same hurricane winds that were now sweeping towards us in the east – it’s fair to say that the journey was a little bumpy, to the extent that the stewardess spent 30 seconds or so flung across the lap of a passenger and holding on desperately to prevent falling further. Our landing was treated with some relief, although it was a momentary respite as we were told that the winds were too strong to open the doors of the aircraft and so had a further three hours to wait before we could eventually disembark – as a result the two hour journey to Borgarnes where we were scheduled to stay just wasn’t possible but fortunately, the booking agency we used were able to find alternative accommodation closer to Reykjavik where we could finally rest.
On the first full day the conditions had improved and our journey to Borgarnes was much more comfortable and allowed our first day shooting on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The south of the peninsula is home to one of only four black churches in Iceland at the small hamlet of Búðir. We were treated to small pockets of blue skies that allowed this beautiful church to stand out from the snow covered landscape and was our first treat of this amazing trip.
Day two of this trip, which is my final ‘recce’ before launching my own Iceland Photography Tour which will take place this October, took us onto the north of the peninsula to the fishing port of Grundarfjörður which is close to the beautiful mountain of Kirkjufell. This has become a mecca for photographers as a series of waterfalls produce a leading line to the majestic mountain, however as Iceland is experiencing the worst winter in over 30 years the waterfalls were frozen and only a dribble of flowing water was visible however it provides a quite different view to the ‘usual’ shots that are seen from this position – little did we know that there would be an even more unusual view later in the trip.
We were due to stay another night on the peninsula, however, the weather reports were coming in that another storm was about to hit from the West and so we took the decision to leave early and head down to the South coast and the town of Vik. On the way to our destination we pass several of the well known waterfalls such as Seljalandafloss and Skagafoss. The conditions were far from perfect but the white snow and dark skies make a very interesting monochrome conversion without the need for any software.
The storm did indeed hit quite heavily overnight and we woke up to much brighter and calmer conditions which allowed us to venture onto the cliffs that overlook the Black Beach. Whilst it was calmer, in perspective the winds were still around 25mph and the resultant swell on the ocean was leading to huge waves crashing onto the shore that had made the unhindered journey from the warm seas of the Caribbean and gathered pace to batter the Icelandic coast. I was able to get enough shelter behind a small hill and perch precariously on the edge of a cliff to shoot some longer exposure images across the bay toward the sea stacks on the opposite side.
One of the hidden gems of this area is a DC3 plane that crashed onto the basalt sands in 1973, the crew survived the crash but the plane was left to rot on the beach rather than being recovered. There are some strict rules about off-road driving in Iceland, although this 6 mile stretch from the main road to the wreck seems to be overlooked and the foolhardy and adventurous attempt the trip to see this eerie sight – it’s really difficult to find in the light of day, could you imagine trying to find it at night…!
We went to bed with the crash of thunder and flash of lightning accompanied by a text message to advise that the aurora was likely to be quite good early in the morning and the forecasters promising a clearing in the clouds at 3am. Alarm clocks were set and sure enough the storm had ended and there was a large gap in the clouds overhead with the familiar movement of misty aurora! The aurora hunt was on and a location was needed that would be a great foreground for this beautiful display – why not try and drive six miles off the road to go back to the DC3 – in the dark?? We had great fun painting the plane with light both inside and out to produce this mystical image.
The next day we headed to our most Easterly (planned) destination at The Glacier Lagoon. By now the cold temperatures we had arrived to had become a distant memory and a new danger was on us, flooding caused by the snow melt coming off the mountains. At the beach opposite the Glacier Lagoon the blocks of ice had been falling so profusely off the glacier that the beach was full of growlers and smaller chunks of glacial ice making it really difficult to isolate individual ice-bergs and made even harder by a still quite strong ocean swell that resulted in wet feet getting this image.
The following day we started our journey back towards Reykjavik where our trip would end the next day but on the way we had a few locations planned to capture, however, I always like to keep an eye out as we drive for something a little different and a tiny glimpse over a few hills captured my interest, so we turned around and headed along a small and bumpy track to come across another glacial lagoon but not the famous one a few miles away. What a find it was as the icebergs were still well formed, the blue glacier behind them was majestic and the shore had tons of foreground interest. This is definitely going to be on the agenda for the tour so we can avoid the crowds at the famous lagoon and capture something a little different than most of photography tours.
Also on the journey back westwards we wanted to stop again at Vik as there is a really pretty church that sits just above the town and is dwarfed by mountains behind it. Our timing was perfect as the sun illuminated the white walls of the church which made it ping out against the mountains behind. This really is my favourite church in Iceland.
So, our trip had come to an end and after a pleasant last meal in Reykjavik we headed to bed ready for the flight home the next day. The flight wasn’t until mid-afternoon so we spent a few hours in The Blue Lagoon, relaxing in the hot waters and enjoying the mud masks. However, in the back of our minds was the prediction of clear skies and an aurora prediction of an amazing display. A conversation with a pleasant American chap in the lagoon led us to the inevitable conclusion – when we are already in the best location in the world for aurora why would we leave it just as the conditions were going to be amazing – flights were changed, car hire extended and hotels booked and we headed northwards again to Snæfellsnes.
Leaving our hotel just before dusk, our first stop was the Kirkjufell mountain. What a difference a week makes as most of the snow had now disappeared and the waterfalls were flowing giving us some great foreground interest. As dusk fell the aurora was already visible to the naked eye and it was even possible to capture it using an iPhone camera. Normally, the best place to shoot the Northern Lights is by pointing the camera to the north which is the perfect position to include the magnificent mountain, however, the electrical impulses were so strong there were displays of green, purple, red and blue flashing all over the sky.
With such an amazing display, the crowds were flocking to this famous spot so I took the decision to move on and try some different locations. I had spotted a small abandoned boat house on the journey to the peninsula in the first week and I thought it would make a great foil for the aurora above. The lights didn’t fail us and with a little torch illumination on the wood it created a beautiful image of a slightly different location.
By 5AM we were starting to flag and to some extent so were the Northern Lights that had given us an 8 hour display. However, ou accommodation looked toward Kirkjufell and there was still some indication from the various apps that there would be yet more auroral activity above. The water in front of the mountain was devoid of photographers so were given free range to find a good view point. The lights were again favourable to us and gave us one final display before the first light of dawn started to creep over the eastern horizon – what a night!
Unsurprisingly, the next day was a little subdued after such a long and exciting night but we still managed to get out and explore a little more of the peninsula. The weather predictions were once again spot on but unfortunately this meant that cloud was covering the sky and snow starting to fall again. However, a bit of off-roading again paid dividends as this little beach was discovered after a bit of a clamber over some slippy rocks. Given better conditions that we will hopefully get in October, this will be a cracking sunset location.
A little further along the track lies the Saxholbjarg Lighthouse which stands on top of some huge cliffs that are home to gannets and if you are brave enough to look below also has a small arch that the ocean was swirling around below.
And so, once again, this was our last day in Iceland. The flight was a little later so we had a leisurely trip down to Reykjavik but on the way had a couple of stops for some locations that we hadn’t quite had time for in the preceding eight days. The first was in the fishing port of Akranes which has two lighthouses, again this will be a lovely location to play with in different conditions but it’s nice to give you a flavour of the kind of thing that we will be getting to do on the October trip.
Our last stop of the day was in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik where we had an explore around the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. Outside the cathedral is a statue to Leif Erikson who is now recognised as being the first westerner to set foot on the shores of America. The heavy clouds give a nice moody back-drop to his strident pose and is a perfect end to a wondrous trip.
During this trip I was accompanied by a friend who is also a very talented photographer. You can follow her work through her Facebook page. Throughout the trip I was shooting using my Canon 5D MkIII camera and most of the day time shots were also using my Lee Filters which I can’t recommend enough for helping to expose correctly in the really difficult conditions we faced.
I will be launching the October tour later this week through this page, however, if you would like to get an early-bird notification drop me a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject heading “Iceland Tour” and I will send you an e-mail 12 hours before the tour is released to the general public. It will be a fantastic experience!