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Iceland has become one of the must do locations for photographers. Each year the tourism industry in the country explodes by 20% more than the previous year. We've been bringing groups to the country for almost 8 years, and because we keep a different schedule than the hordes of other tourists; for us, the country is always the same..magical and full of alien landscapes.
Scott and I met our group of 10 eager photographers in our downtown Reykjavik Hotel for orientation before setting out on our first night of photography. Everyone was excited to see all that we had lined up...and came to us with a variety of backgrounds and experience levels. Most folks were still tired from a long day of travel, so we promised to be home relatively early, and let them sleep in the following morning before the adventure really began.
Dinner was a must first, so we made our way downtown to a local fish and chips restaurant. Here the fish is always fresh, and tastes amazing...everyone enjoyed getting acquainted with their group as we devoured some of the tastiest fish in town. Once we'd filled our bellies it was time to go see some of the country. Þingvellir National Park is one of Iceland's' oldest parks...this was the location in the country where all of the old viking clans would meet to discuss policy for the country. It was like their version of a parliament. This park is also the location where the earth is splitting....quite literally. The Europe and North American tectonic plates are pulling apart right in this very spot...and the path down to our first shooting location walks right between them. Iceland is full of rivers, and as a country also filled with many cliffs and mountains, that means there are plenty of waterfalls...and our plan was to see as many as we could. The first waterfall on the agenda was öxarárfoss. This little falls drops about twenty feet over some great basalt rock into a crystal clear stream., Scott and I encouraged the group to move around the rocky foreground and use the lines of the river to help move the viewer's' eye into the scene. For some this was their first time getting back into serious photography mode for awhile..so we made sure to go over all of the settings needed to get that silky smooth water look...and also point out some of the different compositional elements possible.
Our next goal was to head out to Gullfoss. This is one of the largest waterfalls in the country, ands easily one of the most beautiful. A wide river makes a sharp turn and drops into a deep ravine. We had our group set up and shoot from numerous spots here...whether we were up high looking up the gorge at the falls, at the other end looking down, or bird's eye viewing it from above on the ridge there were a lot of compositional possibilities to work out. For most of our group I think this waterfall was their first “I'm in ICELAND!” moment...it's one of the most iconic parts of the “Golden Circle” route that graces most icelandic tourism flyers...so everyone has seen it.
The final stop of the night was the Geysir. This is the oldest still functioning geyser in the country, and it goes off with relatively consistent intervals of 6-8 minutes...so if you don't catch that moment right the first time with the camera, you don't have to wait long to try again! Old Faithful is not nearly as faithful as Strokkur!
It was nearing 1am by this point, and time to get everyone back to their rooms for a full night's rest...day 2 starts and we ramp up the schedule from there! Despite jet lag, and long travel schedules, we were happy with how enthusiastic the group was and were ready for another 10 nights of shooting!
We met around 11am, for our first drive...it was moving east from Reykjavik to the little town of Vik. This is one of the coolest little coastal towns around. Surrounded by fields of purple lupine flowers, and the sea...it's easily one of the main highlights on the Ring Road that circumnavigates the country. When we arrived the weather was fantastic, so we encouraged everyone to forego a nap, and head up to the famous red roofed church behind us, to shoot it with the lovely lupine foreground that surrounded it. Blue sky, white puffy clouds, fields of lupine, and a red roofed church, what could be better?
We met the group early evening to set out on our first full night of shooting. Our first stop was seljalandsfoss. Iceland has a few really iconic locations, and this is one of them. This waterfall is iconic, partly due to the fact it's very close to the ring road, and everyone drives right by it...but also because it's one of the few waterfalls in the country you can walk behind. Everyone braved the mist and walked up nearly to the point they were underneath the waterfall, and shot outward. The sky was lovely shades of gold as the sun was setting, lighting the tops of the clouds. There was too much cloud cover on the horizon to give us an epic sunset, but the light was definitely shootable and everyone got some great shots here. We encouraged people to bracket a lot here due to the high levels of contrast present with the brighter sky, and the shadows behind the waterfall.
The second waterfall, also an icon, is skogafoss. This curtain waterfall also sits on the edge of the ring road so it's visible to all the cars passing by...and it's beauty means they're all going to stop. In the daytime this place is packed with tourist...but at 1am when we stopped, we practically had it all to ourselves. Some of our group even hiked all the way to the top to shoot down from the platform up there, then walked past that to another waterfall on the trail. Talk about endurance! This waterfall is tough to shoot because the river curves away from the viewer, and there's so much black sand and rocks in the area, there's not really much foreground. We had the group use the line of the bank as a leading line to help guide the viewer's eye to the falls.
Our goal for sunrise was to try and get up to the top of a cliff outside of Vik called Dyrhólaey. Here we have a great sea arch to photograph, puffins, and also a lighthouse...oh and there are some pretty sweet vistas looking up and down the coast too. The puffins were playing a little hard to get but everyone managed to see them and get a few images they liked...most people spent their time photographing the lighthouse, or the sea arch. THe clouds obscured most of the color, but the texture in the sky, and the stunning vistas made the shooting awesome!
By the time we made it back to the hotel, everyone was ready for a nice rest...they'd earned it.
DAY 3 & 4
It was east again! Our hotel for the next two nights was near the Vatnajolkull glacier. There were two iconic locations that would eat up a majority of our time shooting..the Joklulsarlon glacier lagoon, and the nearby diamond beach, a beach filled with chunks of the glacier that had calved off, and washed up on the beach after a nice ride in the ocean tides. On our way to our hotel we made a stop at a short little canyon. Fjaðrárgljúfur is short but sweet. This little river canyon has all kinds of different levels, and is jagged and wild looking. At the end of the canyon a viewing platform allows you to look down the canyon at a couple waterfalls the fall out of the nearby hillsides. The weather had turned to rain, and most folks only got to shoot from the bottom of the canyon, a couple dire-hards made it all the way to end to see the falls. That night we ate dinner in our hotel before setting out for the lagoon. The weather looked bleak for the most part but a little gap in the clouds did let in some splashes of color, and the wind and the rain were not present so everyone got to get some great shots of Jokulsarlon. Seeing these huge icebergs bobbing around the lagoon for the first time (or any time!) is amazing...it's easy to see why people flock to this location, and why movies are filmed here.
After the glacial lagoon it was off across the street to see the ice on the beach. The tide was having trouble getting too much ice for the beach, due to a large dam of larger ice chunks that was blocking the exit...but enough was there that we were able to get out and shoot these little chunks of crystal clear ice with the rushing waves around them. We even got Bob to put on the waders and really get into the shoot!
The next night, after a fun post-processing session, we drove into the nearby town of Hofn. We ate at a lovely little cafe that serves up some of the tastiest lobster in town. These little lobsters are the catch of the day for the local fisherman, and there's never a shortage...our bellies were happy for that!
With a great dinner in our stomach's we set off for Stokkness. This area has black sand dunes, and a perfect vista of the Vesterhorn, a chain of craggy mountains on the edge of the eastern fjords. Sunset was great here and little bits of purple and pink kissed the edges of the clouds, as the moved rapidly over the tops of the peaks. It's such a serene vista..and the sounds of the wind and the waves is hard to leave, but we saw an opportunity to hit a pocket of good light back at the lagoon, so we packed up and motored back to Jokulsarlon.
Due to the cold and slight drizzle some folks had opted to wait until attempt number two at the diamond beach...so everyone was ready to give it an attempt. There wasn't a ton of ice, but there were some great chunks, in perfect locations for people to shoot...and the light was AMAZING...,our first really colorful light display, and at the perfect location. We helped the class to find good compositions, and then how to use their exposures to get streaks of water moving around the ice...with the great background colors. IT was AWESOME.
Everyone drove home with some exciting images on their memory cards, and I'm sure they were excited to get to our second day of processing so they could really work on them.
Our fifth night we moved up the eastrern side to the little town of Egilsstaðir. Our photographic goal here was to drive high into the eastern fjords in search of puffins, and any landscape opportunities that came our way. One of the most seldom visited locations for most tourists is the eastern fjords...and the tiny village of Borgarfjörður Eystri probably sees less than 2% of the visitors to the country each year...but they're missing out on one of the best puffin viewing areas around. Our group was treated to hundreds of the little flying potatoes...all within 10-12 feet away. Many came in with the little fish they eat in their mouths, and then hopped around in perfect locations so we could all get amazing shots of them. It's like they knew we were coming.
The group loved the birds, and it took us awhile to pry them away LOL! It was a long drive back to the hotel (even longer with a flat tire!) and we had a 2 hour drive to Alkureyri in the morning for our nights at the Skjaldarvik horse farm.
DAY 6 & 7
There's so many waterfalls in the country, we couldn't see them all if we wanted to...but we do try to stop from time to time at beautiful, unnamed roadside waterfalls so the group can stretch their legs, and get some shots.
We arrived in Akureyri, the second largest town in Iceland just after midday...and after lunch downtown we let the group get situated in their rooms. We met for dinner in the hotel. The restaurant always does a great job of putting twists on some classic dishes both icelandic and more familiar foods, like pizza. Our goal for the first night was the mighty Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. It's a bit of a haul out there, so a few of our group decided to stay inside, avoid the potential rain...and catch up on their sleep. We arrived at Dettifoss with about 45 minutes of shooting time before we were avoiding the rain, and running back to the van...but in that time most of the group found their way to the edge of this monstrous waterfall and got some great images...that will be moody and fantastic when processed in black and white.
Our next stop was Námaskarð, a geothermal area near Lake Myvatn. The rain was coming, but our group still managed to head out in the stinky sulphur pits and get some great images of the dark brooding sky mixed with the steaming vents and mud pits. This kind of landscape isn't for everyone, but it is an alien reminder of how diverse, and geothermally active this country is.
One thing that our guesthouse has in spades is Icelandic horses...these gentle rock stars are a treat to photograph, and Oli and his family are gracious to understand how photographers work and grant us full access to the pens to walk with these beautiful animals, and make as many photographs as we want...with some pretty stunning backdrops to boot!
The next night, after a lovely italian dinner downtown we moved off to Godafoss. This waterfall is known for it's brilliant blue/turquoise water, and great horseshoe shape. The clouds were awesome, and so was the light. We shuttled folks back and forth so they could shoot the best of it from both side and the bottom of this waterfall. Scott and I really put on the miles finding everyone to keep pointing out different compositional ideas. The light was shifting, so we packed up and headed out to one of my personal favorite waterfalls- Aldeyjarfoss. This waterfall is on the same river as Godafoss, only farther up river...and the landscape is barren and alien in comparison. THe sky was awesome when we arrived and we quickly made work of the small trail to the edge and got everyone set up for their shots; pinks, purples, golds, it was all there...a truly EPIC night of shooting...but a long one too.
Around 4:30am we all arrived back at the guesthouse. Ready for our last night in the north...tomorrow it was off to the west.
DAY 8 & 9
Off to Snæfellsnes. This peninsula is situated right above the Reykjanes, where Reykjavik is located and on good days you can see one from the other. Our home base for the next 2 nights was Olafsvik. The most iconic location on the peninsula for photography is Kirkjufell (axe mountain) THe most popular vantage point is with the waterfall, Kirkjufellsfoss in the foreground...the weather looked 50--50 when we set out, and we hoped that there would be something amazing in the cards. We did a brief drive up the southern side of the peninsula, and quickly determined that the weather looked more promising on the Kirkjufell side, and headed back to set up for sunset. What a difference that made. We went from clouds, windy conditions on one side to calm and amazing on the other. The lack of wind made for great reflections in the nearby lagoon...and the clouds were just waiting to light up. This location is one that every photographer wants a great image for, and our conditions were setting up for a perfect sunrise as well...so we opted to stay there and make the most of it. WOW...it was truly epic light, and it was great to see the images in our third processing session the following day.
The next night the weather found us again...and we tried to make the most of it by shooting the church at Budir, and the sea-stacks at Lóndrangar...and for the most part we all got to shoot the locations with some moody, dramatic, dark skies for a few minutes before a serious storm rolled in off the sea and started the rain. After the epic light the night before, we'll take it!
Our last night together, what a journey. We head back to Reykjavik for our traditional Tapas farewell dinner, which takes the Spanish tradition and gives it a little Icelandic twist. It's a great meal, and everyone has some time to reflect on the awesome experiences we've shared over the past 10 days...
Once dinner is done, it's time to relax a bit in the world famous Blue Lagoon. This geothermally heated giant hot tub is one of the most popular locations to visit. The cool blue water makes for some nice photos too, and while we waited for our ticket times, we perused the outer pools (not heated) and made some images of the black lava flows with the nice ice blue water. The sky was great too...a mix of puffy clouds, blue sky, some light rays...the whole deal. The real reason we were there though was to relax in the lagoon...so when our time to get in was upon us we wasted no time getting changed and getting in the pool to grab a cocktail and have one last cheers to a trip well done.
It was a lot to see but we all made it! So from Scott and myself, we'd like to thank Carol, Stu, Daniel, Jane, James, Myron, Ying, Bob, Steve, and last but not least, La Machina! Victor...
Until our next adventure!
Brian, Scott, and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.