So – last month, before the wedding season really started to get going, I went to Iceland!
For some reason, I thought March would be Springy. You know, green grass poking through melting snow, raging waterfalls and low sun in blue skies. That sort of thing.
I’m not sure I could have been more wrong. It appeared I failed to see the clue in the name: ‘Ice’ land.
Even with snow tyres on ‘Thor’ (our 4X4), my new squeeze Sandra & I found ourselves skating across completely iced-over roads, with hurricane-force winds hammering us this way and that; laughing nervously as we drove for hours in white-out blizzard conditions, with only yellow road markers to prove we were still on a road.
In fact, we were told by locals that it’s been one of the worst winters in history, with something like 50 storms in 70 days. Hence Spring appearing to keep it’s head down. But hey, we found the extremeness of the whole adventure really added to the magic. Plus, as Icelanders say “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes, and you’ll have something new”. Though new isn’t always good. Like when new is worse, for example, and what you had was already terrifying…
So – before I begin wit’ t’pics: a minor disclaimer – this blog is gonna be pretty long! Iceland is RIDICULOUSLY pretty, whatever the season. And I took NUFTY photos. So first off, if you like picture taking, then get y’sen to Iceland as it’s a beaut!
Now, I absolutely LOVE to travel; it’s my favourite thing. And apart from taking a bit of advice from peeps who’ve been where I’m going, I generally don’t find myself opening a Lonely Planet until I buckle in on a plane. I like to experience things firsthand, rather than be over-prepared. I find knowing everything that’s coming has a habit of desensitising you to new experiences, and I like to be able to go off-plan and embrace opportunities on route.
However, in the case of Iceland, everyone I spoke to who’d been (and it appears to have become the hip destination of choice) had been such an evangelist about the place, that I ended up learning loads of great tips. Plus, as it was a driving jolly, and we were only there for 9 days, I ended up turning to ol’ trusty Google in search of beautiful images, their locations and how plotting how long routes would take around the country. This was where Google My Maps came into it’s own…
[You should see an embedded google map of Iceland above – if not you can see it here]
I use google maps almost every day for one reason or another, but with Google ‘my maps’ I created a personal map, and plotted on locations of interest (often by simply typing the name of what you’d like to find into a search bar), then added them as ‘pins’ (that you can choose your own icons for), to different ‘layers’ eg. for a city, or sightseeing etc. It’s proper clever how you can use it to pinpoint places & work our routes between them…
Not only that, but on my O2 phone contract it only cost a maximum of £2/day to use data in Europe, and as there’s impressively solid 3G coverage all around Iceland, we could open this up, zoom in to our GPS positioned marker, find Lebowski Bar to walk there for a nice White Russian! Strike!
Also, as TomTom don’t have an Iceland Map (I think Garmin are the only satnav that do), you can use google maps on your smartphone and it works perfectly. Though, there is pretty much only one real road in Iceland and it’s a ring road, so you can always stay on it for 2 weeks, see almost all of the country, and end up back to the start! But these maps helped me realise that it would be a bit ambitious to do the full lap in 8-9 days, so we decided to take in only Reykjavik, the North West and the South coast.
I also put together a google doc called Things to do in Iceland listing our itinerary/lodgings, must do’s in Reykjavik, sights in all corners of Iceland, and links to weather websites & tips to photographing the Aurora/star trails etc. All in all, I felt like there wasn’t a great deal not in that doc that a lonely planet could tell you, so here’s a huge thanks to all my pals who helped with advice, namely Yasmine, April, Sarah & Ben!
Another major source of visual location inspiration came from Elizabeth Gadd’s beautiful Icelandic ‘Red Dress Series’. She visited Iceland back in 2014 and with some photography pals (and a red dress) and captured some of the most stunning images I’ve seen of the country. Be sure to check her blog post all about it here.
So apart from ol’mother nature thwarting our plans a few times, the planning paid major dividends.
On the weather front – unlike England, Iceland seems to actually be able to forecast weather. And Icelanders take the Iceland Met Office website very seriously (probably because weather can actually be real dangerous, or cut you off, and conditions can change fast). There are weather stations along the road, with cameras and wind speed spinners, and you can actually log in to the cameras to check live visibility & road surfaces etc. Integrated into the Met office site is a great Aurora Forecast, that shows cloud cover and the strength of the Northern Lights. Sadly we didn’t see any as it was pretty much snowing every night!
Below is a blog of my fave images, put together using the Fundy Designer Software ‘Blog Collage’ (I generally use BlogStomp, but gave this a go, and it’s great)
First tip: Sit on the right side of the cabin when flying to Keflavík (if looking towards the captain). If it’s clear, you get fab views as you fly down the South Coast
After a good mosey around downtown Reykjavik (without a camera), and immense contemporary twist on a traditional Icelandic tasting menu (at Apotek Restaurant as the recommended Fish Company was full, but we thought this place far funkier), we fired up Thor and headed out on our own Golden Circle Tour. A popular tourist day trip, as it’s within easy reach of Reykjavik, it takes in a tectonic national park, spouting geysirs and a monster waterfall
First port of call Thingvellir National Park, a World Heritage Site where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year, and you can literally walk down the gap between the plates.
It’s also the sight of Iceland’s original Parliament (those 4 buildings above!), established in 930 and remained there until 1798.
There are historical plaques showing where public drownings took place!
I love the colours in the lakes, and the almost monochromatic colour scheme.
Also, all around iceland, we noticed sparkling coins tossed in ponds and lakes. I bet it drives the national mint mental.
Onwards! Through visibility pretty much constantly like this, for hours…
Our first taste of pretty shocking road & weather conditions!
Next stop – the Geysir geothermal area where the Strokkur geyser shoots a column of water up to 30 metres (almost 100 ft.) into the air every 4-8 minutes…
It’s the perfect spot for every tourist to take a selfie showing what they’re in front of, but not actually looking at… *sigh*
It’s a fascinating area, with pools and blue crusty vents heading deep into the earth.
This was just a view from the roadside of a beautiful blue river, on the way up to Gullfoss waterfall.
You see amazing things along the road all the time, and the roads are dead, so you can just pull in and take a shot.
Gullfoss means ‘Golden Falls’, and has been created by the river Hvítá, which tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 32 m (105 ft.) deep
You can get far closer to it in the summer, but the snow cuts off some of the viewpoints.
I always liked tall geometric black trees against white snow photos.
On the way back, as the sun dropped beneath the snow filled bank of sky, we were treated with this tasty little scene before we went out on the town in Reykjavik…
Now briefly on expense, as I’m not sure where else to write this: people say Iceland is expensive as though it’s a reason not to go. In our experience, we found drinking in Reykjavik to be kinda pricey (but no more so than in London), meals out don’t break the bank and fuel gets guzzled by a 4×4, but once you’re out of town and you’ve popped into a supermarket for snacks and supplies, the rest of the trip is basically looking around natural wonders don’t cost a krona! We found reasonable hotels via Booking.com and all sorts of interesting rooms and houses on AirBnB. It didn’t feel super spendy, especially as we’d picked up a bottle of scotch, JD Honey & Baileys in Duty Free leaving Gatwick to get us through the cold nights!
Before setting of to the North West Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we took a look around the Hallgrímskirkja, the sixth tallest architectural structure in Iceland and is said to have been designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape. The statue outside is of viking explorer Leif Eriksson.
The church interior is pretty majestic too, and I read that there are 5275 pipes in this spaceship looking organ!
You get a fab view of the capital from the Observation Tower, up above the clocks…
Lens-wise, I used my Canon 45mm tilt-shift for this one, as it gives a fun impression of miniaturisation from elevated viewpoints.
After we got back, we did in fact pack Thor and set off North after, as the weather worsened.
And THEN REALLY WORSENED!
Then we discovered the power of The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website, that details road conditions and whether roads are impassable.
About 50 clicks into our journey, nearing Mosfellsbær, we met a nice man literally parked sideways across the motorway with orange lights flashing, and he told us the motorway was closed, and we had to go back to the Capital. He didn’t seem particularly interested that we’d booked and paid for a nice Air BnB hut that night with a hot tub, so we dejectedly trudged back to implement a plan B… Which ended up involving finding a wonderful gentlemanly tweed emporium called Kormákur & Skjöldur and got chance to eat the Korean Fire Chicken we’d been advised to try at the Korean K-Bar!
So it wasn’t all bad, unless you were someone else hoping to fly home and the airport road was closed… Eek.
So, eyes on the roady website at first light and they’d reopened, letting us loose roads which had turned nicely into a bit of an ice rink, so at 6am we were on route…
This might be one of my favourite images from the whole trip. Look at that brilliant sky and ridiculous mountain, dwarfing that tiny town being whipped on a plain
Most people going to Iceland only see the capital, the golden circle, and if there a bit longer, the South Coast too. Only those there for a good stretch head North or around the top, and even less venture up into the deep, uncharted Westfjords. But I’d seen photos of the rugged Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a national park in the North West, and a particular mountain called Kirkufell had stolen my photographic heart, so in spite of being knocked back once my nature’s mum, we took it slow and finally started skirting the peninsular…
We spent what felt like a lifetime skating over shiny, ice roads, being buffeted this way and that by violent winds.
I think Sandra spent most of her time warning me about things and hoping I was in control, and I spent most of my time trying my best to look like I was in control.
But occasionally we pulled in for a rest and soaked in epic scenes like this gathering storm, rolling up from the sea to scrap with colossal mountains.
The pretty mountain I’d fallen for was this badboy, Kirkufell, on the Northern edge of the Peninsular near Grundarfjörður.
I’d seen it googling photo locations in Iceland, and had seen this Huffington Post 11 Photos Of Mount Kirkjufell Will Convince You To Fly To Iceland. Just look at the blog, as it shows this mountain in all weather, and wrapped in the glow of the Northern Lights. It literally takes the piss.
Well, we found it and this was an iPhone panorama from my phone!
Not only that, but see those black boxes at the bottom left foot of the mountain, well they’re the Air BnB cabins (here), that we were booked into the night previous!
We felt like we’d thoroughly earned some champagne in the hot tub, so stuck it in the snow when we arrived before pootling off to see the waterfall.
I suspect it’ll be hard to top the experience of us cooking away in a hot pot, fizz in hand and snow falling on my face, like we owned Kirkufell, as one of my happiest moments this year. The owner’s wife even popped her head round the corner while we were in the tub and tucked a refund for the night before in my shoe…
Sadly we didn’t get to see the Northern Lights while we were there, as it snowed heavily all night long…
…but no less than one week later, on St Patrick’s day, snow had cleared and someone shared onto my wall this beautifully captured image of the rainbow Aurora by Edinburgh & Beyond Photography! Apparently the aurora borealis was so strong you could see it from Otley Chevin near Leeds!
Anyhoo – the next day we headed south and onto much friendlier, but not less dramatic roads down the South Coast…
Literally, just off Route 1 you can explore and even walk behind the beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall.
Slightly further down the road is the more beasty Skogafoss waterfall, that I started this blog post with.
I’d been itching to do a long exposure of this falls since I saw my pal Michael of Jackson & Co Photography do a stunning B+W long exposure here on his visit.
OK! Shutterbug moment: To get an image like this, you need to allow your shutter to be open for a good few seconds (like 5 or longer). If you dial your settings to ISO100 (or L if you have a low ISO50 option), and your max aperture (eg f22), you may find that you can’t get a correct exposure at anything over a fraction of a second in normal daylight conditions. So you need a filter. A simple polariser can help darken a scene by a few stops, or ND (neutral density) filters can be bough in different densities (so as to let less light through) right up to what’s called a ‘big stopper‘. But from my video days, I’ve got what’s called a Variable ND filter (from £40-75 each) that is essentially two polarisers that twist against one another and darken a scene to taste. So with that on, and your settings as above, you can use the a camera’s Live View to gauge exposure to taste by eye. Then with the camera locked off on a tripod and set on a 2 second timer delay (to avoid any movement pressing the shutter by hand), balance the filter against a few shutter durations (eg. 2 / 5 / 15 seconds), and bob’s your uncle. Soft water.
NB: this might actually be the first time in my career that I’ve taken a real tripod on holiday with me!
Next stop was an abandoned, crashed plane on the black sands of Sólheimasandur beach.
This US Navy airplane – a Douglas Super DC-3 – was forced to crash land on Nov 24 1973, and while all the crew survived the impact, the plane was abandoned rather than recovered – and lies there still. All that’s left is the fuselage, and rumours are that a local farmer stole the tail and mysteriously sold it on.
But it’s quite a sight eh? And quite hard to find, in the black dunes. It’s not visible from the road, and is about a mile down the sand, so being able to use Google’s satellite map view to pin it on my map (marked on my map above) meant we knew when to come off the road and head down the beach. Though while hard to spot, because it is visited by lots of tourists, there is now a small sign saying 4×4’s only and a few marked yellow markers to lead you to the plane.
It’s kinda eerie, and in the early evening in the rain, there was no-one around but us and Thor watching patiently.
The next day we took in the sea stacks and volcanically formed Dyrhólaey sea caves and cliffs around Vik.
Photographic tip. Get your camera sensor cleaned before thinking about shooting ting at f22. My camera was a dirty boy.
I know this is just a bit of old concrete wall, but I love the tones and scale of this image. It feels like Lord Of The Rings.
Further along the highway in the direction of the Glacial Lagoon, we pulled in and caught a whole bunch of lovely photos by the roadside like these…
Sometimes you’re driving over vast black glacial outwash ‘sandurs’, and others your rolling past lumpy green, mossy lava boulders that look a lot like love experts
There’s are glaciers all along the south coast, as tongues rolling down valleys off the vast Vatnajökull icecap
We joined a rather soggy, but magical trip into a glacial ice cave down near Jokulsarlon
It’s mad being able to see the lines of moraine in the ice from beneath
Just like the Bull Ring in Birmingham
Being in Iceland feels a lot like being on the set of a film, like Prometheus or Interstellar
I’d almost forgotten I’d brought it. but I’d actually brought my wire wool and a whisk on a chain for a bit of a fire shot.
I only got once chance at it, and wish I’d shot it far wider angle to see the hot bits bouncing off the walls and roof, but kinda like this Icelandic vision of fire + ice.
The next day we took in the Jokulsarlon Glacial lagoon, where monster icebergs (and ice doritos) break off a giant glacier and float out to sea, only to be decimated on the beach by the punishing North Atlantic ocean.
On our homeward leg down the South coast we passed this ace baby waterfall…
…not far from Systrafoss (“the waterfall of the sisters”) just east of the village of Foss
We took a stroll round Dverghamrar (Dwarf Rocks), where dwarfs have been known to chill in the peculiar and beautiful formations of columnar basalt
Actually, the Icelandics keep alive a huge amount of folklaw featuring magic, elves, trolls, ghosts and spirits of all kinds, and actually it makes it very difficult to get planning permission to build or dig into rock. It’s a kind of sweet and effective way to keep things undeveloped and maintain the natural balance. And who could contest planning permission denied on the grounds that a troll might live there?
“We have thousands of stories,” said Icelandic guide Geir Rogwaldsson “stories of people visible and invisible; giants mean and ugly; dwarfs, gnomes, and little fairies who live in rocks. That’s how people entertained themselves in the old days—telling stories through the long winters.”
On our final full day, after a relaxing night in the (easy to say) Kirkjubæjarklaustur IcelandAir Hotel (a slick premier inn style hotel chain, owned by the airline, who actually offer wakeup calls if the northern lights are showing!), we popped into the stunning Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon.
Amazing eh?! Iceland kept surprising me with it’s mental landscape. It was like Scotland on Steroids.
It seemed as good as any place to create a Facebook cover photo!
I saw a fab TED talk by Mikhael Subotzky called “To see as a photographer sees” about his life as a photographer and a quote stuck with me:
“Through the viewfinder the viewer can step out of his shell to be on the other side of the world, and thereby remember better, understand better, see better, hear better and love more deeply”
I love that. By framing my view, I concentrate my focus and can see more deeply into that I’m looking at.
Plus my memory is crap.
I’m so looking forward to revisiting iceland again (perhaps in September next time!), to take in the north and take in another season. We saw so much, and covered such varied ground, that weren’t even gutted that we didn’t see the Northern Lights…
Which we kinda saw anyway, on the IcelandAir flight home…
Thanks for making it this far kids! I’ve not written an epic holiday blog like this for a while, and it’s been a pleasure to post.