Iceland: a photographic road trip in May

May 19, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

It has been a while since I wrote the last blog post. I have been very busy with architectural work and an occasional landscape shoot. I have also gained an interest in wildlife, and namely - bird photography. I hope to write about the latest work shortly, however I must give the priority to my recent photo trip to Iceland earlier this May.

Gullfoss waterfall sunrise, IcelandGullfoss waterfall sunrise, Iceland

Gullfoss falls at sunrise, Iceland

I went for the very first time and didn't fully know what to expect apart from reading other internet blogs and sites. The landscape can appear very different in practice in real life; also the weather, the arctic late spring days were all the unknowns to me. So let's start with the basics. It was relatively mild, maybe around 8-14 °C during the daytime and freezing cold at night. The weather was fairly changeable, and overall resembled the north of Scotland in late March or early April. There was hardly any snow left except a few isolated patches high on the mountains. I've seen plenty of clear sunny skies as well as some rain and even a short blizzard up in the north. There was no green vegetation at the time and in light of this I would have preferred to visit later on in the summer, perhaps July or August, or earlier in March to catch the aurora in the snow covered landscape. Nevertheless the journey was still very rich and in addition to lots of amazing new work I also discovered tens and hundreds of picture-perfect locations for the next visit.

The journey was booked for just 4 nights to get a taster of island. Initially I planned to discover one area in more detail and the south west appeared to be the most reasonable pick. I stayed very close Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysers. This allowed me to really make the most of it at that location. The waterfall proved to be a bit challenging initially. The sun was setting too far in the north in the evening, while there was no cloud cover. Next morning the sunrise didn't work out either - it was far too cloudy. However, I quickly changed the plans and still managed to get a few keepers at the Geysers just several kilometers away. It is a very impressive and busy location. The main geyser pool erupts every few minutes spraying boiling water jet 50-100m in to the air. 

GeysirGeysir GeysirGeysir

Icelandic Geysers

I made a few "safe" long exposure shots at Gullfoss later on that morning however the light was already relatively harsh. It all finally came together at the next dawn. There was a vivid fiery sky and perfect conditions for landscape photography. The location is certainly worth exploring from each angle allowing to create a number of different stunning and unique photographs.

Gullfoss waterfall sunrise, IcelandGullfoss waterfall sunrise, Iceland Gullfoss waterfall sunrise, IcelandGullfoss waterfall sunrise, Iceland Gullfoss waterfall sunrise, IcelandGullfoss waterfall sunrise, Iceland

Gullfoss falls at sunrise, Iceland

The next locations on the "to-do list" included the waterfalls around the south-west coast and the beaches near Vik. Seljalandsfoss waterfall is perhaps the most impressive one. The light is certainly best in the evening. I arrived in the late afternoon / early evening and started exploring. There are really no bad angles and the compositional freedom is inspiring. My best image was made from higher elevation on on the cliff looking sideways to the fall. It is breathtaking experience even if the water spray can be a bit overwhelming.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland

I was actually very keen to shoot the fall during the sunset, but decided to explore the area further down south and hopefully come back on time. Skógafoss fall further down the road was sadly a big disappointment. It was very crowded with tourists and the light was totally wrong as the sun was behind a large hill in the west. It is really the location to shoot earlier or much later in a year when the sun is setting further back. Next up I attempted to get to the Dyrhólaeyjarviti beach and shoot cliffs and the sea arch in the golden hour then hopefully go back to Seljalandsfoss in the nick of time. The first major hurdle was actually parking the car. As I later discovered the only way is to park on the verge and walk a kilometer through a swamp and volcanic sands. The road continued steeply up a cliff. The SUV just about coped with a steeply winding gravel path towards the lighthouse. I was now going the "wrong" way and the time was ticking. Up on the cliff I luckily discovered a sea puffin colony and even more delightfully my excellent Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM telephoto Lens was packed ready in the backpack. I have spent about an hour getting close to the birds and picking the best angles and compositions. It was a totally unplanned development of the day, however - a very positive one.

Puffin in golden evening light, Iceland

At this point I still had a couple of days left and could either come back to Vik and Skógafoss next day or explore other parts of the country. Faced with a difficult dilemma I chose the latter but in the hindsight perhaps it was better to do the former and then travel around the country in the anticlockwise direction. It is even better to have a few more extra days and leave hotel reservations literally to the very last minute and only book one day at the time.

So the last 2 days were spent travelling to the west and the north of Iceland. The landscape changes very dramatically north of Reykjavík. While the south is considerably flatter with several outstanding volcanoes, the north is extremely mountainous, very rugged and as a result overall very photogenic. I think I could spend months or years exploring the region going deeper and deeper and still discover new amazing compositions. One problem is relative lack of lay-bys on the road and lots of barbwire fence everywhere. In that regard, Scotland is by far the better and friendlier country to a landscape photographer. It almost seems that the traveller is only intended to look at the "big" famous falls and other attraction. There are a lot of great non-signposted landscapes and wildlife spots just waiting to be explored even if it takes an extra effort to do so.

Rock ptarmigan, Þingvellir national park, Iceland

Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall sadly didn't work out. It is obviously a sunrise location, and sadly an arctic storm disrupted my plans. The next morning would have been perfect had I not had to catch such and early flight back. Nevertheless I discovered several great locations including Kolgrafarfjordur bay, the falls at the intersection of highways 54 and 56 and the wonderful coastline overlooking Grundarfjörður.

Grundarfjörður coastal nightscape, Iceland

The final day was spent far in the north in the cold and blistery arctic storm weather. Goðafoss falls are incredibly impressive even in such a poor weather. I clearly would have liked some summer flowers in the foreground and a rich sunset sky. I believe the sunset must have been very special that evening however I had to turn back to catch the flight.

Goðafoss falls, Iceland

I also spotted a long list of beautiful areas around lake Myvatn and along the route 1 back to Reykjavík. I am looking forward to going back and shooting there.

Roadside sunset landscapes, North of Iceland

The final morning had dawned at the site of volcanoes called Grabrok. There was time to make a few sunrise photographs at the to of the crater. While these images won't win any major photographic competition, it was an incredible and surreal experience to walk around the crater rim in such and impressive light.

Grabrok volcano sunrise, West of Iceland

Finally, a few practical notes from my journey. The SUV is probably not necessary to drive around route 1 in good weather, but it makes a lot of difference on icy patches, in strong wind or worse - going on gravel roads. It is not unlikely to encounter one. An SUV is also much easier to park on the verge opening lots of photography opportunities. I had an automatic Mitsubishi Outlander from Lagoon for a very reasonable price and it was excellent. I will probably consider owning one. Fuel prices are similar like at the UK pumps, while most European and US travellers will find it pricey. Food is slightly more expensive to UK; fish lovers will appreciate the variety of fresh fish. There are supermarkets in bigger towns; the opening hours tend to be around 10AM-7PM. Credit cards are accepted literally everywhere and I got by just fine with no hard currency.

I am certainly planning to come back again in a different time of year. I now know lots of great locations and will be able to offer a 1-to-1 and workshops.


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