Iceland November - 2013 Trip Report
So we decided to travel Iceland in November for a multitude of reasons, however the biggest was so we could avoid the crowds. Iceland is known for its summer crowds when the landscape is greener and temperature more... "temperate". We stayed a full week in the beginning of November and I was joined by two very close friends. Overall the trip was a success from both an enjoyment and photography perspective.
We landed in Reykjavik at 7am after almost an 8 hour overnight flight. I don't sleep on planes so after all was said and done, I was awake for about 25-27 hours after landing. On top of that, since Iceland is a very religious nation, most stores and breakfast cafes were closed since we landed early on a Sunday morning. Therefore, I never ate in those hours leaving me with a massive headache throughout the entire first day. We hit the road, took a quick drive through Reykjavik, and headed towards our first photo sites immediately; photography doesn't wait! I ended up eating a gas station tuna sandwich on the go. Here are some images from that time period:
This image was on our way to our first hotel later in the morning in southern Iceland. As you can see, the mountains dominate the landscape and buildings near them.
The first day was very nice weather and a bit warmer. However, that was soon to change. We arrived at our bed & breakfast in southern Iceland and went to sleep for the rest of the evening after stopping at our destinations for the first day.
Everyday we awoke before the crack of dawn (which isn't too early in winter), however I needed to be awake every morning for sunrise shots as we didn't have much time during daylight hours. Actually the brilliant part of traveling in Iceland during winter for photography is the lighting conditions all day feel as though it's late evening, so you can pretty much take photos all day long, given you actually have sunny conditions. Sunrise was roughly 9 am and sunset was roughly 4 pm and it was only getting shorter. The sun pattern during winter doesn't streak across the sky. Instead the sun rises to about a 3pm summer position and comes straight back down for sunset, so the mood is always as if the day is ending, even at 10am, as you can see in the photo here:
This may look like sunset but it's actually about 10am, shortly after sunrise. Sunrise and sunset both happened in the southwest.
On our second day I was up and positioned for sunrise, which didn't happen. Our first destination was Skogafoss, the famous massive waterfall in southern Iceland. The weather forecast for the day was overcast with precipitation. I tried my best to plan waterfall shoots around cloudy days because of the look I go for, so this worked out perfectly. By the end of it we were drenched and freezing (roughly -1 to 0 C) and my camera looked as if I held it under water. Luckily nobody else was around. I decided to make our next destination a downed U.S. Navy aircraft I could only find on google maps so we spent a few hours attempting to locate it.
We were walking a beautiful open beach for a few hours attempting to locate the aircraft.
Once found it's in a pretty cool and remote area. It's been used in some commercials as well:
These were pretty much the conditions for the first 4 days of our trip.
During the entire trip, we were monitoring Aurora Borealis as we were getting closer to being in the "greenbelt". However, it wouldn't have mattered if the Aurora was showing itself as long as the cloud layer kept up the way it was, so our hopes for seeing it weren't high.
Over the next couple of days we continued to tour around southern Iceland and every morning I was up with the perfect composition to no avail. We were rained out of a few locations and the wind was intense. It made it nearly impossible to shoot standing up with a tripod. One of those mornings we woke up to the dumpsters being blown over:
On our last day spent in southern Iceland we decided to visit Svartifoss waterfall and Jokulsarlon beach which was about a 3-4 hour drive east. During the drive we encountered what surprised me to be massive coulees along the road:
It still doesn't compare to the Grand Coulee in eastern Washington, but it was still a taste of home!
We arrived at Vatnajökull National park which is a massive glacier, one of the largest in Europe. Svartifoss was a short hike into the park. The waterfall feels more like an ampitheater more than anything else, which is composed of high rising basalt pillars. It started snowing while we were there, luckily, because I always hope that weather keeps other people away from the area. It was pretty thick after a while and started interfering with my lens.
After some time spent at Svartifoss we decided to head further east to Jokulsarlon beach, a massive iceberg lagoon, which sends them out to sea where they get chopped up and dispersed along the beach for miles. The drive to Jokulsarlon was beautiful, the weather cleared and rainbows began to appear after a rain storm. I was tempted to shoot sunset somewhere off the road however Jokulsarlon had been a long-term destination for me and if we were to ever reach it, it would be now.
Stopped to enjoy some near-sunset lighting conditions. It was tempting to stop and shoot, but I'm so glad I didn't.
Worried that I'd regret missing this great lighting opportunity, we continued on to Jokulsarlon straight into a storm. The road was freezing over and we were slowly losing it under snow. We arrived at Jokulsarlon and crossed the bridge about an hour later, right at sunset (perhaps just after). The temperature dropped drastically so we decided to head over to the beach access and walk west along the sand. At first I was confused as to where previous photographers had taken their shots of ice-chips being alone in solitude but we quickly figured out that if you walk further up the beach for about a mile or two the ice chips will start to spread out, which is better for compositions.
This location was perhaps the most beautiful and surreal place I've ever been to. As I walked with the black sand contrasted against the waves and ice chips, I couldn't believe that this was the Atlantic ocean. I was actually very glad it was overcast. Too often I see photographs from here during sunset, which I've always believed detracted from the main subject..... the ice chips. "Vibrant sunsets should be saved for tropical environments" I thought to myself. I wanted to capture an image that conveyed a sense of loneliness and cold along the ocean, a theme that contrasts with what one tends to think of about the ocean and beaches. Jokulsarlon beach is perhaps the ultimate contradiction in photography.
This is right at beach access, you need to walk about a mile or two out and you will start to find better compositions.
The best feeling for me during a shoot is when you look at the image on your camera and already know it's a keeper, without even having to edit the image. As night ensued, it started raining on the beach, which by the time we returned to the car, we were soaked through multiple layers and the temperature read -5C. As we were driving through Vik our tire popped, so we had to use the spare and replace it.
The next morning we awoke excited to hit the road for northwestern Iceland and Kirkjufell. I planned on us getting up there with enough time to shoot sunset. Well, I have a new theory in photography. "For every good photo comes a price", whether financially or through some action. We found out a second tire on our car deflated overnight; and without a spare, we weren't able to drive anywhere to have it fixed. We decided to chance it and drive on the deflated tire for about 30km into town. After a frustrating conversation, we ended up at an abandoned airport stranded and with limited cell service.
We were stuck at this airport for hours waiting around for what we thought was a tow-truck.
Long story short, we spent about 6 hours dealing with tire issues, partly because there was no tow-truck and partly because they had to ship our tires in from Reykjavik, because they were out. At this point I was beyond frustrated. We missed out on sunset shots (which ended up being a great sunset) and essentially lossed an entire day of traveling filled with productivity. I didn't eat a thing all day, we were tired, wet, cold and frustrated beyond all belief. And this was after a string of unsuccessful days of shooting due to inclement weather.
The rest of the drive was silent listening to our favorite radio station "Sudurland FM", which eventually was lost because we weren't in the south anymore. During the entire trip I was never quite able to keep dry, no matter how many times I changed. My feet during the drive were wet and starting to fold over, similar to trench foot. So I continued to slosh around in my boots. My boots seemed to constantly freeze over and melt causing my socks never to truly dry. As a photographer though, you learn to be uncomfortable while traveling so it never really bothered me.
After a few hours of driving, we started to notice the clouds weren't around anymore and there were "green streaks" across the sky, ever so faint. The northern lights were nothing new to me so I didn't pay much attention, my true prize was Borealis. However, I didn't plan on seeing it during this trip so I kind of wrote it off in my mind. We arrived at our next stay in Grundarfjordur, a coastal fishing town in northwest Iceland known for it's proximity to Kirkjufell peak. We got situated and one of my friends stated that this night was the highest probability for seeing the aurora and if we were to see it, it would have to be now (approximately 11pm when we arrived). I said "Sure, we can try, but it won't matter as long as there's clouds". I quickly looked up a dirt road that lead around the backside of Kirkjufell to avoid the city lights and we took off.
After some encounters with black ice, we found the dirt road and drove down it, unsure of where we were, mountains were all around us and still no sign of the aurora. It was absolutely freezing out, my second layer of gloves I use to shoot photos weren't working. I had set up a makeshift composition using flashlights and luck, prepared for the aurora should it show itself. After about 15 minutes of waiting and slowly freezing, the clouds dispersed and Aurora Borealis appeared. It opened up with a slow dance across the peak, disappearing and reappearing. It flowed as if apart of a vast ocean overhead. It was literally alive. I started taking exposures at random, capturing everything I could at all different settings. I simply planned on blending what I could. I was far too amazed at watching the show. And like a snap of the finger all of our worries from the day dissipated.
I wasn't cold anymore, I hardly noticed the icing-over water in my boots. A light show appeared just for us, in the middle of nowhere....... and it was the loudest "silent" show I've ever seen. All you could hear was the howling wind in the valley and everything around us illuminated green. I realized in that moment that most people spend their whole lives unable to see the aurora, it was such a novelty.
In the landscape photography world seeing Borealis isn't that big of a deal. For some professionals, it's a monthly occurrence. However, in the real world, it's not common to meet many people who have seen anything beyond the Northern Lights. It completely changed my outlook on nature and the brilliance that is out of our control. It's one of those moments in life that completely takes you out of your body and current experience. It truly makes you feel a sense of adventure and accomplishment.
With massive smiles on our faces and lots of laughing, we made our way back to the hotel after a very very long day of frustration.
The following day we woke up before the break of dawn once again and returned to Kirkjufell to attempt sunrise shots........ but it just wasn't going to happen this trip. The one morning during the entire trip where the clouds broke, there literally were no clouds, making for uneventful sunrise images. So instead, we explored the local area including Grundarfjordur.
Kirkjufell peak dominates the view of the town of Grundarfjordur.
I didn't even bother attempting to get sunset photos because this is what the sky looked like during sunset. It was a pretty day, but not the right kind of pretty. So instead we went to dinner and spent the day catching up on some much needed sleep! Let's just say that Grundarfjordur is a small enough town where you can hear your neighbor couple in the hotel room "having fun" ;) and then 15 minutes later you wind up eating dinner next to them at the local restaurant. Good times.
The following day in Iceland our goal was to eventually make our way back to Reykjavik and spend our last and final day exploring the capitol and doing more "tourist" things. We woke up for sunrise photos yet again, but to no avail we gave up and spent half the morning attempting to find a specific horse ranch so we could ride some horses. After some snow covered dirt roads and mountain passes, we finally located the ranch and enjoyed a really nice ride in snow along the beach! It was definitely my first time experiencing the beach with snow, and it was definitely my first time riding horses on the beach in snow............ lots of firsts!
Just before horseback riding taking some photos along a cliff.
The rest of the day was spent driving back to Reykjavik and getting to our final hotel. We ate at a really nice fish & chips place for dinner and happily caught up on sleep. Our last day in Iceland was spent exploring the city, shopping and doing very "touristy" things such as visiting the Blue Lagoon (which was un-surprisingly very cold).
Overall the trip was great. We learned a lot, explored a lot and experienced even more. I spent time travelling with two of my best friends, Annmarie and Chris. Chris and I have travelled extensively together and I like to refer to him as my assistant or sherpa. And it was Annmarie's first time travelling with us, but it definitely is the first of many exciting trips planned for the future.
If you'd like to know how to properly plan for a trip like this don't hesitate to ask! Also, don't forget to inquire about any photos or prints you'd be interested to purchase for your home or office. I appreciate you taking the time to read this trip report, I hope it gave you some laughs and inspired you to get out there and experience the vast world we live amongst!
Travelling is good for the soul,
Welcome to my blog. I am a fine art landscape photographer living on the west coast of the United States. Here you can keep track on my upcoming/current events, projects, trips or simply read up on some tutorials!