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“Iceland is green and Greenland is ice.” I think that’s the way every kid in America was taught to remember the difference between these two nations that tickle the Arctic Circle. Well clearly, whoever made that statement had never been to Iceland in winter…because the only green in that country that time of year is the aurora.
Despite the frosty unpredictable weather, Iceland still is amazingly beautiful, and rich with photographic opportunity…and lucky for us the green of the aurora is something we wanted to actively go in search of. My small group of hearty photographic adventurers was ready for me to guide them through the southern coast of Iceland in search of beauty and excitement.
The weather dealt the first blow in our scheduled meet-up. A large storm with astronomical wind speeds was raging along the southern and westerns shores and prevented the arrival of any flights. That left myself stuck in Seattle, and Winston stuck in Oslo waiting for a window of safe flying weather.
I encouraged the other three members of our group to explore downtown Reykjavik as best they could…the weather was awful, so sometimes it’s nice to just stay in the lovely hotel and catch up on some rest.
By mid-day on Monday our entire group was assembled, and we set off towards the fishing town of Stykkisholmur for 2 nights of exploration in the Snaefells peninsula. The roads were icy and covered with the results of the storm. This made driving slow, but the landscape was frosted with a lovely soft white layer of snow, and it was spectacular. After checking in to our hotel we made the short drive up the coast to the town of Grundarfjordur, home to the infamous Kirkjufell…or ‘church mountain’ Our group trudged up the snowy slope to the traditional vista. 75% of the waterfall and the pond were frozen over. Winter was definitely in full swing. After pointing out some of the more traditional images, I realized that all the ice and frozen river really weren’t lending itself to providing an interesting foreground. I had the group move down the hill to some frozen ice tiles, these geometric chunks of ice really had what I look for in a foreground…lines, and repetition of shape. The group spread out, and really got some nice images of this iconic location.
The sun drops early in the winter, and shortly after our shoot it was time to head back to the hotel for some dinner. There was a low level shot at the aurora that night, so I spent a couple hours checking on the conditions, but nothing was really visible, and by 2am the snow had arrived and begun blowing through the town.
The group woke to a fresh dusting of snow in the city and after a nice breakfast we walked across the street to the modern looking church to grab some images of this rocket-shaped building with the pristine snow. By the time we were done shooting the church, it was time to check out the rest of our surroundings. The sun was breaking through the clouds, which meant we’d have a window of time to go shoot some of the other beautiful spots in the Snaefells peninsula.
We found a couple pullouts that allowed us to shoot some of the mid-morning glow on the snowy peaks. There were little abandoned houses to add more interest to the image as well as the cool blue tones from the ocean to help had contrast to the stark white landscape. We really had some beautiful light. We also found a small group of horses to photograph as well…these hearty little equine are shagged out to the max with their winter coats, so it made them extra fun to photograph. The snowy mountain backdrop and warm light helped make the shots extra special as well. We tried to make the drive all the way to the south side of the peninsula, but we ran into a approaching storm, and snow was beginning to fall. We turned around and headed back to Kirkjufell.
The snow from the previous night had almost obscured all the ice tiles from the previous day, so the group didn’t really spend too much time trying to recapture the magic from the previous day. The short day was coming to an end so we headed back to Stykkisholmur to head downtown for a tasty meal, then back to the hotel for a little post processing from the images from the first full day of shooting.
The aurora didn’t make an appearance that night, and the sky was pleasantly clear…but the forecast for the next day was ominous, and we had a long drive ahead of us.
After breakfast we set out early to try and get a jump on the incoming weather system. While the storm hadn’t quite yet reached Stykksisholmur the road conditions in most of the southern part of the country were already beginning to shut down due to severely high winds and snow.
Our drive was uneventful until we hit the mountain pass that connects the north side of the peninsula with the south…the only really passable way to get to where we needed to go. Conditions deteriorated rapidly and within minutes we were inside a crazy mass of blowing snow, that limited visibility to only a couple feet at a time; White-knuckle-white-road driving for sure! Between the blowing snow, the snow drifts building up on the road, and the sketchy steepness it took us awhile to get over the pass. A small café/guesthouse at the bottom of the pass became a hub for all travellers passing through and we quickly found ourselves inside this little café to try and wait out the storm. Within a couple hours every table in the café was filled with weary, snow-logged, travellers looking to get out of the crazy driving conditions. Wind ravaged the countryside and the blowing snow made visibility impossible beyond the small parking lot. The group was content enjoying some tasty food prepared by the lovely staff of Hotel Rjúkandi.
The storm was showing no signs of letting up, and even if it did…there was a really distinct possibility of not getting very far towards our planned destination. We made the executive decision to stay right at Hotel Rjúkandi. They still had rooms available, and we so generous to offer us a discount on the rooms that we decided to alleviate all the stress of possible travel and enjoy a night waiting out the storm. We all met for a nice dinner in the restaurant, and went for some much earned sleep…we would have quite a long drive ahead of us the next day to get back on schedule.
Breakfast was nice and the staff of the hotel was gracious and bid us safe travels. The storm had died down and we were ready to get back on the trail. On our way to the glacier lagoon we stopped at the lovely Skogafoss. This giant waterfall is made more beautiful with the winter coat. Thousands of icicles pour down the cliffs surrounding the falls, and it’s truly a beautiful and wondrous location. A brilliant blue sky helped provide some contrast and everyone was able to get a few shots on our stop.
We had to make up time so after our stop in skogafoss we made our way directly to the glacier lagoon JUST in time to catch the last part of sunset. Luckily for us the storm hadn’t blow away all the icebergs from the lagoon and everyone was able to get some shots of the surrounding landscape and chunks of blue ice floating slowly through the icy lagoon.
This night was supposed to be good for Aurora and we had some relatively clear skies on the forecast, so after dinner in the hotel we set back out to head towards Stokkness to shoot the mountains of Vesterhorn with (Hopefully) a nice green aurora overhead.
Not too far into our drive we began to see glimpses of the aurora dancing in the sky, and everyone was very excited. As we approached stokkness we could still see glimpses of it in the sky…and as the group spread out over the black sand dunes and set up to shoot. The first several shots were awesome…the aurora was definitely there and we hoped the sky would continue to clear. All throughout the area we could see little shadows of other folks out looking to capture shots of the aurora.
The weather was supposed to be on the decline, and after about forty-five minutes the aurora was mostly obscured with cloud cover. We packed back into the suburban and headed back towards the hotel in hopes we could catch up with some clear skies. The aurora is a fickle creature, and though we tried we couldn’t seem to locate it again that night. The next night looked promising as well so we vowed to make another go of it.
The next morning we arose and set off again for the glacier lagoon and ice-beach. Here we were greeted with some great morning sun-rays, warm light on the glacier and tons of ice chunks all over the beach. The group had fun moving between the lagoon and the beach in search of compositions. A big group of ice tiles had washed near the shoreline, and that was one of the cool things I found in the lagoon. The beach was littered with chunks of ice, so a few of the group members had fun trying to stay dry while they shot chunks of ice in the surf.
We didn’t have a ton of time to shoot in the morning, we had an afternoon date with some ice caves.
Ice caves are one of the draws to coming to winter in Iceland. The river levels drops, and the caves refreeze every winter having been shaped and molded by the summer high water flow and movement of the glacier. Each winter the local guides get to revisit old caves, and discover new ones….and if they are deemed safe, the public can book tours to come photograph them. Our original cave tour ended up being a bit more of a hike than we all were expecting…one of the downfalls of the caves is that you don’t really know where they’ll be until winter has been in place for a few weeks…sometimes they’re quite far off the beaten path, and require a bunch of walking. Luckily there are other options and our guide was awesome in finding us two different caves to visit. One new cave that we almost had entirely to ourselves for the majority of the time and one that was packed with tourists, because it was the most easily accessible cave in the area.
The drive out to the caves on the giant tired snow 4x4s is AWESOME. The locals really can drive on most anything…and as they bumped and blazed over chunks of ice, through glacial rivers, and up steep, ice embankments we were thankful for their skill and knowledge.
The caves themselves were both amazing for different reasons and the group had a great time getting detail shots, as well as shots of the larger picture with the blue and green glow of the ‘Aurora Cave’ with the small glacial river running through it, and the smooth and brilliant blue ice of the ‘Crystal Ice Cave’ Both caves were awesome, and we had a really fun time exploring.
After our cave adventure we went to the little town of Hofn for dinner at the local lobster restaurant. What a delicious meal! After that the snow showed up…and we made another foray into our winter driving adventure as we made our way back towards our hotel. As we passed by the glacier lagoon, we noticed some breaks in the weather, and the aurora was making an appearance, so we stopped and grabbed as many images as we could before the snow caught back up to us. Oh Iceland, where it can go from clear skies and aurora to a blizzard in a matter of minutes.
We managed to outrun the storm again and get back to our hotel in time to catch some really nice aurora action from the parking lot. It wasn’t the background we’d hoped for the aurora, but we all had fun shooting it and seeing it move around the sky…then just as it had before, the storm caught back up to us and we were again immersed in a blizzard.
Time to head for sleep.
We woke again to snow blistering the area, and decided to wait until 10:00 for departure so we could give the snow removal crews time to get started, and have traffic moving.
The drive back to Reykjavik was a slow haul, but we stopped in Vik during a nice patch of beautiful weather for lunch, and a quick shoot from the parking area of the church and the iconic sea-stacks…we also made a stop at Seljalandsfoss as well so we could photograph this icy waterfall. This is another waterfall I think I prefer in the winter. These waterfalls have so much more personality and texture covered in ice!
We made it to Reykjavik with enough time to catch a quick dinner, and then head out to the Blue Lagoon for our night of relaxation. The Blue Lagoon is awesome at night. There’s more steam rolling off the lagoon and the whole area is quite surreal. Everyone enjoyed creeping around the lagoon and exploring all the little coves and nooks. We even got treated to some snow while we soaked. That was awesome!
What a great way to spend the final evening. Everyone was awesome, and it was truly an exceptional group to explore Iceland with in the winter. We encountered a great deal of challenging weather, and everyone kept a great attitude, and was rewarded with moments of absolute stunning weather and beauty. We romped through ice caves, followed the aurora, marveled at waterfalls, pet fuzzy horses, and soaked in geothermal pools…all in the span of a week. What a fun trip!
Until Next Time,
Brian and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team
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