With the constant increase in the popularity of landscape photography it seems every photographer is developing his or her bucket list. One of the top spots on most of those lists is Iceland, and with good reason! Iceland has some of the most amazing landscape in the world just waiting to be captured with a camera. Towering waterfalls, volcanic wastelands, extreme seascapes, and a plethora of horses, churches, and other sites that make every day an opportunity to capture something truly remarkable with a camera. The problem is that with so many opportunities in the country you need guides with the knowledge of the country, and photography skills to help folks find their bliss inside this arctic wonderland. It helps if those guides also possess the ability to drive long hours without sleep, and put people in the best spots for the best light. That's where Scott and I come in. We're professional photography educators and we LOVE showing people Iceland. A group of 8 hearty adventure seeking photographers joined us this summer to burn the midnight oil, and chase the light all over Iceland...this is the diary of our adventure!
Our group assembled in Reykjavik at the lovely Hotel Baron. We began with the customary orientation meeting where everyone got to know one another and Scott and I got to find out a little more about each photographer, their gear, and experience level. Everyone brought with them a different skillset, and most importantly a desire to go all out in search of those perfect moments.
We ate our first meal together at the downtown Reykjavik Fish and Chips restaurant. Everyone enjoyed the fine cuisine, but was excited to get out and about in the country and start the experience. We loaded up in Thing 1 and Thing 2 our trusty vehicles for the trip and set off for the world famous Blue Lagoon. We were going to work hard this trip and what better way to get things kicked off than with a soak in a ice blue geothermally heated lagoon! Everyone changed, and met in the warm waters. A drizzle fell on the landscape as we entered the pleasantly warm water, and once everyone had a beverage we set to conversing, and getting to know one another more...some folks put volcanic mud on their faces for the "healing effects" or maybe just to look awesome, hard to say...but it's one of the must do's in the lagoon. While we soaked, the weather began to break, and we hoped we would be treated to some photography once we exited the pool. 2-hours flies by when you're relaxed, and before we knew it we were dressed again, and outside cameras in hand, ready to shoot. Scott and I helped people find interesting foregrounds that showcased the cool blue water, black lava, and hopefully some of the color that was beginning to show in the clouds. The group had fun wandering the maze of blue and black looking for their own takes on the subject. Scott and I offered tips on settings, composition, and filter use to help get the most of the situation. Time again seemed to speed past, and we both saw some really nice images on the backs of the cameras.
Our second stop of the night was the geothermal area, Gunnuhver. Here steam spews from the ground causing constant change, and providing us with an opportunity to capture some of this madness with the lens. We worked here on capturing faster shutter speeds to stop the steam and give more detail, we also worked with longer shutter speeds to smooth out the steam and create and aesthetic and dreamy look. Working with shutter speed also allows us the chance to hit on aperture and ISO as well and how those play in with the overall photograph. The wind was beginning to pick up and the weather seemed prime to change again, a constant in Iceland. Most folks had arrived earlier in the day and were tired...so ending the class around midnight was a welcome chance for them to catch up on some sleep and get ready for the long day tomorrow.
We woke and made the drive to Skaftafell National Park our home base for the next two nights. Our hotel set at the foot of the Vatnajokull Glacier gave us the perfect backdrop as we would explore this world-class section of the country. After time to rest and meal at the local N1 gas station/diner we set off for the other worldly Jokulsarlon, or glacier lagoon. This gem has been in movies, and is high atop the list of every photographer in the world at some point. Huge chunks of ice, calved from the glacier float and bob in a huge pool of cold glacial water. Conditions looked quite promising as a gap in the clouds sat behind the Vatnajokull Glacier, the largest glacier in Europe. Our crew moved high and low looking for shapes to shoot, and trying to capture some of what we hoped would be a magical night. Scott and I helped the crew with their images, setting, and made sure to remind everyone that these mammoth ice chunks were moving, albeit slowly, but still moving, and we needed to get those shutter speeds up to avoid having blurry bergs. A lot of photographers tend to try and lengthen the exposure time and smooth out the water, only noticing the moving ice chunks when they are home, and the light is gone. As the night continued the light got better and better....pinks, oranges, and every vibrant sunset color one could hopefully lit the clouds over the lagoon, and gave our giddy group one of the best light shows I'd seen in the 6 years of visiting this location. Memory cards were filled, batteries drained, and all was right with the world. Just the shots from this spot would be enough to set most people on a high that lasted for weeks, but we still had another spot to visit, and it was only across the street. The large chunks of ice that leave the lagoon with the tide end up washed up on the black sand beach for more photographic opportunities.
While we all hoped to remain dry, it didn't take too long for folks to give that up and get right up close and personal with the chunks of ice and their efforts to get the movement of waves as they rushed over and around the ice on the beach. Here the class experimented with finding that perfect shutter speed to get movement in the water to created dreamy streaks in the clouds, and not move the ice so much that it blurred in the shots....it takes lots of tries to get a few that work out...but when they do OH MAN. We hoped the color and clouds would last here as they had in the lagoon, and to our favor the sky was lit with a warm golden light that reflected on the beach and also gave the sky some real pop that accentuated the cool tones of the ice. It was a two-fer! Getting great light at this location is difficult, getting it the same night as great light on the lagoon is even MORE difficult, and we had done BOTH...what an AWESOME NIGHT!!!
Everyone finished with wet shoes, and pants, but it was well worth it for the images we saw on the cameras...with huge smiles the group got back into the cars and set off for the hotel for a good nights sleep with visions of ice chunks dancing in their heads.
After a lunch time photoshop and lightroom session we set of for the tiny coastal town of Hofn. Here we dined at the classy Kaffi Hornid. Everyone had a delectable meal, some included the local lobster, which is caught regularly, and a large part of what this town is known for. It was a really nice meal and though we could all use a power nap, there was shooting to be done at the near by Stokknes...a black sand dune field overlooking the Vesturhorn, one of the eastern fjords most recognizable mountain ranges. Once you have driven out far enough the dunes become a great foreground, and the mountains sit like a perfect jagged juggernaut in the distance, making a great main subject for photos. Scott and I helped with composition, here, and gave ideas on how to use those grad filters to really balance out the exposures, and make everything look perfect. The color in the sky was not there, but there were tons of interesting textures in the clouds layers in the sky...which meant that this would be the perfect image to convert to monochrome later...such rich tonal values, and texture...PERFECT black and white images.
The wind whipped the area, and it seemed as soon as we made a footprint, nature was there to start cleaning it up. It was a real testament to the constant battering the wind and water play on this bizarre coastal landscape. THe class spread out far and wide, high and low looking for leading lines, and the perfect mix of black sand and foliage...again Scott and I were really pleased with the compositions the class found, as well as their willingness to take compositional suggestions from us. Another terrific day! On the way home we made a stop at the turf church, hofskirkja. This church has a rad turf roof, and lots of little lumps in the lawn that provide excellent pattern and shape to the foreground...we didn't have the color here we had at the lagoon, but the shots we saw were still very nice...we helped a few people with the tricky exposure by explaining how to bracket images manually, or by letting the camera do it in the HDR mode.
We enjoyed our stay in Skaftafell a great deal, but it was time to leave this place and head west to the town of Vik, another one of Iceland awesome coastal locations.
On our way west we made a stop at the rugged Fjadrargljufur Canyon. A short walk leads to some awesome, yet terrifying views of this mossy chasm. Our brave group was right on it, and got right to the edges to get the best shots of the river as it snaked through the canyon walls. At the end of the canyon a waterfall sat waiting for our group to find it and include it in the shots to provide scale and subject to the patterns of green moss that lined the walls....such a cool location!
We checked into the lovely modern Iceland Air hotel and then had a nice late lunch downtown at the Halldorskaffi Cafe, where again everyone had a really nice meal...and enjoyed some quality conversations.
Photographically there's a lot to see on this night so we get right on it, and head west to our first of the giant waterfalls. Seljandsfoss. This waterfall is one of the only ones in Iceland that you can walk behind, and its' close proximity to the ring road makes it a prime tourist spot...but when our vehicles pulled into the lot at around 10pm, there was barely any other visitors there...we visit Iceland when the tour groups are asleep! THe sky was breaking a bit, and some light golden light traced the clouds...everyone quickly got into position to shoot from high above to get the whole waterfall in their image, or from a spot behind the falls looking out to the horizon and the clouds and color. We helped people battle the mist, and work a little with the in camera HDR settings to quickly capture a set of images that captured the whole dynamic range of this often tough shoot...though the in-camera HDR can look bad sometimes, having all 3 images and a little photoshop skill can lead ot an amazing result.
From Seljandsfoss to Skogafoss. This large white curtain waterfall is another monster that is widely photographed by the hordes of photographers in the country...but we had it nearly all to ourselves. Scott took a group high up the ridge to look at the falls from a closer, higher vantage, while I sat lower and worked on helping find interesting foregrounds, and even a pool for getting some reflections of this waterfall...while we are photographing a very often photographed location, it doesn't' mean we can't find unique takes on it!
Everyone was holding up like a trooper, and that was perfect because we still had one more stop left. The beach near Vik, where we had a perfect view of the Reynisdragnar sea stacks. Legend says that a troll was towing a ship to shore when the sun rose, caught him off guard, and turned him to stone...while we all know this is a lie, it is an interesting tale that gives more character to these pointy sea stacks. Our luck was grand, and we found the tide out which meant we had access to the tiny beach that is directly across from these stacks, and provides some really prime photography. We worked on longer exposures here top smooth out the water, and create some white streaks that contrasted nicely with the black sand beach. Again everyone was hard at work, and got some terrific shots...this was a hearty group, up for anything and open to adventure.
We arrived back at the hotel well after 3am with rest on the minds of our hearty group...everyone had really done a lot that day with hiking and shooting...and they needed the rest.
We had a long drive today, but we made a brief stop at the Dryholaey sea cliffs to photograph some of the cutest little birds ever...the puffin. OUr luck was great and we had a few of these little flying spuds right near the ledge so all of the class was able to use those big lenses to get some really nice shots of the puffins...the light was grey, but it gave great detail in the faces, and evened out the contrast with their darker feathers, and lighter faces...
Everyone high on puffin shots, we finally made the long drive north to Akureyri (stopping in Borgarnes for lunch at N1)...here we would be spending 3 nights on the lovely Skjaldarvik Guesthouse. The drive was intense but we arrived with time to have an awesome dinner at the hotel before we set off for Godafoss, our main shooting location for the evening. Again the light was on our side and we were able to shoot this curtain falls with some nice clouds in the sky. We shot the falls from the top and the bottom...everyone utilizing the foliage and lava rock for foregrounds to the falls. We talk grad filters and polarizers a lot here as well as helping fine tune the compositions. Because of the long drive everyone was ready for bed around 1am, and we set off back for the guesthouse. Those who were a little too wired to sleep had their chances to wander the fields and photograph the ever passive and ever beautiful Icelandic horses. The guest house is a working horse ranch, so there is never a shortage of horses to photograph.
The first half of the day was spent sleeping and spending some time walking around downtown Akureyri where we had lunch at the Akureyri Fish and Chips restaurant, the sister to the place we ate at on our first night...it was a relaxing way to spend the day...and gave folks a chance to shop, and check out some Icelandic wares to take home as souvenirs.
We had some driving to do for our evening shoot so we decided to eat at the half-way mark in Husavik, an old whaling town that has since converted itself to whaling tourism as its main draw for visitors. We ate at the lovely, Naustid. This fish restaurant served some of the best grilled fish we'd ever eaten, and provided the energy we would need to photograph a great sunset at the mighty Dettifoss, and it's sister Selfoss. These waterfalls are both right on the edge of a huge basalt canyon that aggressively has cut its way through the landscape...Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe...and when you get right to the edge, it FEELS like it. We had great clouds, reflections in pools, and color to boot...with subjects like this its easy for Scott and I to help people find something to shoot. We pointed out compositions, tweaked settings, and generally let the excited crew spread out and live life on the edge...literally! The trick here is to get the right exposure to keep details in the waterfall and not blow it all out...which can be easy given how much water is falling over that ledge. Selfoss is tricky because it's a long stretch of many smaller waterfalls, so figuring out how to utilize these with the black lava foregrounds can be tricky...this was also when the best light hit us, and luckily we found some pools of water that helped provide reflections and give us some other interest to the shots. Really nice is the only way I can describe how well the light was the whole time we were here. THis was not our only stop for the evening though...so it was back to the cars and back down the dirty gravel road to Namaskard, the large geothermal area south of the canyon. Here we would photograph some of the steam vents, mud pots, and others bizarre formations. While we set up our gear for shooting we were treated to some Icelandic car doughnuts, both forwards AND backwards by some of the locals. Very entertaining.
THe location was great for shooting some of the most bizarre steam vents in the country. Scott and I offered suggestions on the different areas to shoot, interesting foreground curves, etc. The light though it was getting early in the morning, was still quite nice, and there was light pink and orange hues throughout the sky...everyone got more than their fill of color on this night...and when you get back to the hotel after 5am...you know it was a good night!
Tonight after an afternoon of Scott providing some awesome Lightroom education, and some time chasing the baby horse around the pasture we ate another quality meal in the hotel before setting out to Aldeyjarfoss, another monster waterfall in the interior of the country. This beast sit in an awesome basalt amphitheater, filled with what I consider the most interesting of all the basalt in the country. Again we move the group high and low in search of the many, many compositional options to be had here. You can easily spend 2-3 hours here and come away with numerous awesome shots....and when you have an absolutely AMAZING colorful sunset to boot...it's just stunning. The sky blew up for us again, and we had pinks, purples, textures, sunstars, and the whole nine yards....it was crazy! Scott and I helped battle some of the difficulty shooting a sunstar can provide, and also helped make sure everyone used the polarizers to bring out the reflections in the pools of water near the base of the falls, and also grad filter placement, and just helping to add some foreground shapes to add interest as well. Conditions were prime, and we made the most of it...a few people even used these epic conditions to get some shots of the funky little bathroom huts they have built out there.
Because we have a decent drive the next morning our other option for this night is to reshoot Godafoss if conditions were better than night 1...we got some good stuff the first night so we were all content to get back and hit the hay for our drive to the Snaefellsness peninsula the next day.
Grundarfjordur. After a mid-day stop at the bizarre Dinosaur Rock, Hvitserkur to do some long exposure work with the rock and the rippled sand textures left behind by the receding tide.. We arrive mid afternoon, and meet downstairs for dinner in the Hotel Framnes restaurant....another quality meal! After dinner we hoped to make the best of what looked like a bleak forecast in the weather. We stopped first at the world renown Kirkjufellfoss which is a small set of waterfalls across from the hatchet shaped Kirkjufell mountain, one of the most iconic in the country. We shot using these falls as our foreground and the class moved from the top to the bottom making use of each set of falls for the shot...as well as making some wider angle shots that included the whole of the falls and the river as it leads out to the sea.
Our next stop was the little church near the Snaefellsjokull. This little church sits in perfect placement to get shots with lupine in the foreground, mountains in the background...and make a perfect comp. The wind was starting to increase, and the ominous clouds were beginning to bare down on us...which did make for some great sky in our images...the flowers were having a difficult time staying still with the wind, so we used this opportunity to go over focus stacking with higher ISO to help us get faster shutter speeds, and freeze those puppies. Focus stacking is a upper level of difficulty for processing but it's a good location and scenario for giving folks the basics and need for this technique.
Our next plan was to head farther into the peninsula for sea stacks and coastal shooting but the weather had a different plan for us and when we scanned the horizon there seemed to be a gap that could provide some drama back at Kirkjufell....so once the first drops of rain began to hit the windshield, we spun the cars around and set off for our first location in hopes of something awesome.
By the time we pulled into the lot at Kirkjufellfoss the light was beginning to glow pink and a few of our group RAN up the hill to get set up in hopes of something magical. Luck was with them and for a few brief moments the sky erupted in pink textures and gave some really nice color to the sky...but it was very fleeting, and only a few were able to get it on their cameras...but MAN did it look nice! Though the color didn't last long, the textures in the sky were really good, so we encouraged the group to keep shooting and get some images they could later convert to black and white.
By the time everyone had captured a few more images, the rain began to settle in and drove us back to the car and hotel...though it looked ominous...we still managed to get some quality shooting in.
Weather was not on our side on this day, but we still managed to get out to the church in Budir....this little black and white church was built in the 1800s and is one of the oldest in the country, it sits alone on by the sea, surrounded by an old stone wall. A few little splashes of white flowers were scattered around the wall and we had the class do some shallow depth of field with the flowers in focus and the church out of focus....a good way to make the most of what was shaping up to be a rainy day. IT's how we make the most of the situation...I think everyone enjoyed that shot, and any day you can come away with a shot you like, is always a good day.
Our final day together...we drove back to Reykjavik...where the city was in full celebration mode. IT was the Icelandic National Day, a day similar to our 4th of July, and the whole town was out being festive...the streets were packed with people, and a few of us got the opportunity to brave the crowds and see what it was all about. We met for one last dinner at the Icelandic Tapas restaurant, a place with tons of options for local cuisine prepared a variety of ways in small portions so you can really sample all the country has to offer in terms of cuisine. Dinner was magnificent, and after Dinner Scott and I were able to show the class the video of the week we had made for them...which was really well received by all, and showcase what a good time we'd all had thus far in the trip, and all the amazing locations and light! The class wasn't over yet though, we had one more night of shooting, and though the rain tried to detour us...we still managed to have some fun photographing the geysir, Strokker...STROK-KER, STROK-KER! it's always fun to watch people try to time the explosion and get a shot of the infamous blue bubble.
OUR last stop was the last monster waterfall...Gulfoss, or Golden Falls...though there was no golden light here to shoot...the falls are still impressive, and everyone was able to capture something here before the rain found us, as it often does in Iceland, and chased us off...we still got to stay out shooting past 1am, on a night that really looked as it would yield no photography. Iceland is notorious for unpredictable weather, and we finally found our share of the darker side of the weather...but we made photographs each and every day together, and over half the time the weather was exceptional, bordering constantly on amazing...One of our returning students who was on the class the previous year was astounded at how good the weather was...and how many great shots he had. I know Scott and I saw some amazing work on each and every camera over the days we spent together.
In wrapping up Scott and I would like to thank everyone for being awesome, getting along well, being on time, and being willing to learn and take our suggestions throughout. We were truly impressed and amazed by how well the group gelled. We ate amazing food, chased amazing light, got wet together, got dry again together, only to get wet again. We drove over 1300 miles (sorry metric friends, you'll have to do the math) We laughed, saw more sights in the country than many locals have seen...and everyone came away with a ton of nice work.
Thanks again Debbie, Dash, Kathy, Fran, Ellen, Al, Dayne, and James for an awesome time in Iceland...hope to see you all back again soon, and look at your work as you travel home and process it.
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.