Iceland is one of those countries that truly puts photographers in another world. It just feels like another planet from the moment you land in Keflavik Airport. A barren expanse of volcanic rock and arctic foliage greet you, along with the often prevalent cold northern breeze. For me, Iceland feels like adventure from the moment I land. I hoped it would be the same for our group of 11 eager photographers who were unaware of the journey that lay ahead.
Joining me on this adventure was fellow instructor Scott Donschikowski. Scott, brings along a wealth of knowledge in Photoshop and Lightroom, as well as a great deal of experience working behind the lens.
DAY 1 With the exception of a few minor travel hiccups everyone arrived in Iceland on time, and ready to begin our photographic journey. We hit the ground running on these sojourn workshops, and after a brief afternoon meeting with the group it was off to a fantastic dinner at a local fish and chips restaurant... and then off to the world famous Blue Lagoon for some much needed relaxation, and hopefully photography.
Iceland is known for its extreme weather, and this first night was no exception. Wind and swirling rain followed our vans as we made our way across the volcanic desert to the icy blue hot springs. The idea was to first relax, and then shoot the vicinity.
Some of the group wasn't up for the soak in the pool and they opted to relax with cold drinks in the lounge area of the facility while the rest of us changed and got in the lagoon. The cold air really brought out the steam in the lagoon...and it felt more surreal than it ever had. As Scott and I made our way around the lagoon looking for our group we could only see strange silhouettes emerge from the mist and it was only when we were feet from them that we could identify whether they were part of our group or not.
We finally found a majority of the party, and then we found a nice warm pocket of water, and did nothing for the next two hours. It felt wonderful to relax and soak after long days of travel. We also had a small world type experience as we discovered that two of our participants had gone to the same high school only a year apart...and they never knew one another. WOW!
The air was cold, and it was hard for everyone to leave the warmth of the pools to set out in the wind and rain.
Though we had a long night of shooting the Reykjanes peninsula planned, it was apparent after about 30 minutes of braving the swirling rain that shooting anything this night was going to be really tough. Everyone was still recovering from their long day of travel, so we decided to call it early, and head back to Reykjavik for some much needed sleep.
When we got back the rain had stopped, so Scott and I took a few of the group down to the water to shoot the famous Viking Boat sculpture, and the new concert hall, Harpa. We helped them with their low light settings and finding compositions that used reflections and the many cool leading lines from the area surrounding this modern art marvel. Harpa has so many textures and shapes, it's a real treat for photographers.
When all was said and done our first night ended around 3am.
The next day we moved base to the town of Hella, a small farming community east of Reykjavik about an hour. The rain and wind followed us, and brought along some fog as well.
Our second night of shooting we planned on shooting the coastal town of Vik, as well as Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss two really impressive waterfalls along the ring road. Our photography was again hampered a great deal with weather, but we made a good run at what we could shoot.
We shot the famous little red-roofed church in Vik. This church sits high atop a hill surrounded by lupine. Despite a longer winter than normal there were still some really nice bunches of flowers to be found and the class got some great foregrounds for their photos of the church. Other chose to shoot the church from farther back and incorporate the sea stacks called Reynisdragnar using telephoto compression from the longer lenses.
The fog and rain were a bit much so we went to the local N1 gas station for what would be the first in a long string of stops at gas stations across the country in search of treats to satisfy our snacking urges during drives and lulls in shooting.
On the way back the rain let up some and we stopped at the mighty Skogafoss. Skogafoss is a huge curtain waterfall, that legend says hides a cave leading to buried treasure. There's a lot of water, I know that for sure, I'll just have to take the story at face value.
Scott and I helped look over compositions and get students a few tips on exposure length to capture the water the best they could given the rain and low light.
The weather was ominous, but the forecast looked more favorable in the days to come so we went to bed that night with hopes that we would see the sunshine at some point. Day 2 ended at about 2:30am.
SUNSHINE....at least for a little while. I always find the weather in Iceland tough to deal with, I can only imagine how it is for newcomers. While we had plans of making our drive for the day early, and getting to our location with enough time to really rest up, we decided to take full advantage of the blue sky and clouds and photograph Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss on our way east.
I love Seljalandsfoss...this waterfall has such character. In addition to a slowly meandering stream leading up to the falls, a nice bridge, yellow flowers (perfect for foreground) it also has a path the leads behind the falls, so you can get back there and shoot. The class was excited to get started shooting and quickly scattered to find their favorite compositions...Scott and I helped set up some compositions, fine tune others, and worked with a grad filter here and there to help students balance out the bright sky on the top half of the image. It was a little more crowded than it would be had we shot it a night, but given the SUN was out, and there were white puffy clouds all around, we'd take the crowds if it met getting out to photograph. The students got some really nice images of this beautiful icon.
Skogafoss was still there as we left it, only now there were 50 more people there, and a sky full of clouds. We just went over the stuff we covered the night before, and helped to point out some new vantage points to shoot from. One nice thing about the day was that a lot of times Iceland is very overwhelming and the first shoot from a location can lead to imperfection...coming back a second time with better weather allows us to make up for any errors committed on the 2nd day.
We finally arrived at our hotel around 6pm...everything in Iceland is about tradeoffs. When we stop for afternoon shooting that lessens the time shooting in the evening. When we shoot a lot in the evening, that lessens the time we sleep in...and it makes for a long day.
We made a brief stop in Vik to see if conditions changed, and to see some of the interesting shapes of the basalt that line the coast. We saw a few puffins in the rocks, but the wind and cold had not left Vik, and the birds were content to sit inside their burrows waiting better weather. ON TO THE HOTEL!
Once at the hotel it was time for a short break before setting off for our next night of shooting at the world famous Jokulsarolon Glacier Lagoon. This place is one of my favorite to visit in the country. Not only is the subject matter amazing, but every day it changes, and the shots from one day give way to another set of ice shapes floating in the lagoon, and washing up on the nearby beach.
We stop at the lagoon first so the class can scatter and make images of the room sized ice shapes floating slowly through the water. I always point out the fact the ice IS moving, even when it appears they are stationary. Raising the ISO and shutter speed help make sure all our images are sharp.
Polarizers are important here as well for showing off some of the reflections in the lagoon. The class has a blast here always, even under grey skies the blue of the ice, and interesting shapes make for great abstractions, as well as almost surreal compositions of these icy blue giants.
The other side of the lagoon is a beach filled with ice that has escaped the lagoon, and found its way on to the black sandy beach. The students all find their favorite piece of ice, and then set up shots, waiting for the ocean to rush in and leave streaks of moving water surrounding their crystal like ice shape.
It's easy to get wrapped up shooting here, and before we know it hours pass and we're nearing 3am. Happy, and content with the shots in the cameras we make the ride back to the hotel after another long night. We ended around 3:45am.
Another hotel switch, this time to Skaftafell National Park, and our hotel looks out across the vast black sand alluvial plains...behind us sits the mighty Vatnajokull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe. The weather is finally clearing, and Scott and I are both ecstatic that tonight might be the night with potential for our first epic sunset of the trip.
We take the group to the National Park to Svartifoss, and wonderful little waterfall with crazy basalt columns. The class gets out on a sweet little rock and shoots the waterfall with the strong lines of the moving stream, and anchored with the rocks nestled within.
When our hike was finished, it was a short break before beginning our first night of great light. We stopped first outside the park to shoot the pink clouds over the mountains, and reflections in a small roadside pool. The light was really great...and the next logical step was to hike out to the nearby glacier.
Funny, to see people witness this kind of light for the first time. They hurry, they panic a little, always thinking the sunset is going to fade...but it never does. We hike the mile out to the glacier, and still have great light for the next hour and a half.
Scott and I help the class use some of the rocks along the glacier outlet pool to give foreground interest. There are also options to shoot the glacier closer up, and get some great texture shots...several students came away with some real gems from this spot. There were some little sand bars along the shore that made for sweet leading elements for the shots...LOTS of possibilities here...I saw a few nice longer exposures here that were achieved with solid neutral density filters....we also got to finally dig out the graduated neutral density filters as well to help hold back that brightly lit sky.
I enjoyed just watching the sky change hues of pink and orange...and knowing that the possibilities were really endless as to how good the sky could be. Hoping to ride the wave of good light, some of us loaded up into the van and headed back to the glacier lagoon to see if fog we witnessed earlier in the day had given up its grip in favor of the sweet sunset color we now found ourselves in.
It had not.
BUT, as I said, the lagoon is amazing no matter what, and there were some really nice pieces of ice on the beach as well and the class made the best of the situation by again working on getting moving water mixed with those great chunks of clear and blue ice. The weather was clearer, and there was no wind or mist...this made cold the only real obstacle for obtaining nice images...and we could handle the cold!
We got back close to 4am that night...time seems to slip by so quickly when you're shooting...and it's only the drives that seem to go on endlessly.
The long road to Akureyri.
This is a long drive, and I make sure to discuss it with the class prior to departure. The problem isn't that it's a five and a half hour drive, the problem is that Iceland is too damn amazing to not want to stop every five minutes and shoot.
Trade-offs...we stop to shoot, it makes arrival time later at the hotel...but there's SO much to shoot. We stopped at a great old ruined farm and used a small pool of water, dotted with clumps of yellow flowers to help give leading lines and foreground interest. The sky was again looking great and the blue sky mixed with the white streaking clouds gave the shots a real postcard like feel. Scott and I liked what we saw!
After a lunch at the half way mark we made another stop at a great unnamed waterfall along a 'shortcut' mountain road we take to cut off some time from driving ALL the way around the fingers of the eastern fjords. This waterfall is always a popular stop...although when you STOP, it actually makes the 'short cut' a little longer. HA!
Our hotel for the next 3 nights was the wonderful Skaldarvik Guesthouse. Oli and his family run a great, wonderfully decorated ranch that takes you out of the city, and into the country side. The ranch is also a working horse farm, and there were no shortage of beautiful horses there to keep our cameras busy for the next three days.
After a brief check-in and break it was time to get out of the hotel and go chase light. The evening was shaping up to be another good one, and we made the first stop at Godafoss, a perfect little horsehoe shaped gem, where the locals through their Norse idols during the conversion to Christianity, thus the name's meaning...'waterfall of the gods'
This is one of my favorite falls to shoot. We had the sky, and the class worked this falls HARD moving up to the top, and down to the base, and Scott even crawled through the raging current to try a spot on some offshore rocks. CRAZY SCOTT!
We saw great shots from this waterfall from so many angles...
We worked the waterfall for nearly two hours, and the light was only getting better, so we rushed off to the Namaskard area near lake Myvatn to shoot some of the geothermal wonders in this highly volcanic hotspot.
Every year I'm here the place shifts, and changes...it's wonderful, but also a reminder of how powerful the earth is...
One of the first things that caught the eyes of the class was a curving streak of some kind of mysterious grey oil like fluid that gave a WONDERFUL leading 'S' curve AND pulled reflections out of a sky that was turning more vibrant by the second. HERE WE GO EPIC SUNSET!
The sky was out of this world...and it lasted for two hours...enough time for everyone to make multiple compositions, play with different exposures on the steam vents, and still run out of things to shoot! We left near 4am with a sky that was still very photographable.
We got home at after 5am. Some people went immediately to shoot horses. The schedule is starting to get to these guys!
More horses...the afternoon was casual, people took napes, slept in, and we made a run into Akureyri for lunch, and shopping. It was a good bit of downtime before we met in the afternoon to answer Photoshop and Lightroom questions, and give some feedback on the images shot so far.
DANG..there were some GOOD ones. Peter had a great shot of Godafoss, Mark had some shots of the falls and of the glacier that were amazing, Renee had a great shot of moving water streaking through beach ice, Kirk had a nice couple images of the waterfalls as well...there were some GOOD shots out there out of the people I worked with. Scott and I were impressed when we talked about the session later.
We spent a lot of time with the horses today. One of the foals is particularly fascinated with us, and followed our group, and nuzzled our arms...it was a really amazing experience to be able to be in the field with these gorgeous creatures, and have the time and freedom to shoot them...thanks to Oli and his family for allowing us to have this experience. You've made me a return customer for SURE.
That night we drove to Dettifoss, Europe's largest and most powerful waterfall. Winter took a hard stand with the north this year, and the road I normally take wasn't in good order, so we opted for the other side of the falls, and I was shocked at how much snow was still there, and the little pools of melt-water in the parking area, and trail to the falls. There was even a restroom you would need a boat to reach! WHAT?!
The light was mostly soft and muted, but always threatening to break wide open. A few times we got some warm glow on the river moving away from the waterfall. There was also some great shots of the falls with the ice and snow around the edges. The dirt had left really great patterns in the ice that worked well with the falls, and made some tremendous monochrome images. I recall seeing MIroslav and Reiner with a couple shots that really made use of that snow.
A few of the more adventurous souls went to the edge of the falls and got some really unique angles of the waterfall with small pools made by little side streams....it was cool stuff, although I get a little freaked out being within 4 feet of that waterfall..it's SO big.
After we spent about an hour and a half at Dettifoss some folks went to hike to neighboring Selfoss, a series of 20 foot high falls cascading over the sheer edge of the basaltic rock lined canyon. While they shot that, I showed a few of the class a cool reflection shot I had found on the trail. I worked with Bill, Reiner, Tammy, and Muhammad and Dala to get some really nice shots of this little section. We even got to dig out my reverse-grad filter! I love that filter, and don't get to use it entirely enough. There were just enough hints of gold in the clouds to mix perfectly in with the cool evening hues, and reflected clouds.
It made for another long night...and we got back around 4am...and again, some went to shoot horses when we got back.
Aldeyjarfoss is a huge waterfall in the interior of the country, surrounded by great basalt columns that twist and turn in great patterns. It's one of my favorite in the whole country. The sky was terrific as well. The class saw this and scattered throughout the area making shots high, low, and from the side even...I'd never gone that far over before! SUCH good shots on the cameras....this waterfall had up until this day never given me a good sky...but this one made up for it...good color for 2 hours at least, and everyone made the most of it. Mark had a shot on his camera from the side that I particularly loved. MIroslav, Bill, and Muhammad also got some great images using this little bunch of pink flowers as an anchor point in their frame...
This waterfall was great, but it's a bit of a drive, so we got to watch an hours worth of sweet light pass us as we made our way out of the interior and back to civilization. We tried to capture a few spots along the shores of Lake Myvatn including some great stone walls that reminded people a lot of Ireland. I chased a ram too. Didn't catch it, or manage to redirect it to somewhere people could photograph it.
We got back to the hotel after 5:30am. We were all wiped out...I don't think anyone shot horses.
Long drive south. We make our way to Reykholt today to shoot the Snaefellsness peninsula for a couple of days. On the drive down one spot stuck out in particular. We found this great little church high on a hill surrounded with yellow dandelions. It was a lot of fun for a quick little roadside shoot. We shot compressed images with the surrounding hills, wide shots with flowers filling the foreground. You name it someone shot it. The funniest part was when the owner and his son drove by us on a quad, and just looked at us like, “why are you shooting our yard?”
“Why do you have a church in your yard?”
The sky looked great when we arrived in Reykholt, but by the time we made it out to the peninsula for the evening, the fog came in something fierce, and we had ourselves a tough time. We made the most of it by shooting the small fishing town of Stykkisholmur.
We started at the moder church in town high on a hill. This stone church is strange, but very interesting in terms of shape. I encouraged people to think simple, and use very shallow depths of field with the lines in the parking lot. When we weren't shooting, we were making fun of one another and taking some silly shots...hey, you gotta make the best of the weather!
After the church we went down to the harbor where we shot the boats, and their reflections. I saw Muhammad got a really nice shot of a couple boats sitting in front of this great textured hillside...really nice work. There were some nice shots by all here as they thought outside the box and got some cool abstractions, and documentary style photos.
One thing that we'll all remember though is the crazy birds and their battle for food. A group of probably 50 of these gull like birds would bob around the bay, and the second one would pull up a chunk of meat, ALL of the rest would jump him/her and make a huge ordeal. It was calm to chaos every few minutes, and quite entertaining to watch.
After the harbor we decided to use the fog as an excuse to go back to the hotel to get some more rest, and make a longer go of it the next day...
We still got to the hotel about 2am.
Back to the Snaefellsness. We went from 100% cloud cover to 2% cloud cover. What a difference a day makes!
We spent a long night here. We shot the axe shaped mountain Kirkjufell and the neighboring waterfall. This is an iconic shot for the region, and a lot of fun to make. We shot for about 45 minutes but the sun was right in the way, so we opted to go up the road a bit to see if we could get some lupine around the little church outside of Hellissandur. On the way Scott and I learned what the Icelandic sign for speedbump was. Unfortunately everyone in the car learned too. Sorry.
The church was great. It sits high on a hill and the Snaefells Glacier is right behind it, and makes for a cool backdrop when shot with a larger lens and compressing the two. The lupine were good in bunches, and the class made good use of the great bunches for foreground. I saw Ken and Tammy down and dirty getting right up close to the flowers and making them work for their compositions.
When the light had shifted enough to be better for us it was BACK to Kirkjufell for another hour of shooting. Pete and Miroslav wanted to shoot the mountain from a nearby pool, so I shuttled them back and forth so they could make the most of their creative visions. I saw one on Miroslav's screen that was amazing.
When the class had shot its fill of the mountain, we made our way to Arnarstapi, to shoot some of the rugged coastline. The fog was beginning to come in again, and a few breaks made the sky have some nice pastel warmth to it...that looked nice with the rugged coastline.
By this time it was nearly 4am, and a portion of the group was ready for bed...but there were a few diehards that wanted to shoot the black wooden church of Budir, so I took them for a small stop so they could grab shots of this little iconic coastal church. Kirk had a really nice composition of this I saw while working with the class.
By the time my group made it back to the hotel it was 6:45am. We just stayed up for breakfast. Scott and I were both a bit loopy by that time. All in a days' work though!
Back to Reykjavik! Our tour has come full circle. We made a brief stop at Hruanafossar on our way home, a great series of cascades pouring out of the volcanic rock into a bright blue river...these little falls must go on for over a half mile...so pretty! The cloudy sky even gave us some nice chances to get slightly slow exposures and blur that water.
When we arrived back to town, it was time for a group lunch at our favorite fish and chips place, and then a brief brea before meeting for our farewell dinner in a local Icelandic tapas restaurant where we ate and sampled all kinds of traditional Icelandic foods from Puffin to whale to Ice Cream Tapas!
After a fun dinner together some people were up for one last shoot together. Scott and I loaded them up for one more drive out to the mighty Gulfoss. This is Iceland's second largest waterfall. Mist is normally a problem here, but to our favor it was blowing away from a vantage point that gave our group an outstanding view right down the chute to the bottom of the falls.
When we finished with this waterfall we stopped in the town of Geysir, to photograph its namesake, the geyser Strokkur is quite predictable going off every 2-5 minutes, sending a chute of scalding hot water high into the air. The class lined up, shutters ready, and waited patiently for each eruption.
It was our last shoot together, and a fun to see everyone there still eager to take photographs after 10 nights of grueling all night shooting. Scott and I were so proud of each and every one of the class participants for making the most of a tough schedule. This kind of adventure is not easy...and it is a true testament to the resolve and love of photography in each of the students for putting forth this kind of effort,
On behalf of Scott and Myself, Thank you for making Iceland 2013 one for the books.
Total miles driven: 2184
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.