Landscape Photography in Iceland
I’m getting into a rhythm, which has been helped by the increasingly compelling scenery towards Snaefellsnes, which sits at the end of a peninsular in the west of the country. The light is still not quite what I would like, but it is a good sign when you have two be careful not to crash the car, because the scenery is is complicating the task of driving the twisty roads. It may sound obvious, but one has to get used to driving considerable distances each day and relaxing into the process, rather than feeling like you are rushing. Clearly local knowledge is key (light, location etc), but this information is surprisingly hard to find online…
While it is undoubtedly an attractive area, I did not take many photos here and especially not at the main tourist viewpoints. These sites are extremely sensitive to lighting (as I discovered) and so without interesting cloud or rain to open up the shooting envelope, it just was not going to work
The viewpoints themselves are quite restrictive, due to provided viewing platforms being perched on top of precarious cliffs. Mix this with strong, erratic winds and it’s a brave person who approaches the lip of turf that separates the photographer from the rocks far below! There is scope for exploring different viewpoints, but I urge caution! Here is the low down on a couple of sites I enjoyed visiting:
Arnarstapi: this area is very pretty, with a large basalt arch that is quite difficult to photograph, if not impossible under a flat blue sky. Make sure you have an ultrawide with you! The conditions did not favour a good photo, so I settled for clambering around like a rock hyrax. I found a little path down to the base of the arch and photographed the rock face there. I also managed to climb over to the side of the arch and see the twisted basalt rocks in the sea beyond. At moments like this is has nothing to do with photography and everything to do with enjoying the moment and I loved it. I could have sat there all day, reading, or perhaps enjoying a seven-course meal served by elaborately dressed servants. After watching ‘The Piano’ I also recognised the need for one here. It just seemed like there was something missing and this must be it.
BTW the photos show the light at at 10am and judging by the orientation of the site, it is not well-suited to directional light at all. The rocks are backlit in the morning and shaded by the cliffs behind in the evening.
Londrangar: This is a genuinely dramatic location, with a wider window for good photos. The sky was flat blue and the light hard while I was there, so I just enjoyed the view. To get lots of the cliffs on the right in the frame, you need to get very far forwards and point your camera over the edge with a lens wider than 20mm. If you must, it would appear necessary to do so on your belly and with extreme caution. It’s clear the edge is being eroded and the grass ends abruptly, suggesting there is indeed a lip that may not support a person’s weight. The numerous signs showing falling people and ‘stay back’ ropes suggest people have gone splat in the past.
Budir: Classic Icelandic black church that looks like it was made for dolls. By that I mean it is small, wooden and just seems out of keeping with the severe weather, as many buildings here do (but obviously are not). It is surrounded by open ground, so if you have a great sky, this is a site with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, when I was there the sky was bald and the only cloud in the sky prevented the sun reaching the area, so after a wait, I moved on.
With the weather being poor for this area and the forecast showing more mixed weather in a few days, I decided to move eastward (I have a long way to go). This should allow me to visit a few promising areas and hopefully get some more varied light and skies. If I were to visit Snaefellsnes again, I would simply make a beeline for the Arnarstapi, Londrangar and Budir. The road that passes from the south road to the north (terminating just east of Olafsvik) is also worth taking, because it passes beside Snaefellsjokul glacier. Its more of an ice cap really, with it does gleam in the right sunlight and the views are superb.
As you may have noticed, this is an area that was a little frustrating because the weather and light was extremely difficult to work with. I therefore decided to photograph the less obvious and took away a few frames I am pleased with. To make the most of it under the current conditions, it would require a lot more time hiking, exploring details; however, this was time I didn’t have. My honest view is that this area is worth a visit if you know the light and weather will be right. If not, the very precise orientation of the key viewpoints is such that I would not personally make the detour for photography alone. It is a considerable distance back towards the east, compounded by some very long gravel roads and the wider landscape does not compare the south coast for ubiquitous drama.
The most exciting moment on this leg was seeing an arctic fox! The little critter was in its brown summer coat and trotting across a field about 50m from the road. It pounced on something half heartedly and then went on its way. Unfortunately, I was driving at the time, so it was brief, but it made my day.
I decided to make one final trip around the peninsular, just to see how the early morning light might change things. I was able to re-take a frame that I took the day before, this time using a tripod, with stronger directional light and hopefully it will be an improvement. Flat blue skies with the odd cloud. Again. Seriously, this is Iceland!? Anyway, I took a few other frames, then headed back to the guesthouse for a late breakfast shower and checkout. The main task for today was to head eastwards towards Hvitserkur.
This turned out to be a loooong journey, because the gravel sections were slow going in places (30-50kph) and a very remote one. One thing you will realise in Iceland is that everyone else is a rally driver. Doing 60kph on a gravel road and hearing the crackle of the small stones against the arches… dodging pot holes… at the limit of what feels sensible? Yep, well the postman just overtook you in his truck at 90kph. Now wonder car rental is expensive here; presumably it’s because the lifespan of cars is considerably lower than where people only drive on paved roads.
The journey to my hotel took about five hours with a few stops thrown in. I took a couple of frames that I feel conveyed the remoteness of the route. I also took a distant shipwreck that I may upload in full to show you what the Pentax 645Z can do from a resolution and lens performance perspective.
After reaching my hotel, I decided to do a recce to Hvitserkur and I can say the site is beautiful. I loved being able to get right down to the rock and soak up the ambience of the site. Its is packed with bird life and very remote (but easy to find). The sun falls away from the rock much earlier than sunset due to the mountains the sun is shaded by, but this has potential, as the shadow creeps up the rock (see below). Sunrise will be early, due to the relatively flat terrain in the distance. The black sand is beautifully rippled and the site has all sorts of possibilities. This is the difference to Snaefellsness. At Hvitserkur, you can get down onto the beach, wander around and feel close to the drama, rather than perched up above it. The sky was, you guess it, flat blue, but the weather is due to change in the coming days (I am doubtful, because each forecasted ‘mixed sun/cloudy’ day has turned out to be virtually cloudless). However, this is a good spot for a rest. I can get to the site in 45 mins from my hotel, so I will rest up tomorrow and see what the weather fairy brings.
In general, it is clear that the light it at its most interesting before 0700hrs and after 2000hrs at this time of year. Add travel time in for the specific shooting location and it make for some short nights in bed! Now I know why some of the tours focus on the midnight sun in mid summer. You catch the sun dip and rise in one go, leaving the remainder of the 24 hours for travel and sleep.
Lesson for the day: volcanic rock is the worst kind of stone to have in your shoe. It’s like a miniature, mobile cheese grater with the power to weight ratio of Bruce Lee.
Top Tip. Stopped to take photos on a gravel road and left the car on the side of the road with a window open? Close it, or wait to see what happens when a car passes 😀 Thankfully I was able to sprint back and close the window with about three seconds before the interior (and my open camera bag) was treated to volcanic dust coating….
Gear Comments: Pentax 645Z battery life seems pretty good and the Manfrotto 055 tripod and X Pro 3 head is proving brilliant. I was unsure as to how well it would support the heavy Pentax with 28-45mm mounted (a 3kg combo), but it it absolutely rock solid and the adjustable resistance works perfectly, even with something that should be very nose heavy. More on equipment a later point.