Landscape Photography Iceland May 2015
Photos courtesy of my iPhone 4s. Typos courtesy of me rushing.
It is quite a strange feeling returning after such a short period of time (I was last in Iceland in January), but a welcome one. I feel very lucky to say that a beautiful place far from home is feeling a little like home. While it feels familiar the country looks completely different. Rather than white, with dark, rocky accents, the countryside is a mixture of brown green, yellow and grey, with splashes of rich colour only in the form of roofs, signs and the occasional passing vehicle. Gone are the dark brooding skies and out is the sun, which I experienced no more than ten minutes of during my last trip (in total).
While I appreciate the pleasant weather (though there is a hell of a bite to the wind and full winter clothing is proving essential), I can already see that it’s going to be much more difficult to photograph. Long hours of daylight means that the sun rises early and sets late and therefore during much of the day the lights is directionless and strong, hiding the terrain’s contours and muting its subtle organic hues. But this is Iceland; the weather can change from minute to minute and the more testing conditions simply means I need to take a little time to adjust. This is the danger of approaching photography with preconceived ideas: you waste time trying bang square pegs into round holes. Its not always easy to adapt when thrown a bit of a curve ball, but mine is simply to take a lot of experimental photos i.e. those that feel interesting, but may prove otherwise, and just explore. The more exploring you do (rather than making a bee-line for the places you’ve marked on the map as ‘must see locations’), the more you can ‘tune in’ to the landscape, weather and just generally find your groove.
The plan for the first day was simply to drive up the west coast and get lots of sleep after a 3am departure from home; however, I decided to drive to Pingvellir. During my first visit on the last trip, I was a little underwhelmed, despite many people recommending this location. We are all different, but I can honestly say that this area, as rugged and geologically interesting as it may be (its on the fault line between tectonic plates), does not excite me from a photographic point of view. I spent a few hours driving around last time and did the same this time, but in snow or in sunlight, I barely stopped the car. I wonder if the location is talked up because it is one of the most easily accessed ‘wild places’ when travelling from Reykjavik? I’m sure other people have produced amazing photos there, just not me!
On the way back from Pingvellir I tried to take a back road via Husafell towards Borgarnes (close to where I was staying the first night). I enjoyed complete solitude for about 60 km rising up into the snow line and over a mountain pass that I could barely traverse due to the condition of the road and the Nissan’s tiny wheels. It was a gravel road, which had been degraded by bad weather and quite a few sharp rocks were exposed beneath the surface as well as scattered across the surface. I was worried about slashing my tires, because I knew that I wouldn’t be seeing anyone very long time should I get stuck, but I was careful and had no problems.
It was so remote and compelling that I kept stopping the car every few hundred metres to explore a new photo opportunity, but ended up taking only a few frames. The stark contrast between Chester and Iceland really hit me as I stopped the car amidst nothingness and breathed in the scent of cold water and clean air. I only had four swans (feeding in a narrow lake) for company and eventually realised why: the road eventually became impossible due to about 20 m of pack snow and ice and juding by the map, this can only have been a few kilometres from Husafell! I turned the car around and retraced my route, taking an hour to return to where I had commenced this leg. I felt a bit of a twit to be honest, because I had seen a sign beside the road at the very beginning saying “road impassable”, however it was placed on the other side of the road in a hatched area and assumed it wasn’t applicable, because it was neither blocking the road nor in my lane. So there you have it – top tip for Iceland: if you see a sign kinda sorta on the road you are taking saying something, make the wild assumption that it applies to you!
For this trip I am very pleased that I rented a small two wheel drive car (a Nissan Micra), because I do not intend to drive off-road or on ‘F roads’, which require four wheel drive vehicles by law. The little white bug is comfortable, drives nicely and might as well be solar powered for all the fuel it uses! Considering the much greater distance I will be driving this time, that matters. Its not so much a cost concern (though saving is always good), but the great range it offers. I am guessing that I’m looking at about 650-700km before running a tank dry, which is quite handy here when misjudging your stops can leave you staring at 100km up steep twisting roads before the next fuel station.
This is probably a good point to tell you that the mystery camera that I brought with me is a Pentax 645Z, with the following lenses:
- 28-45mm f4.5 DA (newly released lens with AF, image stabilisation)
- 35mm f3.5 A (old manual focus lens)
- 75mm f2.8 FA (AF lens)
- 80-160mm f4.5 A (old manual focus lens)
I also brought my Sony A7, with 35mm and 55mm Sonnar lenses both as back up and also for when I feel like carrying something that weighs less than a new-born baby.
Why did I bring such a different camera? Well, I will explain a little bit more about why I’ve chosen to take on medium format in future articles; however, I am comfortable bringing it here because I have a much better idea as to what to expect after previous visits. When are you visiting a new location with unknown weather conditions and a lot of walking I wouldn’t dream of it, but in this case I knew I would be working very close the car or undertaking short hikes. At 3 kg it certainly feels nothing like using the Sony A7, but the Pentax is incredibly intuitive and handles brilliantly. So far I am enjoying the shooting experience a great deal and finding little to criticise.