My recent trip to a wintry Iceland was a real highlight of an awesome 2012 year of travel & photography/photography & travel. It had been decided in midyear that the country would be added to the itinerary so the trip had been on the cards for a while. Unusually for me I did a bit of pre-arrival research. I guess I was excited. Curious even. I read up about visiting Iceland in December – particularly about how accessible its many highlights are – & looked at pictures. Lots of pictures. As a result I thought I knew what to expect from the country at that cold & dark time of year but as it turned out nothing could have prepared me for the wondrous experience visiting then proved to be.
My time in Iceland was split between the capital, Reykjavik, & the southern coast. Despite 5 hours of light a day & some horrid weather I still managed to find plenty to photograph (it’d be hard not to). What I didn’t get to see, never mind photograph, was the famed natural light show that is the Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights. It never materalised while I was around – the spectacle is as shy as it is beautiful (I’ve seen pictures) and their no-show in Iceland now means I’ll be chasing them to Alaska in a little under two months time. Needs must (Update, March 2013: View my Travel Page entries from my time in Alaska here… and no, despite being in Alaska in March, a great month for Aurora sightings, they didn’t show up there either). What I did see in Iceland was a lot of water, be it in liquid form dropping from the sky, tumbling over towering cliffs, or pounding offshore rock formations & volcanic black-sand beaches, or solidified in the form of snow & ice, notably as massive, deep-blue icebergs. This photo essay is an overview of my time in the The Land of (not too much) Fire & (lots of) Ice. And remember, I don’t post process my images but were I ever to do so it would be to ‘enhance’ images like these – some of them, despite low ISO, and noticeably grainy.
One of my enduring memories of Iceland in December will be the soft, warm lighting. The sun rises just before 11am, hovers not too far above the horizon for 5 hours and is gone by 4pm. It offers up some magical scenes, as one might expect a 5-hour golden hour mixed with snow & ice to do. The above picture was taken on the road from the capital, Reykjavik, to the village of Vík í Mýrdal on the southern coast. It was the middle of nowhere & there were no outstanding natural features in the vicinity which caused us to pull over and get out of the car. It was simply the magical sight of the all-encompassing whiteness bathed in a soft, sunrise glow.
Large & powerful waterfalls are legion in Iceland, the result of a north Atlantic climate & a near-Arctic location – the former produces frequent precipitation & the latter large glaciers, both of which feed many rivers. Travelling around the country means you’re never too far from a waterfall, three of which I got to visit during my time here (although not Dettifoss, aka the Prometheus waterfall, reputedly the most powerful in Europe… it’s up north in Vatnajökull National Park & I’ll get to that next time).
Its proximity to the capital, Reykjavik, makes this, Gullfoss (Golden Falls), Iceland’s most famous & most visited waterfall. The majority visit it as part of a Golden Circle tour, a popular 300 kilometre tourist route looping from the capital into central Iceland and back. The falls, fed by the Hvítá River, are a double cascade dropping 32 metres in two stages (11 metres and 21 metres) & into a crevice 32 metres (105 feet) deep, 20 metres (60 feet) wide and 2.5 kilometres in length. It’s quite the sight.
Don’t Like The Weather?
Icelanders have a saying that of you don’t like the weather then stick around for 5 minutes. When I arrived here the whole area was shrouded in a heavy white mist. Not much was visible & all I could hear through the haze was the thunderous rumble of the water (although I still felt obliged to fire off a few shots of that misty nothingness). I was giving up hope of seeing anything when the mist started to break. The above picture was captured on the steps leading away from one of the many falls viewing areas. A few minutes later and I probably wouldn’t have had a picture of the falls at all, even a bad one. Stick around for 5 minutes indeed.
One of the country’s most photographed falls is Seljalandsfoss, a falls which can be accessed from the rear. This offers a very different perspective of the pretty 60 metre (200 feet) veil of water from the Seljalandsá River as it tumbles over the cliff into a deep pool, a cliff that once marked the Icelandic coastline.
The above picture was captured just before 10am, still about an hour before sunrise proper. It was very dull (very blue), it was cold, and it was raining. It was kind of miserable really… but oh-so enchanting & magical at the same time. The surrounding landscape was treacherously icy. As a result I wasn’t too sure where to position myself to best capture these falls, before finally settling for an icy riverbank some distance away (all that iciness made the job of photographing this all the more interesting). Look carefully & you can see the inclusion of one of my travelling party in the bottom-right of the image, just beyond the reach of the spray emanating from the falls.
The last waterfall I visited was Skógafoss, another 60 metre-high (200 feet) falls & another falls the location of which used to mark the Icelandic coastline (it’s now some 5 kilometres away). The setting for the falls, a huge U-shaped cleft in a cliff, is spectacular. The spray coming off these falls, which consistently produces single or double rainbows on sunny days, coupled with the totally miserable conditions meant both me & my camera got quite a soaking. I was reluctant to subject my gear to too much abuse but I couldn’t resist attempting to capture this hardy soul on a march towards the falls. Where they were going I’ve no idea.
In a country of highlights this was the standout for me, the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Iceland.
The southeast of Iceland is dominated by Vatnajökull, the largest icecap outside of the poles – it a rather large 8,100 km² chunk of ice with an average thickness of 400 metres that covers 8% of Iceland’s landmass. Many massive glaciers flow from the icecap towards the sea, one of which is Breiðamerkurjökull. Eighty years ago Breiðamerkurjökull, seen in the distance to the right of the above picture, reached the sea, about 1 kilometre behind me as I took this picture. But, and like most glaciers around the world, it has been retreating rapidly since, creating this stunning glacial lagoon; after falling off the glacier the icebergs can take up to 5 years to float across the 17 km² lagoon towards the outlet to the sea.
I stood by the shore of the lagoon, and on the hills overlooking it, marvelling at the spectacular concentration & intense, chilly-blue of the icebergs – the colour can be explained by the air in the ice having been pressed out, intensifying the colour of the glacial water. Having arrived here at 2:30pm on a perfectly sunny & crisp day I hung around until just after the 4pm sunset. As a result I got to witness this awe-inspiring landscape in varying light. These picture don’t even come close to doing the live scene justice but needless to say the reddish pink glow at sunset was particularly photogenic.
More Jökulsárlón pictures
Volcanic topography – Mýrdalssandur & Myrdalur
Iceland isn’t all about waterfalls & glaciers. It has a few volcanoes, too. Quite a few with the April 2010 eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull making headlines around the world. While a relatively small eruption by volcanic standards, the ash cloud it generated caused enormous disruption to air travel across much of western and northern Europe. The above picture is of Mýrdalssandur, a 700 km² black sand desert. The area rests between the sea & the 590 km², 400-700 metre thick Mýrdalsjökull, the 4th largest glacier in Iceland. Katla, one of the three most active volcanoes in Iceland, sits under the glacier & eruptions in the past have caused massive ice melt, generating large scale glacial flooding, flooding that sweeps across this plane devastating the landscape. The last eruption of Katla was in 1918 & although it’s impossible to accurately predict, those in the know say the next eruption is not too far off.
The southern village of Vík í Mýrdal is famed for its location and black sand beaches, off shore of which is Reynisdrangar, giant pillars of rock, the highest of which reaches 66 metres. The wind and rain was battering the coast this day which meant taking pictures was a challenge. I took the above picture sheltered in one of many coastal caves. It, coupled with a few rubs of my trusty camera towel, saw me beat the elements for a few (very rushed) shots at least.
One wouldn’t come to Iceland to ogle at architecture (I didn’t) but there are a few buildings of note, especially in the capital Reykjavík. The architecture I did capture was just yet another pleasant Icelandic surprise.
A Reykjavík landmark visible throughout the city, the 75 metre-high Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran (Church of Iceland) parish church. It is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614 to 1674) & it is said to have been designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape. Construction began in 1945 & took over 40 years to complete – the landmark tower was completed long before the church’s official completion in 1986. This afternoon was another dull, blue day in Reykjavík, a typical, as far as I could see, December afternoon. Taken at 4:30pm, not long after sunset, I like how the warm artificial interior & exterior lighting contrasts the cold grey of the church façade & the even colder looking dusk sky (& again this low resolution version of the shot doesn’t do the actual scene justice).
The first purpose-built concert hall in Reykjavík & the newest jewel in the city’s architectural crown, Harpa, which houses the Iceland Symphony Orchestra & The Icelandic Opera, opened in May 2011 & occupies a site by the Reykjavík waterfront (as an aside I spent a lot of time by this windy waterfront photographing seagulls against the distant, snowcapped peaks, nearly suffering hypothermia in the process). The building that stands today was only completed when the government decided in 2008 to fully fund the rest of the construction costs for the half-built concert hall; it was being built as part of a wider development which was abandoned when the financial crisis took hold, a crisis that hit Iceland & its bank-dependent economy hard. The structure consists of an open-plan design surrounded by a steel framework clad with irregularly shaped glass panels of different colours. Wide-angle lens territory.
The Complete Iceland Gallery
Dramatic Iceland Time-lapse
This is an awesome time-lapse from Anna Possberg showing wintry Iceland at its best (from what I can tell most who do venture up here, including people on any one of dozens of Iceland photography tours, do so in summer months, but give me snow & ice any day). Harpa makes an appearance & there’s lot of footage here from Jökulsárlón. Finally, check out those dancing Northern Lights. Great stuff.
dMb Travel: Filed from the southern village of Vík í Mýrdal the night before I departed the country, this is a brief recap of my time in Iceland.
dMb on facebook: More pictures from my time in Iceland.