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An Iceland Photo Tour

Adam Pierzchala reports on a trip to Iceland

Adam Pierzchala

Now semi-retired, I have more time to enjoy being out with my camera looking for scenes and subjects that pique my interest.

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When one reaches a certain age the event needs to be celebrated with some pomp and in the last week of August, I managed to get away on a tour of Iceland with Nature Explorer. With just 6 clients we were very comfortable in two huge modified Nissan Patrol cars and for a whole week, we bounced around southern Iceland on 42” wheels, crossing rivers and remote desolate plains, driving on a glacier and going up and down impossibly steep inclines to some breath-taking locations. What follows is a brief summary of the photographic fun that we had.

The Gullfoss waterfall has a massive flow of 109 cu m of water per second. This is a challenging subject though because the usual viewpoints are rather restricted and most compositions have been done before, leaving little scope for originality. However, we also went to the far side of the Gullfoss gorge, inaccessible to tour buses and so with no risk of tripod rage. The steep sides of the gorge still limit the viewpoints, but I am pleased with my picture of a central portion of the cascade mimicking the shape of the cloud-shrouded volcano in the distance.

Gullfoss Mamiya

Gullfoss Mamiya 645

The next day brought the most miserable weather: cold and dark with almost incessant rain. Driving through the sleet and rain showers along the remote Kjolur road, with only a few snatched photo-stops on the way, we eventually bounced across some moraine to arrive at the Langjokull (long glacier). To my amazement, we drove right onto the glacier and carried on up till we reached a reasonably flat shoulder. A biting cold wind and occasional driving showers worked against serious photography, but my trusty LX5 was a godsend and I am very impressed with what can be achieved with this remarkable little camera.

Langjokull - Panasonic LX5

Langjokull - Panasonic LX5

Our itinerary took us further into the remote highlands and the Highland Hotel was our base for three nights. From here we made excursions into the Fjallabak (behind the mountain) and photographed the breathtaking Veidivotn region with its brilliant blue lakes surrounded by lush green fields.

Veidivotn - Nikon F100 - Elite Chrome

Veidivotn - Nikon F100 - Elite Chrome

But the highlight of our stay at the Highland was the trip to Hrafntinnusker. The wild off-road journey was an adventure in its own right and we had some wonderful photo stops on the way. A particular favourite of mine was an area of black sand and stones dotted with fresh green plants. It is amazing how vegetation manages to survive in these harsh conditions and I hope that I managed to show its fragility against the black hard rocks.

 Green and Black - Nikon F100 - Elite Chrome

Green and Black - Nikon F100 - Elite Chrome

Hrafntinnusker is rightly described as a summary of Iceland: ice and snow immediately next to active geothermal steam, scalding water vents, brilliant green mossy banks, black obsidian rock and black volcanic ash, a fumarole or two, views onto glaciers in the distance … and all in the fabulous changing light. Pure magic!

Fumarole - Nikon F100 - Elite Chrome

Fumarole - Nikon F100 - Elite Chrome

Hrafntinnusker - Nikon F100 - Elite Chrome

Hrafntinnusker - Nikon F100 - Elite Chrome

Dawn and dusk shoots were only occasionally possible, but our tour guides explained that their desire to avoid disappointment if sunrise or sunset fails and limitations with the hotel meal times, ruled against the idea. But they accepted that photographers are prepared for the possibility of such failures and hopefully future tours will factor-in more dawn and dusk shooting.

On Day 5 we drove to the Landmannalaugur region and took a short hike through the lava field and the hills behind it. Here again, the photographer is totally spoilt with colours, textures, mountain contours and plenty of opportunity for more intimate studies. On the drive out to the coast road, there was one particularly stunning location which I found quite surreal, definitely not of this world. I was mesmerised by some steep and huge furrows sculpted by water running down thick black ash. I quickly decided that I wanted to get in close rather than have a distant view and set up a composition showing the over-powering furrowed hillside and just a thin line of green grass growing by the stream at the bottom. I think that this helps to bring out the dominance of the dark, almost threatening, furrows.

Furrows - Mamiya 645 - Velvia 50

Furrows - Mamiya 645 - Velvia 50

Just a little further the track suddenly gained height from where another magnificent view greeted us. The high viewpoint emphasised the meandering river at the bottom of the steep hill, while the backlit clouds and silhouetted mountains added a strong sense of drama. Whereas I might have been tempted to try HDR had I been shooting digital, by using ND grads the silhouettes retained their mystery and I believe this helps to add a punch to the image. I suspect that too much detail would have diluted the atmosphere and made it less arresting.

All too soon we were on the south ring road heading to the national park of Vatnajokull, a glacier region three times the size of Luxembourg. The next day, at the Skaftafell hotel, I and one other participant got up before dawn. It’s a short walk uphill to a good viewpoint and from here there were several other possibilities and we went in different directions. The morning broke clear but cloud quickly rolled in creating interesting fast-changing light. Just being in this other-worldly place with no soul in sight is something that I will never forget. This was something that was far removed from the alpine experiences of my younger days: unfamiliar colours and landscape structures, soft northern light, total silence apart from the soft murmur of glacier streams and only bright green lupines for company. I was very aware that I really was out in the wild, effectively on my own. Another magical moment.

Dawn - Mamiya 645 - Ektar 100

Dawn - Mamiya 645 - Ektar 100

Glacier - Mamiya 645 - Ektar 100

Glacier - Mamiya 645 - Ektar 100

After breakfast, we drove to Jokullsarlon, the glacier lagoon made famous in James Bond films as well as Lara Croft and various adverts. The sun broke through and for most of the day, we were in a contrasty light that saturated the blues and greens in the ice. On the black beach, I would have preferred softer light on the icebergs as the bright sunlight was really too harsh.

Icebergs - Mamiya 645 - Velvia 50

Icebergs - Mamiya 645 - Velvia 50

We also visited Fjallsarlon, not far from the main lagoon. Set some way off the road it is little known but offers a variety of photographic subjects. A small stream carries black sand which on the day we visited had interesting ripples. This is one of those subjects where I knew that the blue sky above would be reflected in the wet sand and it was a matter of finding the right angle…. and then setting up the camera to obtain an interesting composition. Easier said than done: the Mamiya gave me too little depth of field while the SLR with its 2:3 aspect ratio didn’t suit the subject. But after a bit of perseverance, I had the LX5 correctly set-up on my tripod and composed some pleasing frames.

Black Blue - LX5

Black Blue - LX5

The evening brought another surprise: fireworks on the lagoon. I have to admit that photographing fireworks doesn’t excite me at all but the locals are clearly proud of the event and I felt that I should see the show. And what a super show it was! Fireworks set-off from candle-lit icebergs against the glacial backdrop! Quite unique, especially when some icebergs serenely floated off having broken away from the bottom of the stream. The LX5 behaved impeccably even if it did look slightly odd perched on top of my tripod.

Fireworks - Panasonic LX5

Fireworks - Panasonic LX5

Sadly our tour was almost ended and after breakfast, we set off on the long drive back to Reykjavik. In rainy weather, we drove through the huge Laki lava field to our first stop at Vik and its well known basalt sea stacks.

Reynisdrangar - Mamiya 645 - Ektar 100

Reynisdrangar - Mamiya 645 - Ektar 100

I tried to avoid the compositions I had seen before and chose this view with white basalt fins in the foreground. The lack of colour adds to a sense of isolation.

On to Dyrholeay and its famous long black beach, then via a couple of iconic waterfalls (again difficult to be original) back to Reykjavik. What an amazing week we had with the rich variety of landscapes and colours, unique desolate plains and mix of snow, ice and geothermal vents. Add to that the truly remote off-road locations and I can honestly say this was one of the best, if not the best tour I have ever done. Haukur Parelius and Finn Frodason, the driver/guides at Nature Explorer are very knowledgeable and entertaining, genuinely welcoming their clients and happy to stop any time and anywhere whenever one of the clients wanted to take photographs. I can thoroughly recommend them. They have published a double book which shows their different styles and complements the photo tours they run.



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