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Iceland - The Grand Tour - Part 2

Húsavík Aurora, f2.8, 8 seconds, ISO 800

Since the last blog entry, we have driven about 250 miles in a clockwise direction around Iceland and at the time of writing, we are just south of Húsavík. I think it is safe to say that the last 3 days have been filled with plenty of "Waterfalls, Whales and Wow's".

Having never been to the far north of Iceland, I was a little unsure about what we would find. Granted, I have seen plenty of YouTube videos and my research indicated that the landscapes were stunning. I had expected to see desolate landscapes, rocks everywhere from the retreating glaciers and lava fields, coupled with high mountains and maybe a bit of snow. Whilst this is true, I have also been amazed at how green certain parts are, the amount of lush grass and even flora. Granted it is still only early September and no doubt in a few weeks the landscape will be transformed when the first snows arrive and temperatures plummet. For now though it is a great place to be with temperatures a barmy 12 - 14 degrees.

Kolugljufur Canyon, 18mm, f14, iso 100, 0.3 second

On leaving Kirkjufell we headed north east towards Varmahlíð, which is about a 3.5 hour drive. It's a mixture of tarmac and gravel roads, depending on which route you take. If I am honest, it wasn't the most scenic of drives but this could be party due to the overcast conditions that we had. If you do choose to take the gravel roads then it would be best to have a 4 wheel drive. Whilst we didn't need it, after periods of prolonged rain the roads could be slippy and in the winter months then you are going to encounter ice and snow. An interesting place to visit along with way, is Kolugljufur Canyon which is only a few kilometres off Route 1. Be careful here though as the cliffs are high and there are numbers signs warning you of the dangers. A wide angle lens is your weapon of choice here although you should be able to make some good images with a telephone lens. Just outside of Varmahlíð, you will find Reykjafoss a stunning tiered waterfall.

Reykjafoss, 16mm, f16, iso 100, 0.4 second

Having spent the night in Varmahlíð we headed for our next destination which was close to Húsavík. The road through the highlands is amazing and well worth the drive. It was from here that we got our first glimpse of snow that was still lying in the many corries and gullies near the summits of the highest mountains. There are snow gates on these roads so planning you route in winter will be imperative as will be listening to the local weather forecasts and obeying the road closure signs. Make a mistake up here in winter and you risk checking out for good!

Route 1, hand held, 24mm, f11 iso 100, 200th second.

Before checking into the hotel, where we are staying for two nights, we went to the "Waterfall of the Gods" or Goðafoss as it is better known. This is a well known tourist area with parking on both sides of the river. It is well worth stopping as to the naked eye the waterfall looks amazing. Photography wise it works ok from the viewing platforms but you are going to be sharing your vantage point with lots of other people. If the river is not too high then it is possible to get up close to the waterfall by climbing down so stone steps and walking along the side of the river. I believe in winter then these steps are closed due to the risk of falling on the ice. However, yesterday, it is where I headed. As with all major waterfalls, then you have to contend with lots of spray. Keeping the optics dry and free from water droplets can prove to be a challenge to make sure you have plenty of lens cloths. Once again my lens hood from Lee Filters, was invaluable. I have had a few comments about these hoods on social media, so look out for a blog coming soon.

Goðafoss, 2 image focus stack, 16mm, f14, iso 100, 1 second foreground, 10 seconds background.

Probably one of the main reasons that you will book to come to Iceland, is to photograph and see the Aurora. Trust me, when you do see them it is one of the best experiences in the world ( well in my opinion anyway)! I have written plenty of content about how to photograph the Northern Lights and also what apps you can use to plan, which will maximise you chances. One thing that is important though is to find a location in advance that will work if they do show. You also need to be aware of the clouds. Up here in Iceland it can be cloudy in one spot and clear a few miles down the road, so once again keep a close eye on the weather forecasts. Unless it is perfectly clear, you need to be aware of where towns are, in relation to the direction that you will be shooing in. Get a few low clouds with a town below them and you are going to have a horrible orange mess in the middle of your image. Last night the Aurora stats weren't great but as fairly clear skies were forecast it was worth rolling the dice to see what happened. Earlier on in the day, we have found a couple of locations that would work compositionally wise and the plan was to go to these locations. However on driving towards them, it was clear that there were clouds in the sky and that lights from Húsavík could prove to be problematic. Having a "Plan B" is always a good idea and whilst I didn't know the area too well, I had seen that there was a beach to the north of the town. Logic would dictate that there must be a small track somewhere that would lead down to it. There was, and it proved to be the ideal location. Now here is a top tip for you. If its windy ( which it usually is on Iceland ) then try to use your car as a windbreak. We had a fairly still breeze from the south east last night which would have made long exposures fairly tricky, not to mention it would have been cold. However by parking the car correctly we were all able to shoot in relative comfort and keep the cameras still. We were rewarded with a decent Aurora display too which is always a bonus. Seeing the "lights" with your naked eye is always special, especially when they dance and twist overhead. Last nights display wasn't spectacular by Icelandic standards but they still got the adrenaline flowing!

Húsavík Aurora, f2.8, 6 seconds, ISO 1250

Húsavík is also known for its whale watching tours. There are 2 or 3 companies that will take you out onto the sea on either fast ribs or traditions wooden whaling boats. How great that the old wooden boats that were once used to hunt these magnificent creatures for food are now being employed in a much more socially acceptable way by taking tourists who are armed with cameras and phones as opposed to harpoons.

Depending on the time of year then it is possible to see, Blue, Humpback, Minke, Killer and Pilot Whales, along with Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises. Of course it is also possible that you will see nothing at all. It's a big old sea but thankfully all of the tourists boats from the different companies share sightings with one another so your chances are maximised.

Pilot Whales - 300mm, f5.6, iso 200, 500th second

On our trip, we got lucky. According to our guide, who was a marine biologist from Spain who is studying the whales around Húsavík, then seeing pilot whales is a very rare occurrence. To see a pod this size ( there were about 40 - 50 ) is one of those very special moments. So much so that she stopped her commentary and got her own camera out to photograph the spectacle as did the skipper of the boat, which I guess tells you something. We watched the pod hunt for over an hour or so and occasionally got the off glimpse of a young calf, swimming alongside it's mother. If you come this far north then it is well worth having a trip. At just of £65 for the 3 hour tour if offers decent value, especially if you get lucky. If you don't the free coffee and danish Danish pastries that they serve onboard are a welcome bonus.

Pilot Whales - 160mm, f4, iso 400, 1000th second

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