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Iceland - The Grand Tour - Part 4

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon - DJI Mavic Air 2s

This is the last instalment of the Grand Tour and will cover the remainder of our journey from Höfn back to the airport at Keflavik via Vik. Actually the last photo I took on the journey was at Seljalandsfoss. Following our visit here the weather deteriorated and the first storm of the approaching winter moved in. Despite a brief break in the weather on the final evening, the was no significant Aurora activity which resulted in an early night of everyone. I have visited the Reykjanes area in the past so will include some destinations towards the end of this blog.

Following Route 1 from Höfn towards Vik then most people will head straight for Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón. However if you take your time, you will notice that there are some amazing reflection pools, right at the side of the road. Parking is really easy here, as you literally just pull over ( well you can when there is no snow and ice - in the winter be careful not to get stuck!) On a bright day there is no need for a tripod either, hand holding will be just fine so long as you can get a shutter speed over 125th second at f8 or above. Just work on your compositions and get the horizon straight. There are lots of opportunities here and it is worth while stopping briefly, if you can resist the temptation to go straight to Jökulsárlón!

Route 1 Reflection - 24mm, f11, iso 100, 500th second

There is no doubt about it, Diamond Beach and Glacier Lagoon are great places to visit. There are seals swimming and fishing close to the shore and in the lagoon itself, you can take a boat trip through the icebergs to get that up close look. The black beach perfectly contrasts the pieces of ice that get washed back to shore and at night you always have the chance of getting a great Aurora shot over the lagoon. It would therefore be logical to think that you can just turn up, point your camera and make great compositions. In reality nothing could be further from the truth! Sure if you just want to take holiday snaps then you can do this, but to find a composition that you will be able to add to your portfolio then you are going to need to work harder - a lot harder!

Diamond Beach, 19mm, f16, iso 100, 0.5 second

So lets start off with Diamond Beach first. This is on the seaward side of Route 1. What happens here is that large chunks of ice break of the glacier, make their way through the lagoon and are swept out to sea. They are then washed back up onto the beach where they break up and melt. It can be a very chaotic scene and you really need to think about the image that you are trying to create. I have couple of bits of advice for you. Number 1 is head away from the crowds. Just follow the beach in either direction where you will usually find less ice and more importantly less people. Try to find a smaller piece of ice to photograph rather than the huge chunks. You can either photograph on the beach itself or try to get some water flowing around ice. A lot will depend on how powerful a sea is running as to what you will be able to accomplish. Number 2 is wear either waterproof boots or socks. Once you have found your composition, you don't want to be moving your camera or yourself every time a wave roles up the beach. Do however be very mindful on how big the waves are and always keep your eyes on the sea, never ever turn your back on it. Number 3, if you are going to put your camera bag on the beach then make sure it is well above where the waves are getting too. Add another 10 yards to what you think is a safe location. I haven't made this mistake here but I did last year on Harris, which resulted in an Astro modified camera getting drenched and ruined. Camera equipment doesn't react well to salt water! A wide angle lens will give you great results but you can also isolate an image with a longer lens ( see the picture below ). A 3, 6 or 10 stop ND filter plus a circular polariser will also help.

Diamond Beach, 85mm, f14, iso 100, 2 minutes, 10 stop ND filter and CPL.

Across the road from Diamond Beach you will find Glacier Lagoon. Once again finding a composition here is much harder than it looks. Taking images is either from the side of the lagoon at the waters edge, on the path that leads down to it, from the small hill or in the aforementioned boats. Like the beach, it is easy to take photos but finding something for the portfolio is no easy task. On this visit, I took 3 compositions that I thought worked, but they just were not balanced. It is not impossible to find a good image and my advise would be to stick the long lens on and search for shots within the ice itself. If you can find a chuck on ice on the foreshore then you can use this as foreground interest with a wide angle lens. The other option is to take to the air with a drone. If you choose to do this, then you must go to the southern side car park as drones are not permitted to be flown from the main car park.

Glacier Lagoon - DJI Mavic Air 2s

Where Glacier Lagoon does come to life, is if you are lucky enough to get and Aurora display. The still waters work perfectly for reflections and the chucks of ice add lots if interest to the image. This is then coupled with a sky that is alive with dancing Aurora. As ever it is important to think about your composition, so take the time to review it either on the screen on the back of your camera or through the electronic view finder if you are shooting mirrorless. Finally as I have mentioned in a previous post, then keep an eye on your settings. If the Aurora is powerful, you will not need to shoot for much longer than a couple of seconds to get the definition in the sky and from an ISO perspective, I have shot as low as 400. Don't worry about the foreground being too dark, if the Northern Lights are bright it will illuminate the foreground for you in much the same way that the moon does.

Glacier Lagoon Aurora - 16mm, f2.8, iso 800, 8 seconds

Following Route 1 down towards Vik there are many opportunities to stop and take photos. One location that needs to be on your itinerary is Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon which is about 60km north of Vik. You will find an amazing canyon which has plenty of opportunities to create compositions. Viewing platforms have been constructed at at the top of the canyon and the paths are very well maintained. I believe you can also walk along the bottom of it on occasions, although these paths were closed when we visited. Photography wise then a wide angle lens in the 16 - 35mm range will give you a great perspective, a telephoto lens will allow you to pick out more compositions and having a drone will enable you to get a birds eye view of this stunning location. Its only a 10 minute drive off Route 1, with a cafe and toilets also available, its a great place to stop off on your journey between Vik and Höfn.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon - DJI Mavic Air 2s

The most southerly town in Iceland is Vik, which has become famous in recent years mainly due to the sea stacks and black beach. The stacks have been used a a back drop most recently for The Game of Thrones and a Pepsi advert, You can photograph the stacks from two different locations, either from Vik side or from the south at Reynisfjara which I will cover in a few moments. Vik does have lots more to offer besides the beach and stacks. The church on the Hill is a great location, just to the east is Hjörleifshöfði an imposing 221m high inselberg and slightly further to the east there are Lupine fields which are in full bloom during June and July.

Vik Beach - 16mm, f11, iso 100, 1 minute 40 second exposure with 10 stop filter.

A short drive around the headland from Vik you see the signs for the famous black beach at Reynisfjara. This is a very popular destination so if you want the place to yourself or with a few fellow photographers then you are going to need to be up early or out late. There are a couple of great caves here, basalt columns, great views of sea stacks and a fabulous black beach which runs along the coast to Dyrhólaey.

A word of warning, the seas here can be ferocious. There are plenty of signs warning you about sneaker waves which can run along the shore and engulf you from behind. This is NOT the place to play chicken with the waves, waiting until they get close and then trying to outrun them up the beach. I have watched people doing this and have just shaken my head in disbelief. Thankfully I haven't seen anyone get swept out to sea, but trust me, people have drowned here by playing this ridiculous game of dare.

Please don't let the last paragraph put you off from visiting this amazing location, just follow the rules.

Reynisfjara - 12mm, f16, iso 100, 0.3 second, 3 images blended for dynamic range.

Dyrhólaey is a few kilometres further to the west and looks back along the black beach to Reynisfjara. It is a fabulous place to explore with sea stacks, arches, amazing views along with an abundance of sea birds including Puffins during the summer months. The road that leads up to the lighthouse, where you will find plenty of parking has been significantly improved recently and what was a tricky drive is now much easier. You can also follow the road past the turning for the lighthouse to find more parking at the bottom of the hill. You really are spoilt for choice here. There are lots of compositions to be found that will work with a variety of focal lengths. If you go up to the lighthouse, there is an amazing view to the west along what appears to be an endless black beach, looking east the views are equally impressive. Take the time to explore this area. I personally prefer to spend more time here than at Reynisfjara as there are significantly less people and more photography opportunities.

Dyrhólaey - 48mm, f11, iso 100, 0.5 second.

Skógafoss is a hugely impressive waterfall. It also gets very busy as it is a go to location for the tourist buses, along with a few hotels being close by and a camp site. As you would image this can prove to be very frustrating if you want to capture the beauty of the location without fellow tourists in your photo. Whilst we always stop here during workshops, we tend not to linger as there are some many other great places to shoot. For example only a few hundred meters from Skógafoss, you can walk through a gorge to get too Kvernufoss where it is possible to walk behind the waterfall itself. If this is the type of photo you want to take then its so much better in my opinion than battling the crowds at Seljalandsfoss.

Skógafoss Selfie - 130mm, f8, iso 100, 8th second.

The majority of people who visit Seljalandsfoss, jump of their buses, do the circular walk behind the waterfall, take a few selfies, get soaking wet, jump back on their bus and head to the next location. If you are in your own car, this is one of the few car parks where its pay and display. It is an impressive waterfall and yes I have done the tourist walk in the past. Be careful during winter as it can be incredibly slippy. There are a number of other waterfalls here which you can visit by simply following the path. When we visited, during the "Grand Tour" the weather wasn't great, with driving rain blown by the arriving storm. Whilst the group went on the tourist walk, it did give me a quick opportunity to have a walk along the road to look for more compositions. I have found a couple of locations that have some great foreground interest which we will certainly revisit in November. I do talk a lot about shooting with longer focal lengths during workshops, how telephoto lens compress an image and the unique perspective that they can bring. One such image is below. I can't remember ever seeing a photo from this location ( but I am sure there must be lots online). Whilst it will never win any awards, I do like that waterfall is given scale by using the bridge and person to demonstrate this. Just for you information, I have photoshopped the people out of the image who were walking around the back of it.

Seljalandsfoss - 100mm, f8, iso200, 50th second

Our visit to Seljalandsfoss was the last stop that we made during the trip. Our final night was spent in Garður. If you ever visit here, you must go to the Röstin Restaurant near the lighthouse and try the Plokkfiskur – hashed fish which is just amazing. The lighthouse also makes a great subject to photograph.

The majority of people who drive back from Vik will stay on Route 1 all the way to the outskirts of Reykjavik or turn off to head to the airport. If you have plenty of time then my advise is when you get to Selfoss, turn off Route 1 and take road number 34. This will take you down to the coast where you join road 427. This takes you into the Reykjanes area which has lots of geothermal activity, is much more scenic and will also open up the amazing coastline around Grindavik. The volcano that is currently on the news and all over social media is here. 3 make shift car parks have been created, all of which it appears you have to pay for. From what I have read, each car park is about a 5km walk from the Volcano. This walk isn't flat either, there are some significant hills to climb on your way. On our final night the eruption increased in it's intensity which has lead to some amazing photos. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it keeps bubbling away until Saturday 6th November when I will be making the walk. If it's still active then look out for the blog that will follow.

I learnt to take dark sky images a few years ago by photographing the Milkyway. Each year when the galactic core pops its head back above the horizon, I find myself getting out of bed an ungodly hours to photograph it. For me, September is the best month of the year at higher latitudes. It would therefore be remiss of me, not to include an image of the Milkyway somewhere within "The Grand Tour" series of blogs. I had wondered what it would look like from Iceland during a clear September evening and now I have my answer, pretty amazing! It is also worth while knowing what is in the night sky and where to point your camera to create a unique image. After all ever shooting the Aurora can become monotonous some times - only joking :)

Glacier Lagoon - 16mm f2.8. iso 6400, 15 seconds, 12 stacked images

So there you have it 11 days and 10 nights to do all Route 1. 4 blogs, lots of images and probably even more spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. The truth of the matter is we only really scratched the surface of what this amazing island has to offer. It is why, Iceland is without doubt my favourite place to visit and apply my photography skills. It is why I will keep on returning year after year and why I run workshops up here. I hope that you have found these blogs interesting and if you are planning to visit that they help you plan your trip along with giving you some idea on how to photograph Iceland.

If you would like to join me in Iceland in the future the please do check out my workshops page. Unfortunately the remaining trips are fully booked for this year but there are details of workshops that I am running in 2023. I am planning on adding 1 week for 2022 over the coming weeks too..

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