The Coolest Place on Earth: Winter Photography in Southern Iceland

March 07, 2018  •  2 Comments

Beached bergEarly morning shot of an iceberg on Breiðamerkursandur, otherwise known as the ‘Diamond Beach’. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm at 30mm f/22 1/5 second ISO 100

Iceland, a geological wonderland of rumbling volcanoes, gushing geysers, pristine black-sand beaches, epic waterfalls, stunning mountains and picture-postcard glaciers, currently graces the pages of scores of glossy travel magazines. As the playground de jour for social media users, it’s right up there as one of the must-see destinations on every traveller’s bucket list.

This otherworldly island has served as a film location for scores of Hollywood blockbusters including Prometheus, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Interstellar, as well as popular TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Fortitude and Trapped. Little wonder that is attracting ever-growing numbers of photographers.

In early-February of 2018, we made our third winter photography tour to Iceland, taking a red-eye flight with Easy Jet from Belfast International Airport to Keflavik, the gateway to the island. With us was a client, Ainsley, enjoying his second Iceland trip with us; he has also previously joined us in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. We expected to have about 7 hours of usable daylight, with the sun rising round 10:00 am and setting at around 5:30 pm.

Day One: The Road to Höfn

At the airport we raided the Duty Free shop, as alcohol is fearfully expensive in Iceland and you can expect to pay 16 euro plus for a bottle of beer in restaurants. Driving in winter here is challenging to say the least and you really need a 4X4 to get around comfortably. We set off in a Ford Kuga for Höfn in the south east of the island, a long drive of nearly 500km which was going to take us around eight hours and we hoped to be there before dusk.

Almost immediately the Icelandic weather threw a spanner into the works. We were diverted from our intended route due to heavy snow and high winds. A red weather warning had been issued for the Reykjavik area and the southern part of the island, and more bad weather was forecast for the coming days. It pays to be flexible when deciding an itinerary here, as it is not always possible to do what you have planned.

The road diversion only added about 20 minutes to our journey time. After stopping for lunch at a roadside café, and briefly at the black sand beach at Vík í Mýrdal, where the wind was so strong it was almost impossible to open the jeep door, let alone take many images due to the sand being blown onshore, we returned to Route 1, passing through the Eldraun Lava Field.

The TrollsThe Reynisdrangar, otherwise known as the stone trolls, a group of basalt sea stacks at Vík í Mýrdal. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 150mm f/32 6 seconds ISO 100 This moss-covered verdant wonderland was created in one of the most devastating eruptions in recorded history. Over a course of eight months, between 1783 and 1784, the Laki fissure and the adjoining Grímsvötn volcano poured out an estimated 14 cubic kilometres of basalt lava and clouds of poisonous gases that contaminated the soil, killing half of the island’s cattle and horses, and more than three-quarters of its sheep. The resulting famine was responsible for the death of approximately a quarter of the island’s human population and wrought climatic devastation across the Northern Hemisphere.

The light wasn’t really good enough for photography, so we pushed on, later passing a film crew shooting a scene close to a river for a forthcoming series of Game of Thrones. We arrived at our self-catering accommodation in Höfn as darkness was falling, but unfortunately cloudy skies precluded any chance of seeing the Northern Lights and we were content to stay indoors with a freeze-dried meal washed down with a stout!

Day Two: Some Days are Diamonds

As we left our accommodation in the deep-freezer chill of predawn, the eastern sky was beginning to radiate streaks of crimson light. We headed for Vestrahorn at Stokksnes, an iconic massif on the eastern side of Höfn which in recent years has attracted the attention of photographers from round the world, and even featured as a backdrop in the Bollywood film Dilwale. The smaller, three summit mountain, Brunnhorn, on the far right of the massif is affectionately named ‘Batman Mountain’ on account of its resemblance to the logo used in the Batman films.

A long causeway leads to a former British army base which is now a radar station, and to progress past the electronic barrier at the end, you have to pay a small fee as it’s on private land. If no one is at the nearby café to sell you a ticket, you can buy one using a machine situated outside. There are also toilets here and a camping area.

The vista before us was every bit as good as we expected it to be. It was a bitterly cold, yet calm morning with a virtually cloudless powder-blue sky, and the rising sun had begun to taint the snow-capped massif a pale rose-pink. The ground was hard and frozen, the wind ripples on the black sand dunes were perfectly accentuated by frost, and the dried yellow grass protruding from the sand created an otherworldly effect. It would have been the icing on the cake to have gotten some moody cloud above the mountains rather than a clear sky, but you have to work with what you get on the day.

Setting up at VestrahornA dawn photo-shoot at this iconic mountain was rewarded with good conditions. HTC mobile phone.

The biggest challenge here is how to avoid other photographers wandering into your frame, and we moved to several locations to get a suitable vista with good leading lines.

Dawn at VestrahornGood conditions greeted us on our first dawn shoot. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm and 19mm f/16 0.8 seconds ISO 100 We were so engrossed shooting Vestrahorn that we barely noticed the incredible scene unfolding behind us: the moon setting over Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, in a sky turned candy pink by the rising sun. We then progressed to the beach hoping to get some good reflections of the mountains in the wet sand, but the tide was too far out. Instead, as it was a calm day, we decided to fly our DJI drone. I was fully expecting not to be able to get the thing airborne, given its close proximity to a radar installation, but it took to the air and we shot some great footage.

Setting moon at dawnThe moon setting over Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, in a sky turned candy pink by the rising sun. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 105mm f/13 1.6 seconds ISO 100 Following a brief stop in Höfn for a late breakfast, we progressed along the coast towards Breiðamerkursandur, otherwise known as the ‘Diamond Beach’. In good conditions it’s possible to see thousands of icebergs washed ashore on the black sand, hence the name. These have been calved into the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon from the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull (a part of the larger Vatnajökull), and then flowed out to sea via a narrow channel. We found the beach was mainly littered with lumps of shattered drift-ice from the lagoon which didn’t have the translucent quality, aqua colour or scalloped shapes we were looking for, and our visit also coincided with the tide coming in and a fierce offshore wind.

Taking photographs here pushes you and your kit to the absolute limit. It’s common to brave one or more of the following: sub-zero temperatures, high winds lifting abrasive volcanic sand, spindrift, sea spray and huge Atlantic breakers that can sweep you and your equipment away. One also has to be wary of standing too close to an iceberg which might smash into you and your equipment. But the rewards are fantastic. Wellies and waterproof over-trousers, or better still, a pair of waders, are essential to get up close and personal with the icebergs.

You have to place the tripod firmly in the sand to avoid the camera moving as the waves wash in and out, and the smaller the iceberg, the lower down you must get for it to be the dominant focal point in the foreground. Bracketed shots would have been pretty impossible in the high wind and furious surf we experienced. In our opinion, a very wide angle lens with 3 stop and 6 stop neutral density (ND) filters and 0.6 and 0.9 hard edged gradated density filters were required to get a decent shot here.

Splash!Icebergs in the surf at Breiðamerkursandur. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm at 15mm f/4.5 0.5 seconds ISO 200 We spent a couple of hours trying to capture an image we were happy with, but the conditions were trying with blowing sand and bitterly cold temperatures. At least the offshore wind was blowing the spray away from the cameras! Chilled to the bone we finally retired to the small café at Jökulsárlón for a warming hot chocolate.

Jökulsárlón only appeared in the mid-1930s and now covers an area around 20 km2 due to climate change. Before 1950 the river used to run 1.5 km to the ocean, but now it is much closer, and seals swim from the sea up to the lagoon and rest on the ice floes. During our visit there weren’t that many and they were quite a distance away, making a 1,000mm lens essential to capture anything.

In recent years the lagoon has become very popular with tourists and getting good shots here is now challenging; flying drones has also been forbidden, even though the lagoon is just outside the Vatnajökull National Park Boundary. To avoid the crowds, this location is probably best captured during the white nights of the Arctic summer. Moreover, the ice will not be covered with snow, you will be able to see the black bands of volcanic sand, it will look bluer, and, as much of the surface ice will have melted, it should be possible to get some good reflections.

Sunset turned out to be a damp squib so we did not venture back onto the beach, but we did witness a very unusual sight: cloud iridescence, a diffraction phenomenon caused by small water droplets or small ice crystals individually scattering light.

After dinner in a restaurant in Höfn, we headed back to Vestrahorn to do some astrophotography. We wanted to get a few shots of the Milky Way over the massif before the moon rose too high, and of course we hoped for an aurora display. Despite getting all your ducks in a row beforehand, there are so many variables that can wreck even the best laid plans in Iceland. This is especially the case when it comes to viewing the Northern Lights, the thing every traveller and photographer wants to see. This celestial spectacle is created when the solar wind – charged particles from the Sun that brush past our planet – meets the Earth’s magnetic field and the two interact. The particles from the Sun slide along the contours of the magnetic field towards the poles and when they reach the upper atmosphere, they interact with gases. The particles can give the air molecules enough energy to release electrons, causing them to glow in a range of colours.

Catching a good aurora display is contingent on many things. Firstly, the strength of the aurora which is dependent on solar activity. This is constantly surveyed by satellite and can be fairly accurately predicted some 48 hours in advance. The stronger the solar activity, the stronger and more colourful the aurora will be. Even with clear skies, you are not guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, as it depends where the auroral oval is sited. Then of course there is the weather to consider, and we have been thwarted on more than one occasion with good activity forecast, but saw nothing due to cloudy skies.

Although the skies were clear, our visit coincided with very low aurora activity, but we managed to capture a green glow over Vestrahorn. As we were shooting, the moon rose over the Atlantic Ocean and hung there like a Chinese lantern casting a long beam of pearlescent light over the water. It felt truly magical to be standing on a deserted volcanic beach in the moonlight listing to the sound of waves relentlessly pounding the shore. In all, it hadn’t been a bad first day and back at our apartment we enjoyed a few nightcaps of Icelandic schnapps – Brennivín – chilled by lumps of 1,000 year old ice taken from Breiðamerkurjökull!

Midnight magicThe Milky Way soars into a sky tinted green by the Northern Lights over Vestrahorn near Höfn. Stack of 3 images. The image of stars was taken using the Astrotracer function. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm at 15mm f/4.5 120 seconds ISO 400

Day Three: Whiteout!

What a difference a day makes! Outside the wind was howling and a blizzard was raging making it impossible to see more than a few metres. Another dawn photoshoot at Vestrahorn was out of the question. We returned to bed and after a late breakfast the wind had dropped enough to make it safe to venture out for some supplies at a local supermarket. We then returned to Breiðamerkursandur in the hope that there might be a further improvement in the weather. As we sat holed up in our jeep waiting for a break in the cloud, we spotted people disgorged from a nearby tour bus get swallowed by spindrift lifted in gale force winds tearing menacingly across the car park. Barely able to stand, they turned tail and staggered back on to the bus! It was not a day conducive to photography!

In fact our visit coincided with the worst February weather for years, so we spent the rest of the day driving to potential photo locations and then returned to our apartment and fired up our laptop to do some backup and processing of the images we had taken yesterday.  

Day Four: Awed by Ice

A pre-dawn start saw us leave Höfn for the journey westward to our self-catering accommodation in the tiny hamlet of Heimamenn near Skógar, which was to be our base for the next 3 days. We were still not wholly satisfied with the images we had previously taken at Breiðamerkursandur and we wanted to catch the dawn there. We expected to see other photographers at the beach, but the number of tourists swarming about surprised us. Each time we return to Iceland, the tourist numbers seem to be growing making it challenging to take images at some of the most popular sites. For this reason we decided against touring an ice cave this trip, as our last one was ruined by literally scores of loud people, most brandishing mobile phones on selfie sticks.

Dancing with waves!Dancing with waves!Taken with a HTC mobile phone. Martin attempting to photograph an iceberg on the 'Diamond Beach'. To avoid the crowds we wandered further along the beach and finally lucked out with a gleaming translucent iceberg tinged turquoise being lapped by the retreating surf. The spray kept misting up the filters, the cold was eviscerating and our fingers were frozen to the bone. Despite the fact that the sun did not make an appearance due to cloud on the horizon, and consequently there was not much colour in the golden hour, we finally managed to capture a moody shot of the aqua-cool iceberg surrounded by streaks of white foam as a wave receded over the black sand.

Feeling blueA lone iceberg washed by the suf on the famous 'Diamond Beach'. Pentax K1 DF15-30mm at 30mm f/22 1/5 second ISO 100 After refreshments at the Jökulsárlón Café, we headed west along ring road 1, stopping at Fjallsárlón. This lagoon is also fed by a glacier spilling down from Vatnajökull, and at only a tenth of the size of nearby Jökulsárlón, you can clearly see the nose of the calving glacier, get up close to beached icebergs, and it’s less busy with tourists. We feel it’s the better bet of the two for photography. A short walk from the parking area at the aptly named Frost Restaurant brought us to a viewpoint over the lagoon.

A grand vista was spread before us. Glowering beneath cloud-wreathed mountains, the frozen lake was covered by a thin dusting of sleet which created intricate ripple patterns across its surface. In the distance we could clearly see the glacier with its gnarled grey and turquoise nose displaying bands of black volcanic sand which resembled the patterns in a stick of rock. Several large icebergs that had broken away from the ice cap into the lagoon were trapped in the ice like an insect in amber.

FjallsárlónSet up and waiting for the weather to improve. Taken on a HTC mobile phone As we descended closer to the lake shore, the weather abruptly changed, the wind began to blow furiously and within minutes we were fighting our way through sleet and spindrift to the shelter of a beached iceberg. Visibility was close to zero. In Iceland, it’s wise to be patient with the weather which can give you three or four seasons in a day. Half an hour later, the squally weather front had passed over, the cloud on the mountains began to lift and some sunlight began to touch the glacier. We even managed to fly the drone! Eventually the sun slid low enough in the sky to give some interesting colour to the cloud and we managed to capture some good reflections of the mountains, glacier and icebergs in a section of the lake that was not frozen.

ReflectionsSome late afternoon light transformed the scene at Fjallsárlón. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 37mm f/10 20 seconds ISO 100 From here we progressed to Svínafellsjökull hoping to get some fire in the sky over the glacier at dusk. This was not to be as the sun was swallowed by cloud blanketing the western horizon. Nonetheless, the close-up views of the shattered nose of the turquoise glacier impregnated with stripes of black volcanic sand were incredibly impressive. We lingered around for the blue hour with the place totally to ourselves which gave us plenty of time to fly the drone, and take in the awe and majesty of this icy wonderland which was the film location for Mann’s planet in the film Interstellar.

GlaciatedBlue hour at Svínafellsjökull. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 58mm f/16 5 seconds ISO 100 As we got back in the jeep for the long drive to Heimamenn, the weather really deteriorated, with gale force winds driving clouds of spindrift across the road. Traversing Mýrdalssandur, a vast glacial outwash plain, visibility was dreadful and we were barely able to see the road. We were relieved to make it to Vík í Mýrdal where we stopped briefly for dinner. We then managed to crawl in low gear up the hill out of Vík and carefully negotiated the long, winding descent the other side past several lorries that were either stranded or struggling to climb the hill. Along the exposed coastline towards Heimamenn we could feel the gale force wind buffeting the jeep and could barely see the road in the snow and spindrift. After safely arriving at our accommodation following such a nerve-wracking journey, it was Surtur Imperial stouts all round!

Day Five: The Primeval South Coast

Yet again the weather thwarted any hope of a dawn photoshoot as another blizzard was raging outside. The proximity to the coast and the flat terrain resulted in snow drifting several feet deep and it was banked up against the door of our cabin. Like children, we couldn’t resist going outside to walk through the pristine blanket of whiteness lying snugly over the landscape! In a field opposite we spied a team of Icelandic horses silhouetted against a brooding steel-grey sky as another weather front began to sweep in from the Atlantic bringing yet more snow. This breed of horse was originally brought over by Viking settlers around 1,000 years ago, and they really are the most remarkable hardy little beasts! We managed to get a reasonable hand held shot of the agitated animals illuminated by fleeting lurid sunlight.

There's a storm coming!A team of Icelandic horse are agitated by the imminent arrival of another snow storm. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 37mm f/6.3 1/500 second ISO 100 It wasn’t until midday that the storm abated enough for a snow plough to clear Route 1 which enabled us to drive down to Skógafoss. This waterfall, one of the biggest in Iceland with a drop of 60 metres and a width of 25 metres, is undoubtedly one of the main tourist attractions in the southern region and was consequently thronged with day-trippers. The increase in visitors means it’s now forbidden to fly drones here, and we found it impossible to take any decent shots. Apart from the number of people, the spray was unfortunately being blown back down the river drenching our cameras and misting up the filters which then froze in the sub-zero temperatures. Luckily the Pentax K1 cameras we use are weatherproof and the Pentax lenses are also weather resistant, which are very useful features in an Icelandic winter.

Superlative SkógafossThronged with tourists and shrouded in freezing spray made photography here almost impossible. Taken on a HTC mobile phone. After a delicious lunch of lamb soup at the nearby Skógafoss Hotel, we made our way over to Dyrhólaey, a headland which in Icelandic means ‘the hill island with the door-hole’, on account of its sea arch. The small road up to the car park by a lighthouse where you get the best views over the sea arch was unfortunately closed to vehicles and pedestrians due to the inclement weather, so we made our way from the lower car park to the cliff top overlooking the impressive Arnardrangur (Eagle Rock), a basalt sea stack rising from the expansive black sands of a vast bay sweeping in an arc towards the iconic sea stacks of Reynisdrangar below Reynisfjara Mountain. With a slight lull in the wind, we managed to get some long-exposure shots of the stack, and a telephoto long-exposure of the Reynisdrangar.

Where eagle's dareArnardrangur (Eagle Rock), a basalt sea stack with the Reynisdrangar below Reynisfjara Mountain in the distance. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 40mm f/16 120 seconds ISO 100 Stone trollsA telephoto long-exposure shot of the Reynisdrangar from Dyrhólaey. Pentax K1 Tamron SP70-200m at 200mm f/5 2.5 seconds ISO 100

Moving location, we were fortunate to experience some good light radiating down through broken cloud over the sea stacks lying just beyond the sea arch. The largest of these is the 56 metre-high Háidrangur (High Column).

Sea Stacks off DyrhólaeyThe winter sun breaks through the cloud over Háidrangur. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 87.5mm f/6.3 1/60 second ISO 100 After this we went to Vík í Mýrdal for the blue hour. This tiny community of 300 souls is the southern-most village in Iceland and lies directly south of Mýrdalsjökull, a glacier that sits above the Katla volcano. Katla has not erupted since 1918, and following the violent 2010 eruption of neighbouring Eyjafjallajökull which generated an enormous ash cloud that grounded thousands of European flights, volcanologists suspect that an eruption is overdue. This could melt enough ice to trigger a jökulhlaup (glacial outburst flood) potentially large enough to obliterate the village. Víkurkirkja (Vík Church), located high on a hill above the village, is believed to be the only building that would survive such a cataclysmic event and consequently the villagers are drilled to evacuate their homes for church at the first sign of an eruption.

We set up our tripods at a vantage point just above the picture postcard-pretty Víkurkirkja, which was built in the 1930s. Here we had excellent views of the red-roofed church in the foreground and the iconic Reynisdrangar sea stacks floating in the surf just beyond the black sand beach. Our patience was rewarded with a good long-exposure shot of the Reynisdrangar, and another of the little church as the lights that illuminate it at night came on, adding contrasting warmth to the chilled-lavender landscape. After another meal at Halldorskaffi, an excellent value restaurant with a varied menu (the Icelandic four cheese settlers’ pizza with redcurrant jelly is phenomenal after a day braving the elements!), we headed back to Skógafoss.

The trolls at duskA long-exposure shot of the Reynisdrangar from Víkurkirkja. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 150mm f/32 8 seconds ISO 100 Aurora activity was forecast to be very low, and the sky was annoyingly cloudy, so we didn’t expect a celestial light show over the falls. With the place solely to ourselves, we used an LED light and a torch to illuminate the waterfall using the painting by light technique, with reasonable results despite the spray which absolutely drenched the two of us holding the lighting!

Night at SkógafossA long exposure using an LED torch to illuminate the waterfall. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 28mm f/3.5 49 seconds ISO 400

Day Six: Scenery Straight from the Sagas

We were on the road back to Skógafoss just before dawn, arriving early in the hope of getting some shots without people wandering into frame. The car park was virtually empty, but conditions still weren’t great for the long-exposure images we were after. The sun failed to break through the cloud, the spray was equally as bad as the day before and the cliffs were etched in monochrome iciness. Moreover, the ground was like a glass bottle making traction cleats/microspikes essential. A lone Chinese woman in a red cape broke the monotony of the scenery, but we did not waste any more time shooting here. A future visit will hopefully bring better luck with the conditions.

Grey dawn at SkógafossA lone woman in red breaks the monochrome monotony of the icy scene. Pentax K1 DFA15-30mm at 30mm f/3.5 6 seconds ISO 100 From here we travelled back to Vík í Mýrdal to visit the famous black sand beach which offers fine views of the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks. These are remnants of the Reynisfjall cliffs which have been eroded away by the relentless Atlantic. In 1991, the US journal, Islands Magazine, counted Vík beach as one of the ten most beautiful non-tropical beaches on Earth.

Predictably, on arrival we discovered that the bitterly cold wind was gusting up to gale force, blowing spray far inland and lifting vast quantities of sand which blinded us. To add to the challenge, the tide was coming in, and as there is no landmass between southern Iceland and Antarctica, the Atlantic rollers can attack with full force. Great care is needed not to get a real soaking.

This primeval landscape could be lifted straight from the pages of the Icelandic Sagas, and there is indeed a local folklore story about these iconic basalt sea stacks. Legend has it that the three stacks were formerly two trolls dragging a three-masted ship towards land under cover of darkness. Unfortunately for them, the hours of darkness did not last long enough for them to drag the ship safely to shore, and at the break of dawn they were caught in the rays of the sun and instantly turned to stone! The stack nearest land is the old fogy, Landdrangur; Langsamur, the centre stack, is the trolls’ ship; and bringing up the rear is the old hag, Háidrangur.

We spent almost two hours dodging the sleety showers and ‘dancing with waves’ in the hope of getting a decent long-exposure image, or capturing the scalloped-shaped foamy patterns of surf on black sand. The wind and sinking sand militated against keeping the tripod steady enough for many long-exposure shots, and the spray continually misting up the filters didn’t help either; hand-held images were undoubtedly the best bet in such conditions.

Riding the wavesThe Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks face the brunt of yet another Atlantic weather front. Taken from the black sand beach at Vík í Mýrdal. Pentax K1 DFA28-105mm at 68mm f/4.5 2 seconds ISO 100

After this we drove to Sólheimajökull where several tour companies offer walks on the glacier. Our intention was to shoot some drone footage of our jeep travelling along the winding road to the parking area which worked a treat in a window of calm weather between two snow storms.

We then proceeded to Gljúfrabúi at Hamragarðar. In Icelandic, Gljúfrabúi means ‘the one that lives within the canyon’, and this provides a clue. Hidden behind a cleft in the cliff-face is a 40 metre high waterfall which you can access by wading up the river running through the cleft. Less well-known than its famous neighbour, Seljalandsfoss, this little gem evokes an atmosphere straight out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the sheer volume of water cascading down into the cave at the foot of the falls threw up clouds of fine spray which made filming inside impossible, but we grabbed some video footage outside with our DJI Osmo. From here we drove round to Seljalandsfoss which in recent years has become far too over-commercialised. You now have to pay to park here and the crowds of coach tourists, huge amounts of spray and poor light at dusk made a photoshoot nigh on impossible.

We decided to pack up and scoot back to Vík hoping to shoot a time-lapse sequence above Víkurkirkja during the blue hour. The weather looked ominous as we set up our tripods above the church and on cue, a blizzard swept in rendering the time-lapse useless. We were about to pack up and call it a day when the snow and wind abated and the conditions swiftly improved for a long-exposure shot of the church as the lights came on.

Shooting Víkurkirkja at duskCapturing the church in the blue hour after a blizzard. Pentax K1 DFA8-105mm at 28mm f/4.5 1/13 second ISO 1600 A touch of the bluesVíkurkirkja during the blue hour. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 87.5mm f/11 10 seconds ISO 100 Sadly for us, it was the same story as regards the night sky: zero visibility due to cloud cover and low aurora activity. We turned in early as the following day we had a long drive back to Reykjavík.

Day Seven: Stone the Trolls!

At last our luck turned on our final day of photography. Broken cloud covered the sky as we journeyed to Reynisfjara Beach on the western side of Vík and we were hopeful of getting some good dawn light over the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks. Here you are not only right underneath the 340m high Reynisfjall Mountain which boasts one of the most spectacular basalt column formations in Iceland, but much closer to the sea stacks which look totally different from this vantage point.

However, there is a caveat. This beach must be treated with the utmost respect for it is one of the most dangerous in Iceland. Filming here can be extremely treacherous as ‘sneaker waves’ - disproportionately large coastal waves that can sometimes appear in a wave train without warning – have washed people out to sea, resulting in several recent drownings. We watched numerous people get absolutely soaked as they stupidly ran the gauntlet of the Atlantic breakers in the incoming tide to round a small headland, beyond which is another beach and a basalt column cave.

We have prior form on this beach which has previously claimed the life of a drone and a camera, and with very high seas, this time we played it safe and were happy with the images we shot of the sun exploding over the trolls from the main beach. We also managed to fly our drone to get great views of the Reynisdrangar and the expanse of black sands towards Dyrhólaey before the weather once more closed in, driving us from the beach and back on the road towards Reykjavík.

The trolls from Reynisfjara BeachDawn over the Reynisdrangar at the black sand beach where the Atlantic rollers make photography challenging. Pentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 58mm f/11 1/6 second ISO 100 From Route 1 we spotted the church at Eyvindarhóla, consecrated in 1961, which was being virtually consumed in a snowstorm. We managed to photograph this wee place of warmth, sanctuary and refuge which was defiantly standing firm in the grip of this brutal icy Atlantic blast. It seemed to be an allegory for taking shelter against life’s storms.

Shelter from the stormThe small church at Eyvindarhóla is virtually swallowed by a blizzard. Pentax K1 Tamron SP 70-200mm at 180mm f/7.1 1/320 second ISO 400 After a brief stop at Urriðafoss on the 230 kilometre-long Þjórsá River, the most voluminous waterfall in the country on its longest river, we headed towards Brúarfoss (Bridge Falls), said to be the bluest waterfall in Iceland. Brúarfoss isn’t easy to find, as it’s hidden away amid a jumble of holiday cabins accessed by backcountry roads where the snow was metres deep and impassable even with a jeep. We managed to find a place to park and then had to break trail in a snow-storm through knee-high snow towards the sound of a river.

The falls form a part of the Brúará River, a branch of the Hvita River fed by Langjökull (the Lang Glacier). The Brúará River squeezes itself through a crevice in the volcanic rock and thousands of tiny rivulets pour down into it to emerge in a series of sky-blue rapids which look totally surreal set against the obsidian-black rock. Arriving before dusk, we were rewarded for our efforts as the snow squall suddenly ceased, the sky cleared and the setting sun gave us some interesting light, enabling us to take a few long exposure shots. Needless to say, we had the place totally to ourselves!

Dusk at BrúarfossThe unbelievably blue water of the Brúará River contrasts with the obsidian-black volcanic rock, lending these falls a surreal feel. Pentax K1 DFA 28-105mm at 53mm f/4.5 4 seconds ISO 200 From here we hastened through another blizzard to the accommodation we always use in Reykjavík - the Igdlo Guesthouse - and after a shower and change of clothes, we made for the Grillmarkaðurinn restaurant where we enjoyed a sumptuous eight course Icelandic meal.


Next morning we were up at stupid o’clock to get our flight back to Belfast. The weather had certainly been extremely challenging, but that is part of the appeal of Iceland. You never quite know what to expect in a country with such an unpredictable and fickle climate, and it pays to keep a fluid itinerary. Out of many thousands of images shot, we were satisfied with a haul of a dozen or so good photos and several minutes of new drone footage. Indeed, in our experience of winter in this Atlantic island, where the quality of the light is simply extraordinary, patience and persistence are always eventually rewarded. Quite simply, Iceland in winter is the coolest place on Earth for photography!

Contact us for details of our future Iceland photo tours. Want to know what Iceland is really like in winter? Watch our thrilling short film on You Tube: 




Ainsley Cocks(non-registered)
Hi Sharron and Martin,

Iceland is truly breath-taking and you have captured the adventure of the trip and the beauty of the landscapes brilliantly. The weather is definitely a challenge, as you say, but it forces the photographer to try that little bit harder to get memorable images. I ‘m very much looking forward to travelling with Purple Peak again on one of your forthcoming photographic adventures – keep up the excellent work!
Northern Adventures(non-registered)
Hi Sharonn & Martin, really interesting adventure you had on Iceland - reading your blogpost, it was very interesting to see how the familiar landscape looks frozen and wind-beaten - it was surely very beautiful albeit cold - down jackets certainly came handy :-).
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