16 Apr 2014

The Blue Hour, Iceland

For landscape photographers, the winner of the best lighting condition award always seems to go to the golden hours, those periods after sunrise and before sunset. As a result, most landscape photographs I tend to see in magazines or competitions have a similar look - bathed in a pinkish-orangey glow. You may be in the right place at the right time to try to capture this light, but it's not always possible - the one thing you can't plan for as a photographer is what the weather will do. This may not be a problem if you live close to your chosen subject - you can just visit another day when the light is right, but if you're travelling to take landscape photographs during a short period of time, this can have a big impact.

So, even though the glow of the magic/golden hours can be spectacular, I think it's possible to take/make great photographs in sub-optimal light conditions, which is just as well. Often I prefer non-golden hour shots anyway. Even if the light isn't "perfect" I think it's best to make the most of what you've got; the results can be just as pleasing and possibly more original. One place I keep returning to is a great example of where you are at the mercy of the weather; this place is Iceland. I've travelled there each March for the past few years as I love the time of year; there's still some snow around, there's a chance to see the northern lights, and sunrise and sunset (if there are such things) are at sociable times of day. The light can be magnificent (or dreadful!) at any time of day or night, and there are not too many people about (although the numbers of photographers and tourists are increasing noticeably year-on-year). The roads - once away from Reykjavik - are beautifully empty too.

My favourite place (which if you've seen any of my previous blogs you'll know!) is Jökulsárlón beach - two strips of black sand straddling a river at the foot of a glacial lake, which brings a constant stream of icebergs into the sea, which then bashes them up and deposits them back on the beach, carved into beautiful shapes. I've spent a number of days and nights in the area, and during three trips I've only managed to see one reasonable sunrise. I was lucky enough to see the northern lights there this year, but otherwise the weather has generally been grey, often rainy and misty, with the occasional spot of sun, snow and hail thrown in for good measure. I've persevered though, and always come away with some shots I'm happy with, in spite of the often disappointing and frustrating weather. My favourite conditions, I think, are at dusk or dawn on a gloomy day, when the light becomes blue and moody - the "blue hour" I think it could be called (just checked wikipedia - it appears it is called that anyway!). If my toes didn't freeze I'd probably spend far longer there as nighttime approaches.

This is my "Blue Hour, Iceland" collection, captured once the sun has gone below the horizon. There has been a little post-processing with each image - it's certainly challenging processing rather dark shots.

9 Apr 2014

Iceland 2014 - Day 9: Last day around the Reykjanes Peninsula

My exhaustion had got the better of me; no early morning to see the Solfar, but a lie-in instead (a cursory glance out of the window at 7am had showed me clouds anyway). Check-out was irritatingly early (10am) but at least it meant that I was on the road at a reasonable time in order to have a enough time for a leisurely drive out of Reykjavik and around the Reykjanes Peninsula, before getting to the airport to dump the car and check-in.

I headed towards the airport, but turned off towards Kleifarvatn, which I'd driven along in the rain two years earlier, during a rushed journey back to Keflavik. The road was unpaved in places, but it was open and easily drivable. A big-wheeled van ahead of me turned off towards Bláfjöll and I suddenly became worried that the Inside the Volcano tour might now run in early spring after all but I'd failed to check (I checked when I got home - it's still only running from mid-May until September, so I hadn't missed out!). The scenery was not spectacular along the shore of the lake (I missed the peaks, the glaciers and the basalt columns...) but it was a pleasant-enough drive. There were a few spots where I could have stopped for a little dander and a few snaps, but I was becoming increasingly worried about the car not re-starting, so decided not to stop in what was effectively the middle of nowhere.

I passed the sulphurous hillsides of Krýsuvík, but decided to continue onwards, as I'd stopped there in the rain the last time and a high layer of cloud hung above, so the light was pretty poor. I continued driving towards the coast and then turned towards Grindavik, which turned out to be a very uninspiring town, and was probably only in existence because of the nearby geothermal plant (the effluent of which has produced the world-famous Blue Lagoon). I drove through the town, wondering if there would be anything of interest to see. There were a few old houses, and some rusty fishing boats but nothing to get excited about, so I carried on west towards the tip of the peninsula, hoping for some slightly more inspiring scenery.

Ahead of me I could see a few large plumes of steam from a large geothermal plant at Gunnuhver. I'd passed above this lake and steam vents on the approach into Keflavik a few times and again assumed that it was the Blue Lagoon, but this wasn't a place that you could go for a soak and spa treatments. There was a turn-off and a touristy-looking sign, so I headed down the track to a parking area. There were some boardwalks alongside some yellow crusty sulphur vents and steam pouring out across the landscape in front of me (with the large plumes of steam from the vents at the plant in the distance). I had a quick wander around; if I'd had more time I'd have gone further on towards a lighthouse that sat atop a hill, not far from the south-westernmost point of the country.

Instead I continued on around the end of the peninsula, passing a museum on Iceland's geothermal activities; I didn't stop as I wanted to get back to the airport in good time to re-pack my bag (trying to get an enormous tripod into a backpack is challenging!) and driving anywhere always took me longer than planned. As I drove north again I noticed some surf off to the west and saw a couple of cars parked behind some grassy black dunes. I headed down a bumpy road and found myself at a surf beach. A couple of guys donning wetsuits were just getting back to their cars, boards tucked under arms, and two more were swimming out past the surf in the distance, waiting for the right wave. A couple of men played ball with their excited dogs on the wide beach; a pointer bound up to me, stuck its wet nose towards me, and then raced away again as quickly. It wasn't the prettiest of beaches, but it was nice to stumble upon something a bit different.

A few photos later and it was back to the car, a quick stop in Hafnir to photograph some picturesque wooden houses, before returning to the airport.

I was glad to drop off the car, having a good moan at the man about the petrol cap being stuck, the lack of auxillary function through which to listen to an iPod, the battery running out on the remote key and the fact that is was a petrol, not diesel, vehicle (which cost me about £50 more to run during the trip, I reckoned). He did, however, confirm that there was no damage (always good!) and dropped me off at the terminal building (fully loaded my backpack weighed just under 20kg and the day pack about 12kg so walking wouldn't have been a pleasant option). Having odd-shaped hold luggage meant that I didn't have to join the enormous bag-drop queue, giving me more time to shop and eat and marvel at the sculptures. I bought a couple of bottles of local fire-water (a birch-flavoured schnapps and a blueberry liqueur), some chocolate-covered liquorice, and sat in a café eating a fish pie until it was finally time to depart my beloved Iceland.

The plane left on time, thankfully (no waiting around, no cancellation, no excessive drinking, no horrendous hangover...), and I sat next to a lovely equine photographer with whom I spent the next couple of hours discussing our mutual love of the place.

It always saddens me to leave Iceland, as I watch the coastline and the road across the strange black landscape eventually disappear beneath the clouds. I'd had a great trip, having seen the northern lights properly (finally!), having visited a few new places, I'd had no major mishaps (first day hangover aside), the weather had been reasonable (for Iceland), and I was returning with a selection of shots that upon first review I was pretty happy with. I was tired, excited to review the photos properly, but mostly I was really looking forward to getting home to my beloved London and to my boys. And I know I'll be back to Iceland soon (maybe when it's green and covered with wildflowers, one of these days?). Until the next time...

Click here for Day 8 blog

5 Apr 2014

Iceland 2014 - Day 8: Vik to Reykjavik

I woke up really early in my beautiful hotel room in Vik, feeling sad as it was my last full day in Iceland and knowing that I had to leave the south coast behind and head back to Reykjavik. I got dressed and headed out to Vik beach, a short drive away. 

The last time I'd driven to that beach was on my last day the previous year when the small town was covered with snow. This time it was grey, the air heavy with moisture. The clear skies forecast had again failed to materialise.

I was surprised to find that I was the only person there when I arrived, in spite of the presence of another car in the car-park. I plonked my tripod down on the beach and became mesmerised by the waves breaking over the occasional large, smooth black pebble as the water returned to the sea towards the beguiling stacks on the horizon. There was no dawn/pre-sunrise glow as the clouds were too dense, but after the sun had officially risen (behind those clouds) a break in the cloud appeared on the horizon allowing a small amount of colour to light up some of the otherwise grey clouds in the distance. The colours were subtle, but worth getting up for, I decided.

Half an hour after my arrival a van of photographers arrived, all settling into similar spots no doubt to take similar photographs, I imagined (I shouldn't judge as I'd never been on one of these organised photo tours, but I couldn't really imagine anything worse (photography-wise)). This year there were no interesting patterns of snow and hail on the beach, no dusting of snow on the black hills beyond, no sunlight glinting subtley on those hills, and no oyster catchers at the shoreline to amuse me. Just the sea. Even that was fairly tame, compared with my first visit there two years earlier; I will never forget the noise of the gargantuan waves breaking against the black pebbles and dragging them back with them (quite deafening, it was!).

Just after the photographers arrived it started to rain. I'd seen the responsible clouds coming in from the east for a while, and as sure as it always does in Vik (for me, anyway), it rained. I continued on for a while until my gloves were soaked and my feet cold. I had a tight schedule again, with an arrangement to meet my Icelandic friends Sigrún and Johannes at their house just outside Reykjavik between 4 and 5pm, which meant that I had limited time in some places. I headed back to the hotel, and tucked into the cold pizza - surprisingly good (and useful as I'd irritatingly left my Skyr and granola (not to mention the remaining ham and cheese) in the fridge at Hali). Out of the enormous window I watched kittiwakes on the bird cliff behind - it was a great view, but I hoped it didn't affect them, having this massive hotel with bright lights just in front of them.

I then had what I can only describe as the best shower I'd ever had (a rain-shower head a foot in diameter with a separate hand-held head for rinsing my hair). It was the only place I'd stayed on the trip that provided decent shampoo and shower gel in a little bottle; all that the other guesthouses had provided (in shared bathrooms) was generic "hair and body wash" (hint: always take your own shampoo and conditioner if you're staying in guesthouses!). After about 10 or 15 minutes of wallowing under the hot waterfall I eventually packed up my stuff and headed out through the strangely half-finished hotel to the car to continue on my journey west.

My next stop was Reynisfjara; there was no way that I could visit the Vik area without popping in on my favourite basalt-column-cliffed beach, in spite of the dull grey skies. As I pulled in a coach was just pulling out (it was later than I'd thought) and the beach was - briefly - mine. For the first time ever I was there at low tide, and was able to walk around the edge of the basalt columns and have a look up in awe at the caves. The beach wasn't gouged out as it had been last year. Soon a few other people arrived, climbing up onto the columns for photos; I took a couple of self-portraits too (in the blue jacket series!).

It was 10.45am before I left the basalt beach behind and continued on my journey westwards. My next stop was one of my most exciting ones: somewhere new, and somewhere a little bit risky. I'd read about a crashed United States Navy DC 3 that lay on the black sands just past Vik, 2km south of the ring road. I'd found someone's blog which showed exactly where it was (thank you vividscapes!), and although I didn't want to pay to get the GPRS on my iPhone, I'd pinpointed the site on Google Maps and taken pictures of the map, and looked on Google Street View to familiarise myself with the exact location of the turn-off (you can also see the plane if you zoom right in on Google Maps). In the end it was easy enough to find as someone else turned off the road just as I approached and then in the distance two vehicles came towards us, so we knew we were on the right track. I overtook the car in front, as they were pootling along very slowly, and in my slightly higher 4WD I was able to coast along over the black sand, following the previous visitors' tracks.

After a couple of kilometres the surface of the flat black sand began undulating a little and again I was glad to have the car I had (in spite of the ongoing irritation with the failing remote starting mechanism, which made me curse every time I tried to start the damn thing). After a few ups and downs over the bumpy track the ominous vision of the crashed plane loomed into view, strangely white-looking against a back-drop of black sands and dark clouds. I parked nearby, got out and started photographing the magnificent ruin before the other car arrived. It was spitting, so the filters had to be wiped off after every few shots.

The engines and the wingtips had been removed, but the shell was in pretty good condition, with wires and pieces of the ripped fuselage dangling and swaying slightly in the wind. Graffiti covered the plane's body, visitors wanting to leave their mark. The other car arrived, they took a few photos and soon drove off again (check!). I was there for about an hour, during which time about 4 or 5 other jeeps arrived, including a super-jeep with the huge blown-up wheels, which whizzed over the sand, dumped its passengers for a quick stop, a wander around and through the plane, a few photos, before whizzing away, bumping over the wavy black sand towards the sea nearby.

As I was there the light rain eventually stopped and the sun even came out briefly. There were still reasonably fast-moving clouds with good contrast, so I put on my 10-stop filter and did a couple of long exposures (since converted to black and white). I loved the place; especially after everyone else had gone and it was just me, my car, my camera and the majestic ruined plane.
I had to tear myself away; the time was right for the sun to shine on Skogafoss not far away, according to the trusted Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE). The journey back over the sand was easy too, following the tracks my car and others had made, heading towards the hills inland. I easily reached the track that led back on to the Route 1 and off I went towards the falls. It was still pretty cloudy, but as soon as I reached Skogafoss the skies had cleared to the north, and the sun had come out, creating an amazing rainbow to the side of the falls! Previously I'd seen the falls under mist, rain, drizzle, shade and generally grey skies. To see it - finally - in its full glory, with the sun reflecting in the spray, was a great privilege. As I parked I noticed some brightly-coloured outfits glinting in the sunshine and as I got out of the car I realised that a tai chi class was about to begin, made up mainly of children; it was quite a bizarre - if fortuitous - event to stumble upon. After the earlier sights of the day, made up of brown, black, grey and white, it was great to see not only the colourful outfits, but also the rainbow and the blue sky behind.

The falls looked much more beautiful and picturesque than I'd seen them before, if a little chocolate-boxy. I took a number of photos, playing around with the filters (which again had to be wiped after every couple of shots). The rainbow was pretty impressive and pretty intense, and a second one could just be seen. The spray, however (the reason for the waterfall) was coming forward and making it tricky for all the photographers to get a shot clear from tiny water-droplets. I took a few more self-portraits in the blue jacket before tearing myself away.

The other striking waterfall along the coast is Seljalandfoss, but I knew I'd be arriving too early for the best of the light (most of the falls would be in shadow). True enough, just the top of the falls poked out from the shadow of the steep cliffs, so I stopped only briefly to get a sandwich and visit the loo before heading on (didn't take a single photo, which is very unlike me!). I'd visited it the previous year when the time of day and light conditions had been perfect, so didn't feel the need to take a bunch of sub-par shots here!

The rest of the drive back to Reykjavik is a little disappointing, after the grandeur of the scenery further east, but at least I didn't feel the need to pull over at the side of the road every five minutes; the sky was filled with high clouds and the light was poor, so it was just as well. The only other stop I had planned between there and Reykjavik was Urriðafoss, one of my favourite waterfalls in the country, and one that's barely in the guidebooks. I kept expecting to come to it, as I reached the tops of hills, as I had a vague memory of where it was from last year. Finally I turned the bend, went over the bridge (it sits just downstream from the main road where it crosses a massive river), and took the left turn down to the parking area. A couple of cars were there when I arrived, but pulled away as I got out. I walked along the path downstream from the falls to get to the little rocky hill that sits below them and from where the view is best. A huge slab of snow sat upon some rocks at the top of one of the falls. The water was as intensely green as I'd remembered, presumably from the glacial waters that it carried down to the sea.

The falls, unusually, had looked better with grey skies the previous year, but I managed a few shots, trying out - as always - a combination of filters and shutter speeds. I left just as the sun disappeared behind more clouds, at 4pm - meaning that I'd be lucky to get to my destination past Reykjavik by 5pm. The traffic always picks up at Selfoss, not far from Urriðafoss, but it wasn't bad and there were no major delays, other than a little slower driving up the enormous hill past Hveragerði. The pass takes you up onto a high plain where last year I'd met driving snow. This year there was just old snow lying on the ground, but the road was clear and my journey to Hafnarfjordur was a quick and easy one. Again, I'd taken pictures on my iPhone of the directions to my friends' house, and managed to follow these without much problem, and arrived on the quaint peninsula of Alftanes at 5pm on the dot. It was great to see Sigrún and Johannes and their two young children, who'd moved back there from London last summer. We scoffed delicious waffles that Sigrún had just made, smothered in strawberry jam and whipped cream and then the children ran around the house giggling like crazy; they were displaying "guest behaviour" Johannes told me (there's a word for it in Icelandic which roughly amounts to a cross between playing up and showing off!).

As the light began to fade and sunset neared I headed back in to Reykjavik, having left it just a little too late for the best of the sunset. I stopped briefly opposite their house at a small beach before parking near the Solfar back in town, now able to navigate my routes in Reykjavik much more ably (I have got lost there on a number of occasions previously). I should have stopped at the pond, where the sun was falling directly behind and the swans and ducks pottered about on the ice, but I didn't stop in time and it was too far to walk back from my parking spot. The light wasn't very interesting at Solfar so I wandered along to Harpa, the magnificent theatre and opera house. The remaining light on the clouds reflected in Harpa's many windows as hoards of people arrived to enjoy a Saturday night out there.

I wandered back past Solfar for one last look before driving the very short distance to my accommodation, the Welcome Apartments, where I'd stayed a few times before. I'd hoped to meet up with another friend, but hadn't managed to get hold of him, so I headed out to Café Solon, alone as usual, with my iPhone for company (with free WiFi and an iPhone, who needs friends?!). The skies were clear but the forecast for northern lights wasn't great, so I headed to bed just before midnight, hoping to get up bright and early for a last sunrise at Solfar. As it happens the lights were apparently quite good, but I was so exhausted there was no way I could have gone out in search of them again.

Click here for Day 7 blog
Click here for Day 9 blog

2 Apr 2014

Iceland 2014 - Day 7: Driving from Jökulsárlón to Vik

The early start was not rewarded with a beautiful sunrise, sadly. The light was limited down at Jökulsárlón beach but lent the place a mysterious air. The overwhelming feeling was of blueness; a blue-grey sky, a dark-blue murky sea, blue-green icebergs and a slightly blue mood given that I was about to leave this magical place.

I arrived half an hour before any other photographers, and was able to enjoy the solitude which I rarely experienced on that beach. The waves trickled over large black stones giving beautiful tiny white trails. A few larger icebergs were pushed around by stronger waves.

I tore myself away when a line of orange appeared at the horizon and my onward journey beckoned. I had a lot to fit in on my planned schedule for the day: back to Hali to eat breakfast, pack up and check out, a quick visit to the lagoon, then a wander around the lagoon at Svinafellsjokull, a quick hike up to Svartifoss, then the long drive across the sandurs past Lomagnupur, stopping at Kirkjugolf, before finally reaching Vik in time for sunset.

Dragging myself away from that beach was painful, especially as the light was just beginning to get interesting, but I know I'll return soon, perhaps in summer one of these days.

I raced back, packed up quickly, took a last picture of Hali and set off, stopping a couple of times nearby to photograph the foggy hills; the sunny day forecast still hadn't materialised.

I stopped on both sides of the bridge at the lagoon, but the sky was still overcast and the light disappointing. A few clouds were forming in streaks with a stretch of pale blue sky behind, but dark clouds still sat upon the mountains behind the lagoon. The light was too poor for photos really, but I took a last couple of the blue bergs down below me.

And then it was an air kiss goodbye to Jokulsarlon and I headed off west, after the car eventually started, of course. First stop was Svinafellsjokull, a wonderful glacier pouring down from the Vatnajokull icefield into a lake below. I decided to hike around the lake, across steep moraine, to a small squelchy beach to view the lake from the shore. The hike was hard, but short, and soon I was sinking my boots down into the almost quicksand-like beach, waiting for the sun to come out to show off the glacier behind in its full glory. Some people say that ice glows bluer when the skies are grey, but when the skies are overcast and white the light on the glacier is dreadful!

By the time the sun finally came out, clouds had crept down over the spectacular peaks in the distance and the light was a bit harsh. I needed to return at sunset, but my plans never took me there at that time (next time, I noted to myself!).

As I made my way back along the moraine I managed to trip over and bash my elbow, knee and hand hard onto the ground. The camera lens cover rolled off, but fortunately there was no damage to the camera or lens. Even more fortunately, I'd just put the 60D with the zoom away (I'd been carrying both around my neck for a while), otherwise one of them would've been damaged, for sure. I felt angry with myself for being careless, but tried to be positive that the gear was unscathed, even if my joints weren't. I soon came across a great conch-shaped chunk of ice that shone in the sun, with a dark cloud behind it and I felt a bit better.

I looked across to the glacier, upon which the sun now shone. In the middle of the layers of ice I noticed two figures, just standing around, surrounded by blue ice. I hoped that they'd still be visible by the time I got back to the side of the glacier and along to the viewpoint. I was in luck, as they then began to walk down the glacier, which looked remarkably easy, after all.

When they reached the black dirty ice at the edge of the glacier I made my exit, as my allotted time had come to an end; it was time to head to the Skaftafell petrol station for a traditional burger lunch. As I arrived a coach-load of tourists pulled up so I raced inside to ensure I didn't get stuck behind them. The burger wasn't bad, but I certainly didn't need the coke and chips that came with it. My next stop was a hike up to Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park, and the junk-food sat heavily as I traipsed uphill through the birch trees with my heavy gear.

Clouds were passing over intermittently and when I reached Svartifoss the sky was grey and the falls and surrounding rocks looked dull. Unlike last year - when huge icicles hung precariously from the basalt columns - there was only a tiny amount of ice remaining and the falls flowed freely into the river below. I crossed the bridge (yet another new one, further downstream) in order to get some shots from the other side. The path that I'd previously taken down to the falls on the other bank, however, was closed "to protect flora" but I naughtily climbed through the fence and down the muddy path to the water's edge. As I descended I was startled by something white moving to my side and noticed four ptarmigan with their white winter plumage above me. As I knew I shouldn't be there I hastily took a couple of shots of both the birds and of the falls at the water's edge; the light was flat and the columns looked sooty. I returned to the official path, when finally the sun returned again, illuminating the new shoots on the shrubs that clung to the bank.

I continued on the west bank, going uphill briefly before the walk back down to the car. I wandered back down through the birch trees, my knee acheing a little from my earlier fall, the mountains ahead of me.

Once back at the car it was straight back on the road towards Lomagnupur, the mighty mountain that marks the bend in the road towards the west. There's a little road along the top of a bank that I always drive along and park the car half-way along and then run down the bank to photograph the mountain, often with me in it! Again, the clouds had come over as I'd approached, but they broke briefly to allow the sun to shine on my while I took another self-portrait.

The journey onwards was quick; I drove into rain, so there was no stopping at the basalt "church floor" at Kirkjugolf, no sun shone on the moss-covered lava fields beyond it, so I continued on towards Vik. I took a couple of brief stops - to photograph distant rain, and at some lava formations to the side of the road, that I stopped at once before in the snow. A huge cloud covered the sun ahead of me.

I arrived at Vik at 6.30pm and checked into my hotel (the nearly-completed Hotel Edda) but rushed on out to catch sunrise (if there were to be such a thing). Vik is situated in a little bay at the foot of a hill to the east of a big headland, so doesn't get the sunset light directly. I had an inkling that there might be a sunset hidden to the west, though, so I drove around the headland and on to Dyrholaey, driving up to the lighthouse (even though the road said "impassable"). A couple of other photographers were trying to enjoy the tiny amount of sunset light that highlighted the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) on the horizon. Between the islands and me was a long black sand beach, with enormous, wide waves breaking against the beach, and endless seabirds fluttering around.

It was then back to Vik, stopping off in a new restaurant (Sudur Vik) for a pizza (the second half of which served perfectly as my breakfast the following morning) and then to my beautiful hotel room for an early night. Usually I stayed in the Nordur Vik hostel, but it had been fully-booked this time round. Although I was initially disappointed not to stay there, as I'd always met interesting people there before, the room in the Edda Hotel just took my breath away!