31 May 2013

Capturing Icebergs & Water Trails on Jökulsárlón Beach

1 second exposure, f/16, ISO 100

On my 2012 trip to Iceland I discovered Jökulsárlón, along the country's south-east coast. I'd heard a lot about the place, as the lagoon there is famous for having been featured in various films, including the Bond films View to a Kill and Die Another Day. It was also featured on many tours to Iceland, so I decided to head out there and see what all the fuss was about.

Having previously visited many other glacial lakes and coastlines dotted with icebergs (including Antarctica, South Georgia, Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Greenland, Alaska, British Columbia and Southern Chile) I wasn't really expecting to be blown away by the lake at Jökulsárlón. And indeed I wasn't. I arrived in typically poor weather in the late afternoon and wandered along the eastern shore, watched the little icebergs floating past and seals playing around in the water, and captured a few shots of pretty-shaped icebergs on the beach (and plenty of Japanese tourists), before the weather got the better of me. No, I wasn't overly impressed and couldn't really see why everyone raved about it. I suppose that if I hadn't been spoiled by over a decade of trips to icy places then I might have been more appreciative. Some sunny weather and more of a view of the mountains behind might also have helped. I drove to my lovely little guesthouse (Hali) nearby for the night.

1/40th second exposure, f/11, ISO 240

It wasn't until the following day when I returned just after breakfast (no sunrise to speak of) that I headed to the nearby beach and suddenly fell in love! On the eastern bank of the river that leads from the lagoon to the sea were piles of icebergs littered across the black volcanic sandy beach, brought ashore by the crashing waves. This time I was blown away, and haven't been able to contain my love of the place since! I spent a couple of hours on the beach, first taking close-up shots of some of the icebergs, and then some serene shots with long exposure lengths. I became absolutely fascinated by the place, in spite of still-wretched weather! After two and a half hours, when my feet were definitely frozen, I tore myself away and fell in love with nearby Fjallasárlón (and then Svartifoss)!

5 second exposure, f/18, ISO 200

Unfortunately I was staying 50km away that night (near Skaftafell), so it was a bit of a trek back, but I still drove back to Jökulsárlón. I forced myself to head there for sunset, and gave the lake another chance - it did look lovely and ethereal at that time of day, in clearer weather. The following morning I drove through the dark in thick fog for the possibility of a glimpse of sunrise at the beach (promised by the weather forecast). It never happened, but at least I had another few hours at this wonderful place. The weather was freezing cold, as usual, but again I was fascinated by the waves falling over the uniquely-shaped pieces of ice that were washed ashore, only to be returned to the sea by big waves sometime later. The size of the icebergs was completely different from the previous day; they were much smaller, as the waves had taken the big ones with (or broken them up) them since my previous visit.

0.8 second exposure, f/20, ISO 100

And so I had to return this year. It was the main destination on my trip, and I planned to spend 3 or 4 nights there. I wish I'd spent a week there, so strong my love for the place is! I booked the trip fairly last-minute, so Hali was booked up on a night in the middle of my planned visit, resulting in me only staying for 3 nights. I arrived early in the evening after a long journey from Vik, stopping at a few other places along the way. To my horror, as I drove down into the parking area behind the beach I couldn't see any icebergs! I looked around and noticed that there were cars parked on the western bank, so was hugely relieved to see that there were icebergs after all, but they'd just been driven onto the opposite bank by the tide.

During my three days there I only visited the lagoon once, and was again disappointed (similar weather to my last trip). I spent hours on the beach though; a couple of sunrises, a couple of sunsets, and a couple of afternoon trips. It was amazing to see how different the icebergs were on different days. What struck me even more, though, was how many other photographers there were! The previous year I'd seen two others during my whole time there, and in spite of being there at exactly the same time of year, there were at least 10 at any time I was there. It seems as if everyone else has caught the bug too...

0.5 second exposure, f/18, ISO 125

My aim on this trip was to try out my new Canon 5D and get some shots of water trails over the icebergs, and hopefully some shots with a bit of colour in the sky, other than grey. My luck with the weather was slightly better than the previous year, although still not great, which gives me another excuse to return (as if I need one!). I played around with various of my neutral density filters, and finally settled on the 6-stop or 3-stop ones for most shots, as they gave me exposure lengths of between half a second and 3 seconds. On my trips just before dusk, I was able to get up to 10 seconds exposure without resorting to the 10-stop filter (which was barely used on this trip) and even longer as it became darker. On my second evening there I was treated to a short, sharp hail shower, which left beautiful wave-marks on the beach.

10 second exposure, f/11, ISO 100

I made a discovery early on during my trip, which was that the remote release I'd brought with me wasn't compatible with my 5D. I hadn't even thought about it, but as I opened the little area in search of a round hole to put the lead into I couldn't find one and realised that I needed a new remote release for my new camera (a stupid oversight)! In order to overcome this obstacle, but still be able to set the shutter off without using my finger (avoiding potential shake) I had to use the 2-second timer. My plan was to capture the water as it trailed away from the icebergs after a wave had crashed over them, which happened intermittently (some of the waves didn't come in far enough up the shore to create any trails). Using the 2-second timer therefore involved a bit of practise (and luck) in getting the shutter to open at the right time depending on the wave breaking over the iceberg and the water draining back to the sea. Sometimes a wave would be much bigger than anticipated, and either I'd get a bit drenched or would have to suddenly grab the tripod and head up the beach. Fortunately I was kitted out in wellies, ski trousers and a waterproof jacket, so no damage was done! 

1 second exposure, f/16, ISO 100

I got a few shots that I was very happy with, but wish I could have stayed longer, playing around with different lenses and more time/aperture combinations. If I had no husband and no dog, I'd be back there in a shot, and would stay for months!

3.2 second exposure, f/13, ISO 100

 I hope to return to Iceland later this year or next, and will obviously be revisiting this magical place...

6 second exposure, f/13, ISO 100

My photos are available as prints or for RM licensing  - please have a look at my website:

4 May 2013

Happy 2nd Birthday Harpa!

Harpa, Reykjavik's incredible concert hall, has now been open for two years.

It took a long time coming, and on my visit in 2009 completion looked a long way off - just a shell, with a few seemingly unused cranes hanging idly overhead.

It was eventually completed with the help of the Icelandic Government and the first concert was held on 4th May 2011 (official opening date was 13th May 2011). During my visit in 2012 I saw it in the distance, along the shore from the Sun Voyager sculpture, clocked that it had been finished, but didn't venture towards it as I was pushed for time. This time I took the time to visit and I'm very glad I did, as it's an incredible building, both inside and out - €164m well-spent! It was designed by Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects, in conjunction with an Icelandic-Danish sculptor Olafur Eliasson (who designed the intricate facade of glass and steel, as well as the Weather installation in London's Tate Modern a few years back). Sadly I didn't realise that you could actually go inside the concert hall, but I was wowed by the extensive network of atria and stairways, with the stunning shadows cast from the crazy window design. Next time I'll spend a bit longer and explore even more. Here's a few shots to get a feel for the place and how the design casts hundreds of beautiful shadows. If you go to Reykjavik, it's definitely worth a look!

1 May 2013

Equipment List for a Photographic Trip to Iceland (plus a few other tips and links)

UPDATED 150315 I've had quite a lot of experience of preparing for Icelandic trips, having been once in September, once in October, once in February, four times in March, and once in July (most recent one being this February). Even in summer, you need to be prepared for the fickle weather that the place is likely to throw at you, but for the rest of the year you really need to wrap up warm and dry! Updates to original blog (written in May 2013) shown in green!

For a photographic trip, I'd suggest having a look at my recommended list below. Most of them are fairly obvious, but you might pick up something you hadn't thought of.

Photographic Equipment
  • A sturdy tripod - absolutely imperative as the wind can get very very fierce; I kept it fairly extended and just bunged it on the back seat of the car when not using it. Make sure the head is strong enough to support the weight; ballheads are recommended.
  • A lightweight tripod is useful if you're hiking, although other things might work (like clothes/bag/beanbag). Not a necessity, but if you've got the room it's quite nice to have. I left this at home on my recent trip and didn't miss it.
  • A decent camera - I took a point-and-shoot (Canon S90) when I went hiking from Landmannalaugur to Þórsmörk 6 years ago and massively regret not carrying the extra weight of a proper DSLR and lens. I take my Canon 5D Mark III on my (non-hiking) trips now and it's perfect for the job: the low-light capability is fantastic (and necessary if taking aurora borealis shots) and it's also weather-proof, which is important given how notoriously changeable Iceland's weather can be (not to mention just being a damn good camera). I also take a spare body (Canon 60D), just in case anything happened to the 5D... If you have one and have the weight allowance, then take it!
  • One really good landscape lens is obviously a must - I have a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L and use it for about 80% of my shots in Iceland. I got the new Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L lens last year, which is great for big wide landscape shots, especially at night if there's northern lights. This year I rented a whopping 100-400mm lens and left my 70-200mm at home. I used it for some close detailed shots, eg. focusing in on landscapes and waves, as well as getting shots of distant horses and reindeers (there were no swans, sadly). It was challenging to use in that wind! I also took a macro lens and extension tubes with me but didn't use them once (I just made do with the macro functionality on the 24-70mm lens). I always forget how cold and windy it is, which isn't conducive to macro photography. I have carried a whole range of other lenses on different trips, most of which I probably could have done without. I once took my extremely heavy Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L prime lens and used it only once (in an ice cave), so that now stays at home too. I guess it could be good for portraits, but given that I actually meet practically no-one on my trips, portrait options are usually limited (and the 24-70mm does well for that anyway). Renting is definitely something to consider if you don't want to invest in a lens that you're unlikely to get much use out of. A quick Google search will show some possibilities in your area - the price varies a lot; make sure the insurance is sufficient. Look out for sales around holiday periods and low season (I rented a 21mm Zeiss lens last year and the big zoom this year from Lensesforhire.co.uk). Make sure that you remember your hoods for the lenses too, as they can be very useful in protecting your lenses from rain/snow/hail etc as well as preventing too much glare from the sun (if there is any).
  • I take a whole collection of filters with me, some of which I use a lot. All of my filters are of the screw-in type with a 77mm diameter (the diameter of my 24-70mm and 16-35mm lenses). I also have some step-up rings so that I can use them on my narrower lenses - not necessary on this trip. I was rarely without my new 4-stop Tiffen attenuator ND filter on (skies often overcast but bright). I also use a circular polariser (there can be a surprising amount of blue sky, and it's good to experiment with on water shots). I also have a selection of full ND filters for long exposure shots - I have B+W 3-stop, a 6-stop and 10-stop filters, as well as new Tiffen ones - a 10-stop Apex one and a variable 2-8-stop one. On this recent trip I only used the 10-stop ones a little as the weather conditions weren't great for it (too much wind, not much cloud contrast or movement), but used the 3- and 6-stop ones a fair bit - I love the extra time these filters give you for exposing water. Most of my Jökulsárlón beach shots of water trails were taken with one or other of these filters on. On my Feb 2015 trip I used the variable filter on the beach too for waves shots; it's very useful to be able to change the density by swivelling it round just a touch. It's too wide to use the hood with it, though, so only really suitable if there's no rain or spray. Without filters, the only time you'd be able to capture water trails, or smooth waterfalls, would be in really low light. They give you the ability to do this in bright light (see my earlier blog on Long Exposures). I sometimes stack a couple of filters together.
    For the Zeiss that I hired for my March 2014 trip the thread size was 82mm, so my filters didn't fit. As a compromise, I bought a step-down ring so I could attach my 77mm filters, but as expected suffered from some serious vignetting (some with a nasty blue cast). I did manage to crop a few photos to look reasonable but it certainly wasn't ideal, so not the best solution.
  • Spare batteries, chargers & adaptors - I often use the LiveView option (better on the neck and for accurate focusing), but it chews through the batteries, so it's useful to have a couple of spares (or a battery grip). Having more than one charger (plus adaptors) is also useful if you're popping back to your abode for something to eat before heading back out and need to recharge in a hurry (FYI - they use the European round two-pin plugs). Batteries also die in the cold more quickly. I bought a couple of cheap non-Canon batteries and they only last about 2/3 of the time the Canon ones do, but they're about 1/3 of the cost, so worth it, I think. Try to keep batteries warm when not in use. I've also got a cheap car charger now - every little opportunity to recharge is helpful!
  • Cloths - an obvious thing on the kit list, but very important if photographing anywhere near water (and for general cleaning purposes)! The lens will get covered in spray near waterfalls, and often you'll need to wipe your lens/filter after each shot. It also rains and snows and hails a fair bit too, so water's never far away from your camera. I use a combination of PecPads and microfibre cloths. I also take a tiny bottle of cleaning fluid with me (not allowed on planes, but a tiny bottle in your toiletries bag might make it through...). It's very important to make sure you clean your sensor before you leave and try not to change lenses too often (and always do it very carefully). I spent a lot of time after previous trips cloning out dust-spots, but this time just had one to worry about! I had my trusted sensor cleaning kit with me, just in case. Clean your lenses and filters frequently. A blower might also help to blow away any large dust particles on your sensor.
  • Rubber gloves - if you've stacked filters and they've got stuck together or to the lens then a pair of rubber gloves might help to free them. This doesn't seem to work so well for me any more as I think I have the wrong texture of gloves - but they're cheap and light and can sit at the bottom of your bag, almost forgotten, so worth a try).
  • Remote shutter release - if you're planning on taking shots of more than 30 seconds (on Bulb setting) you have to have a remote trigger, and it's also useful to prevent camera shake (if you don't have a remote you can just used the 2-second timer instead). I have two, one with a lead, and one which is wireless. For my 2014 trip I bought an intervalometer, hoping to try out some time-lapse shots, but still haven't ended up using it in Iceland! Maybe next year...
  • Memory cards - take lots of spares - it's amazing how quickly you can fill your card when you really get going (especially if that flock of whooper swans flies over head, for example, or you're doing star-trails or time-lapse...). And if you don't want to delete shots until you get home to additional back-up facilities then you're going to need a lot more memory cards. If you've bought brand new cards try them out before you leave home - I've had a couple of new 64GB ones fail on me while I was away. Now I'm sticking to the 32GB Integral fast ones as these seem to work the best for me.
  • Laptop and external hard drive - it's good to download the photos in the evening and do some reviewing and editing. I always store my photos on external hard-drives and then back-up separately when I get home. Always pack them in hand luggage. I used to have a ridiculously heavy Sony laptop - would recommend a light one for travelling (I have a lovely MacBook Pro). Make sure you've got enough room on your hard drive, in case you go a bit crazy and take thousands of shots.
  • Smartphone - I can't believe I used to travel without one! Everywhere in Iceland has WiFi, so if you're travelling alone these are great company. More importantly, they're useful in case of emergency - there is an app for the emergency rescue service - 112. Definitely a good idea to download this, just in case...
  • A comfortable camera bag is necessary if you're hiking. I have an Osprey 35 litre backpack that fits a smaller Lowepro camera bag snugly (which fits the camera and two large lenses - just) as well as the laptop, hard drives, and a few other bits and pieces (it has lots of pockets and pouches on the side for a small tripod or water bottle). If you're not planning on any hiking then a larger dedicated camera bag might be more practical, but you'll still have to carry it to locations.
  • An accessories bag - I just bought a wonderful little bag that has a couple of purposes (it's a Kipling Haru bag). When I'm travelling it's great for travel documents, wallet and iPhone, and when I'm out shooting it's perfect for all my filters. It has two pockets, so I can separate out the different types of filters and then find them really easily. I also keep cleaning cloths, iPhone, spare battery and memory cards in there. Saves faffing around getting these things out of pockets or the big bag.
  • A torch/flashlight - necessary for night shots for trying to see what you're doing and where you're going!
  • Wind/waterproof jacket and trousers - you won't believe how forceful and chilly that wind can be until you step outside of Keflavik airport. And it can rain pretty hard too. I take ski trousers and wear those most days with long-johns underneath (only sometimes is it mild enough to use the lighter Goretex rainproof trousers over hiking trousers). On my recent trip I also bought a cheap plastic raincover for the camera but it was such a faff to use (couldn't see the screen and it made zooming in and out painful), so I gave up. If you have weather-proof camera and lens just make sure you wipe them off from time to time.
  • Down jacket - if you're going in autumn/winter/spring then a good down jacket is a must, preferably with detachable hood so you can keep your head warm even if you're not wearing the jacket (not a great look, but helps keep that wind off your ears if you're standing around on an exposed beach for a few hours). I vary between the windproof jacket with fleece underneath and the down, depending on how cold/windy/wet it was. On my Feb 2015 trip I used the down jacket the whole time as it was so damned cold (with 3-4 layers underneath)!
  • Good warm hat that covers your ears - that wind really is biting. I have a great one by Arcteryx which has a fleece-lined section around the ears. A baseball cap is useful to wear under a hat and hood if it's raining - keeps the rain off your face.
  • Scarf/snood - did I mention the wind?! - don't want draughts down your neck.
  • Windproof gloves + lightweight ones (+ down ones if you're going in winter or if you're out capturing the aurora borealis). I bought some MacWet ones this year, which worked well. When out capturing northern lights I'd put these ones inside the down mittens to warm them up between shots.
  • Wellies - most other photographers seem to just wear walking boots, but if you're standing in rivers, snow, mud and sandy beaches I don't think you can't beat a good quality, sturdy pair of wellies. I used neoprene Hunter ones last year with added some felt liners to add an extra layer of warmth to the soles. In Feb 2015 I bought some Grubs Snowline boots which were even warmer, and I added toe warmers on a couple of really cold occasions. Still got cold feet, but not as bad as they could have been.
  • Thick mountaineering socks - I highly recommend the Smartwool ones as they're thick, warm, and don't get smelly for days! I hear the Icelandic woollen ones are good too.
  • Walking shoes/boots for hiking - make sure they're worn in! I still nipped up the odd hill in my wellies, but for serious hiking they wouldn't really work. Also nice to have some proper footwear to change in to.
  • Slippers/flipflops are very handy for knocking about hostels/hotels when your outdoor footwear is sitting by the door covered in black sand and there's black sand all over the floors too.
  • Thermals - both long-johns and thermal long-sleeved tops. I wear these every day during my autumn and winter trips; they're also useful in the summer as it can be very chilly too, especially at night.
  • Some hiking top layers and a light fleece.
  • Some normal clothes (unless you're hiking) - it's quite nice to change into jeans when you're sitting around in the evening.
  • Sleeping bag - saves a bunch of money in accommodation if you take your own sleeping bag. I have a 3/4 season one which is warm enough in most conditions, and unzips to the bottom, so can act like a duvet cover.
  • Suncream & sunglasses - in spite of the wind and rain and snow and hail it can also be lovely and clear with strong sun, so take a little pot of suncream and sunglasses for those occasions.
  • Padlocks - if you're staying in hostels and carrying expensive camera gear remember to pack a few padlocks to lock your bags. I've found Iceland to be incredibly safe and friendly, but you never know. 
  • Emergency blanket - I have one of these that lives in the bottom of my small backpack - thankfully never used, but I always carry it with me, just in case...
  • Snacks - I'm very bad at remembering to eat when I'm out-and-about shooting, so always carry a few Nature Valley snack bars with me - great to keep me going for a little while longer until I could be bothered to make my lunch (and on that, stock up on some bread, cheese and ham for your lunches - saves a bit of money and saves you eating gas station burgers).
  • Car hire - I couldn't imagine doing a photographic trip without a car, but it would just about be possible by bus (you'd have to be very organised and have no flexibility to stop at whim). If you rent a car in winter (or autumn and spring) a 4WD is probably recommended, as there's often snow and ice on the road. On my Sept 2014 trip I hired a normal (much cheaper) car (a Toyota Yaris), although a 4WD would have been good for exploring off the beaten track (check where you're allowed to go though, insurance-wise!). Make sure you get a 4-door, so that you can bung gear like a tripod on the back seat, so much easier. Shop around massively! I got a 10-day rental of a Suzuki Grand Vitara on this trip for £440 (through Budget via Auto-Europe), which I think is a great price). Some companies (eg. Hertz) do one-way rentals, and I've done that on a couple of trips, taking a one-way internal flight up to Egilsstadir and Akureyri. It adds a little to the cost, but saves a lot of driving time.
  • There are loads of organised photographic trips to Iceland. Although I've always done it independently, this could be a good way to see the highlights, with a professional photographer as a guide (and driver, etc...), as well as guidance on improving your technique. Your flexibility will be limited and you're stuck in the group, but they probably go to places that normal visitors don't know about, as well as the usual ones, which will be increasingly useful as Iceland becomes more packed with visitors. It's a good way to see the aurora borealis too (if there are any, of course), as the guide will be the one staying up to see if they're happening, so you don't need to worry (some hotels also offer that service). They should know some good spots to photograph the lights too.
  • Look at the baggage restrictions before booking your flight - one thing to bear in mind when packing for a trip to Iceland is that all the airlines have weight or size restrictions, and all of the above equipment adds up, weight-wise. You'll need to buy the hold luggage option (included with Icelandair), and make sure you pack wisely according to these restrictions, as they can charge you for the extra weight. On my March 2013 trip I flew in on Wow! and had problems on check-in as the hand luggage weight allowance was only 8kg (I had about 12kg, so ended up re-packing a bit of stuff in my hold luggage and "wearing" my camera + 24-70mm lens, so the woman eventually let me go without paying any extra - if necessary I would have worn more of my clothing too and put stuff (eg. a 1kg lens!) in pockets)(@ Oct'15: the weight restriction on Wow! is now 5kg and you have to pay extra to get 12kg). On the way back I flew with Easyjet who don't weigh your hand-luggage, but they do have size restrictions instead. Icelandair has increased its allowance of hand luggage since 2012 to 10kg (with size restrictions) and 23kg of hold luggage.
    If you're flying internally on Air Iceland (which also flies to Greenland and the Faroe Islands) then please note that the hand luggage allowance, in whichever class, is only 6kg and hold luggage is only 20kg. On my flights to Egilsstadir and Akureyri I thought I'd be wearing everything and stuffing every pocket but they didn't actually check the weight of my hand luggage on either occasion. I still wouldn't risk being too far over though.
  • Book early - the cheaper flights are usually those booked early. This also goes for accommodation. Some hotels, guesthouses & hostels are remarkably cheap off-season (eg. around £20 per night per person for sleeping-bag accommodation and £35 a night for a one-bed studio-apartment in Reykjavik). Always check the website of the place you want to stay as it may be cheaper to book directly with them than going through a booking site (like hotels.com or booking.com). Also try calling or emailing them directly to ask about any deals. The summer is far more expensive for accommodation so going off-season will save you a fortune. I searched for some of the places I've stayed in March for the summer and the prices were more than double. Consider other times of year - they all have their benefits...
Last thing to recommend is a lot of patience and flexibility! The weather can definitely dominate your trip and can obviously make a big difference to the photography opportunities that are possible/practical. Weather systems are often very localised, so it might be worth driving only 20 miles to a different spot. And also be patient, because while it might be snowing one minute, the sun might peek through 10 minutes later. Be really careful too - on my Feb 2015 trip I actually rearranged one day's plans as there were some massive storms which would have been too dangerous to drive through. Fortunately I didn't lose out too much financially, but don't risk your life just to get to a place you've paid for!

I found the following websites extremely helpful while I was away for weather, aurora and road conditions/forecasts:

  • http://en.vedur.is/ - Icelandic weather + aurora forecasts. Probably the most accurate for local weather forecasts, although not very detailed for individual places. Make sure you check the wind speeds - anything over 15 m/s is dangerous to drive in.
  • http://www.road.is/travel-info/road-conditions-and-weather/ - up-to-date road conditions, which are absolutely essential if you're driving in winter (and other times too!). They show whether roads are open, whether there's snow or ice on the road, if there's storms or blizzards, and most importantly, recent wind speeds.
  • http://www.yr.no/ - this is a Norwegian weather-forecasting website, but the information seems to be fairly accurate, at least in the short term. They seem to have more detailed place information than the Icelandic Weather site. You can build up "my Places" to see the long term & short term (including hourly) weather-forecasts for a bunch of different places, which is helpful if you're trying to work out where to go next!   
  • I now use two sites for aurora forecasts, concentrating on short-term forecasts, as the long term ones seem quite inaccurate. Try http://f5data.net/aurora/ and http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/