Iceland is one of the places I've longed to travel to myself, dreaming I'd make the trip someday. With it’s rugged, awe-inspiring landscapes, majestic waterfalls and abundance of stunning sights, it seemed like a photographer’s dream location. Well, we decided there’s no better time than the present and that someday came sooner than expected.
In June of 2017 we embarked on a journey across the other side of the world. And the thing about destinations halfway across the world, is that they're about as far away from home as you can get.
Our journey to Iceland saw us transfer at Hong Kong (and all of its heat and humidity too) and in Paris too. Many questioned - both before and during our travels - whether we were visiting any other countries along the way. We were traveling halfway across the world after all, did I mention that yet? But this was a trip with one destination and one mission in mind, to experience and capture the wild, untamed beauty of Iceland.
Day 1) Reykjavík to Vík: Seljalandsfoss & Skógafoss
An early start from Paris had us arrive in Iceland mid-morning and we collected our hire car - a 4WD Suzuki Vitara - direct from the airport. Last year I drove on the right during our American RV road trip, but this time round the hire car introduced another level of difficulty - changing gear with the opposite hand, and oddly discomforting manoeuvre. After a few hours on the road I grew accustom to the process, but let’s just say our exit from the airport wasn’t the smoothest of rides for those on board.
We decided to skip the capital, Reykjavík, and begin our road trip straight away as we headed for Iceland’s only major ‘highway’ its Ring Road, which runs around the entire coast of the island. We stocked up on fuel and groceries and ventured counter-clockwise towards Vík.
The thing that immediately - and continued to - struck me about Iceland was the richness of the natural scenery. Seemingly everywhere we looked a photo was yearning to be taken. Be it the shearing peaks bordering the road, the jet black sand beaches or the inquisitive Icelandic horses.
Where last year we opted for a self-contained RV across America, this trip we decided on the combination of hire car and Airbnb to better allow us to set up base camp for a few days while we went off to explore the countryside. Our first port of call was a farm stay at Martina and Jon’s on the outskirts of Vík - both were friendly, hospitable hosts whose sense of humour aligned perfectly with our Australian humour. Jon was a tour guide in a former life, so he knew a lot about Iceland and its history, sharing advice on the local sights to see.
While we visited the grandeur that are Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss on the way to Vík, the summer tourist crowds (of which, admittedly, we reluctantly were a part of) remained ever present within each photo. And so I traveled back out to each later in the evening on sunset (at the fine hour of 11:30 pm, to be precise). With the summer sun melting the snow up in the highlands, both falls were flowing fiercely. The sheer majesty of the water powerfully free falling is something to truly be experienced in person.
For the above photo of Skógafoss, I chose to capture the falls from a different angle - from far away near the car park, zoomed in with my telephoto lens to compress the scene and include in the near facing cliff as foreground. And although I’m a fan of moving water and long exposures, I opted not to here, and instead froze the falling flow to highlight the sheer power of the falls.
Day 2) Vík: Reynisdrangar, Dyrhólaey and Sólheimasandur
The second ‘b’ in Airbnb is often overlooked by hosts, but certainly not by Martina and Jon. We awoke to what only can be described as an Icelandic breakfast banquet. Each morning for their guests, they lay out house smoked meats, fresh produce and cheese, while baking hot-out-of-the-oven bread, scrambled eggs from the farm and brew a pot of (very) strong coffee. To say I was glad we would be spending three nights with them would be an understatement.
After fueling up for the day on the hearty breakfast, we drove a short distance to Iceland’s iconic black sand beach around Reynisdrangar where three volcanic basalt seastacks pierce out of the ocean. We arrived early in the morning and found the beach largely free of tourists as we took our fair share of photos and video.
Even though the ring road is fully sealed, we hired a 4WD to allow us to explore more of the side, unsealed, roads scattered throughout the land. One such of which is the coastal outcrop of Dyrhólaey. Located just east of Reynisdrangar, the drive to the top along a dubiously bumpy gravel road isn’t for the faint-hearted - we saw many a hatchback turn back midway in defeat - yet the view from the top certainly rewards those who make it the entire way.
Our final destination for the day was the abandoned plane wreckage on the black beach at Sólheimasandur. In 1973 a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crash landed on the beach. Everyone survived the crash, yet the wreckage remained, and has since become a popular tourist spot. It’s a decent walk out to the site - about 45 minutes - and, as you can’t see the plane over the hill until about 43 minutes in, you can’t help but think someone may have gone and removed the damn thing. But there it was, complete (incomplete?) with bullet holes and dangling wires from the cockpit - straight out of a Hollywood action film.
Day 3) Vík: Fjaðrárgljúfur, Exploring The Highlands & Víkurkirkja
On our final day in Vík we drove eastward towards the scarring canyon of Fjaðrárgljúfur. The canyon forges through the countryside for about 2km, and runs 100m deep as the glacier river which carved it snakes its way through the sheer cliffs. A popular tourist snapshot (and why not? It could be straight out of Game Of Thrones), I wanted to capture something unique and so I opted to use a polarising filter to cut down the glare in the snaking river, and a long exposure to smooth out the flowing water.
On the return trip we ventured off-road again into the inner highlands of the country, towards the campground near Þakgil. Our trusty Suzuki Vitara took the uneven gravel climb in its stride. The view from the top offered scenic views of the surrounding region, painted in contrasting deep green grass and jet black rocks. All of which made for a very photogenic countryside, if I ever needed an excuse to take more photos in Iceland.
We stopped back in town to capture the picturesque church in Vik (Víkurkirkja). Perched on a hill overlooking the coastal town, the church is surrounded by a bed of colourful flowering lupines. As we soon discovered, lupines are scattered throughout the land - all of which were coming into bloom with the arrival of summer. And, we learned, was introduced as a weed to stabilise the land. Yet liked the land so much that they quickly took over the entire countryside. Regardless, they’re the most picturesque weed I’ve ever seen.
Day 4) Vík to Höfn: Reynisfjall Puffins, Fjallsárlón & Jökulsárlón
Before we left Vik, I was determined to see - and photograph a Puffin. So much so I woke at 3am to go hiking on the cliffs of Reynisfjall where they supposedly nested. Despite a wrong turn at the top - where I cautiously passed a boarded-up farmer's house - I found a unique vantage point for a photo looking down upon the sea stacks below. Making my way back around the mountain, I found the colony of Puffins darting in and out of the cliff face. However patchy rain, and howling winds up the cliff face made them difficult to photograph.
After (half?) ticking Puffins off the bucket list, we regretfully said goodbye to our home and hosts and traveled eastward. As always, the landscape continued to impress, causing us to suddenly (and safely I’ll add, mum and dad) pull over to grab a shot, or twenty.
The route saw us pass the glacier lagoons of Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón. Giant glaciers in the center of the country were slowly breaking apart, and flowing out as icebergs into these inland lagoons. We also visited the Diamond Beach near Jökulsárlón where these icebergs would flow out to sea and wash up, polished like stranded crystals contrasting against the black sands of the beach.
We arrived in Höfn which was larger - and somewhat less picturesque - than Vik. I was keen to venture out the headland of Stokksnes in the morning and capture the Vestrahorn mountain on sunrise. Unfortunately, access runs through private property and the local farmer - the savvy businessman that he is - now charges an entrance fee (about $10 AUD) to reach this viewpoint. I read reports of him holding unpaying travellers hostage at knife point. With that in mind, I happily paid my fee the evening before, even though I'd be arriving the following morning at 2am while he slept soundly on his pile of extorted cash.
Day 5) Höfn: Stokksnes, Jökulsárlón & Diamond Beach
With the ever pleasant sound of my 1:30am alarm greeting me in the morning, I checked the conditions outside the window and saw wisps of pink beginning to fill the sky. This was going to be a good one. I quickly (and safely again, mum and dad) made my way back out to the farm, with clouds of dust billowing behind me along the gravel track - I had a rental 4WD after all.
With howling, biting cold summer winds - winter in Iceland must be pleasant - I was welcomed to a sky alight in colour over the black sand dunes and towering dagger like peaks in the distance.
In the evening I traveled back out to Jökulsárlón to photograph the icebergs in the lagoon and on the beach. When I arrived, there were a few smaller icebergs on beach - but less than I saw the day before. But then the tide changed and they all came rushing out of the lagoon - like the proverbial floodgates had opened - floating into the sea before washing up on shore. Photographing them on the beach was a constant ritual of setting down the tripod, waiting for an incoming wave, taking the shot (with a remote shutter to perfect the timing) and then quickly pulling up the tripod as my feet got bathed by the cool waters of the Arctic Ocean.
On the midnight drive back to Höfn I experienced one of the longest sunsets I have ever seen. I could see shades of pink transforming the clouds to the west, and as there was low hanging cloud over the glacier which would block any colour, I left the lagoon early before sunset.
It was one of those moments I chose to experience firsthand - rather than from behind my camera lens - and one which continued to linger in the clouds above when I returned back to the Airbnb over an hour later. Well, I might have fired off a shot or two on from the side of the road ...
Day 6) Höfn to Seyðisfjörður: 939 Highlands & Borgarfjarðarhöfn Puffins
We ventured northwards from Höfn to travel towards the harbour town of Seyðisfjörður, nestled in the eastern fjords of the island. We took the (gravel) 939 inland road across the highlands to bypass ring road which lazily curved around the jagged coast. We saw many a waterfall (for a change) and the wildflowers were in full bloom scattered throughout the drive.
Seyðisfjörður would have to one of the warmest, most picturesque towns in all of Iceland, with brightly coloured houses tucked in the base of the valley by the sea. Our little cabin was located just outside of town along the fjord with waterfront views and our own private waterfall just 50m up the road.
Earlier in the trip near Vík I undertook a 3am hike up the coastal mountain of Reynisfjall in the search of Puffins. However with scattering rain and winds curling up up the cliff, photography conditions were less than ideal. And with the colony perched vertically on the side of the cliff face, it only added to the difficulty in capturing them.
However as we made our way up the coast, I was informed at the Egilsstaðir information centre there was another colony near the harbour town of Borgarfjarðarhöfn - in the very North East of the island. And so later in the evening I departed on the two hour drive North to be welcomed by a colony of lively puffins perched on a craggy headland.
The puffins - who were much smaller than I expected - were darting and swooping into the water to catch fish for their evening meal. I used my 300mm zoom lens which allowed me to get extremely close to the little critters, photographing them with freshly caught fish still dangling from their beaks. Then, after the all tourists - well, I’m practically a local now - departed on their buses, the puffins grew curious and comically waddled over towards me, standing no more than a meter or two away. They seemed to be just as interested in me as I was in them.
Day 7) Seyðisfjörður: Countryside Exploring & Editing Day
After embarking on a decent amount of adventures the previous few days, we took a well earned rest day in Seyðisfjörður to soak up the surrounding countryside. I took the time to film more footage for my video, capturing sheep and their young on the hill behind our cabin, and local birds as they swooped along the waters of the fjord.
We ventured back into town for the day and took coffee at the local Nordic Restaurant. A cosy, inviting bistro style establishment, we soaked up the interior and our (strong) coffee too. Although I must say, an Icelandic cuppa has nothing on what we brew back home. We explored through the local farmland, passing countless sheep, horses and an abundance of waterfalls spilling off the edge of the fjord, too many to count.
Day 8) Seyðisfjörður to Akureyri: Hverarönd Hot Springs & Godafoss
We reluctantly left our cabin by the sea and ventured inland towards the harbour town (aren’t they all in Iceland?) of Akureyri - the country’s second largest ‘city’. One thing we noticed on this stretch of the trip, more than any previous one, was the endless variety in scenery and environment.
Although the journey was less than 4 hours long, we started in coastal fjords, before driving through alpine snow with frozen lakes, then on to fertile farmlands, barren black deserts, bubbling geothermal pools at Hverarönd, a lush lakes district at Mývatn and finally stopping back by the sea at Akureyri. One thing I was alert to before this trip - but not to the full extent of its actual reality - was Iceland’s abundant (and constantly changing) natural diversity.
In the evening I re-traced our route to arrive at the majestic Godafoss waterfall. This was one location I (ignorantly) overlooked when we researched our route, but was without a doubt a highlight of the trip. I arrived not long before sunset to find the Northern sky glowing with colour as a torrential amount of water flowed through the mighty falls, aptly translated as the Waterfall of the Gods.
Day 9) Akureyri: Town Exploring & Botanical Garden
After the late night expedition to Godafoss, we took a rest day in Akureyri to catch up on our photos/blog and explore around town. We took coffee at Kaffi Ilmur - which brewed a nice, but no Australian cuppa - before perusing local wares and goods in the high street.
After lunch we strolled through the lush Akureyri Botanical Garden - the most northern of its type in the world. It was carefully maintained, with at least a dozen staff tending to flora while we were there. With overcast lighting (a pleasant way of saying a ‘cloudy, wet day’), I opted to shoot some more abstract shots in the garden, focusing on the intimate patterns and textures of the plants - a refreshing change from the wide vistas in my previous landscape shots.
Day 10: Akureyri to Hvammstangi: Hvítserkur
We continued our circumnavigation of the island westward towards Hvammstangi, where we entertained by hours of Hamish & Andy podcasts - a welcome indulgence in the Australian sense of humour. We took the scenic route there, passing by the bold seastack of Hvítserkur - shaped somewhat in the form of an elephant. We took a few snaps - along with all the other tourists - however I was keen to return again on sunset the following evening.
We set aside the afternoon to review and edit our bank of photos (I’d taken over a 1000 already). That’s the thing about doing photography while traveling, you often find yourself too busy taking photos to find the time to review and edit them. Which, as a photographer, isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Day 11) Hvammstangi: Westfjords Exploring & Hvítserkur
In the morning we went for a leisurely drive to explore parts of Iceland’s Westfjords region. We traveled to and through Hólmavík as we traced the jagged coastline along the fjords. Unlike the south and east - which were shades of lush green - the west was painted in muted browns and yellows, with a steady drizzle of rain only deepening the colour through the countryside. A countryside much more sparsely populated by other travellers.
After dinner I returned back out to Hvítserkur, yet thick cloud persisted throughout the day, eliminating any chance of a colourful sunset. Regardless, I took advantage of the low tide - and the lines in the sand it drew - and used an ND filter to slow down the exposure and smooth out the water surrounding the rock.
Day 12) Hvammstangi to Grundarfjörður: Budir Kirkja, Arnarstapi & Kirkjufell
Before returning back to Reykjavik, we decided to spend two more nights in the Snæfellsnes peninsula, not far north of the capital. After leaving the relatively flat area around Hvammstangi, the drive into the peninsula was a welcome mountainous change, reminding me of the southern region around Vík with jagged peaks covered in a carpet of lush green grass.
We had a late check in at our Airbnb and so scoped out the area in the afternoon. We drove to the bold black church of Budir Kirkja, contrasting against the landscape. Although there were a few tourists around, the site wasn't too crowded and I was able to get a somewhat unique composition of a location photographed by every Icelandic tourist since the dawn of time.
We continued around the peninsula, dropping in by the coastal hamlet of Arnarstapi, and the rugged sea stacks and rock formations that surrounded it. Later in the afternoon I scoped out the stunning mountain of Kirkjufell and its waterfalls. If there was ever a picture perfect postcard shot of Iceland, this was it. And with that, came all the travellers too. However my trusty umbrella, which I brought all the way from Australia, was the envy of the other photographers, and protected my gear in the light rain and spray off the falls. Using an ND filter reduce the amount of light entering the camera, I fired off a few long exposures in the even overcast light, but was eager to return again on sunset the following day.
Day 13) Grundarfjörður: Snæfellsnes Peninsula & Kirkjufell
With the clouds passing overnight and the sun shining, we woke early to explore more of the peninsula. The Snæfellsjökull glacier in the mountains was melting in the summer months, which powered many - often unnamed - falls down off the mountain peaks.
Lupines continued to flower all across the island, yet we experienced the most blossoming fields in the west of the peninsula, carpeting the rolling hills in shades of violet and green. In which, was positioned the perfectly placed church of Ingjaldshólskirkja set against the backdrop of the mountain peaks in the distance.
The destination of my final evening in rural Iceland was Kirkjufell. I left our cosy BnB at 10:30pm - two hours before sunset - thinking the location might be less crowded at that time of night. Oh what a summer child I was.
The river bank overlooking the falls and mountain was Tripod Central, with at least 20 other photographers interlocking their set up for the same classic shot of the scene. I obliged too, to capture a sunstar of the dipping below land, before heading off to find some less cliché compositions.
Before long the setting sun put on a stunning display of colour. A bank of high clouds rolled in, which were vividly illuminated by the setting - and also rising - sun for over four hours. Continuously. During which time I explored the area and captured the scene in the reflection of a nearby lake and through tall grass at the base of the mountain. I even returned to the classic shot location to capture the mountain under a whole new light.
Day 14) Grundarfjörður to Reykjavík: National Museum of Iceland
We said goodbye to the countryside and returned back to Reykjavik - via a 6km tunnel under the ocean to bypass an inconvenient fjord. Reykjavik was unforgivingly rainy and windy, but that did little to hinder our experience. Ivy had boasted of the local hotdogs after doing some online research so we stopped in the city to try them for ourselves. Not bad, 8/10.
After throwing ourselves headfirst into the natural wonders of the country for the past two weeks, we were eager to learn more about the country's cultural and historic heritage. We spent the afternoon in the city’s National Museum of Iceland, stock full of historic artefacts and relics dating back to the 800’s. It was somewhat ironic to find that so many relics were well persevered as a result of violent volcanic eruptions freezing them in ash - and, in time.
Day 15) Reykjavík: Reykjavík Roasters & Return Home
On our final day in the country, we drove back into the city to explore the streets, stores and buy some souvenirs for back home. First port of call was the well-rated Reykjavik Roasters coffee house, a rustic and trendy space which rivalled many of the cafes back home. After mediocre coffee throughout the land, this taste of metropolitan life was a welcome return.
We spent the day wandering through the city, perusing the local wares - they do seem to love their volcanic salts and lava rocks. Or rather, the tourists do.
A somber drive took us back to airport where we returned our trusty Vitara and began our 33 hours in transit back to the land seemingly the polar opposite of the one we were leaving behind.
Final Thoughts On The Land Of Ice And Fire
Iceland was a destination which lived up to and completely exceeded all our preconceptions of the place.
It's a place where photos capture enough of the story to marvel at its wild beauty, but will always fall short of experiencing its wonder in entirety.
For that, of course, requires you to be there, in the moment. To be there hearing the crunching waterfalls. To be there soaking in the complete 360 views. To be there leaning in on gale force winds. To be there drinking pristine glacial water. To be there, living the entire moment.
And I'm grateful for photography driving me forward to do just that. To make me yearn of distant wonderful lands. To live these moments for myself. And, dear reader, I encourage you to do likewise.