Update 1: 10.04.17
Update 2: 11.04.17
Update 3: 12.04.17

Iceland Trip (part 2)

Visiting Iceland has to be one of the most memorable trips of my life. Not just because it is a haven for landscape photographers but also because of the challenging weather elements that make the adventure all the more exciting. Managing every single aspect of the journey single-handedly was a daunting experience. I managed to meet up with an Icelandic photographer, Jon Hilmarsson whom brought me out for a night to catch northern lights and gave me tips about driving in snow terrains. Of course, safety is of the utmost importance to me since this would be my first time driving in snowy terrain. 

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In this post, I share my journey in a chronological order, not in the order of a curated image series. There are many things I wished I could do during my time there, however, as I am driving for the most part of my journey in the southern region, I have my constraints such as:

  1. I could not visit many popular tourist sites such as the Blue Lagoon or explore the ice caves, etc.
  2. For certain places, I didn’t have the time to stay at one place for too long. 
  3. There were a couple of good scenes along my drive, neither could I stop abruptly on the road and take out my camera, nor soak myself with the view as I had to concentrate on the road. With the amount of snow, it was also difficult to see where I could pull over. 
  4. The icy terrain meant I had to be very careful where I tread or drive, especially when I’m alone on high grounds. There were many instances where I had to refrain from being too adventurous at the expense of personal safety. 

Day 1

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The journey began after boarding the plane to Iceland. The weather at the time was extremely good that we were treated with an amazing view of Scotland from our plane windows. I have never seen Scotland landscape from above. As we got closer to Iceland, the pilot announced that it was rare to able to see Iceland from above. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see much as my plane seat was in the opposite direction.

By the time I got onto the bus from the airport to Reykjavik it was evening time. snow on the ground was thick and dragging my luggage in the snow for quite a distance had been a challenging task. I managed to find my way and check in two hours later. As soon as I arrived at the hostel, Jon contacted me and he brought me out to catch northern lights in no time. I was elated for the immediate adventure, but I regretted I didn’t have enough time to prepare myself for the tour. We went out on his 4WD, anyway.

Like many of the experienced Icelandic locals, Jon was an avid landscape photographer with many accolades under his belt. He advised me about driving in Iceland and how to catch the Northern Lights when I’m out driving myself. It is better to have a 4WD car as it could get me to places not reachable by normal cars. As we were out photographing at Hvítárbrú in Borgarfjordur, the night temperature got colder to -6 degrees. I came underprepared, but I managed to hold out from the freeze. As the Northern Light dances wildly in the night sky, every second not capturing it are opportunities missed.

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Although I had two cameras, I wish I had taken more panorama images but I didn’t have a second tripod and I was focusing on time-lapsing with my main camera. I didn’t think I have quite captured the best of the northern lights at the location on my first try. I didn’t have the time to prepare my mirror cube which I initially wanted to incorporate with the Northern lights. Nevertheless, it was a good session. We returned back an hour past midnight, exhausted.

Day 2

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On day two, I didn’t explore the city of Reykjavik as planned (I rearrange it towards the end of my trip). Instead, I went onboard with a group of travellers to the Snaefellsnes region, about 2.5 hrs of drive west of Reykjavik. It was the same direction that I had been to last night, only further. One of them was driving as I have not gotten my car yet. I didn’t think we had reached the destination they wanted to visit, partially because we set off late and ran out of time. It was also their first time driving and they couldn’t drive too fast.

We got out at one point to see some sights as there was a horse stable around the vicinity. Mountains, snow, cute Icelandic horses. Having the telephoto lens was extremely useful. However due to time constraint, as the sun was setting and it was getting colder, we didn’t stay there for long.

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On our way back we managed to catch a brilliant sunset. I wanted to pull out my tripod and stay longer, but it was too freezing cold for me (it was -3 degrees)! I took a few quick shots and jumped back into the car, and made our way back to the city. It was a brilliant sunset with pink, purplish tone over the mountains, I wish I had more time to explore further during our pit stops; unfortunately, we had to make our way back to the city. Thus conclude the second day of my journey.

Day 3

Day three was where my car journey actually starts. The image below was where my hostel in Reykjavik was. Look at that amount of thick snow!

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I spent the next couple hours in the morning picking my car up and to familiarise myself with the left orientation drive which took me a while to get used to. After that, I was on my way out of the city. The first view I saw was from a vantage point which overlooks Hveragerði village. After driving past Selfoss, I got to my first pitstop of the day, Urridafoss Waterfall.

Next was Seljalandsfoss waterfall. I got there by evening and decided to stay overnight in the car, as I hope not only to catch the sunrise at the waterfall the next day, but I would also have more time to explore the location. This was the first of two nights I stayed in the car. I was able to see the Northern lights, but I didn’t get out of my car as it was simply too cold for me. I think it was around -4 degrees. Even so, somehow there were still travellers coming by to see the waterfall at around midnight.

Day 4

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The next day was a cold morning at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Even though it was still early, more people came to see the waterfall. The first (middle aged) couple I met at the waterfall happened to be Singaporean. There were staircases up into the waterfall, but I couldn’t go up as the surfaces around the waterfall were icy slippery. I didn’t have crampons on my boots and had slipped quite a few times around the bridge area. The scene must have been quite nice from up there, but unfortunately, I didn’t get to see.

Right beside the main attraction was another waterfall called Gljúfrabúi. The falls are partially obscured by the cliff rock, but there is a trail to enter the narrow canyon where the water plummets to a small pool. I took pictures from outside as I realised how wet and cold it would be if I went in under-prepared. I was slightly jealous of the other tourists who came with Mavic drone but also impressed that a small drone could do well in the winter environment. This was where I developed the interest to capture tourists in the landscape, in conjunction with my original landscape photography intend.

After spending a good time at the waterfall, I continued driving eastwards to my next destination. Midway, I stopped by for a couple photos outside the Eyjafjallajökull information centre, a family-run facility to give visitors a personal look at the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010.

The next destination was another famous waterfall Skógafoss. it was the most impressive waterfall I have seen yet. it was afternoon when I arrived and there were already many droves of tourists up and down the waterfall. I went up the viewing platform eventually, and the view from above was simply breathtaking! Had I more time I would have stayed there longer till the stars come out, but I had to quickly move on. The last pit stop for the day was my hostel accommodation in Vik. No meals were provided so I had to run to the nearest supermarket to get ingredients and cook myself.

The last pit stop for the day was my hostel accommodation in Vik. No meals were provided so I had to drive to the nearest supermarket to get ingredients and cook myself.

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Day 5

Honestly, I didn’t know the hostel I’ve booked was located up on the higher ground. I was pleasantly surprised by the amazing view from the top. I recovered quickly from my exhaustion and did a bit of photography before driving.

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This time, I drove westwards to the other side of the mountain facing the hostel. On the other side was the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, where the road ended on a field and a makeshift parking lot. There was a small pathway that opened into the beach. Reynisfjara are basically basalt sea stacks situated under the mountain Reynisfjall which is framed by a black sand beachI was surprised to find most of the beach was actually various sizes of black pebbles and stones. Next to the beach was the Hálsanefshellir Cave, with cliff made of hexagonal shaped basalt columns.

What I find interesting was that whenever the winds pick up, blowing the sands out into the sea. People who do not want to get hit by the sand would all freeze towards one direction until the wind dies down. Other interesting sights around the beach was a Reyniskirkja church. After visiting the black sand beach I continued on my journey eastwards. It was a long drive to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.

Along the way were more interesting sights. Snow capped mountains, lonely roads and a strange landscape with stone cairns. Laufskálavarða is a mound of lava in the southern coast of Iceland. An ancient farm once stood there but disappeared during an eruption of the Katla a long time ago. According to custom, every traveller who passed through this place for the first time was to erect a cairn, so that his journey might be favourable. What got me interested was a peculiar man-made, cube-shaped container in the snowy landscape. Ominous clouds were approaching so I had to get on quickly.

I stopped by a small Shell station at Freysnesi for a short breather, about 50km away from Jökulsárlón. I could see the Northern lights from my car. I got out to capture a long exposure, just to see how it would look like. The Northern lights looked otherworldly, as though a scene from the film Independence day. Also, it was getting cloudier, which means a storm might be coming over my way. I’m not sure if it was going to be a passing storm as the weather could be very unpredictable. Regardless, I had to be more alert from this stretch onwards.

Resuming my journey eastwards, suddenly the weather changed for the worse. The road becomes much more slippery and I could felt the impact of snowflakes hitting my car. It seems like I had driven into a snow blizzard. I  scrambled to control the air in the car to prevent my windscreen from fogging up. Visibility was so poor, I could not assess the situation (it was really bad!). The winds were so strong that the car was shaking, I thought it would be a bad idea to stop the car in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, I found a closed petrol station my car could seek shelter and wait out for the storm to pass.

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For at least three hours I stayed in the car. A couple of vehicles drove past and into the blizzard. I turned on the car heater at hourly intervals so as to conserve petrol. I did occasional long exposure to see if the storm had resided. It was still extremely cold. Eventually, the storm passed. Petrol police came to make rounds and left. Another car drove towards me. An American-Korean tourist, an old uncle came out from his nearby hotel to check out the situation. we struck up a conversation and he left soon.

After another hour of waiting, I decided to change my plans. Instead of stopping at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon for the night, I would drive on to my accommodation in Höfn, and come by the glacier lagoon on my return journey. Höfn was about 111km away from my location, about 1.5 hours drive.

As I drove on, the snow storm appeared again. A few times my car skidded and almost crashed. It became increasingly difficult to keep on one side of the road as the road markings were covered in heavy snow. All I could rely on was the car tracks left behind by the previous vehicles. I had to drive in the middle of the road carefully. I had to drive in the middle of the road carefully, in the case of incoming vehicles.

Eventually, I reached the next city at 4 am in the morning, it was my most intense drive ever. Unfortunately, I could not check in early and I had to stay in the car for a while longer. I parked at the petrol station and took some rest. I didn’t take many photos as I had used the whole day to recover from my fatigue. It was a good thing I had stopped at Höfn for two days before heading back towards Reykjavik.

Day 6

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After a good couple of hours of rest in my hostel, I set out to Stokksnes in the afternoon, slightly east of Höfn. This was the reason I travelled that far east, to see the Vestrahorn mountains, and I didnt want to go back empty handed. The weather in this area had been terrible compared to my time in Reykjavik a few days ago, but I thought I should go all out anyway. though it wasn’t my ideal weather to capture Vestrahornwith all the raining and snowing as I had hoped for a cloudless sunset, but I had to make full use of the little time I had left.

The route to Stokksnes was quite confusing for me. It looked like an F road, I wasn’t sure if my 2WD could access. I eventually reached, after seeing other regular cars driving past me. At the end of the route was a Viking Cafe. I explored the area further, eventually to the other side of the black pits for the famous view. It was a beautiful place, totally mesmerised by the landscape; the scale of the mountains and the crashing waves. I stayed there until sunset and had to return back before the last light.

Day 7

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This day, I had to head back westward. While on the way back I also had to factor in time to visit Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. These icebergs have broken off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and into a lagoon, and they then float out to sea and get washed up on the beach with the tides.

I was really hoping to capture that blue ice backlit by the sunlight to get the crystal-clear quality ice. Blue ice occurs when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of the glacier. Air bubbles are squeezed out and ice crystals enlarge, making the ice appear blue. Unfortunately, the light condition did not improve as it was still cloudy and intermittent raining that day. In addition, many of the ice shards that washed up on shore were mostly white. These ice appear to be white because of the air bubbles inside them and also because of the presence of small quantities of water in these ice.

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is quite an expansive area, even three hours still wasn’t enough. On instances, I saw a glimpse of the rainbow as the cloud breaks momentarily. I experimented with my mirror cube to see if it had worked, but the rain was a disappointment. With the ongoing rain showers every now and then, it would probably take the whole day to explore the glacier lagoon properly.

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Despite the poor weather conditions, I had to make full use of the little time I had left and press on. It was going to be a very long journey back to my next hostel in Laugarvatn, which was about 360km away, or about 4.5 hours of driving. Throughout the journey, I saw many sights but were unable to take out my camera. Even around the Laugarvatn area, there was fog. I could have spent a while capturing the villages in fog in the night. However, my top priority was to get to my next destination as soon as I could. I had only managed to reach my next hostel at almost 12 am with slight difficulty in locating my hostel and only 7 hours of rest.

Day 8

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The next day at the Laugarvatn area the weather was all bright and sunny. I like to shoot in this weather, but I didnt had enough time. Outside the village was the route Gjábakkavegur which connects Laugarvatn to Þingvellir, I spent a bit of time photographing at a vantage point overlooking towards the Laugarvatn lake. there were so many interesting sights to see along the connecting route Þingvallavegur towards Reykjavik. yet again, I could not pull over every 10 mins of drive.

I eventually reached Rejkavik and managed to meet up with Jon Hilmarsson again for an evening tea. from my Reykjavik hostel, I drove my vehicle out to the city centre with him as I wanted to explore the city after meeting him. This was my last chance of exploring the capital city, no matter what.

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Came back to see the Hallgrimskirkja church, but again, the cloudy evening wasn’t my ideal choice to capture the church. There appears to have some maintenance at parts of the church, and the wonky spotlights lighting the statue annoyed me a lot as I framed a perfect symmetry shot of the church. Visiting at such late hour means I could not enter the church either. There were many elements that annoyed me from capturing my ideal photo. But this was it, no more chances.

Day 9

After a hearty breakfast, I had to return back the car. I made my way to the bus station towards the airport, snapping photos at any scene I find interesting. This marked the end of my Iceland trip.

Conclusion

I try to be as flexible with my schedule, but my itinerary does change due to the following factors:

1) Actual distance covered were not the same as initially planned, due to my unfamiliarity with the terrain.
2) For various reasons, I spent more time at some locations & things snowball because of it.
3) As much as I want to capture the ideal light at one location, I cannot control the weather. Sometimes I arrive late and I miss the opportunity. Sometimes I have to pass on due to bad weather.
4) My driving exhaustion may take longer to recover than expected. 

It is important to be sufficiently prepared for the photography trip. Being a tourist on foreign land, I am limited by the time and the amount things I could do. However, by adapting to the environment and make do with what I can, taking as many photographs with a street photography approach to my landscapes, this enabled me to capture surprising images and sights that I feel more personal to me.

Certainly, like many people who fell in love on their first visit to Iceland, I would definitely want to come back again if given another opportunity.

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