Iceland, a long awaited first visit. ( 1 of 2)

Posted by on Jun 11, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments

‘Would you like to take out extra insurance to lower your excess in the case on an accident?’ the man behind the desk at the care hire office asked.

‘No thank you, I’m sure I’ll be ok’ I replied. I had after all been hiring vehicles for three or four weeks a year for the past ten years or so without a problem.

‘It’s not your driving you need to worry about’ he responded ‘ it’s the locals you need to look out for’…….

First light, first morning

For many years I had been hoping to travel North from the UK again. My last trip had been in the Summer of 2008 when I was fortunate to be able to visit Västerbottens län in Northern Sweden and across the border into the Norwegian Fjords around Mo i Rana with a VW Transporter while my sister took part in an opera summer school in Hemavan. During my ten day stay I was able to roam freely and to work at a comfortable pace while exploring new territory. Since then I had been unable to travel overseas for numerous reasons but my appetite had been whetted by that and a previous years visit to Lofoten where I assisted David Ward on a Light and Land tour.

In February last year, having just finished leading a workshop/tour in Sutherland I called in to Aviemore Youth Hostel on the off chance that my good friend Gari was still working there. When I lived in Scotland he had been my most regular and dependable companion while out photographing but we had not been in contact for a couple of years since I had moved South. Gari runs his own blog about his mountain biking/photographic explorations of the Cairngorms and surrounding areas which can be found here He having completed a couple of cycle tours in Iceland we quickly hatched a plan to head there on a budget with our cameras at what we hoped would be a time of year that provided some drama.

On the road to Þingvellir


Heading out in late November our plan had been to camp to keep costs down and we took all the gear but in the end spent zero time under canvas due to the severe conditions. Having landed at Keflavik we collected our hire car ( a Dacia Duster which turned out to be the most common car on the road outside of Reykjavik) and drove into town for a night at a hostel. The following morning we headed out before sunrise at a very civilised 10am. With no pre-planned itinerary due to the freedom provided by the intention to camp we had the option of heading out along the A1 East to Höfn and Stokksnes or up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The weather was beautifully settled but the forecast was suggesting steadily increasing wind speeds. We opted to head South and East but took the tourist route out of Reykjavik to take in Þingvellir and Geysir and then back to Selfoss.

Forecourt dawn light

Stopping off at a fuel station for a coffee the light on the hills was spectacular and I couldn’t resist wasting a couple of frames with some hand held shots from beside the car. Heading North we stopped at a busy lay by which offered the first great views out over the frozen landscape but I was struggling to get motivated and to find any meaningful compositions. I’ve learned over the years not to get frustrated when this happens. You can put yourself under huge pressure to be making images and there are lots of reasons why, on occasion, you simply don’t seem to be seeing anything. The self imposed pressure often being the very reason you’re not able to relax into a creative frame of mind and it’s worse when you’re at what is obviously a great location with plenty of potential. Recovering from the journey up to Edinburgh and the flight out I was content to take the odd snap while enjoying the biting cold air and taking in the views.

From a lay by, taking it in.

After an expensive toilet stop at a crowded Þingvellir visitor centre we drove on to Geysir which was mobbed with selfie obsessed stick wielding coach borne tourists. The thermal waters were not performing and we decided to make a move South to the coast and were therefore surprised a while later to roll into the Gullfoss upper car park having missed our turning. Needless to say the waterfall was absolutely mobbed but was in great condition being mostly frozen up. What followed was a very frustrating thirty minutes trying to photograph with long lenses in an increasingly strong and gusty wind. None of my images are sharp enough to print larger than A3 should I want to and some of the ice formations were incredible.

Gullfoss, deep winter.

Gullfoss detail










After another coffee the deteriorating weather dictated that we move on as windblown snow was beginning to block the road and a couple of cars were already struggling in the conditions. The drive down to our chosen campsite at Skógafoss was pretty sporting with windblown snow flying across the road to a depth of about eighteen inches giving us the impression that we were in a hovercraft. That was fine until you were heading towards an articulated lorry coming the other way in the same vicious cross wind.

The weather starts to go downhill.

Sensing a change in the darkness outside we pulled off onto a side road facing the mountains near Eyjafjallajökull to observe an arcing aurora over the hills which eating out tea. The beauty was shattered when suddenly our car was shaken violently for thirty seconds and visibility went to zero. As quickly as it had started the shaking stopped and the view opened up again. Minutes later we observed a snownado thunder it’s way across the field in front of us and realised we had been in the path of one earlier. By the time we arrived at our campsite ten minutes later the weather had further deteriorated to a point where getting out of the car was virtually impossible. Pitching and staying in a tent was not an option but fortunately we were able to get into the hostel which was fast filling with travellers unable to move on in the storm.

Skógafoss ice detail

Day three saw us starting at an already busy Skógafoss in bright conditions but with strong wind still a problem. Wide shots were not an option due to the volume of tourists so we made our way over the sheet ice to a position near the foot of the falls and struggled with freezing, wind blown spray for a while before admitting defeat and moving on to Vik. Here, we had more of the same; harsh light and strong wind stripping us of our motivation and forcing us to change our plans of heading further East.

Beside Route 1, drive by shooting.

That would have to wait for another visit, time instead to head West and find some North facing coast out of the continuing poor weather. That afternoon I drove us back to Eyrarbakki where once again we struggled to make any images. We had however finally found ourselves a foreground that would serve us very well the next morning.

Struggling with motivation

Looking back towards Selfoss, afterglow

With an estuary full of sea ice to use and foreground we had already researched the potential to park and gain access down onto the black sand beach. There were a couple of small ice chunks on the sand but by far the best foreground was to be found where a causeway provided some shelter from the wind and the curved bay was full of large plates of ice jostling against each other in the swell. Even out of the strongest wind the chill factor was immense and this has to have been my coldest shoot ever. My Sony A7r was performing perfectly but Gari’s screen had started to play up. Having an unloved hand for much more than a minute was very painful and made camera operation very difficult, it was here that my main pair of gloves were blown away never to be seen again.

Ice flow, Eyrarbakki.

Our plan was now to head North and West and out on to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the hope of better conditions and we pressed on with our journey back past Reykjavik and on to Borgarnes for a late lunch. Here a bit of car park based photography actually yielded quite a strong image looking across to the towering cliffs of Hafnarfjall.

Hafnarfjall crosshatch

Leaving Borgarnes at 3pm we had the most spectacular drive out along the coastal plain as we headed towards Snaefellsnes. A few sections of road were a bit dodgy with sheets of ice but for the most part the roads were far better than any here in the UK which allowed me to relax while driving and enjoy the scenery and more importantly the photography en route. In the afterglow we were able to photograph well over an hour after sunset but not before we had enjoyed the strong colour while photographing some horses.

Wind carved snow, Hraunreppsvegur


Wind sculpted snow two









Last light, Haffjarðará

After a pretty full on day we drove over the mountains on Route 56 and arrived in Ólafsvík on the North coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula at about 7pm where we grabbed a bite to eat before heading to the campsite in the dark to pitch up for the night. This idea was again abandoned as the whole site including the toilet blocks was closed but more critically because the ground was frozen as hard as rock and buried under eight inches of snow. Instead we found a great hostel in the village which we booked into on a day to day basis for the next three nights. This provided a superb base to head out and around the peninsula in the hope of creating some strong images which we did but not without a bit of drama. More on that next time…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *