In June of 2018, I traveled to Iceland with Colby Brown, Peyton Hale and 10 other photographers. The plan for the trip was to search out the best light and weather, and to be at the most beautiful locations during the sunset and sunrise. This enabled us to avoid the crowds of tourists but necessitated that we drive all over the island searching for good weather and then find campsites wherever we ended our days (usually around 3:00 AM). This also mean't eating only one sit-down meal a day and getting the rest of our calories from food bought at gas station convenience stores (usually at the chain called N1). It was an exhausting and exhilarating trip. I don't know how Colby and Peyton managed to take such good care of us through it all.
The trip started out with an overnight flight from Los Angeles on WOW airlines. This is budget travel. The seats don't recline, making it hard to rest, and every service is extra, including water. I probably slept an hour in small increments. My first view of Iceland was Keflavik airport in the rain. As I got off the plane, I overheard another passenger saying that the weather report predicted rain for the next 8 days. Arg! That's the length of my entire trip.
Our plan was to meet at a sandwich place called Joe and the Juice. I was delighted though not surprised to see Peyton there waiting from me. He and another member of the group, Andrew, waited while I got a sandwich (avocado, turkey, tomato and lettuce on Icelandic bread) and a blend of freshly juiced grapefruit, ginger and apple. I highly recommend Joe and the Juice.
Despite the food, I was pretty tired when Peyton picked me up at the airport and drove me to our soggy campground. The rest of our group had arrived earlier and were sleeping in their tents. I didn't bother to set up my tent in the rain as we were to hit the road in the next couple of hours. I slept in the van.
After everyone was roused, Colby gave an orientation to our plan for chasing good weather and light. He said to ask he or Peyton any question and they would do their best to help us. This had been true when I traveled with them to Patagonia last year.
One person asked if he would need a long lens to photograph the horses. Colby replied that Icelandic horses were very friendly, "Just don't get near a mother with a foal". He went on to say, "Sometimes, when photographing horses I felt someone licking my ear and I knew it wasn't Peyton.... It isn't easy to get horse slobber off your lens."
As we drove through mile after mile of volcanic, moss-covered rock in the rain and mild temperatures, I said to Peyton, "This weather reminds me of Seattle, except with gnomes." To which Peyton replied, "Yeah, that's why I like it so much. I used to live in Tacoma."
Another interesting feature of the landscape besides abundant volcanic rock, green grass or moss and waterfalls was occasional geothermal steam rising from the hillsides. The other surprise was lupines, miles and miles of lupines. I was hoping we would get some clear weather so I could photograph them.
Because the weather was predicted to clear towards the East, we drove East across much of Southern Iceland, stopping to eat at our one meal of the day at the Volcano and Earthquake Museum. They had an excellent buffet.
At some point during dinner, Colby announced that the weather prediction had changed, so we would retrace our steps, heading West and North to the western fjord region. I was pretty tired of sitting by that time (about 18 hours) but there was no point in heading into worse weather.
Dinner stop - still drizzling
So after about 5 more hours of driving, we came over a hill towards the ocean in the West fjords and saw a patch of blue sky. Yeah! I was beginning to to think I had travelled all this way to see rain.
Better yet, there was a lenticular cloud in the sky to our right. Besides being photogenic, there is a backstory to lenticular clouds. Last year in Patagonia, Colby remarked that the weather was unusually lovely for Patagonia. I said, "I seem to have good luck with weather."
He replied, "Then how about calling up some lenticular clouds at sunrise?"
As luck would have it, two days later we did have lenticular clouds at sunrise and it was beautiful. Of course I took credit.
So when Peyton pulled his van up next to Colby's, I rolled down the window and pointed to the sky saying, "Lenticular clouds!"
He laughed and said, "You did it again."
We quickly looked for a photogenic foreground for that beautiful sky. Colby found a river with a small cataract near the road. I grabbed my camera and tripod and raced down to the scene as the sun was just setting, thinking I would only have a few minutes of good light to capture the scene.
Cataract in the West fjord
The light kept getting better
Vertical further upstream
We were shooting for at least a half hour and I was amazed how the sunset light just kept going. Then I turned around and saw the clouds lit up over the ocean to the North. I raced back up the hill to get a shot of that.
When I came back across the road where the rest of the group was shooting the cataract, I saw the clouds lighting up on the mountains. Now I get it. The light around midnight truly is magical. It goes on and on.
I was so relieved to be getting some good shots after all those hours of travel. My fatigue disappeared for the time being.
As the clouds rolled in and the light faded, we got back in the vans and headed towards a campsite in Borgannes. Some of our group wanted to go to Kirkjufell, a dozen miles down the road, but Colby said the weather was getting worse and it would be too windy to camp on the peninsula.
An hour and a half later, we arrived at our campground, a soggy meadow near the road. I think of it as "Soggy Bottom 1". We all set up our tents and settled in for the night. Of course, despite the rain it was getting progressively lighter. I pulled my cap down over my eyes and settled in for the "night".
A few hours later, I heard Peyton calling that we had to get up because a storm was coming. I quickly pulled on fresh underwear and socks, wishing I had time to take a shower and brush my teeth.
I heard one of our group ask, "Does this campground have showers?"
"Then I suppose they don't have Wifi".
I quickly took down and packed up my tent and belongings as the rain came heavier. Soon, we were in our vans and on our way again. This time, headed North.
As we drove North, we passed under an inlet of ocean in a tunnel, past farms and lupines in the low hanging clouds. One of our group, Pilar joked from the back of the van, "What was the name of that type of cloud last night? Was it a testicular cloud?" That brought some cheer to the gloomy day.
Sometime in the afternoon, we arrived in the town of Akureyri, known as the "Capitol of the North." It is a pretty big town by Icelandic standards, given that there are only about 330,000 people in the whole country and most of them live in Reykjavik. We stopped there for an excellent lunch.
By now, I had gotten used to paying $30 or more for a meal. The food was very good and there is no tipping. Apparently, restaurant owners pay a living wage to their cooks and servers in Iceland. I had pan fried salmon and grilled vegetables.
Akureyri harbor - still raining
After our daily meal, we pushed on to one of the premier waterfalls in this land of waterfalls; Godafoss. It gets it's name "God falls", because the Viking ruler who decided that the country should adopt Christianity threw all the statues of Norse Gods into the river here.
The light was dismal and there were several tour buses pulling out as we arrived. I was beginning to think I should get into black and white photography because the poor light made everything look gray.
I said to Colby, "We could use a break in the clouds - maybe even another lenticular cloud." He laughed but I was thinking "a rainbow would be sweet too".
Godafoss in the rain
While waiting for better weather, I took a few shots of the local flowers.
Flowers above the falls
Gradually, the sky began to clear to the North and West. I pointed out the lenticular cloud to Colby. He just smiled and shook his head.
The sky opened and we started shooting
After working the North side of the falls, we decided to cross over to the South side. The clouds were obscuring the setting sun, but it was still beautiful.
Downstream on the South side
Upstream on the South side
Finally shot a lupine - upstream from the falls
On the way back to the parking lot, I passed an old cairn near the trail. Though it was probably much more recent, I imagined it as a relic of an old Viking trail.
Carin beside the trail
When we gathered back at the vans, I figured we would head to a campground for the night. Colby had other plans. We drove an hour on a dirt road, past a few farmhouses and lots of sheep until, after lifting a gate on the road, we arrived at another waterfall.
Or at least we arrived at the trailhead to another waterfall. This one was cut through a gorge of basalt columns.
Sheep by the road
Heading down to basalt waterfall
River flowing from waterfall
Here we are
We walked along the trail a few hundred feet above this fall, looking for good compositions. The sky was dull, so I focused a lot on foreground flowers.
After a few hours, we finally got the sky color we were hoping for.
Sunrise at last
We drove back to the nearest town and set up our tents in the campground. Like our previous campground, the grass was wet. The difference was that it was warmer and there was not wind. I was sweating as I set up my tent (despite being farther North than I have ever been in my life) and was absolutely plagued by midges. These tiny flying insects were all over my face, getting in my nose, mouth and ears and generally distracting me from setting up my tent. I had to squint because there were so many on my face. I was comforted by knowing that there are no mosquitos in Iceland, so I just tolerated them crawling on me and focused on setting up my tent.
I awoke in the morning on top of my sleeping bag, dripping with sweat. It was a very warm morning and for once we weren't in an hurry. I delighted in a hot shower, breakfast made from food I had brought from home and finally brushed my teeth. I felt like a new man.
The first thing we did after breaking camp was drive to the little town on the shores of lake Myvatin. The area is known for geothermal springs including the Myvatin nature baths and also for midges and black flies. We did not see the geothermal lagoon, but we did stop for lunch at Gamli Bistro. I had a sandwich of sliced smoked salmon on "volcanic bread" with butter. This is bread which is cooked in a pot buried in the steaming sand near a geothermal vent. It is moist and dark, kind of like Boston baked bread, and quite delicious.
Gamli Bistro near lake Myvatin
Smoked salmon on volcano bread
Next we went to the nearby geothermal area. It consisted of boiling mud opts and fumaroles.
Myvatin Geothermal area
River of mud
Peyton pointed out an area with interesting patterns in cracked mud, including segments that had curled.
Interesting cracked mud
Curled mud - that was different
After leaving the geothermal area, we continued East, stopping at a roadside waterfall.
After stopping for snack/groceries at an N1 gas station and convenience store, we headed into the Eastern fjords to a town called Borgarfjörður Eystri. We hoped to see puffins at a bird sanctuary there. Along the way I took a few shots from the car.
Mountain catching late light
When we finally arrived at the little town of Borgarfjörður Eystri, we pulled over at the side of the road because a mountain on the far side of town was lighting up in the setting sun. The mountain was colorful because it is composed of volcanic minerals called Rhyolite.
It got even better as the sun set behind us and the moon rose over the mountain.
Moon over Rhyolite mountain
At the East end of town is a small harbor with a puffin reserve. The skies were dull grey and a little dark, but we proceeded up the small hill above the harbor and photographed the puffins. They are cute little bird with clown like colored faces. The dig burrows on the grass and soft dirt to raise their young and fly down to the sea below to catch herring.
Apparently, this is the best location to see them up close (from 40 to as close as 10 feet away). The place Colby usually goes is a reserve near Vik that was closed during our trip because the puffins are increasingly endangered. Colby has also crawled on his belly in guano to get close to puffins on a little island North of Iceland. He was pretty happy to get this close with so little effort.
Our challenge in photographing them was the low light. Their feathers ruffle in the breeze, so I don't shoot any slower than a 400th of a second. I used a 70 to 200 mm lens at f2.8 but even at that wide an aperture, I had to raise the ISO to 1600 because of the darkness. When I processed these shots later in Bridge, I took the luminance slider up to at least 40% to reduce noise.
When shooting at 200 mm with that lens, the depth of field is less than an inch. I used a single focal point (on the puffin's eye) to try to get a sharp shot. The upside of that shallow a depth of field is the creamy backgrounds make the puffin stand out. I always tried to the the puffins face framed by a distant background.
Puffin up close
Framed by the ocean below
There were quite a few puffins. One has herring in his mouth
Hillside of puffin burrows
Lots of birders and photographers too
The view back towards town looks good
After shooting our fill of puffins, we headed back to a campsite on the outskirts of town. I was delighted that there were no midges or other flying bugs and that the ground wasn't wet and squishy.
There was a light breeze and Peyton was concerned after checking the weather maps. He said that we could be in for some very high winds, but it would be worse to the South and we couldn't get over the mountain passes before the wind hit anyway.
I was relieved to be setting up camp as it was about 1:00 AM and I was tired. Nothing he said could have prepared me for just how bad the wind could get.
To read more, click the link below.