Iceland: Stunning Landscapes, A Very Long Run & More Stunning Landscapes

You may remember reading my first blog where I talked about finding my passion, booking a summer full of trips (with an Ultra Marathon thrown in the middle), all while truly exploring how I want to spend my time and in turn make a living. 

In short, after a full summer of travel I'm as close as I've ever been to feeling as passionate and focuseD as I did when I played as a Division 1 College Goalie.  My passion for taking photos of landscapes & people is at an all time high and basically takes up most of my every waking moment. 

More on that later... but for now, I really hope you enjoy Iceland through my eyes and lens of the faithful fujifilm XT-1 which is proving it can do almost anything when it comes to taking stunning images.  Follow along as I spend 10 days exploring Iceland at one of the most beautiful times of year: July; A time where the sun sets only for a few hours before rising again, the late and early sun gives off beautiful soft light for hours upon hours, giving a feeling of almost perpetual golden hour,  the snow is mostly melted and the temperature gets rather comfortable as long as it's dry.

When I hopped off the plane in Iceland it was 11:30PM, spitting rain, foggy and somewhat cold.  Nonetheless, optimistic I put my gear in the Chevy Spark I had rented from SIXT Car Rental which was by far the cheapest option (by hundreds of Euros!!) and a very viable one for anyone traveling alone or with someone else and little gear.  It was a small car, stick shift, great on gas and I even slept in the front seat of it for 7 of 9 nights.

The South-West:

Despite the gloomy weather, I was obviously excited to finally be in Iceland, had my two bags which had all my camera gear, camping supplies, ultra running gear and was ready to rock.  I couldn't decide whether to go east on the Ring Road towards the large waterfallswhere there was concentration of highly photographic sites or to set out west to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and Kirkjufell Mountain.  Thanks to Rogers "Roam Like Home", for $10 per day, I was able to use my normal data for directions and more importantly weather forecasts which often dictated my next location.

A few hours into my drive, the excitement of taking photos was wearing off a bit as the weather still hadn't changed at all.  It was cold, grey, windy and rainy which made it tough to take interesting images.  The photo below was actually taken from inside my car to avoid rain drops on my lens.

 As I drove around feeling a bit let down due to the grey and raining weather looking for things to shoot, these guys jumped out at me.  I found it amusing that they were huddled together under a road sign clearly providing very little shelter.

As I drove around feeling a bit let down due to the grey and raining weather looking for things to shoot, these guys jumped out at me.  I found it amusing that they were huddled together under a road sign clearly providing very little shelter.

After getting to Kirkjufell in the early morning hours, I took a nap hoping the rain would stop and I would be able to capture this iconic location, but when the rain and lighting didn't improve, I decided to keep driving further around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and circle back around later.  It was there I found more dramatic cloud cover for interesting photos and where things turned for the better. 

First, there were beautiful Icelandic grazing ponies; second, fields of Lupine (a flower originally brought to Iceland from Alaska as a way to stop ground erosion and now considered invasive) with dramatic clouds as a backdrop.

Next,  I came to one of Iceland's many moss-covered lava fields, and as the sun came out I thought it would be fun to take a #selfie before napping with the warm sun kissing my face and tempurpedic-like moss to rest for a few.

Following my nap, I came upon a waterfall which I don't actually know the name of but which I found very beautiful and interesting due to the fact that you could slip into the crack of it's source and follow the waterfall upstream to a point where the rock got too narrow to enter.  I managed to get a few frames with one long exposure while other visitors had disappeared into the cave.

 One of the many waterfalls I never found the name of in Iceland.  It's very visible from the main road and requires a short hike from the parking lot just off the road.

One of the many waterfalls I never found the name of in Iceland.  It's very visible from the main road and requires a short hike from the parking lot just off the road.

Sun was out, skies were blue and it was time for me to circle back to Kirkjufell for some pics before moving on East.  As it often does, the weather changed and turned grey again making for nice (but not extraordinary) photos, despite me sleeping in my car until golden hour.  I tried a few angles and shutter speed variations that are different than what you normally see as well as a few of the standard shots which show the waterfall and mountain nicely.

The most interesting & remarkable thing that happened towards the end of my shoot, was running into Jakob of Nordica Photo (I know this after the fact, more on this below) who was there capturing a Toronto couple getting married in Iceland.

This had a profound affect on me as it really made my dream of one day working with adventurous couples in beautiful landscapes a possibility. Looking back, it planted a seed which really made me want to start learning how to pose and work with people so that I can tell their unique story while also having the ability to travel for engagements and weddings all around the world.

Jakob of Nordica Photo doing his thing with the Holdfast Moneymaker holding his 3 camera bodies.  My goal is to be working like this in the coming years. I have lots to learn but the level or passion and enthusiasm I'm bringing to my photography is unlike anything I've felt in a long time :)

When I took these photos I really had no idea who it was. It just looked beautiful and I wanted to capture the moment in case this was a working photographer I could tag/share/connect with on Instagram plus share the images of him taking pictures which is often nice for a photographer to have, especially in such a beautiful place. To ensure I wasn't being invasive I used my 50-140mm Fuji zoom but that didn't stop me from admiring his attire, his professionalism and the way he managed this couple, posing them nicely while being incredibly comfortable behind his many cameras. 

When they were leaving, I asked him about his gear a bit as well and if he was on Instagram so I could check out his work.  Turns out he's one of two guys behind Nordica Photos which is a very popular destination wedding/engagement photography studio with an even bigger following on social media.  I shared the image that night on my social media tagging them and Holdfast Gear (which makes the multiple camera holding system pictured), both were kind enough to comment and/or share the image via their respective channels.  Call that Iceland Instagram encounter #1.

 Things you see while driving in Iceland

Things you see while driving in Iceland

The South:

That night my plan was to drive a few hours before taking a short nap and getting ready for my next location: Oxararfoss falls in Þingvellir National Park.  The night-time drive into the park was beautiful as light was really soft and there was a nice amount of fog.  After a short hike into and along a valley/canyon you'd see in lord of the rings, I came to this beautiful place:

Wide Angle Perspective, safe, shows water movement, colors etc

 A few steps back, something more unique which shows the beauty and texture of the landscape.  I would choose the first as it shows the falls better but this works too in my opinion.

A few steps back, something more unique which shows the beauty and texture of the landscape.  I would choose the first as it shows the falls better but this works too in my opinion.

Often when taking a good photo, there is another nearby.  In this case it was right behind me... Following a few shots I liked of the falls, this was the view from up on the rock wall where I had taken the previous shots.  Although it's nothing incredible I like how the fog was moving slowly up and across the land with the mountains in the distance.

With the sun rising in a few hours and so many things to see, it was time to move onto a place I was really excited to see: Geysir.  On my way, illuminated by first light, I saw beautiful sights which included a double headed horse ;)

The light was just over the horizon when I arrived to Geysir, a place known for it's aerial steam shooting power.  Normally extremely busy and crowded, it was around 7am and I had the whole place to myself.  Should I have planned to arrive a few hours later it would have been me and about 15 tourist buses carrying hordes of people with Selfie Sticks.

In Iceland, like any popular place, you’ll be rewarded for getting up super early or staying out late when it comes to visiting top destinations. Almost all of my images in Iceland were taken between the hours of 10PM and 7AM
 The warm sun back lighting the cloud of steam made for an interesting photo in my mind.  The contrast between the light colored steam and the dramatic sky makes the photo.

The warm sun back lighting the cloud of steam made for an interesting photo in my mind.  The contrast between the light colored steam and the dramatic sky makes the photo.

The Great Geysir seen on the left above is no longer active and actually just steams sulfur smelling gases into the air. The smaller Geysir found a short walk away however, shoots steam into the air every 4-5 minutes which was very cool to experience all alone.

Next on my list and a bit further east was a stunning waterfall, less common to tourists and unmotivated photographers as it's quite off the beaten path.  It's called Bruarfoss and I would say one of the most beautiful/unique falls due to the many different smaller falls and it's natural bright blue color seen below.  No excessive Vibrance or Saturation added in Lightroom here.  It's really that blue!

bruarfoss

Here I experimented with a few different angles and the duration of shutter speed using both the big and little stopper by Lee Filters to range from a few seconds to over a minute.  I personally thought the really long shutter speeds were interesting but didn't manage to show off the energy and flow of the falls well enough so if I had to choose, I'd say quicker shutter is the way to go here!

The South-East:

Next, my goal was to see and capture the famous Seljalandsfoss which is unique for it's ability to allow people to walk under and around it.  If you're there for sunset and you're lucky, you can capture the falls back-lit with the sun falling in the distance.  Plus, later towards sunset there are less people and hopefully less wind which adds a whole other dimension to trying to keep your lens clear of water drops.  I used the combination of a plastic bag (which I try to always have on me), my coat and quick bracketed exposures to get a few shots that weren't ruined by water on the lens.

 Seljalandsfoss Golden Hour

Seljalandsfoss Golden Hour

 Seljalandsfoss at Sunset

Seljalandsfoss at Sunset

 From a different perspective

From a different perspective

The photo below is not mine but just to give you a sense of what this looks like from outside the falls, you can walk anywhere around and behind the falls.

 Not my photo, just to show the falls from a different angle. It's a truly spectacular place!

Not my photo, just to show the falls from a different angle. It's a truly spectacular place!

Following getting soaked under the falls and getting a few nice frames, it was time for me to travel to the truly massive and majestic Skogafoss where I had Iceland Instagram encounter #2 with @barefootandbeared a truly awesome guy and talented photographer from Australia.  Interestingly, I had followed his work and commented on a few of my favorite photos. When we started speaking it was like "hey don't we know each other from instagram?!".  Anyways, while his girlfriend (and now fiance @barefootandbeaded (congrats you two)) was sleeping, he and I went for a walk up and behind the massive falls, had a good chat about gear, philosophy, weddings, post-processing etc.  It was a very enlightening and inspiring experience.

 The massive Skogafoss from afar, I was taking this shot just before I met @barefootandbearded for the first time.

The massive Skogafoss from afar, I was taking this shot just before I met @barefootandbearded for the first time.

 Photo of Joel Alston also known as BarefootandBearded admiring Iceland's beauty.

Photo of Joel Alston also known as BarefootandBearded admiring Iceland's beauty.

Following our walk and talk, I retreated to my car/sleeping bag combo for a good nights rest before heading more north-east up the coast towards Vik, a stunning place known for it's black sand beaches.

The East:

 Vik Beach long exposure. Look at that black sand and those sea stacks!

Vik Beach long exposure. Look at that black sand and those sea stacks!

I didn't spend a tonne of time here as it was past morning golden hour, but I did find an awesome restaurant which served all-you-can-eat fresh bread and cream of mushroom soup.  Following all the chilly temps, it was so comforting. I must have had 3-4 bowls while I sat editing some of my recent shots and recharged my batteries.  Not ideal a few days before a big running race but hugely satisfying.

Belly and devices full, I headed further up the coast towards the glaciers and eventually Jokulsarlon (also known as the glacial lagoon)

 I hiked quite a ways with gear and tripod to get this #selfie.  The wind was howling but I just couldn't help feel so energized as I stood atop looking down at this glacier along Iceland's Route 1.

I hiked quite a ways with gear and tripod to get this #selfie.  The wind was howling but I just couldn't help feel so energized as I stood atop looking down at this glacier along Iceland's Route 1.

The goal was to arrive at the Glacial Lagoon for sunset in hopes of getting some icebergs with quality light.  Things weren't looking that promising as everything was just grey, but regardless I just couldn't help picking up my camera to capture a place so unique and unlike I'd ever seen and probably will ever see in my life.  The colorful glow and shape of the ice as seen below was just simply outstanding!

 Iceberg floats in Iceland's Glacial Lagoon

Iceberg floats in Iceland's Glacial Lagoon

As sunset approached, I was now at the mouth of the lagoon where it meets the ocean, poised to capture whatever potential magic happened.  Besides being fascinated by the different conglomerates of ice, I was really looking for something different than the others there.  Just as I was setting up to take a long exposure of water drifting past a lodged piece of ice, a slit in the clouds opened (insert heavenly music here) and a beam of warm light illuminated the background of the ice I was photographing.  After getting a few safe shots to make sure I got it, I put on my Little Stopper so I could capture the contrast between the stuck ice and the moving water which resulted in this magic:

Following this, I basically ran full out to each next location trying to capture as many different ice sculptures while the light was so so so... so good.

The clouds closed, the sun set and I was simply in awe with what I had witnessed and managed to capture.

For no more than 10 minutes at Jökulsárlón, the clouds had literally parted and I had been treated to heavenly light.

Feeling like I had stopped time and captured the fleeting moment was a gratifying feeling that left me greatly fulfilled.

 Last of daylight, long exposure, I found the mud trapped in this piece of ice really unique.

Last of daylight, long exposure, I found the mud trapped in this piece of ice really unique.

The next few hours were spent sleeping until sunrise (approx: 3:45am) as I hoped to capture the unique pieces of ice that fall off the glacier, float down the lagoon, out into the ocean, thrown around by the waves and washed up back up onto the beach which leaves them as clear and smooth as oddly shaped diamonds.  I didn't get anything special when it comes to light in the background, but it sure didn't stop me from breaking out the tripod and capturing these natural masterpieces for 2 or so hours before heading back to bed.

Isn’t Nature Perfect?!

These were some of my last photos before I had to head back to Reykjavik to properly rest for the looming Ultra Marathon.  It took me basically a half day of relaxed driving with many quick stops to get back to the city, return my rental car, meet with Magnus (my awesome host leading up to the race), grab some groceries and get into bed early in preparation for what was going to be my longest and most extreme run ever.

On the way back, these are some of the things I found worth stopping for:

The Run (53km of it):

I could write lots about the run but prefer in this case to let a video do the talking since this post is mainly about photography.  The song Pretty Girls is by an Icelandic band called Kaleo, the images and videos were taken by me during the run on my iPhone 6 and all I will say is it was brutally challenging, yet rewarding for a guy who had trained consistently but not nearly enough long miles due to my focus being on building my photography portfolio the prior 4 months.  I had reasonable expectations and simply wanted to see this beautiful trail in a day while challenging myself in ways I had never before.

Reykjavik:

Seven hours later, it was back on the off-road bus to Reykjavik for a good and long night sleep in a warm and comfy bed thanks to my wonderful hosts (shout out to Magnus & Oliver for the warm hospitality & to Hilda + Liz Pead for setting everything up!).  I'll be forever grateful!

The next day was spent in the beautiful capital with Magnus who was kind enough to show me the key areas from a local's point of view, which is always best.  It was great for recovery, and despite being sore it kept the legs moving and the walk made for a good time to take a few city pics handheld.  I also enjoyed a latte in a beautiful coffee shop called Stofan Cafe which is a must-try.

Westfjords:

Refreshed and ready to get moving again, I had 4 days left in Iceland, so the the decision to go and see the Westfjords (or go elsewhere in Iceland) was a difficult one.  The fjords are one of the most remote and least explored parts of Iceland; it's roads, although paved or at very least groomed gravel, are extremely steep and indirect due to all the fingers of land that stretch into the sea along with all the mountains between villages.  They have built a few tunnels and things aren't as bad as they used to be, but it's truly rugged and beautiful and came highly recommended by a friend of Magnus's.  What's interesting is most native Icelanders haven't even been there despite it only being 5-6 hours away to the start of the fjords.

With some research and suggestions, I plotted my route and was off.  Along the way I saw sheep on the edge of photogenic cliffs, took a few #selfies using the shutter timer function (the XT-1 also has an iPhone app but the range wasn't good enough to use this function for these waterfall photos) and descended into a handful of cute, remote and character-filled fishing towns almost forgotten in time. 

Each time I followed the road out and over the mountains, back around & dove back towards the ocean, I was treated to similar but equally impressive views such as this:

At times, melted snow and rivers would flow down towards the ocean below, and in this particular case I was able to get on a rock between two streams of rushing water.  My hope was to give the sense of what it feels like to be surrounded by the powers of nature high above the valley and ocean below.

Next, it was on to the biggest waterfall in the Westfjords.  Dynjandi is by far the most spectacular one in the region. "Dynjandi" means "thunderous" in Icelandic. It is actually a series of waterfalls (7 in all with top 2 pictured below) with a cumulative height of 100m and 60m wide!  I spent a few hours here simply marveling at the sound and multitude of water pathways down the hillside.

DSCF6739-HDR.jpg

After getting the above shot, I moved on to different angles and some more macro/creative work such as the flowers below.

The further I proceeded through the Westfjords, the less direct the roads seemed to be; and sometimes I would spend an hour or so climbing, traversing a large plateau and plunging down again just to cover what would be 10km or so as the crow flies.  I wasn't complaining, the scenery was always interesting:

In terms of wildlife, things really got cool when I saw some seals lying off the coast.  I wasn't able to get super close, but it was incredibly sweet to watch them lying down, playing and barking among themselves.

After 2 days in these remote lands, I had the choice to either head back south to previously explored places or continue around the northern part of the island.  I chose the latter although it would be a lot of driving, but I wanted to be able to say I'd at least seen most parts of Iceland so that when I returned, I knew what I needed to explore more and recommend to friends.  The other reason I wanted to visit the north was to see Lake Myvatn and the beautiful Godagoss which means waterfall of the Gods.  Who wouldn't want to see that right!?

DSCF6889.jpg

Worth the trip?  I think so.  This was actually taken without a tripod... in a rush to capture the rainbow as direct light was disappearing behind the mountains.  It had been spitting a bit and as I was 4-5 minutes away from the falls, all I could see was a huge arching rainbow directly behind the waterfall.  As soon as I took the shot, it faded and quickly disappeared.  Not perfect, but still a cool image/memory :)

With the ambient light low, I was able to extend my shutter speeds. After the standard safe shots further below, I had a vision of a really fluffy long exposure thanks to the lee big stopper.  For this image my shutter was 180 seconds (3 minutes) long.  It really captured the movement of the water + the movement of the mist coming off the falls.  In post, I used an exposure brush to bring back a bit of detail in the nearby rock to add some contrast/pop to the image overall.

Black and white suits the image best in my opinion. With the light low, it was really a lot more about the interacting shapes and textures versus the colors present.

I now had about 36 hours until I needed to be back to Reykjavik for my flight with a good amount of driving, so besides 2 last important stops, all I did was drive and watch.

Important Stop #1 - Puffins on Kirkjufjara beach:

 Kirkjufjara beach is near Vik but on the other side of the mountains that divide the two places

Kirkjufjara beach is near Vik but on the other side of the mountains that divide the two places

There were tonnes of puffins here but they were high in the cliffs, so despite my climbing as high as I could (safely) while also giving them a lot of space, I was only able to get one shot that I like;  Nonetheless this beach is amazing for it's bird life, sea stacks as well as it's caves and it's black jagged columns.  Look it up, it's awesome!

Important Stop #2 - Sólheimasandur Beach Plane Crash:

As I was driving towards Sólheimasandur Beach on my last night to shoot this eerie scene, I could tell the sky was going to be doing magical things but I wasn't sure how it would all come together with the wrecked US Navy plane found on this black beach.

I was lucky enough to experience this on my own with no one else around after walking down the rough road that I was afraid would destroy my small rental car. The 4km hike both ways was more than worth it.

DSCF6979-HDR.jpg

Iceland was more than fun and I think it saved the best for last.  It was truly fantastic to have such amazing light all to myself and on numerous occasions, despite the many tourists & photographers this time of year.  All it took was staying out late and getting up early.  The fact that I was traveling alone and sleeping in my car, allowed me to be extremely flexible and able to change plans last minute (which was often key in me experiencing good weather and quality light).  All this being said, the weather is truly a factor to consider in Iceland, and as much as you can plan ahead/check forecasts, you're truly at the mercy of the powers of nature.  All you can do is take the steps to give yourself the best shot possible.

I was extremely grateful for the way the race went and the warm hospitality I was shown wherever I went.  Despite grey periods and spurts of rain it actually wasn't bad at all.  All I can say and suggest to anyone thinking of going to Iceland is GO.  You won't be disappointed for a second as long as you're able to be positive, flexible & bring proper attire.

Bonus:

For those reading this or planning a trip to Iceland, there's a secret place only the locals know which you won't find on many blogs and literally no travel sites/books.  It's a natural hot spring up in the mountains, a few kms hike up, which gets hotter as you go higher. It's steamy hot, rays of sunshine are blasting down on you, wild flowers, it's incredible!

 Top Secret

Top Secret

If you like the way this place looks and sounds shoot me an e-mail and I'll give you some hints as to how to find it.

Thanks for reading, lots more blogs to come including my first engagement shoot & my awesome Italian Adventures!

Much gratitude,

Jeremie