Iceland Day 12: Kirkjufell Denouement

Iceland Day 12: Kirkjufell Denouement

We were down to five – Erno, Bob, Ken, Nick, and me. Nick and I had commandeered a rental van early in the morning, then we loaded up the rest of the small team at the guesthouse, dropped Thor at some random roundabout near his home, and headed back to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. A stop at the Hotel Rjúkandi was required, we’d hit this café for coffee a few times already, stopping here on our first foray to the peninsula.

We had the highway to ourselves all the way to Grundarfjörður, the small harbor town below the most photographed mountain in Iceland, Kirkjufell. The wizard-hat or arrowhead peak rises from the peninsula’s north coast, and with its paired waterfalls—Kirkjufellfoss—it basically composes images for you. We were too late for sunrise, but the clouds were interesting enough that we headed straight for the carpark at the falls. Well, all but Nick; he dropped us and cruised away, having earned some alone-time after a week and a half of shepherding the workshop around. The workshop was over and I think the need for independence spoke to all of us. The trails around the falls were basically empty and our little four-some dispersed, one-by-one, to deal with the icon.

Grundarfjörður sunrise. The other view from Kirkjufellfoss.

I had seen 100s of images of Kirkjufell, we all had, but there is definitely something about capturing or trying to capture, one of your own. Only seven or eight days ago Ken had confided to me his disappointment in having a storm prevent our initial visit, and now he was here, gleefully hitting the trail, undoubtedly prepared to capture a long-exposure featuring the towering peak. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I checked the popular spots around the falls—the iconic perspective, but snow and ice draped the small cliff and in the subdued light the scene lacked the impact I sought. It was beautiful but not in my skill set to really capture it.

I would move higher. It felt good to hike and climb a little; I travelled cross-country, traversing crunching snow and finding traces of sheep trails along a fenceline. I liked the higher perspective. It wasn’t particularly original, but it was different enough to feel creative. I worked on images using snow-filled drainages as leading lines between mossy volcanic rocks. For awhile I simply sat in a rocky swale and watched the clouds skittering above Kirkjufell, enjoying my last few hours of daylight in Iceland.

Kirkjufell. Hiking the frozens swales and streams in the mid-day light.

As the sun crept low, we retreated to our guesthouse overlooking the small port town. I know Iceland can seem crowded with tourists, but right now, it seemed we were alone on the peninsula. We settled into the quiet, multiroom guesthouse. Dinner was found at an establishment that was either the city library that happened to have a comfortable café and museum attached, or it was a café that was also the city library. A perfect combination if only folks could put their phones down long enough to remember that there are books to read.

The Kp index was in our favor, there would be aurora at Kirkjufell tonight. We geared up for the dark and cold, powered by dinner beer and desert coffee—the nutrition of night photography. Nick suggested we use the bay to get reflections of Kirkjufell glowing in the lights of the port. We scurried along the rocky beach and scattered to set up our images as the first aurora peeked from behind the mountain. With the false confidence of not using my headlamp, I stumbled into an unseen creek in the dark. Ok, the feet would not know warmth again tonight.

Kirkjufell townlight. Watching the aurora build in long curtains behind the front-lit peak.

Using some high ISO images to get the mountain and reflections working, we waited for the aurora to build. It came and went in long glowing curtains, but with little drama. Our patience failed. Someone mentioned moving to harbor to possibly get artistic with some boats and maybe the aurora backdrop would return. The harbor lights proved a definite nuisance and we quickly abandoned that idea. But I recognized the fishing port from the Walter Mitty movie—a bonus. Our evening was over, it was time for the warmth of the guesthouse. We turned north, everyone lulled by the van’s movement through yet another roundabout, but then Bob said something. What? The quiet man who spoke in the most efficient terms, as in, one word a day for the duration of the workshop. A truck driver, the kind man was used to no one being there to hear him, I guess. Hell, I drive alone a lot, uttering all kinds of oratory to no one but the bugs on the windshield. Bob’s cut from very different cloth.

But what? “Turn around, Nick, it’s coming. Turn around now.” When Robert spoke, we listened.

Parting light at Kirkjufell. Sitting back with new friends, I could enjoy the last show of a wonderful journey.

The aurora danced around Kirkjufell as our tripods skated on the clear, glassy ice in the meltwater pools below the ponds. We hooted and laughed as we lay prone on the ice, getting wide-angle images as light beams shot from the clouds on the horizon. The aurora’s green and magenta reflections swirled at our feet as our eyes (and cameras) took in the mountain and its awesome sky. Once again, I had to stop photography and simply watch. This was why I came.

Back to Day 11. Click here for Iceland Gallery.

Epilogue: Endless thanks to Nick and Thor. I would not think twice about doing it again, and I would recommend one of their dynamic-duo adventures to anyone. But most of all, thank you to every member of our workshop team. It was a great environment to learn in, to share, and to laugh about. The latter came easily and often. I hope each one of you enjoyed our Iceland Winter Adventure 2018 as much as I did.


Iceland Day 11: South Coast Return

Iceland Day 11: South Coast Return

It was the final day of the Iceland Workshop, and it felt like we had some locations to catch up on. Although the storm had faded, it left a sky that couldn’t decide if it was going to be a backdrop of interest or a curtain of gray. We’d try to make the most of it before heading back toward Reykjavik and the departures at Keflavik.

We dropped to the beach at Vik where dawn unfolded. The shore was blue and breezy as wet mist clouded the sea-stack Trolls just off shore. I worked a variety of compositions and played with exposure times, long and short, trying to capture the trolls in their habitat. The muted sunrise kept the scenes somewhat flat, the foamy sea providing the only highlights against the dark rocks. High clouds would bloom with color momentarily, but their distance relative to the rocky subjects made them feel disconnected. I worked hard without much success.

Trolls at dawn. Long exposure at the Black Beach below Vik; stopped down so the long exposure time produced the feeling I wanted. 5 sec, f/18, ISO 100.

Then I noticed Jeremy or Erno, can’t recall who, maybe it was Mike or Quinn, shooting straight down at their feet. The troll scenes had called for the telephoto, so pointing my 100-400mm at the repetitive texture of the perfectly rounded beach gravels, uniformly dark with misty highlights, created a mesmerizing but relaxing composition. I loved it. Here and there, a random red stone highlighted the gray-black clasts, and a wet sheen revealed a self-reflection in each of the million stones. Oddly, one of my favorite compositions of the trip, right at my feet and I might have missed it had others not suggested a look.

One of red. Simplicity at my feet; 8 sec, f/8, ISO 100.

Quinn at his craft; seeing it differently.

A portrait at Kvernufoss. Photo by Nick Page.

Capturing Kvernufoss image, see below. Photo by Nick Page.

Then came the waterfalls, the icons of the South Coast. Having been a generally rag-tag workshop group operating mostly away from the crowds over the past several days, it was disheartening to pull into the crowds of Skógafoss (I can’t imagine the summer scene). I know we are an element of the crowding and the falls are certainly an accessible attraction, but being surrounded by the bustle of busses and their denizens changed the vibe of the day.

The light had turned flat. I waded into the stream to work some foreground rocks and ice into the looming Skógafoss. I could not get the mid-ground figures—sightseers and photogs at the iconic falls—out of my frame. Worse, and all my fault, I did not pay attention to the mist collecting on my lens and all my images were spotty, even though I was happy in the moment with the live view on the camera-back. This haunted me endlessly as I reviewed my waterfall photos later. Nick had warned me, but I didn’t dry the lens often enough. When I did remember, it wasn’t the composition I’d hoped for. When I’d forget, the composition was good. No keepers from Skógafoss!

Thor had a better idea. We’d drive a short distance south and hike the similarly short distance to Kvernufoss. It is wonderful how the necessity of a hike allows an escape from crowds—and this was not a long or difficult hike. I got a little mojo back as the walk invigorated our small group, and the sharp falls pouring through a small grotto appealed to me more than the massive curtain-like falls. I waded into the stream to capture the energy flowing at me. It was amazingly fun. Leaving the stream, I climbed along an icy trail behind the falls to gain a perspective I’d never experienced before at any waterfall.

Back streamside, I watched from a distance as Ken lost his grip on his Nikon D850. It tumbled toward the rapids, but he and Quinn dove toward the water, Ken grasping the fumbled camera on its last bounce before the water. The two men sprawled on the grassy terrace, water flowing at arm’s reach. That was close!

Kvernufoss. Exposure blend to show the power of the falls and its outflow stream; 1/80 sec (falls), 1/6 sec (stream), f/8, ISO 320.

Behind the falls. A difficult perch in cold mist, a fun shot, 0.3 sec, f/8, ISO 100.

On our short hike back, Quinn and Jeremy scattered along a field to get a composition of a languid Icelandic pony. The horse was pretty far off, but their effort established the idea of looking for some close-up horses to photograph. I think plenty of folks were hoping to capture a few pony images so we were soon traversing some side-roads and approaching small herds grazing in winter pastures. The afternoon light was kind to our group and several folks took to it happily. However, we soon realized our light was fading on our last day and we had at least another iconic waterfall to visit. So, with a little more scurrying we were soon at Seljalandsfoss. This typically popular spot wasn’t too busy in the fading evening and I was able to wander the paths and enjoy the light. Ice coated the viewing platforms and, in one exhilarating moment, Randy, Robert, and I found ourselves skating and scrambling for foot-holds, crashing together on the wood planks, tripods skittering. We carefully retreated.

Island pony. Just had to take one, 1/50 sec, f/5.6, ISO 400.

Seljalandsfoss. A frozen deck at sunset, 1/8 sec, f/14, ISO 100.

And then the quiet drive to Keflavik. We’d done a lot on this last workshop day. Maybe too much, trying to fit in several stops and a variety of scenes as we traveled to the end. It was nice to see the sights, and I love my intimate beach gravel image, but it really wasn’t a day for mindful photography. We had experienced many gifts from Snaefellsnes to Vestrahorn; you can’t win ‘em all. That’s a given with photographic journeys.

Our group gathered late into the evening at the Keflavik guesthouse, reminiscing and trading stories about future plans. An endless, own-rules snooker game kept Ian and me occupied. Most were soon packed for their stateside returns, but a few of us prepared for one additional excursion to visit an icon. We were on our way to Kirkjafell.

Back to Day 10. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Last light at Kirkjufell…

Iceland Day 10: Out of the Storm

Iceland Day 10: Out of the Storm

Our outlandish luck finally abandoned us. After several days of weather that supported our photographic desires, day and night, the second storm of our trip descended on us with as much fury as the first. We had driven into its teeth returning to Hali from Vestrahorn yesterday afternoon. Hurricane winds carried heavy rain and lashed at Iceland’s southern coast. This storm was warmer, so the rain never changed to snow, but the wind kept us off the roads, vast segments of which were once again closed.

Late into last night, Thor searched for alternative locations and Nick huddled with several of us to check forecasts for any break in the clouds, but eventually a sense of relief settled over the group. Maybe it was about time for a break in the action. We had taken advantage of our great run, so when we decided to hunker down for the coming day, there was almost palpable relief. It was an opportunity to catch up on sleep, sort and clean our gear, share some processing ideas, and tell stories.

The Hali guesthouse has a central living room and this became a commons area between trips to the restaurant and museum. Nick processed a few images in real-time and guided us through his work flow and several alternatives. Soon little groups formed around laptops to share images and early processing results. The variety of compositions was impressive. Processing experience varied greatly, with some folks just getting traction, others being proficient in Lightroom, and still others rocking results out of Photoshop. I’d think I had something good, and then someone would let me look over their shoulder and I’d watch and learn as images sprang to life.

At seemingly random intervals in the evenings, a guesthouse staff person would open a small refrigerator and allow us access to the exorbitantly priced beer. Erno remarked that it was basically like paying ballpark prices while sitting in your living room. But, when in Iceland…  We were probably better off that there was limited supply. We’d have gone broke and our processing and story sessions would have gotten out of hand. Needless to say, it was a nice, long day of finally getting to know everyone.

Over the course of our conversations, while watching the forecast, we realized that a few of us had an extra day on the island after the workshop conclusion. A small group gathered and a plan developed. Nick wrangled up a rental van and we found an empty guesthouse near Grundarfjörður and Kirkjufell. The weather and aurora forecast looked promising, and the plan was set. The close of our adventure could be post-poned for one more day and night!

In the dark of the late afternoon, with the roads mostly open, Thor decided we could head west and make Dyrhólaey for dinner. That would set us up for some waterfall shots in the light of tomorrow. There was one 30-kilometer section of highway that had wind restrictions, but we all agreed it was worth the effort. Our cool sprinter van would be pushed along, but hopefully the down-mountain gusts wouldn’t be too bad. We were off into the blustery night.

The van was quiet, it seemed all could sense that the workshop was coming to a close. We were now heading toward Reykjavik and tomorrow would be the last day with the full group. Would the rain let up and clouds break for some good light? The drive wasn’t bad, a couple gusts buffeted the van, but we sliced through the squalls and climbed to the Dyrhólaey guesthouse, well-rested and ready for the falls.

No photos for Day 10 but here’s a few that didn’t make my Iceland “galleries” but bring back selected and very good memories…

Late in the night, after leaving the plane wreck location, we ventured to Skógafoss, hoping to capture another dancing sky above the falls. We hiked the short distance and started our wait. And wait. And wait. I remained optimistic while most of the crew returned to the warmth of the van. I have an aversion to headlamps while prepped for night photography and try not to use one if at all possible. The floodplain below the falls was basically pitch black with only the weakest glow of from the mist of the falls, is it reflecting starlight? I moved carefully toward the edge of the bouldery outwash in hopes of framing the falls under the aurora that was yet to come. I’d set up and was again waiting in the growing chill, thinking I was alone. A scrape of boot and the boulder next to me came to life with Nick’s voice. “I don’t think we are going to have much more luck.” It was like the talking boulder back at the writer’s museum at Hali. From the dark, he once again talked me through high ISO framing and bracketing and I captured several practice images; the aurora never returned. Even so, to have the place alone for an hour was relaxing and special. This image is from those few moments. It wasn’t until I downloaded the image that I noticed I’d been up against the trail boundary chain and never realized it would be prominent in my frame.

Watching the equestrians in the dawn at Vik made me think of home. Someday I hope Des can ride these black sand beaches.

While we often had specific locations in mind, with strategies and plans within the otherwise loose and adaptive itinerary of the workshop, Thor occasionally responded to calls from the back of the van or had an idea of his own for a quick stop. We’d veer into a pull-out or parking area and disperse for a few images. Somehow, whenever we did, two or three other cars would pull up next to the van and a load of copycat photographers would pile out. It never failed. If Thor stops, it must be good.  I shot these blue reflections at the icy edge of a partially frozen pond. We had a series of hilarious dance routines as I set up my tripod, and one after another, each team member walked to the edge of the pond and lost footing, with usually three or four whirly gymnastic moves before crashing to the snow. I avoided it for a few minutes, until I turned toward the van and took my turn getting intimate with the frozen landscape.  

Back to Day 9. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Workshops must end…