Iceland Day 6: Moving to South Coast

Iceland Day 6: Moving to South Coast

We could not make Kirkjafell. The skies cleared but the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, probing proudly westward into the North Sea, could not escape the wind. Snow drifts remained and the gales kept high-profile vehicles from the mountain passes. We were on the peninsula’s southern edge and had hoped to cross over to Grundarfjörður on its north coast for some locations near the iconic wizard-hat peak of Kirkjafell. The group gathered after breakfast, still in the dark of the late morning, and agreed to the decision to drive for the South Coast region, back beyond Reykjavik. I could, however, sense some disappointment in missing the photographic icon. The workshop had only the most basic itinerary, a prerequisite when adapting to conditions of brief wintertime daylight and of chasing cloudless night skies when aurora is likely. So, given the storm pattern, even as it cleared, we had to move on. We wanted the iconic shots, of course. There may be a hundred-thousand photos of Kirkjafell (or any other iconic location), but almost every photographer wants their own. Our photography friends know the shots, and on-line image searches inundate our small screens, but put an original iconic keeper—if you are lucky enough to capture one—on your wall and no one knows there are thousands of the same scene (many probably better, too); for a moment the icon is yours. For now, we drive through almost perfect golden-hour light—the golden hour that lasts all day here. At first it was a bit frustrating, as back-lit storm clouds danced in the volcanic mountains. But we were committed to the goal of the South Coast, the good weather and aurora forecasts pulling us onward.

The islands of Vestmannaeyjar — I climbed the volcano Eldfell in 2005.

Volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, ponies—the beauty of the coastal ring-road unfolded before us. In the slowly setting sun, we crossed the vast braided river Markarfljót where the islands of Vestmannaeyjar loomed far offshore. This kindled the memories of a previous winter visit to the islands in 2005. An hour later, the sun and golden light barely changing, Thor finally turned us onto a set of gravelly switchbacks leading to the Dyrhólaey lighthouse. Relieved to have the drive behind us, the group eagerly dispersed along the volcanic rimrock with precarious drops to the sea, arches and seastacks among the waves below. It was a pleasure to walk along the paths and watch the sunset, but I think the long day’s drive had taken its toll. I composed a few images, but I wasn’t really feeling it. The day’s—that is, night’s—highlight came later.

A short day’s long sunset at Dyrhólaey.

We checked in at the Dyrhólaey guesthouse, met for dinner and brews, and prepped for a late night of aurora photography. We were headed to the Solheimasandur plane wreck on the black sand of glacial outwash, where the Hólsá River meets the sea. After an emergency landing in 1973, the U.S. Navy Douglas Dakota (Super DC-3) was stripped and abandoned. It’s a few kilometers from the roadside parking, sitting in a barren landscape at the end of a sandy path. It takes a while to walk to the plane and tourists often get lost in the dark or in bleak storms when guiding landmarks are absent. That is, unless you have a key to the gate—a key that Thor picked up from the landowner during a quick stop on our earlier drive. We turned into the two-track road, headlights absorbed by the dark sand and darker skies. It was a perfectly calm, clear evening, but I could see how navigating the black beach at night would be adventurous. Recent snow glistened in low spots and remnant drifts. An icy mist coated the banks of the Hólsá River. We forded the river, breaking through ice and crawling to the other side. Suddenly, out of the blackness, a stark fuselage seemingly jumped into our path. Thor swerved the headlights—I enjoyed his dramatic little maneuver—turning around to unobtrusively park the van. We were alone with the plane. In the moments before your eyes adjust, you walk in pitch black knowing a creepy hulk of an aircraft sits within arm’s reach. Although everyone limited their headlamp use to keep our night-vision, the occasional, random beam would highlight the scavenged, slumbering beast. This was going to be fun.

Prelight Checklist. Learning the possibilities with aurora building; winter milky way and evaporating clouds.

We gathered to talk about compositions and settings, Nick’s voice in the dark among the shadows of students. The plane at night only really worked as a foreground element, we weren’t here to simply document the dark historical wreck. I practiced setting the ISO super high and taking test exposures. Modern cameras soak up the dimmest light and though ultra-high-ISO images are noisy and granular, you get an idea of how the foreground elements work as a composition. Once that’s done, a low-ISO long exposure, say three or four minutes, lets the ambient light, maybe even some aurora, reveal the foreground with good clarity, but the sky isn’t very good, usually. Keeping your position and increasing ISO a bit allows one to capture a starry backdrop or aurora with a relatively quick exposure. A short duration limits star trails (unless that’s what you want) and keeps the dancing aurora from being a glutenous green blob (unless that’s what you want [um, no]). It takes some experimenting and practice, along with knowing your camera controls blindfolded. With a bit of exposure blending in photoshop, your memory and emotion of experiencing the night are revealed. A relatively typical astro-landscape photography workflow; typical but not easy. I struggle with the imaging and processing but, again, it’s just so much fun. And, damn, do I know the buttons on my camera now.

Approaching Symphony. A concert never forgotten at Solheimasandur wreckage.

So much for the technical stuff, how was the aurora? Set against the backdrop of stars and glow of some low clouds, our eyes now adjusted, it was pretty easy to draft compositions. We waited for the light, and I had little expectation that the seminal experience at the black church could be surpassed. I was so very wrong. Take away the blistering wind and cold of Snaefellsnes and add a coronal (“full overhead”), multi-colored display and you get an experience few of us will ever forget. It was—cliché alert—magical. Awesome by its original undiluted definition. Music in the sky, in-concert for an hour at least. I could not begin to capture it. From the laughter and ecstatic hoots around me, I knew that the others felt the same. Images are beautiful, and we got some keepers, but after a while I simply laid back and let the symphony sink in. I can still hear it.
Back to Day 5.5. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Vik to Vestrahorn
Iceland Day 5.5: Aurora at Black Church

Iceland Day 5.5: Aurora at Black Church

It had been a successful and demanding first day of shooting. With the curtain lifted, we had taken full advantage, leaning into the wind and reaping rewards. Upon returning to the guesthouse, we did not have time to relax, as the Kp-index for the evening rekindled excitement. I downloaded and backed-up my day’s images and joined the growing table for dinner. All chatter focused on the wind and atmosphere created around our recent locations, but soon our talk shifted to aurora. Icelandic photo tours and workshops promise* aurora. There is always an asterisk, only Nick and Thor deliver aurora (read-on). The Kp-index is an index of global geomagnetic activity derived from measurements from ground-based magnetometers at high, northern and southern latitudes. Based on real-time measurements, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center provides a Kp-index forecast helpful in protecting sensitive technology. This is important stuff. But, even better for photographers, the Kp-index is also a predictor of aurora. Several of us had mobile apps loaded for alarm notifications of indices, say, greater than 4.0. The scale is 0.0 to 9.0. I’d need an index greater than 7.0 or 8.0 to have any chance of seeing aurora in Nevada (it happened once), but when it’s 4.0 in Iceland, you get ready for some night photography. Nick, walking the hallway between after-dinner recons on the snow-buried porch, said to the be at the van at 9 PM. Then he said, “8:30”. Then, “8:00… Um, no, let’s just go now!”, a green glow leaking beyond a low, receding band of clouds in the northern sky above the guesthouse. With or without the predicted index, aurora activity remains elusive. The sky can light up at any moment and with the storms of the past few days, we knew the clouds could mask everything without any warning. A few team-members had decided by dinnertime that the day had been plenty fun. The wind and blowing snow can drain motivation—the wind had yet to let up and we were headed back into the gale, and jet-lag may still been wearing on those that just arrived. Six of us climbed back into the van, ready for a long, cold night.

The Building at Búðakirkja.

We returned to Búðakirkja. The northern lights need a foreground, awesome colors dancing over a dark, featureless horizon is awesome, once or twice, but the images really work best when they accent a subject. Of course, I was still in the “once or twice” stage and hoping for awesomeness. I didn’t care if there was a church, a cathedral, or a unicorn in the foreground, I just wanted to experience the lights. I’d seen a white veil of aurora as a kid on a canoe trip in Minnesota and again as an enigmatic red blob over our house in Reno. I’d seen some nice waves of aurora on the plane, booking a port-side window with that hope in mind—so the precedent was set. According to plan and hope, we were the only ones at the church (others soon arrived). We talked a little bit about ISO settings and cautions of exposure times that could be too long. You can blow out highlights and green blobs can overwhelm the interesting waves. We stepped back into the wind, oh, the wind, and then stumbled to get a composition. I only stumbled because I was dumbstruck by the shaft of green light leaping from the horizon. This is what I was here for. My fingers seemed to freeze in minutes, I didn’t care, and we kept shooting for a couple hours. I could hear myself laughing at the images on the back of my camera. I could hear coincident laughter and cheers coming from those next to me and from beyond the little cemetery in the churchyard—or was it the subterranean residents commenting on their nightly view. Only Thor said, “I’ll give it 2 out of 10. Maybe it’ll be better tomorrow.” Sometimes I just watched, this was perfect.

The Archway at Búðakirkja.

The Last Pillars of Búðakirkja.

I can’t say I nailed the images. I barely have experience getting daylit landscape images to cooperate; this is completely different, but so much fun. Buffeted by the wind, Nick crouched with me for a while and we talked about learning from our previews and setting the camera to provide good feedback. There are a few keepers in my collection, and they’ll forever be memories of this first night. As I saw in the morning, the darkness of the black church adds weight and mood to the spectral sky. My first attempts with the multi-colored waves, pillars, and streaks building above the church and the distant mountain range was worth the entire trip. How can Thor say this is a 2 out of 10?  For me, this was 11. Spoiler, tomorrow I re-calibrate my scale. Although the Kp-index remained promising, the aurora faded. And the long day was taking its toll, our group dimmed with the lights. Time to pack it in. We pondered not sharing our images with the portion of the group that hadn’t joined us, downplaying our gobsmacked adventure. But that wasn’t at all possible. The morning’s breakfast table was alight with the tales and contagious excitement of the previous evening. From now on, it was all in—none of us would make that mistake again.  
Back to Day 5. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Moving to South Coast
Day 5: The Light Begins

Day 5: The Light Begins

The van was stuck. We walked from the hotel in the blue light of pre-dawn mid-morning to find Thor shoveling and sweeping a deep, wind-blown drift from the half-buried van. Even four-wheel drive would not get it out and the wind was howling, the piles getting deeper. In the shadow of the guesthouse the snow was deep, but beyond the building’s wind-shadow, the gust could only blow it to the sea. Away from the van, the parking area was almost bare. Some more shoveling, a quick tug with the smaller rig, and the van was free.
It was difficult to recognize individual team-members dressed in their cold-weather gear. Gortex colors became identifiers, and the variety of hats important clues. The temperature wasn’t unbearable, but the wind-chill bit at anything and everything exposed. We were headed down the coast, peering into the horizon as the clouds thinned and the dawn teased. By the time we turned into Búðakirkja (black church), the clouds lifted and the sun greeted us—the wind would remain our compulsory companion for the day. We gathered around the back of the van, excited to be at our first location. Nick talked about capturing the icon, while also reminding us to consider the variety in the location – from lava flows, to the seascape, giving the dark church building some context. Expose for the sky, consider your foreground. Let the wind add character. Although the church sits in a picturesque location, its construction of dark wood (shipped in long ago, of course) sets it apart from the typical white and red church buildings that pop up all over Iceland.

The Rock, The Church.

The group scattered once we adjourned the huddle at the van. Nick and Thor wandered between participants and composed shots from their own perspectives. Almost immediately one could start to sense the personalities of the group. Some sought one-on-one instruction, some gathered in small groups to compare and share, and others wandered independently. On the first days, I was in wandering mode. I wanted to take it all in. The iconic shots are seductive, but I didn’t feel that interested in shooting buildings. I convinced myself of disinterest in the church, but that only lasted until the sunrise started to play on the contrasting dark building. Here’s a regular, common shape—a church any child would draw—rising from treacherous black lava flows and getting bashed by the wind-blown snow. We were soon all lined up to capture the gaussian sunrise as backdrop to the strong little building.

First Light at Búðakirkja.

After an hour or so, we clambered into the calm warmth of the van to move west to an abandoned building on Dagverðará. A setting similar to Búðakirkja but with appropriate drama created by the backlit blowing snow and the lonely shape of the worn structure. The wind was deafening and, if anything, increasingly so. We huddled on the banks of a frozen, snow-covered stream and just about everyone composed a similar shot. Once in place, it was almost too much effort to move against the wind for something different, and this just looked so good. While the composition was static, the lapping clouds and glowing gusts of snow made each exposure different. It was perfect time to plant the tripod deep in the snow, let the wind blow, and watch what happened, capturing shot after shot.

Abandonment at Dagverðará.

Catching Light at Dagverðará.

A side trip for some lunch and coffee led us to brief stops at Hellnar and Arnarstapi. The skies continued to clear and the new lack of clouds seemed to free up the wind. I’ll stop mentioning the wind when it drops below 50 mph; this won’t come soon. In the Iceland winter, the slow transition from sunrise to sunset happens without an intervening day, allowing us to take our time, watching perfect light dance around us. The mountain-front to our back, including the prominence of Snaefellsjökull remained hidden, while the seascape drew us onward. A short hike took us to Lóndrangar where volcanic plugs eroded from surrounding rocks remained perched as seastacks, black pedestals in the stormy seas. We found a precarious perch to watch the sunset and the few remaining sea-side clouds. It was almost impossible to talk to each other now, even though we were huddled together on a steep spit of land and a small viewing platform. A few pieces of equipment, lens caps, remotes, hats, gloves, and the like, threatened to or actually did get lost to the wind and sea. We were, however, awarded with another highlight stop on a singular day on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

False Land. Sunset at Lóndrangar.

We had only been “on location” with the workshop for six hours and we already had stunning conditions. It took some effort on the part of each participant—the wind can kill patience and composure—but Iceland was serving up her best and it was only the beginning. In fact, the “day” was far from over.
Back to Days 3&4. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Búðakirkja Aurora
Iceland Days 3 & 4: A slow build to Snaefellsnes

Iceland Days 3 & 4: A slow build to Snaefellsnes

Day 3: Sheltered in Vogar

The storm arrived. Northwest winds of up to 50 m/s (about 110 mph) shut down roads and local gusts pummeled the hotel window. We decided today’s Vogar adventure consisted of a walk to a convenience store and then waiting for the nice folks at Gamla Pósthúsið to open for dinner. I highly recommend this unassuming, excellent dinner house; it is perfectly located across the quiet street fronting Hotel Vogar.

The driving rain paused only for a few moments, here and there, during the day. In mid-afternoon, as the grey light faded, I walked the harbor and the few residential streets. As I packed and re-packed my gear, charged batteries, and cleaned lenses, I had growing concerns about how the storms would affect our workshop plans. Did all the participants arrive? Would the one highway to Snaefellsnes be open tomorrow?

Thor emailed a few times during the day, strategizing about how we would meet up in the morning. I had the rental car and planned to return to the airport to join anyone arriving on morning flights. It seemed a few participants, if their flights made it, where staying tonight at a guesthouse near the airport in Keflavik, and maybe some were already in Reykjavik. But nothing to do now but wait out the storm. There was plenty of beer across the street.

Day 4: The Sheep go to Snaefellsnes

Iceland in winter is not as cold as most people think. This is especially true, I think, on the south coast where the relatively warm Gulf Stream moderates things. Always seemed like a high of 2° and a low 0f -1° (that’s Celsius, by the way); not really any more variability than that. Certainly not as cold as western Nevada. However, the windchills get absolutely crunchy cold. And today, Iceland’s first winter storm of 2018-2019 dished it out.

But no worries, Thor and Nick were on schedule (via email) and I left Bill to head to the airport for the workshop’s opening rendezvous—Bill flies back to the States later in the day. Returning the rental was easy and after the usual forensic check for dings and scratches—Iceland roads can be rough on rentals, and the final inspections are clinical, I was back in the terminal and wandering like any other newly arrived photo-tourist. The arrivals area isn’t that big and I quickly noticed a couple guys sitting with tripods and sporting that experienced backcountry look. Robert, Jeremy, and I loiter near the exits. “Where ya from?” “Been on any other workshops?” The early banter of a growing team. Quinn arrives. And soon Thor is there with the van. Spot-on, on-time.

We have a couple stops to make. A guesthouse in Keflavik where Erno, Randy, Mike, and Ian loaded in. Nick, to his and our relief, appeared just about human and had commandeered Thor’s smaller 4x4 Nissan. Into Reykjavik downtown where Cindy and Ken seemed to wait on random street-corners. That was it. Now we were ten sheep and two wolves, as Thor immediately clarified the taxonomic workshop hierarchy. The captive barnyard of new friends turned into the storm.

The plan was to drive toward the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the western region. The benefit of having Thor, our native Icelandic co-leader, was readily apparent. He can call friends at the road service and has mobile connection to several obscure but locally significant weather assets. He contacts the night’s hotel and gets conditions on their porch, nothing lost in translation. On Iceland’s ring road heading west, scudding clouds blocked the horizon and our van leaned into the wind. We took a lunch break at a truck stop where the burger and sandwich selections had names of US cities. Do I order the Reno?

As we traveled along the southern coast of Snaefellsnes, with the ocean curtained by blowing snow and low clouds, the volcanic scarps of the sudden mountain-fronts reminded me of the northern Basin and Range. In the stormy twilight, the dispersed groups of small buildings could be mistaken for Oreana or Beowawe, Nevada. Tan pastures and haybales, mossy lava flows skiffed in snow, black, stratified uplifts backing every winter scene—it did not seem too far from home. But as darkness of the afternoon lowered, the storm intensified; this wind and driven snow had teeth that where somehow sharper than any Great Basin gale. The stout 4x4 Sprinter rocked and drove forward.

We passed occasional structures that slowly transformed into cold, blue-white drifts. They looked abandoned for the season, or maybe forever. In a momentary lull, our leaders, communicating by two-way radio, thought maybe we had a location worth shooting. With that suggestion made, however, a white-out gust blocked any forward movement. We turned around. The once-talkative van was silent.

None of us had any notion of our next move. Where was the guesthouse? Was there lodging available now that we turned back? But after a very few minutes, Thor steered us into the driveway of a lonely cluster of buildings shrouded in blowing snow. A thick frosty rime had developed on the simply gabled structure. “We here,” Thor exclaimed. “Everyone out.” A door on the encrusted building cracked open as bright light streamed out, and our eyes began to focus on a lengthy, low-slung guesthouse, one that looked nicely warm on the inside. Langaholt.

Walking ice after dark, Langaholt Lagoon. 

Langaholt Evening. Difficult conditions for hand-held photography, but I needed the walk.

Closing the Veil. The mountains of Snaefellsness at Langaholt.

We settled in for the night—a good time for introductions around dinner and beer. The roads were all closed now. We’d beat the storm to Langaholt, but would it allow us a sunrise tomorrow?

Back to Day 2. Click here for Iceland 2018 Gallery. Up next: The Light Begins…

Iceland Day 2: A coming storm

Iceland Day 2: A coming storm

Day 2: This LightOpt Series is a photographic journal of 12 days in Iceland. 

Back in Iceland. A volcanic desert plain above the Tungufljót River.

Boarding a plane on any airline, it’s hard to tell one flight from another. It’s the same rows of seats, banging of carry-on, and hoarding of overhead bins. But when that first intercom announcement hits my ears in a foreign language, I know this plane ride is different. This happens every time; I perk up and relax in the same moment. It’s time travel. I’ll jump out somewhere else, in some other time zone, and things will be slightly beyond my control. In fact, call me strange, I love airports and planes. They are possibilities.

And yet, my romantic notions of travel don’t get me out of sitting bored for seven-plus hours, Seattle to Keflavik. At least I had the row to myself. Nick also had two seats to himself, having scared his seatmate off to other parts of the plane at the slightest mention of illness. He also had a pile of blankets, a dysfunctional overhead light that was permanently on, and emergency access to the lavatory (access that under the circumstances still required the occasional and grueling 15-minute wait). Oh, the romance and intrigue of being a globe-trotting, professional photographer.

We arrived at Keflavik International in the pre-dawn of Wednesday morning. Of course, at the on-set of winter near the Arctic Circle, pre-dawn is anything before about 10:45 AM. Anyway, it was early and very dark. Although I’d lugged all my camera gear (minus tripod) as carry-on, my warm and waterproof field gear, and everything else, was in baggage. Navigating passport control was simple and we soon wandered over to baggage claim. Once there, we enjoyed those few moments of nervous waiting, when you’re sure your bag has dropped onto the carousel, but it’s a carousel in Cleveland, not Iceland, because it is taking forever, and hundreds of other bags have come and gone, but there it is. Finally.

I’m here a couple days ahead of the workshop start. Nick and I parted ways. He to recoup and meet up with Thor, and I to hire a rental car and escape the airport. I made the short drive to Vogar, up the road toward Reykjavik, to see if I could check in to my hotel in the early morning. Bill is already there and said my key is waiting in the foyer. Sure enough, I find the small Hotel Vogar and drop into the lobby. My key rests with a nice note, otherwise no one is around. Bill seems the only other occupant.

The forecast looks grim—big storm rolling in and strengthening off the southwest coast. It will mean harsh northwest winds and bring rain and snow. Foregoing sleep until the evening, Bill and I decided to head north for the Golden Circle, a day of driving to hit some of the tourist spots—Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss.

Moss (Cetraria islandicaand volcanics, somewhere on the Golden Circle.

We made a few stops, hiking a bit while I tried to shake off sleep. In addition to circumnavigating the globe, Bill’s been around this loop before, staying in guest houses and hiking deeper in, so he shares stories about several places off the beaten path. The roads are relatively quiet. Our stops at popular vistas and trails are not crazy-crowded, but there are plenty of tourists, until we finally reach Gullfoss. It’s large parking area looks almost abandoned. It’s getting late, folks scurrying back toward Reykjavik now that the wind has picked up and the effects of the storm are growing. The light is receding, and I’ve learned my first Icelandic photography lesson: the winter Golden Hour lasts a long time here—because the sun remains low on the southern horizon at this time of year, sunrise and sunset last all “day” long. You don’ t need to “chase the light”, something I’m guilty of at home. However, scudding clouds and dusty mist plumes can alter things quickly. As lenticular clouds stacked the sky, we drove right past the Gullfoss tourist building and continued north—not another car in sight.

We pick a random pull-out as I gawk at distant, pink-hued mountains framed by lenticulars. Wind-driven glacial dust provides a warm glow in the slowly fading light, a verification of my purpose for being here. Conditions beautiful, inspiring, and challenging. We hiked across a sandy, boulder-strewn plain to overlook the valley of the Tungufljót River backed by distant mountains and glaciers (Eystri-Hagafellsjökull). We followed sheep trails and a few random vehicle tracks, and yet we occasionally post-holed through the indurated crust—a local reminder of the freeze-thaw cycles affecting this boulder-strewn landform. There’s little vegetation on the wind-swept surface, a beautiful glacial desert of volcanic boulders. I captured images of the distant range but shooting into the wind I get sand-blasted, especially when lowering the camera’s perspective for foreground interest. No worries, the lenticulars to the south were blooming in post-sunset hues, I turned around to shoot with the wind.

The coming storm, on the bouldery steppe above Gullfoss. Troll fences ready.

With the light fading, we still wanted to visit Gullfoss, so we turned back to the waterfalls. Once we’d parked, while grabbing my camera and locking it into my tripod, the lens cap popped off. I watched it roll, at about 30 miles-per-hour, across a few acres of mostly empty parking lot. I figured it would stop at a distant set of gravel berms and calmly pursued it. It was there, among various other detritus gathered by the gale. But now we could barely make forward progress; we leaned into the wind as the few other visitors were stumbling toward shelter.

Little did I know, this would be good practice for the coming days. I framed a couple images sitting on a lonely cliff-edge looking down the falls with my back to the wind. As I adjusted the camera, trying to compose a shot and judge the exposure between wind gusts, Bill belayed me by clutching my jacket. It wasn’t dangerous, really, but several gusts had us reconsidering our precarious position—if I had let go of the tripod it would surely have been lost to the abyss. The shot doesn’t do Gullfoss much justice, and there are plenty of better ones on any social media, but it was such fun and a seductive reintroduction to Iceland.

Gullfoss by gale. 

We returned to Vogar, driving into the teeth of the island’s first winter storm. What will this storm, howling outside my hotel window, bring as we continue the Icelandic Winter Adventure?

Back to Day 1. Click here for Iceland 2018 Gallery. Keep going…