Iceland Day 8: Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach

It looked like we had a couple days of good weather ahead and we planned to take full advantage. Although I had no real reason to, given the late sunrise, I was still getting up early, brewing some coffee in the lobby, backing up my remaining SD card, and loading images into my traveling Lightroom catalog. I have a small, portable harddrive tied to my Surface tablet, and I am also keeping all the images on the SD card, at least until it’s full. If I keep this up, I’m not terribly concerned about losing the extra cards—they were empty.

Hali is one of a cluster of simple, nice guesthouses that sit as satellite buildings surrounding a a common dining hall, check-in, and museum; all within a working ranch above the coastline. Our building has a common area with a few amenities, coffee, tea, and plenty of nightly beer. It is here that we gather morning and evening to share processing tips, strategize for the coming days, and basically get to know each other. The group has bonded nicely, and it’s good to have a few nights in one place.

We drive up to breakfast and as we exit the van, Thor tells me a stranger left him a voicemail last night. He says that an American couple he talked with during our shoot at the Solheimasandur plane wreck had stumbled on my battery bag, remembered Thor Photography, and deduced that some silly person in Thor’s group must have left it behind. And, it turns out, they are basically paralleling our travel route and figure we can easily cross paths in the coming days. You might think this would call for the cliché of “only in Iceland”, but I’ve experienced random, yet purposeful, acts of kindness—often revolving around my losing bits of gear—from the islands of Fiji to the jungles of central Africa. People are good.

Cool light of early morning, and first shots at Diamond Beach.

Diamond Delivered. I’m reminded of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, US. 

Today we focused on Diamond Beach at the outlet of Jökulsárlón. The dawn was cloudy, cool blue and grey, but breaks in the clouds teased of goodness to come. We huddled at the van with Nick and Thor for some general tips for shooting on the beach; I think these guys knew the group would soon be scattered along the beach like children at an egg-hunt. The black beach with its lag of glacial chunks and shards is one of the icons of the South Coast. I had of course seen several videos and many images documenting the multi-faceted, crystalline remnants of wave-polished ice, in sizes from bergs to tumbler cubes. Yet, it is difficult to grasp the scale and simple beauty of the setting until you begin to wander among the diamonds. A fresh coat of snow added contrast and drama to the black shoreline and its scattered crystals. We readily and greedily dispersed.

The ebbing tide and a debouching stream pull glacial bergs from Jökulsárlón, and the slowly melting ice rolls into long-shore currents to be distributed by curling waves along the black beach. Gathering and focusing the ambient light, the little bergs of ice glow against the darkness of volcanic sand. As usual, arriving before dawn, we had the beach to ourselves; remember, in the Instagram era iconic is synonymous with crowded—we were ahead of (or behind) most of the crowd, yet again. We also had the good fortune of fantastic conditions. The fickleness of storms and currents can either pack the shore with ice, creating a mish-mash of shapes and clutter, or strip it bare, leaving a simple, curving and empty beachline. It was practically Goldilocks day, just right—actually, just perfect.

Traces and swirls as dawn arrives.

Although it is an iconic shooting location, it’s first and foremost a seascape with ice. This means, unlike many icons, it’s dynamic and every shot is different. However, there are basically three common compositions: 1) splashy waves surrounding and retreating around emerging bergs; 2) dramatic otherworldly crystals lit by the winter sun; and 3) intimate images of a lonely diamond on black sand. Or some slight variation on these. Several us dispersed far up the beach as the crowd grew near the easy walk-in spots. I shot in burst mode, capturing the interaction between various shapes of ice and incoming and outgoing waves. Even with intimate scenes of a single crystal, its interaction with a framing, foamy surf can make or break a potential keeper image. Getting up close, down low, and purposefully identifying the subject improve any of the three basic compositions significantly. Of course, these means getting familiar with the surf, occasionally getting into it, or even getting surprisingly soaked by it. We came prepared to get wet, and it was great fun.

The Wave Escape. In close with a small berg.

Classic Diamonds. Watching this unfold in-camera and in processing simply stunned me.

We took a break for lunch. Or we didn’t. Maybe. The conditions were so good we may have simply kept going. The day was so good I honestly can’t recall what we did, if it was something other than finding new compositions and taking advantage. I do know we eventually moved inland to the lagoon—basically across the highway, where we watched a practically endless, golden-hour sunset emerge from a cloudless sliver on the horizon. Um, Goldilocks had grown up and was now lording over us—it’s not just-right, it’s wonderland (or is that Alice?). Being daytime, it was the opposite of our aurora show, but I was as gobsmacked today as I was on any previous night.

Standing Above. The light continued into the afternoon, rising over Jökulsárlón.

Mist and Massif. The power of the glacier-covered mountain drew my attention from even the best-cut diamond.

All afternoon I’m overwhelmed with mountain scenes rising from Jökulsárlón—I could photograph mountains forever. But soon, I catch Nick motioning to those of us near him, he’s heading back to the beach as the sun settles into the ocean. We had spent the morning capturing the iconic compositions, getting practiced and occasionally successful at the three basics, but his instinct drove him to look for something different, something other than the popular shot. Generously, he shared a glimpse of that instinct and encouraged several of us, those of us within earshot and anyone he came across, to think about how the last light would interact with some of the snow-covered bergs higher on the beach. Maybe, by considering this, we’d get something unique to add to our successful morning. It is a common instructional tool, “look for something different”, but this was in real-time, with perfect conditions that where somehow improving, if only in the last breath of light.

Leaving Light. Finding fresh snow at day’s end amazed me.

Fire Within. Seeing and feeling the difference.

(See me in action at 5:22 and hear Nick explain the setting at 6:30 in Nick Page’s Photographing Iceland video)

Did I translate his wisdom successfully?  I think so. Is it truly unique? That’s unlikely. However, it’s definitely not the million-in-a-million images of the ice at Diamond Beach (as enjoyable and compelling as those are individually). Maybe it’s unique in a hundred-in-a-million sense. Regardless, it was about  knowing (or learning) to see something new, even if you’ve only been in the perfection of the icons and diamonds for a day. Thanks Nick.

Back to Day 7. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Vestrahorn Grey

Iceland Day 7: Vik to Vestrahorn

It’s a drive day. Forecasts called for a good twenty-four hours or so before the next storm, so the plan was to position ourselves further east along the South Coast, setting a base to explore the region as conditions change. I was up early to pack.

I have a pretty simple system in two bags. One large duffle for personal gear —an ancient watertight Patagonia bag that’s been from Lake Baikal to Fiji to Central Africa—and my camera pack. I have a smaller pack that fits in the duffle for foul-weather outerwear and waders; I usually just stow it in the van so it’s at arms-reach when necessary. My camera bag is bit on the large side, but I’ve yet to wean myself from carrying two too many lenses, and here in Iceland I’m carrying an extra camera body, just in case. The pack is almost heavy, but it’s not too bad. I also have some filters and a bag of extra batteries for the cold…  Hold it… No, you’ve got to be kidding me…  Where is the battery bag?  The top pouch on my pack, where it typically rides, is wide-open—no bag, no batteries. That also means no back-up SD cards.

The bag and batteries are on the beach next to the plane at Soldheimasander. I can see it happening. I swapped batteries in the dark, proud of my no-headlamp maneuver, and dropped everything back in the appropriate pouch. Without the final zip—as always, so embarrassing. When, later, I grabbed the pack and flopped the top pouch in place, out dropped the battery bag. A black battery bag, in black of night, on a black beach.

I sit back on the hotel bed and consider my options. Go now, wake-up Thor to drive out in the dark before or during breakfast? He’d do it; he’s a nice guy. Maybe I will see if the group wants to go back to the plane for sunrise photos? Neither dramatic nor surreal, no way it lives up to anything like last night, just a broken plane on a barren beach some distance from actual light-catching surf. They’d do it, they’re nice people. Either option, however, puts undo burden on all of us, and we’ve a long drive planned for the day. I’ll just forget about it. I’ve still got two batteries and two SD cards plus a back-up drive. It’s my offering to the aurora, trolls, elves, and some lucky tourist who can use four Canon batteries and a few hundred gigs of storage. Spit.

At breakfast, I quietly mentioned my idiocy to Thor and a few teammates, mostly because it had now grown funny to me. But we also had a few other nights of aurora photography coming up (hopefully), therefore, lesson learned: everyone double-check your gear as we leave location. I could see Thor pondering the same recovery options I’d already dismissed, so I insisted we stick to the current plan and we loaded into the van. Actually, what was Thor pondering? He’s a Canon shooter. He’s got friends around here. He could always use more batteries. Too easy.

Sunrise panorama at Vik í Mýdar and the sea-stacks of Renisdrangar.

After the stormy drama of our first sunrise shoot, catching the calm sunrise at Vik í Mýdar was somewhat anticlimactic. The skies were crystal clear and the scene was beautiful, but I could not decide what to shoot. Overlook shots need some clouds to get some depth and interest. The volcanic outcrop above the village is striking and leads to the abrupt coastline and rocks stacks at Reynisdrangar. There’s a pretty church in the foreground, but after black church, this one isn’t compelling to me. I’m drawn to the rugged mountains rising to the east with long colluvial aprons, landslide scars, and summit crags. But now I miss the intensity of the scudding clouds and dramatic wind. Silly me.

In the cold, we watched a vanload of tourists (like us) set up their tripods on the grass (like us), frame identical compositions (like us), and capture images (like us). But they were still in their van (so not like us). Seems each one, before returning to their seats, set an interval timer, leaving their lonely cameras to continuously snap photos of the slightly changing light. It went on, I’d guess, after we’d packed up and hit the road. They may still be there.

Colluvial apron below the crags of Vik.

Remnant flows and tuffs at Vik.

For the second day in a row, we drove the ring-road through the extended golden hour. Glaciers crumbled from mountain ridges. Waterfalls debouched from every cliff. It almost didn’t matter, we were now aurora addicts, the Kp index wa good, and we wanted the Vestrahorn tonight.

The light faded as we arrived at the iconic Glacial Lagoon. This wasn’t our planned destination, but we made time for a recon, as we’d planned a full day in this area tomorrow. I’d seen many scenes—English is hard—from the lagoon but the scale was hard to take in. The glacier was far away and the jumble of icebergs and crystalline ice-shards in the tidal outlet of Jökulsárlón was chaotic. I’m glad we had this opportunity to scout the location even in the fading blue light of evening.

Blue ice of Jökulsárlón against the backdrop of Breiðamerkujökull.

 

Rippled blue.

We checked in at Hali Country guesthouse, near Glacial Lagoon, and fueled up for another night out. Beer, fish and lamb, coffee. We had developed a definitive pattern. The caffeine soon faded, however, and the next couple hours, once again in the van, passed quietly. Thor eventually left Highway 1 and steered us onto a dirt road where a small group of buildings, the Viking Café, soon appeared in the headlights. Providing the necessary fee, we passed through a simple gate, Nick following close behind. We were at the frozen tidal pool of Stokksnes, the prominence of Vestrahorn rising to the north.

Spires at Vestrahorn.

Hints of change in the clouds of Vestrahorn, a panorama at the fading aurora.

We gathered on an expanse of ice just as the glow greeted us yet again—this was three nights in a row. Not a record by any standard, but we were fretting and responding to storm warnings as our journey began a few short days ago. We could only dream of this good fortune on our first wind-driven night. The ice at our feet mirrored the distant sky, spreading the luminescence of the aurora rising above Vestrahorn. We critiqued the performance, better and worse, like the light-show connoisseurs we now were. The curtains and spires of light were subtler than the displays of previous nights, but, for me, the natural setting provided so much more. I stood heartily awed and peaceful, once again laughing aloud at the spectacle. This wasn’t a church, or a plane, it was the stage where aurora has danced forever, in the mountains where longitudes collide.

Back to Day 6. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: The Iconic Beach…

Icelandic Winter Adventure: A Photography Workshop

Day 1: This LightOpt Series is a photographic journal of 12 days (mostly nights) in Iceland. 

Invest in yourself – sage and true advice if there ever was any. So rather than believing the next new piece of gear was going to spark some hidden creativity, I decided to travel for a landscape photography workshop. I’d get some first-hand instruction, collaborate with other photographers, and visit somewhere beyond the Great Basin. But what workshop?  It had to be a cool place with maybe a few iconic locations, but it also had to have potential for interesting conditions. And yet, most importantly, the instructor had to be someone I am familiar with, has an informal and proven teaching style, and exudes a creative vision that I could (and may forever) aspire to. In the day of YouTube, where tutorials abound, it’s relatively easy to wade through personalities and styles and, ironically, “get to know” someone. Sort of. I had also purchased a few paid video tutorials and image critiques, giving me first-hand experience of teaching styles.

 

When, last spring, Nick Page offered up an Icelandic Winter Adventure, I had confidence it would check all the boxes. I’d gouged around Iceland several years ago and have always planned to return. The workshop also emphasized that Nick would be accompanied by Thor Jonsson who would bring invaluable local knowledge; a collaborative team that also basically halved the participant:instructor ratio from the start. Seemed perfect, I immediately signed up, and then…  The day after I invested in myself all the Iceland news and commentary shifted immediately from the wonders of Iceland to how it was basically and completely overrun with tourists and not a few too many photographic workshops. My confidence in this decision began to wane. Would the conditions meet my hopes—I can take bad weather, but will it be all tour buses and tripod entanglements? What are the real chances of aurora? And, lastly, would the workshop group be interactive, open-minded, and, well, nice?

I left Reno in late November with these questions lurking in the back of my mind. I had created an itinerary that would get me to Iceland with a couple days to spare at each end of the eight-day workshop. I’d rent a car and do some solo travel, my preferred idiom. But over the summer I learned that a good friend trekking around the world would be ending his two-month sojourn by flying into Keflavik as a homeward stopover. We wrangled with flights and hotels to time arrivals so that we could, at least, share an Icelandic dinner and beer.

I hit my connecting flight in Seattle and found Mr. Page—he’s easily recognized, I mean, that beard—at the Icelandair gate. As I introduced myself, he instinctively reached out his hand but had this weary look in his eye, “get away from me, man.” The first words of one-on-one instruction from one of my heroes of photography.

I’m often most happy on travel adventures when the itinerary breaks down. Things get interesting when you get off the main road, find sketchy lodging, stumble into a village market, and meet the real people. It is sometimes a bit (or a lot) scary but it is all about how you respond, and the rewards can be huge. Nick was incredibly ill and kindly did not want me to catch his bug. He had the worst flight imaginable. I had the best.

Memorial Day at Skunk Harbor, Lake Tahoe, NV

The extended cycle of low-pressure storm systems, that seemed to continually rotate across the Great Basin, has ended momentarily. And, of course, after a few weeks of dramatic skies, morning and night, I get a break to get out on a short landscape photography evening. The western sky looked promising all day; some mid-level rotation and even some brief rain squalls at home, and I was sure I would get some golden hour to sunset light over Lake Tahoe. I have been wanting to get down to Skunk Harbor for awhile now, so this would be the afternoon to head out.

It is Memorial Day weekend, so I expect some traffic and maybe even a crowd. The cove of Skunk Harbor can get a few boats at anchor, social platforms of a kind, and I anticipate folks out for a day-hike. The cove isn’t too far from the highway, and the dirt road is an easy hike–the return can be warm and seem very steep in the heat of summer.

We’d worked around StoneHeart much of the day, trying to get a viable tree and garden irrigation system going, and planned an early dinner before I left for the Skunk. It’s about thirty minutes from StoneHeart to the Spooner turn-off on Highway 50. The gated road to Skunk Harbor is only a couple miles north of the Spooner State Park. Traffic was a bit heavy, but it is Sunday afternoon at the “official” start of summer and all Sundays will be busy around Tahoe now. The turn-out and overflow parking on the south-bound side of Highway 28 were full, not summer-time full, but I was let-down by how crowded it felt. Snuck my Subaru into the last of a long line of parked cars in the main pull-out just above the gate.

I packed up and headed down, it’s a nice easy walk. I was unsurprised when I began to pass an exodus of out-bound day-trippers; counted thirty-one as I approached the waterline. Am I alone now? No, a few folks hanging around in the last light, but I bet the pull-out parking is pretty lonely.

There are some nice rock buildings here, and some comprehensive interpretive signs telling the story. Come see and it all makes some sense. Otherwise, it is a classic and lovely east-side Tahoe cove with a small beach and the cliché-rounded granite boulders. There are some jetty pilings that sometimes provide leading fore-ground elements (ones that John Peltier has used to perfection) but with the return of high lake levels these are now inundated and only a single wooden support breaks the water’s surface, and just barely-it looks like flotsam.  Although the parallel series of abandoned, now-submerged pilings would be a nice addition to any composition, it’s the current lake-level that helps their preservation so we should be thankful when the lake overtakes them; I had hoped to catch an image of the parallel dock remnants, but happy to see the lake high and the beaches practically gone–we need some water in the bank.

I wandered back-and-forth a bit, hoping to catch a composition. I’m not always patient enough to do this, but tonight I focused on simply taking my time and seeing what presented itself. I thought about the sunset–for once, I had a couple hours to consider it–and wandered to some bouldery outcrops on the north side of the cove. From here I could look back toward the rock building, let the setting sun help me out, and maybe get some backlit clouds in a wide angle view. It was about now, although the thought had occurred to me at the car, that I realized how heavy my pack was. Why do I carry all this stuff?  I should be able to trim this kit once my experimenting and learning catches up with my gear syndrome.  Still, it’s fun to set up my main composition and then wander around practicing with other gear. Right now, I’m typically shooting “target” images with my Canon 5D mIV, while wandering with a Canon 80D. The lens choice varies with my composition, but I’m usually carrying a 17-40mm, a 24-70mm, a 70-200mm, and a prime 20mm. That’s simply too much and too many, but I’ll make better choices eventually, I hope.

I set up looking back toward the building and waited an hour for the light to grab the clouds. Wait, what? Where are those clouds that have been here for weeks, teasing me each evening as I stare longingly toward the Carson Range? They are basically gone. A few filaments hang here and there but I can tell the storms are spent and I’ve timed my excursion for a cloudless golden hour. Good light nonetheless, and a good time to practice patience to see what unfolds.  The cove lights up for a few minutes at sunset and the clear skies feel like summer. It must be Memorial Day.

Black Rock Desert Recon

Dendritic, tree-like, drainages form in each drying polygon as puddles dry, and a few square centimeters of playa becomes a whole other world. When the sky doesn’t add to the story, look close. 1/1250 sec, f/5, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

The Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada is the epitome of expansive space as its vast playa, the remnant lakebed of pluvial Lake Lahontan, rolls off the horizon in all directions. I have been wandering and researching this awesome landscape since the 1980s. Although popularized by denizens of Burning Man – a conceptually nice idea, run amok by human desire for community and expression, that which, it seems, cannot be created at home – the desert playa and its surroundings hold a place in my heart. It is also a splendid research laboratory for investigating the paleogeography – geology, climate, and culture – of a vastly changed landscape.

Anyway, Black Rock Desert photography has transformed into street photography set in somewhat ephemeral Black Rock City. Burning Man imagery dominates any search for any genre of Black Rock photography. That’s fine, the event produces compelling and evocative images. But the Black Rock is more than Burning Man, and I hope to remind myself, and others, that there is beauty and drama beyond the now lost utopia of Burners. A primary goal is to make the desert and its surroundings a focal point of my photographic journey. We’ll see where it takes me…

Limbos and Kumiva Peak. Stopped along the highway to watch the sunrise and take first images with new telephoto lens. 1/13 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 70-200mm.

Not that this quick trip really initiates anything, but it was my first time out to Black Rock with photography in mind. There had been some late winter storms in the previous few days, but the light did not reward me. My opportunities were somewhat narrow as I also needed to recon an archaeological site for an upcoming project, a long drive for a single day out – days still short here in the late winter.

I was hopeful as this this was my first day in the cold desert with my new 70-200 mm f/4L lens. I didn’t make a lot of use of it, still too focused on the wide compositions in a big space; I see now that this should change, especially on days when the sky doesn’t add to the story. I did pause along Winnemucca Lake at sunrise to capture the Limbo Range and Kumiva Peak. The colors of the distant foreground, salt grass on the playa margin, make the image work for me.

The town of Gerlach, NV, is small against the Granite Range. 1/160 sec, f/11, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Anansi’s Trail. Playa track after fleeting rain. Tried dozens of compositions to capture the metallic curve on the Black Rock Playa.  1/80 sec, f/14, ISO 100; Canon 80D, 18-135mm.

Near Trego Hot Springs, I walked onto the playa where I really wanted to capture the water-filled path and the curve of the former lakebed. I tried several different compositions of the same pattern, working hard to catch the mirage shimmering on the edges of any distant boundary. Finally, I cropped the far-away mountains, were former shorelines cut into volcanic rocks, to highlight the metallic S flowing to the middle horizon. An ephemeral day on the playa.

Click here for Full Image Gallery. Keep going…