9 Days in Iceland, Part One: The Naughty North

Iceland, with its breathtaking views of glaciers and waterfalls, is on the bucket list of most landscape photographers. With honeypot shots galore, can you really go wrong? Well, that all depends on what Iceland’s ever-changing weather has in store for your visit, and it can change rapidly.

We’ve been fortunate enough to visit Iceland on a couple of other occasions over the years, the first visit spending time on the south coast, the second time driving the entire ring road, and then again on this visit. The entire trip around the 1,332 km ring road was different this time, and the weather did change rather rapidly at times. This meant that some of the locations we hoped, and I use that word loosely, to visit were still closed off due to the cusp of the changing seasons. We knew this, though, and weren’t too disappointed that we couldn’t reach them.

Did It Go As Planned?

The whole trip had been planned by my partner, who is brilliant at scheduling and finding the best prices. We landed at Keflavik airport, picked up the hire car from the airport, and then headed to our hotel in Reykjavík for our first two days of the trip. The first port of call for the rest of that day was the Hallgrimskirkja church, with its basalt-esque curved spine and wings. Getting a clean shot here can be a bit difficult depending on the time that you visit, and for us, at 7pm, was basically impossible without either lots of Photoshop or lots of patience. I considered a very long exposure to mitigate the movement of people or in the hope of emulating the style of photographs by Alexey Titarenko. In the end, however, I opted just for some snapshots to save time, and because of the clear blue sky, I edited in monochrome.

Hallgrimskirkja Church

To shoot this location, the best time I’ve found so far is early in the morning. Sunset is great, depending on the time of year and what the sky is doing. I like textured skies to complement the architecture. And when it’s snowing, even with all the people there, this can be quite a lovely scene.

From there, we headed to the Harpa concert Hall, and I’ve got to admit from past visits it’s a place I love to shoot just before and during the blue hour, as the colors on the facade allow it to respond to the changing light in such a dynamic way. That, coupled with the internal lighting, provides you with some opportunities if the timing is right. Unfortunately for us, the timing was poor, but we grabbed some phone shots and a couple from the camera.

I considered a long exposure for the central shot above due to the angle of the clouds emanating from behind the Harpa, but as the high clouds were moving slowly, if at all, I decided on a 13-second exposure. After talking about the display of colors, there’s not too much to show here, but that’s due to the time we were there, as they were only starting.

Harpa Concert Hall

For this location, sunset into the blue hour seems to be the best time, as that’s when the illumination of the concert hall comes into play. Try to avoid times when concerts are on, as it can get very busy. Be sure to also go inside for some shots, as the interior architecture and its details are impressive.

Day two consisted of snowmobiling on top of a glacier, visiting Geysir and then Gulfoss waterfalls, the latter of which was disappointing on this occasion due to the lower path beside the fall being closed for safety reasons. So again, we only snapped a couple of images on the phone and left. That sounds awfully dismissive, but knowing that we couldn’t access the lower path for the shots we wanted to made it a simple decision

Mývatn, Hevirir

From our base in Akureyri we headed to Mývatn for the geothermal area, the volcanic crater, and Godafoss. These three places we had hoped to time well, and we did, except perhaps for Godafoss, but that was out of our control.

Arriving early at Mývatn affords you the luxury of not too many visitors being Photoshopped out of your images. For composition, I mainly documented the area instead of looking for images. This wasn’t entirely a bad thing, as I can use some images in composites. I actually found myself more in awe of what was going on around me than thinking this would make a great photograph.

If you visit, just take it in. The fumaroles venting steam that has a strong sulfurous stench and the mud pots bubbling away, coupled with a barren vegetation-free landscape make for an otherworldly experience.

In shooting this location, I couldn’t make the call on when is best, as this is only the second time we had visited, and both times were very different in terms of snowfall. The first time was a heavy snowfall, and this time, more of a light dusting. However, the colors always showed through.

Hverfjall

As you are in this area, it’s well worth a venture up and around the Hverfjall crater. Once at the top, weather permitting, you can see the surrounding mountains and the Mývatn lake. It’s a short 20-minute hike up to the top of the crater for the view, and if you are so inclined to walk around, the top perimeter will take another 45 minutes. Beware of the wind, though, as it can get quite strong.

Grjótagjá

Made famous by Game of Thrones, the Grjótagjá cave is also worth visiting. However, please note it can get very busy. When we arrived, we were the only ones there, but within about 10 minutes, a tour bus and four cars had arrived, so we exited the cave and sat in the car until everyone had gone.

Visitors would appear from the cave like gophers on the lookout and then move towards their vehicles. Just when you thought they had all gone, another gopher would appear. It was quite funny to watch actually, similar to the Monty Python scene from the Life of Brian when all the Romans were leaving the room where they were searching for Brian. Once we were sure everyone had gone, we went back in to find some compositions. Within a few minutes, it started all over again with more tour buses and tourists. So, a quick shot was taken, and we departed.

Godafoss

Well, this will be short! The weather was turning as we headed back to Akureyri, and as we had planned to photograph Godafoss, we thought might as well. We knew the sky was gone, so again, it was really just going to be records of the location and scouting for next time.

The place was empty, barring a couple of other vehicles, so we wandered along both sides of the falls, just looking for compositions for our return. As I had wanted to go down closer to the river, we ventured to the far side of the car park. By now, the wind was picking up and the snow was getting a little heavier. I got one quick shot from the side of the river and then went up to the main viewing area and took another. The wind was now howling, and the snow was a little heavier, so we decided on one more shot before we left.

The final shot, a mere 30 meters from the last one, turned very quickly into 40 km+ winds and driving snow, so we hastily grabbed a shot and walked headfirst into the wind back to the car, which took a lot longer than it should have .

The Naughty North

This was our last evening in Akureyri. The drive back from Godafoss was a little sketchy due to the weather. Although not in any way disappointing (it’s Iceland after all), we never got the shots we were hoping for, though the experience of it all was something else. Yes, we had been before, but each time, there is something new to discover. Because of the time of year and only having a two-wheel drive, we never ventured onto any of the other roads. We’ll leave that for a summer trip.

The north hadn’t been naughty, so to speak, as it was a beautifully awesome experience, but the weather definitely had been. We were prepared for the cold, and on the trip, it reached minus 10. A four-wheel drive would have also been better for moving around, but finances didn’t allow for that this time.

The next day, we headed to Hofn. Those were the scariest driving conditions I had ever experienced. The phone shot below was taken by my partner before the complete white-out. This was not irresponsible driving, as we had checked with the Vedur weather app before departing. This was heavier than predicted.
We made it to Hofn and the south coast, and what a difference a few hundred kilometers made.

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