Iceland...Land of wind, ice, cold and dream.
It is not the destination that you can go for skiing and enjoy winter sun with cold beer. There are no beautiful white sandy beaches with summer breeze and promises of blue sky and turquise water.
Iceland offers none of those, but that island can guarantee unpredictable weather, scattered volcanic rocks, dreamy landscape enriched by cold winds and barren nature.
It is a paradise for landscape photographer, and I am going there very soon.
Thanks to my Tilpy family, I will share this experience with you. Everything, from "why am I going there" to "how am I preparing myself" to the actual journey.
I hope you will enjoy reading and I hope my trip might inspire some people and discover new challenging destinations.
“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility”
Jack Kerouac- On the Road
So this is it...I have started. The more I am thinking about this journey, the more it becomes more about an inner journey to myself. It is not like a going somewhere to take some photos, it is more deeper than that. Why am I profoundly love photography? What it symbolise to me? Definetely it is the place where I can find a peace, where I do not need any words. I think photography represents pure improvisation, the way I connect to Nature, that´s why I love mountains and barren nature. Why Iceland? Just because she is a paradise for photographer with beautiful landscape and amazing terrains? I do not know. I do not have any expectation or perception about Iceland; intuitively I chose the destination. Ok, let me correct myself, I do have an expectation from her, I hope she will connect me with the nature, create the unforgettable improvisation.
The definition of improvisation is the practice of acting, creating, playing something, dancing or reacting spontaneously. One's inner feeling tells. it sounds very clustered even cumbersome but I feel that I am improvisational when I climb mountains or go to barren landscapes. The wind, melting glaciers, clouds, cold, lucidity of empty spaces...They all shape in a form for different music which I never able to hear in the cities, among the crowd. The Nature... The Nature just gives all the beauties if one knows how to look. When reach the top of of the mountains or find myself in the middle of nowhere, I breathe the same pace with Nature, which makes me feel be part of the Nature, real part- sometimes all false values blur the vision, wrong perceptions distort the reality, what's the reality anyway? it changes from one person to another, like "good" and "bad". But it all goes away gradually, just wind, clouds, cold breeze, snow flakes and you...Whatever I deal with in the cities, all seems so unreal, so ordinary and I feel like I uncaged my soul in the nature; i feel like I am free, I feel like I am Nature herself, I feel like myself and Nature creating our own improvisation with a beautiful music, it is so immense, and it starts with being apart, in deep down feels despair then uplifting with joy, like a good contradiction, then love notes, with heartache, unfinished passion before it reaches the crescendo... This melody always echoes into my ears, like unknown musician plays her piano by herself like a never-ending dream and I always smile when I take a photo at the mountains or in the barren landscape, because each of my photo is "Thank You" letter to Nature.
So, I admit I want to be free again, I hope Iceland with all her barren soils, frozen waterfall, black beaches, cold landscape and her weather will provide this improvisation.
Right now I am listening Nils Frahm´s "Says" a true improvisational music where my soul already get excited about this journey. I can feel all those cold barren beautiful landscape, even I feel I am there right now. As Nils creates different layers and dimensions within that song, it is just like connecting the Nature again. I think I am ready now.
Even though I have decided to go to Iceland intuitively, I know that I need to do some homework in terms of where to go. Because scouting and technical planning are just as important as any other aspect of photography. Why even pick a location if you do not know? and why not improve the chance to take some great photos? That’s why I did some research, especially using Google Earth tool.
Google Earth…Please familiarize yourself to this tool because it has many features that you can plan any photography trips with this tool. First of all, it gives you any landscape on the Earth snd provides very useful topography information. In addition to that, Google Earth can supply many geotagged photos for the place that you plan the visit and that gives you great flavor what to expect. Another aspect that you can see from this tool that, it allows you to see the scene change over time on any given date. It tells the sunset, moon rise, even star moves. So, cutting long story short, if you spend a few hours with Google Earth, that time wont be wasted.
Since, I have very limited time for this trip ( only 3 days) and day lights will be very short, therefore pre-planning is must. I know that I will not have any spare time therefore I need to plan every minute of the trip well ahead.
Thus, I have finalized 2 main destinations:
Vik:South of Iceland, by the ocean, one of the reason I would like to go there is to combine sea and mainland landscape.There are some places which sound very promising like Black sand beach and Reynisdrangar rock formations.
Jokulsarlon:This is one of the place I would like to visit because it sounded very interesting.It is a closed lagoon just by the sea and surrounded by giant glaciers and full of icebergs
Again, I just chose these places intuitively and do my homework to utilize my time there.
Well, once Tilpy crew had asked me about my equipment and I told them that my best cameras are my eyes. Becuase I believe that a good camera never makes you a good photographer, but being good observer does. My equipment is my tool, help me to capture what I see. Whenever I go to Nature, it is a big challenge for me because I always feel the pressure that I need to reflect all those beauties from the Nature through my lenses.
Iceland is not the exception, the condition and the weather will be creating additional challenges therefore I need to be prepared.
So, the list of equipment that I will take with me as follow:
My Camera body: Canon 7D
My Lenses :
Canon 16-35mm f2.8 II USM IS: One of the best wide angle lens I ever use for landscape photography. It never fails me, even under the lowest light conditions, on top of that, it is water & dust protected.
Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II USM IS: Even though it is so heavy and sometimes sounds a bit unpractical but I never go out without this lens. I will share with you some of the photos I will take in Iceland with this lens,
Tripod head: Gitzo GH 3750
Tripod body: Sirui
Lee Filter 10 stopper
Kenko Neutral density filter
Hoya polarized filter
Canon remote control: It is imperative for "bulb" modes or any long shutter photos. Please use the branded ones, cheap remote control devices always leave you remote in remote places. (hard lessons never be forgotten)
Canon spare batteries: If you travel to cold places, I would take minimum 4 spare batteries. ( I will explain why, in next chapter) Again, please use the branded ones, otherwise you might be staring your camera in the middle of an excellent shot, and wonder why camera suddenly becomes dead.
Two winters ago I was in Abisko, the northest part of Sweden. One of the thing I learned form that trip was the omnipower of the cold. No matter how many things you wear, no matter how many hot tea you drink, sooner or later the cold wins. It slowly creeps into the winter coat, place itself and touch your skin, then chill to the bones. Especially, when you find your perfect spot, place your tripod, set up your camera and shooting long exposure mode.
First of all, we have to accept the fact that, we can not win against the cold. But we can prolong the battle with some useful tips:
- When you need to adjust your camera settings, you need to take off those astranout type heavy gloves, which means your fingers and hands start exposing cold, therefore you need to act quickly to set everything up. When your hands getting cold, you become sloopy and the margin of error very narrow. So, planning is the key.
- Do move your legs and arms, some little jumping, or streching can help your blood circulations, which delay the effect of the cold. Remember, the feet and hands are the most cold sensitive part of the human body.
- There is a urban myth about alcohol. Some says, if you drink a small sip of cognac or votka can make you warm. It is WRONG... When you drink alcohol, it immediately increases your blood sugar and you feel warm. But it last maybe 10-15 minutes. Then the blood sugar drops drastically and you feel cold, extremely cold. So, you just decrease the amount of the time at outside. Bear in mind, photography in the cold weather is not like skiing in the cold weather. You have very limited activity compare to skiing and your body is more vulnerable against the cold, while you are taking photos, because you do not move much.
How about Equipment? How can we protect our equipment against the cold?
Protecting yourself is one side of the coin; the other side of the coin is how can we protect our gears in the cold weather? Well 2 things are very important for the gears:
1- Batteries: You will amaze how quickly any batteries can be drained in the cold. I have original Canon batteries and these batteries, depends on how many times I shoot, can last 7-8 hours under the normal conditions, like room temperatures. However, in the cold it is another story. I witnessed that my battery died in less than 1 hour, when I was in Abisko. It is safe to say that Iceland is not different than Abisko and especially in barren lands the windchill factor will be unberable. Therefore, it is imperative to keep bateries warm. I said "batteries" becuase, depends on the longevity of the trip, you should have 4-5 spare batteries with you. Keep them in the pocket, and place the battery just before start shooting. That´s very important, because if you keep all the batteries outside, I garantee you only 1-2 hours photo adventure outside, and rest of the time, you sip your tea at your hotel. When your first battery died, immediately replace it with new one and put the dead battery inside of your pocket. Suprisingly, after warm up, that battery can last another 15 minutes or so.
2- Condensation: As a photographer, I am not worry about condensation on outside of the lenses and camera. But I would worry, if the condensation occurs inside of the camera. This is very serious problem and might even affect overall trip. Therefore, it is very important to avoid condensation. The main goal is to keep your camera gears, EXCLUDING batteries, as close to the outside temperature and as dry as possible. So, how the condensation can be happened? Imagine yourself in the nice warm hotel, and your camera gears inside of your camera bag. Then, it is time to go out, you take your bag, put into the car which is same temperature like hotel, (lets say around 23-24 degree celcius) and after sometime, you reach the point where you would like to take a shot. You stop the car, take your camera from the bag, go outside which is maybe -10 C and place the camera onto tripod and voila....You have nice condensation on outside of lens, which you can wipe out, but you most likely have condensation, inside of the camera. We are talking about 30-35 degree temperature differences, and even more during the nights (between room temperature and outside) and even the best camera gears can not adjust themselves that level of temperature differences. A simple physical law called "Thermodynamics" says the greater temperature differences brings greater chance that the condensation will form inside of the lens, given that the air pressure remains constant. That being said, more condensation might create frost and ice inside of the camera which sometimes create irreversible damages to your equipment. So, only prevention is to avoid such problems is to let your gears adjust the temperature differences. For example, I always keep my camera bag in the trunk of the car not inside during the trips, and keep my equipments outside as much as I can. If you have safe environment, you can even leave the camera outside, like roof of the hotel or entrance hall of the hotels while you are sleeping. (most of the hotels in cold places have entry door to enter entrance hall, to leave snow shoes or other equipments, these places usually 10-15 C, and then there is main door to enter hotel lobby which is room temperature, so,if it is safe, which they lock the door during the night, you can leave your bag there) The key point is to reduce temperature difference as much as we can.
Actual Iceland adventure had started, when my plane touched the icy ground of Keflavik airport. Since we were approaching from South, the plane had to pass through all south Iceland and I saw a part of magnificent views through the clouds. That´s enough for me to overdose adrenaline and I barely stand still, just want to go there and start shooting.
The first stop was Dyrholaey which is located by end of route 218. Iceland has only one main road called “Ring Road” or Route 1, therefore finding location is so easy; The route 218 is 187 km away from Reykjavik and the only way to reach out Dyrholaey. Actually, Dyrholaey, Reynisdrangar and Vik are very close to each other, however there is no short cut between them. For example, you need to drive 8 km in 218 to reach Dyrholaey, then go back to route 1, and continue driving another 7-8 km to reach route 215 for Reynisdrangar.
Here, I would like to give one very important information. If you would like to visit Iceland in winter, you must rent 4x4 car, because it is not allowed to drive normal cars outside of Reykjavik. When you enter these little routes like 218; you would be very grateful about 4x4 cars because those roads simply not nice route for drivings, however you just amaze with beautiful landscape while driving.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 100, 27mm f/11 2 sec)
Dyrholaey is end of the route 218 and once you reach there, the view is simply breathtaking. To the North; the big glacier Myrdalsjokull,
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 100, 16mm, f/9.0, 1.6sec)
to the East; the black lava beach,Reynisdrangar,
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 100, 29mm, f/11, 0.8sec)
in front; whole North Atlantic with giant black lava arch which is 115 metres high.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 100, 16mm, f/11, 1sec)
Dyrholaey light house is one of the most beautiful light house in North Atlantic with castle shape.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 100, 35mm, f/9.0, 0.5sec)
When I was up there, I just feel the wind and all my surroundings were very surreal, which made me dream that I was one of the seagull hoovering around black cliffs. The enormous waves kept crushing against the black arch and created thunder like noises. It was so mesmeric and hypnotising feeling. I just loved to be standing there, the strong wind carried all those sea smells to me.
As I mentioned before, even though Reynisdrangar can be seen from Dyrholaey; there is no easy way to reach out this place. This place is by end of the route 215 and it is one of the most popular touristic attraction point in Iceland. Even in December the parking lot was full of tourist buses and cars carried many people, mainly Chinese people to this beach.
The beach is totally black due to lava sands and always has gigantic waves. I was told that the sea is very deep here, even few metres from the shore it can be deep around 3-4 meters immediately. Of course, when the big waves crushes onto shore, it creates very dangerous underwater torrents, which makes the beach extremely deadly and dangerous. On top of that; there are some different waves hit the beach sporadically. Icelandic people name these waves “sneaky waves” they are invisible, like tsunami, however as soon as they become very close the shore, you just see a gigantic deadly wave which swept everything close by. The Icelandic government has put many warning signs along the beach for the people and it is prohibit to leave kids alone, prohibit to turn yourself against the sea if you are close by etc. However, many tourists, especially Chinese people, ignore these warnings and every year 5-7 of them just dragged by sneaky waves, while taking their last selfies alive. Therefore Icelandic people name this beach as “Chinese take away”.
(Canon 7D; EF70-200mm f2.8 IS II USM; ISO 250, 175mm, f/7.1, 1/80 sec)
Reynisdrangar is just situated under the Reynisfjall mountain which rock formation look like a giant lego game and create not deep caves by the beach. The movie “Noah” was shot there.
(Canon 7D; EF70-200mm f2.8 IS II USM; ISO 100, 85mm, f/2.8, 1/50 sec)
By the end of the beach there are 2 basalt stacks situated in the sea as if they are ancient warriors from thousands of years ago and protecting the area against monsters.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 100, 32mm, f/9.0, 60sec)
This beach is one of the most interesting and one of the most breathtaking beach in the world, and one of the deadly one. It is so easy to focus on the camera, tripod and try to take beautiful photos, however, it is not a joke, you have to keep eye on the waves. Local guides keep warn people and pay attention to waves, but it is always be careful.
Another challenge is the salt. Because this beach is always windy, always has giant waves. It means, wind carries sea water everywhere and makes surrounding very hazy which is not good for the shoot, and all the equipment wet with sea water easily. I had to clean my camera and lenses several times try to avoid any damage.
The town, Vik is one of the biggest town in southern Iceland with population of 291 inhabitants!
Vik is just situated by Myrdasjokull glacier, which on top of Katla volcano. The last activity for Katla was 100 years ago and according to locals, it may erupt soon, which make glacier melt and create flood. If it happens, the town church, which is situated by the hill, will be sole survivor from this catastrophe.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 100, 16mm,f/9.0, 15 sec)
Therefore, whole town has several drills annually to train themselves to rush to the church, when Katla becomes active.
Vik also has black sand beach, similar to Reynisdrangar, but less visitors. Scattered lava rocks and wave foams also make the surrounding like a illusion.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO250, 35mm, f/11.0, 2.0sec)
One of the most interesting thing on the beach was 3 basalt stacks watching over the beach, town and the church. According to local legends; actually these 3 basalt rocks were Trolls which they tried to drag a ship to shore before sun rise, however they were unable to do so and after the sun rise, they were frozen to rocks.
(Canon 7D; EF70-200mm f2.8 IS II USM; ISO250, 102mm, f/9.0, 0.4sec)
Since, December is the most shortest days in Iceland, I had a less than 5 hours day light and on top of that I had to fight against the strong wind, rain, sleet and sea salt on the first day. The weather was so unpredictable and rapidly changing which never made my life easier.
Second day started with huge blizard and ice. Today´s destination was Jokulsarlon and diamond beach which were 378 km away from Rejkavik. However, for the winter trips, I suggest to stay very close by otherwise the journey would be very tiresome.
As Deep Purple song, "Smoke on the water", I started the day like this;
"Ice on the camera"
Needless to say, today would be as difficult as yesterday but I was so excited to visit those places.
Jokulsarlon lagoon is one of the youngest lagoon on Earth, due to warming climate. The surface is at the sea level and sea water flows into the lagoon at high tide. Huge blocks of ice constantly break of the glacier; Breiamerkurjokull, and large icebergs float on the lagoon. The icebergs calve from the glacier edge and then move and fluctuates towards the river mouth along.
(Canon 7D; EF70-200mm f2.8 IS II USM; ISO400, 70mm, f/9.0, 0.3sec)
If you look at the photo carefully, you can see the snow which was constantly affect the shoting adversly. Another challenge was, all icebergs were floating, in other words, they were moving. Therefore, I had to increase ISO to reduce the shutter speed to ensure I did not have any blurry iceberg photos.
The lagoon is rather narrow, albeit very deep. I was told that it reaches over 250mt.
Snow storms were constant, which I kept watching horizon because when the storm hits, I had no choice but ran to the little cafe near the lagoon.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 100, 23mm, f/9.0, 1/20sec)
for example, after I saw this horizon, in less than 10 minutes, the visibility had decreased less than 10 mt and snow flakes were hitting my face like crazy bees.
However, the weather could not stop me to enjoy my surroundings. I climbed a little hill by the lagoon and just mesmerizing the view. All icebergs floating around, hitting each other with thick noise, made me unable to speak. The words had become very limited to describe the scene. I was listening Chopin´s waltz #7, while watching icebergs dance on the surface which constantly created Monet´s "garden" painting with ice. It is very beautiful and calming listening to the cracking sound of the icebergs when they move and float around.
The Diamond Beach
The diamond beach is just opposite of Jokulsarlon with 5 minutes walk and I was told that the view of diamond beach constantly changing and this beach so far the most beautiful place I ever visit so far in my life. All ice chunks in different sizes, can be found all over the black sands and they indeed look like real diamonds on the black velvet.
(Canon 7D; EF70-200mm f2.8 IS II USM; ISO100, 90mm, f/9.0, 0.3sec)
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO100, 28mm, f/9.0, 1.3sec)
I guess the words become very unnecessary to describe these beautiful ice rocks, maybe a poem from unknown poet, a line of words from unfinished novel, or a note from a symphony all represents a beauty of this beach.
This is the last stop of my expedition. The glacier is the main part of Vatnajokull, the largest ice cap in Europe, which covers 8% of south Iceland.The icebergs are constantly breaken off from glacier, which is clear sign of global warming.
(NASA images, from www.earthobservatory.nasa.gov)
As it clearly be seen that, the glacier has receded by as much as 2 km since early 1970s. In these false-color composite images, the retreat of Breidamerkurjokull can be seen clearly.
The glacier visit can not be done individually. In other words, it is mandatory to have professional local guide to visit, walk and explore glacier. The main reason is security, beacuse only local, certified guides can drive to glacier, guide you to walk through ice and show the ice caves. The driving is very challenging, it simply there is no road sign or trace that you can follow. I amazed that my guide find his way in open, barren field to reach the glacier.
The glacier as deep as 1000mt, covered by very challenging walking paths and ice caves. Due to winter, some of the ice caves are closed, but we managed to visit some of the caves.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO100, 23mm, f/9.0, 30sec)
One of the challenge was, too many visitors, even though it was very cold day. However, we waited roughly 45 minutes to have the cave for ourselves, and managed to take some photos.
The overall visit was lasting more than 3 hours, thanks to my guide Gunnar Sigorsson (www.adventurepoints.is) we managed to complete the tour without any hassle.
That night was last night and we were told that Aurora activity would be 5 scale, which was very high. Therefore, we placed ourselves by the Jokulsarlon lagoon to wait Aurora. The night was so cold and bitter, and made waiting unbearable. For this kind of Aurora expedition, I strongly suggest to check this web site: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/
it clearly indicates where has less clouds and Aurora activities.
Indeed, that night Aurora was so strong and playful, I manages to take some good shoots:
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO 125, 16mm, f/2.8, 84sec)
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO125, 16mm, f/2.8, 85sec)
However, the conditions were very challenging, like fast moving clouds, easily fainted Aurora. I was at Abisko 2 years ago and there, Aurora was so strong and vivid, I managed to capture all the colors. (please visit www.mutlugunencphotography.com)
As last words, I would like to mention about Icelandic horses. I have never seen such durable, calm and friendly horses, they are simply so adorable. Iceland, in all fairness, has one of the most challenging weather conditions. And, it changes in minutes which makes more difficult to adjust. Icelandic horses on the other hand, seems have no problem for adjusting themselves. They just stan still if the wind unbearable, or digging snow to find grass under the huge snowstorm. Since, they are extremely durable and friendly with calm manners, some Nordic countries export them to their lands. However, Iceland has a rule that, if any horse leaves the country, then there is no return. Because they try to protect these horses from outside diseases and therefore, they are very strict about these horses well being. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time for horse riding, which I am sure, it is lots of fun.
One of the characteristic aspect of these horses is they are extremely curious.
(Canon 7D; 16-35mm f2.8 IS USM; ISO1000, 29mm, f/2.8, 1/30 sec)
Actually I am very sad that I could not stay longer in this island. I love the people, which they are extremely friendly and helpful, I love the landscape which reminds me how insignificant we are as human, with provides me breathtakenly beautiful scenes, I even love the weather, even though it was so tough to adjust and compliant. I still affected by the scenery and weather. I never ever come across such beautiful and at the same time such dangerous and tough conditions.
Iceland trip was the best trip I have ever done so far. The island has not only breathtaking landscape, but also its weather put constant challenge in front of me. I pushed myself to the limit, I pushed my camera and lenses to the limit. I have never ever been such place that I had to fight with weather conditions all the time, not even Abisko which is far north of Sweden.
I am so thrilled, so pleased that I completed this journey. Iceland is true nature, I found peace, solitude, silent lucidity and tranquility, even though harsh winter was all around. Since the weather changes very rapidly, all nature becomes so improvisational, as if play a music with different rhythm. Sometimes that music has changed into very quiet and peaceful notes, then suddenly turn into crayz crescendo like a pianist plays Chopin´s Ballade Op.23. I felt that I caught that rhythm and connected with Nature. Breath with wind, live with waves, stand still with frozen rocks in the sea. I felt that I was part of that nature, away from everything including city live which often overconsume me. However, while I was in Iceland, I felt freedom, could strech my wings and ready to fly.
If I would go back, what would I do things differently? Well, I do not think I could do much about weather, which means all my equipment was very suitable for harsh weather, albeit, it was still very challenging. I would only recommend that please make sure, your equipment is water & dust resistant.
If I would have second chance to go back, I would definetely stay longer. Three days, even though I went only South part, was not suffice at all. My days were limited, on top of that the day light time was very limited, therefore I had a tremendous time pressure. I knew I did not have any additional time, and I had to try the best. Maybe I was lucky to have some good shots, but, luck might be not around next time. Of course, since I was operating under time pressure, I had to push the envelope a lot, and for example we had to go to the glacier under the heavy snow, which my guide was not happy at all. I would say, I should have had minimum 5 days, instead of 3.
Also, this trip had proven that, the pre-work needs to be done, make your homework, read a lot, study Google map and other useful devices, and talk to local people. The information is the king, and at least you avoid being spontenious and sporadic which is not good for such journeys. Iceland is the place, you can not be spontenious. The roads are icy and dangerous, the weather never be your friend and on top of that light contiditions are changing a lot. The island herself is spontenious enough, so you are the one need to prepare as much as you can.
All in all, I enjoyed every second and I tried to capture all those magnificient landscape and surreal environment. I am so grateful that I have returned with great memories, which encourage me for new expeditions.
I was looking at the Atlantic ocean, felt the wind, sea salt and heard the wave crushes beneath me. The gigantic lava arch was ahead of me and I was remembering this song: "One Man´s Dream" from Yanni...