Iceland - the trip of a lifetime: Part two

Iceland, sitting out in the north atlantic ocean has many miles of stunning coastline. The island is formed from ancient volcanic rock spurting up from underneath the earth's crust, and today there are still active volcanoes on the island, like Eyjafjallajökull which became famous in 2010 when it erupted and halted countless flights globally over a number of weeks. I wanted to capture where volcanic remnants met the sand, and so I headed down to the beach in the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Iceland beach

To capture the soft flowing water as it worked its way around the black volcanic rocks I put my Nikon D750 on a tripod and plugged in my remote shutter release cable. After experimenting with the shutter speed I found between 3-4 seconds were perfect to get that glossy blur in the water, but also retain the lined detail in the wash. Timing of the shot was crucial, too. Taking the photo just as the wave reached maximum height and then the shutter extending as the water drained back out towards the sea left me with thick, white froth marks around the bottom of my frame, but also captured the intricate paths as the water drew back.

Iceland beach

It was tough to show the sand at times. The tide was coming in and the surf was a little too thick in places to be able to see the detail underneath the water. My favourite aspect of the beach was that the sand wasn't typical yellow, it was more of a dark golden ochre dusted with black volcanic ash. It was truly unique and I'd never seen a beach like it, so I spent some time getting my composition right.

Vik, Iceland

I ventured along the Útnesvegur road winding round the western coast of the Snaefellsnes peninsula until I came to the village of Vik. Some Vik locals informed me it was pronounced 'weak' and not 'vik' as I had originally pronounced it. I felt more at home knowing the locally accented name, and headed down onto the beach. The wind had picked up dramatically and those that were braving the conditions had to hold onto their hats and hoods as they walked along the sands. This time it was completely black sand that formed the barrier between the village and the sea. The wind was so fierce that it was even blowing the tops off the white breakers that crashed down in front of me. The wind had an unexpected consequence on my photography. Shooting on my 70-200mm I was hoping to get some close up shots of the sea stacks that sit between here and Reynisfjara (the official 'black sand beach') but the easterly wind was ripping along the coastline, whipping up grit and sand which grazed the side of my face. I could hear the grains pattering against my lens hood and realised that if I held the camera up to shoot into the wind, the front element of my lens would be destroyed. So every time I felt a gust of wind I had to tuck it under my coat, and pull my hood down over my face. I noticed how it wasn't just sand or grit, but ice crystals laying on top of the snow that were also cutting into my skin and camera. I braved a few seconds shooting during one particular gust to get a shot of someone looking out to sea. You can see that the foreground is almost completely blurred from the wind-swept sand and ice, and the waves are being pulled back into the sea. 

Vik beach

I jumped back in the car and drove round to Reynisfjara, the 'black sand beach'. This is the classic view of the Snaefellsnes beach with sea stacks reaching into the ocean and basalt rocks cladding the cliffs, (this type of rock only forming around volcanoes). But I noticed a serious off-road vehicle parked up beyond the sandy beach. In amongst the pockmarked rocks sat a big off-road police vehicle, its tyres wide and soft. I wondered if the police officer might just be enjoying the view, but suddenly he leapt from his car and ran off down the beach screaming at tourists. They had ventured too far out and were about to be stuck between the cliff face and smashing waves. He escorted them back up the beach and a sense of caution floated in the air. I asked a local what was going on and they told me about the freak waves. Apparently, you need to stand at Reynisfjara and watch the waves for about 10-15 minutes before you think about going down to the edge to take a shot. It can seem calm, and then all of a sudden a giant wave rolls in and takes you by surprise. The asian tourists there are plentiful and some tourists take unknown risks for that 'perfect' shot. Only two weeks before arriving I read on the news that a chinese tourist had indeed been swept up in a giant wave. Within minutes he was kilometres out to sea. They never found him. 

Icelandic Police at Reynisfjara black sand beach

I visited during lunch time so the light was quite far overhead and there were no interesting clouds to speak of, so I didn't take any usable photos here. But I drove along the road, down the beach, and up onto a headland which poked out over the ocean. I was about 200ft up and could look down across the beach in either direction. In summer there is a body of water which flows across the beach into the sea, but in winter it's frozen and the two waters are distinctly cordoned by the beach. I noticed the strange long shapes the waves were making as they came in. The beach's gradient seemed gentle, so the water outstretched a long way. I used a similar technique as before to photograph the patterns the water created. I put a 1.4x teleconverter on my 70-200mm lens to get close in. But because I was deliberately using a longer shutter I had to make sure the camera was perfectly still, which at super long focal lengths like this, is incredibly difficult to do. I mounted the tripod on the lens ring and waited for the wind to die before taking the shot. I expected them to be blurry, and most were, but when I looked at them on the back of the screen there were one or two that came out pin sharp. I was extremely happy.

Reynisfjara waves long exposure
Reynisfjara waves long exposure

My advice for coastline photographers visiting Iceland would be to put safety first and really analyse the waves before venturing down too close to the water. You can get amazing shots of the beach, even from some 200ft up in the air. Take your time and go slowly, even if you go during winter months where your daylight time is short. If there's one thing I noticed about Icelandic culture it's that health and safety as we know it in the UK, doesn't exist. You're told once, or maybe twice and then that's it. You're responsible for your own actions after that. No barriers, not many signs. If you're hurt, it's because you weren't paying attention. Conversely, after I got back to the UK I was overwhelmed by the signage. At one point, on my drive back home from the airport I actually passed a sign that said 'CAUTION: MUD ON ROAD'. How different it was to be back, especially after what I described in my previous Iceland blog post...