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ICELAND: LAND OF FIRE AND ICE

25TH MAR '2013 MIN READ

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Iceland never ceases to amaze me. It’s an island that is constantly changing with the harshness of the weather, relentless volcanic activity and the natural progression of glacial movement – which, I’d noticed, had greatly diminished over the five years from 2010-2015 when I ran workshops there. Another change that I’d noticed is the increase in visitors, namely photographers – no doubt attributable to the dramatic images of Icelandic landscapes in the photographic press and social media.  This has certainly had a positive effect for the locals, with many new hotels being built, so the quality and availability of accommodation have improved significantly. And, of course, the increase in visitor numbers is bringing in more revenue and jobs so younger Icelanders are staying in the country instead of looking elsewhere for work. There is a fine balance, though, between economic growth and the problems associated with tourism. For me as a photographer, it’s all about the experience; experiencing the peace and tranquillity of a location like Iceland is one reason why I became a photographer. I’m sure that’s why many other photographers go to Iceland, too. It’s ironic that we’re all there trying to find peace and tranquillity together! But don’t worry; it has 40,000 square miles of landscape, and only 330,000 inhabitants, so there are plenty of wide-open deserted places to explore. Although, when you’re photographing an ice cave, it can get a bit claustrophobic depending how large the cave is and how many people are trying to photograph it… Luckily, this cave was a massive 400m deep, so we simply took turns exploring its opposite ends with another group of 15 photographers who were keen to shoot it as well. There were plenty of interesting formations to photograph, and I had our guide, Einar, stand at the entrance wearing the obligatory red jacket to contrast against the blue ice and give a sense of scale.

Man in Ice Cave, Iceland

I always tell people who came on my Iceland workshops to be prepared for adverse weather. The conditions are not only hard on equipment, but also hard on your body. I’ve been in sub zero whiteouts where you can’t see more than a few feet, sand blasted by volcanic ash in gale force winds and even fallen through a snow hole in an ice cave. So you’re probably wondering why I subject myself to conditions like this? Because there are times when you experience amazing one in a lifetime conditions that make it worth it. I will always remember the year we were pleasantly surprised with a week of fantastic conditions – and not just climactic, but with the Northern Lights, too.

Angry Aurora Face, Hali, Iceland

This particular year the solar cycle was nearing its peak so the aurora activity was even better than usual. February 27th 2014 will always be ingrained in my memory, as it was an incredible experience. Just as we sat down to dinner that evening, someone came into the restaurant announcing ‘The lights are on!’ and I’ve never seen a restaurant clear so quickly. The aurora forecast was for a 7 on the Kp-index – a global geometric storm index with a scale of 0 to 9. It was spectacular – as well as the more common green glow, caused by oxygen molecules being excited by charged particles in the solar wind at around 60 miles up, we could also clearly see the much rarer red, caused by oxygen-charged-particle collisions at around 200 miles up. The beauty of experiencing an aurora is it changes shape by the minute and you never know what might appear next. When this angry face looming over a farmhouse appeared on my display I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As I exposed the next frame, it had morphed into a completely different shape. This image has been used by publications around the world. Lonely Planet magazine ran a feature of my work on Iceland and tweeted the Angry Aurora image with mixed reactions. There were comments saying it was ‘Photo shopped’ or faked. I think when people see something that looks unbelievable, it’s easier to dismiss it as being manipulated especially in this age of digital photography where so many images are constructed in the computer. Nature is pretty amazing though and I feel so fortunate to experience moments like this.

People always think the winter time temperatures in Iceland are like the extreme sub zero conditions in places such as the Canadian Rockies or Finland where a common temperatures get down to -35 C or lower. Whilst I’ve experienced cold temperatures in Iceland, it seldom gets that cold. Average wintertime temperatures hover around zero. During this same workshop in 2014 we had cold enough conditions to create some compelling ice formations around the waterfalls. Ice grippers or crampons were necessary to reach the upper part of Gullfoss, but the formations there were well worth the effort. I zoomed into make a feature of the crystal-like formations while using the Lee Big Stopper (10 stop neutral density filter) to make a long exposure creating silky water as a contrast to the unusual ice shapes.

Gullfoss Waterfall in Winter, Iceland

Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation

On my last trip to Iceland in 2015, we experienced such a mixture of incredible conditions that I felt it was a fitting way to bring my journey of this unique island to an end, for now.  We did have our share of horrendous weather conditions though; I would go as far to say that I haven’t experienced anything like it in the past five years I had been going there. Icelanders are strong and resilient people being descendants of Vikings and even they said it was a tough winter for them. We had 80 mph winds with gusts over 100mph along with snow blizzards that would make a polar bear run for shelter. I know Iceland in the winter can be a challenge and this to some extent, is what makes us better photographers. Perfect weather conditions don’t always help to create dramatic images. Working in difficult conditions makes you more aware of the capabilities of your equipment and how to get the most from it to ensure the sharpest, correctly exposed images. Understanding the changing weather conditions can put you in the right place to capture spectacular images that may only last moments. 

Sea Stacks at Sunset, Reykjanes, Iceland

We were heading down to a remote set of sea stacks for sunset, but the sky didn’t look very hopeful except for a very small break in the clouds at the horizon. I have photographed the stacks many times from the other side, but at this time of year, in order to get the sun in the frame at sunset I had to find a different angle. I liked the way the stacks descended in size from the edge of the frame, but would the sun complete the image by setting in the left third of the frame? We still had 20 minutes before sunset and there was no sign of where the sun might emerge. This is where my trusty Flight Logistics sunrise/sunset calculator comes into play. It doesn’t need batteries to function or phone reception as it works from a simple compass, but is very accurate. I positioned myself so the sun would appear in just the right spot in the frame, made a few test exposures, then waited. I lowered the ISO to 40 and chose an aperture of f/22 to give a long exposure of 8 seconds and a slight burst effect to the sun. The sun only appeared for 10 minutes, but as the saying goes, “success occurs when opportunity meets preparation”. 

Oxarfoss in Winter, Iceland

The sub-zero temperatures created beautiful ice formations around Oxarfoss, it was like a fairy-tale, and at any moment the Ice Queen would appear. Looking at this scene, I could see so many different compositions. I started with a wide-angle lens to take in the sweeping, blue water across the frame. Then changing to the Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 lens, I concentrated on the frozen details. When I work a scene like this, it a natural progression to start wide then zoom in on close details creating both horizontal and vertical compositions. In doing so, it expands the way we create compositions and broadens the photographic possibilities.

We experienced two amazing aurora displays. One evening we were at the famous waterfalls with Kirkjufell in the background. Unfortunately, so were many other photographers so we went to the other side of mountain where something happened that I have never experienced before. The moonlight was illuminating the mountain and the aurora looked as though it was erupting from a volcano. This was pretty special, but suddenly we could hear crackling in the air. The popping and crackling sounds associated with Aurora borealis (or the Northern Lights) are born when the related geomagnetic storm activates the charges that have accumulated in the atmosphere’s inversion layer causing them to discharge, according to researchers at Aalto University, Finland. We were fortunate to experience this strange phenomenon.

Aurora over Kirkjufell, Iceland

Every year when I returned to Iceland, I was curious to see how it had changed. Glaciers retreat and advance, ice caves collapse and reform, coastlines erode and transform. This is brilliant from a photographic point of view as there is always a wealth of fresh material. But unfortunately, it is to a certain extent photography’s fault that another change is beginning to have an affect on Iceland. Over the five years that I visited, the number of international tourists had increased to over 30%. The entire population of Iceland more than doubles every year with the influx of tourism. No doubt there has been substantial marketing campaigns that have helped with the increase of tourism, but I’m sure that photos that have been published in magazines, calendars, social media, etc. have also had a major impact on numbers. I am just as much at fault in the overall equation. To put it in more practical photographic perspective, when I took my first workshop to Jokulsarlon Beach in 2011 to photograph the icebergs, there may have been six other people there at sunrise. In 2015, there was upwards to two hundred people there on that same beach.

If you have been following me through my newsletters, you will know that I have always said that for me, one of the main aspects in photography is the experience and enjoyment of a location. So I have decided to stop doing workshops in Iceland for the time being. Perhaps in a few years, the surge of tourism will run it’s course and Iceland will return back to a reasonable degree of normality.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall at Sunset, Iceland

Finally, I’ll leave you with one of my first images from a trip to Iceland in the summer of 2010. I wanted to photograph the midnight sun and Seljalandsfoss is positioned perfectly to capture the sunlight coming through the waterfall. I remember being the only person there, after all it had just gone 11pm when I made this image. I wonder if it’s still as quiet and peaceful, somehow I doubt it. If you would like to see a small portfolio of Iceland images, please click here.

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