08 Jan 2015

Iceland in Winter

The day after Boxing Day Cat and I packed our bags literally to bursting point with insulated boots, coats and gloves and headed off to Iceland. This was to be a repeat of our trip there the previous winter, in search of the Northern Lights. Last year we found some good locations from which to shoot the aurora, but it never occurred in the right place for us to be able to shoot really good images. The biggest difference this time was that it would be full moon during out visit. Last year we purposefully timed it for when the moon would be hidden, which we felt was a mistake. When we arrived the temperatures were higher than back in the UK! This caused a problem, as the snow was melting and becoming patchy - one of my pet hates when it comes to landscape photography is patchy snow!

Kirkjufell with a reasonable display of the Northern Lights

On our first night we had a really good display, even though it was only forecast to be a level three (out of 9). We headed to our chosen viewpoint only to find that most of the snow had melted, leaving an ugly and eye-catching patch right next to the waterfall (which also had far too much water in it). We headed down to the frozen (but rapidly melting) lake to try to at least make something out of the colours above our heads.

The wooden church at Budir reflected in an ice rink that was once a car park!

Once it began to snow again we headed back over the mountains to the small wooden church at Budir. We were grateful that our Landcruiser had studded tyres as the approach road and car park was covered in wet sheet ice. A note to anyone thinking of visiting Iceland in the winter months - make sure you take shoe chains! We couldn't believe how many tourists were sliding around (often close to precipitous drops) without them! The displays of Northern Lights at Budir were good and I used a fisheye lens to capture as much of the display as possible. Unfortunately this was about as good as the aurora got for us this time. A level five display was forecast one night and as the skies were clear we stayed out all night - we saw nothing but a faint smudge of green on the horizon! We did see good displays at other times, but never in the right place to be able to include an interesting foreground. Oh well, there's always next year!

A six-frame panorama taken on Snaefellsnes

Once again we saw in the New Year standing beside a frozen lake in the centre of Reykjavik. The firework displays were quite amazing once again, with no regard for health and safety!

Midnight in Reykjavik on New Year's Eve

A crashed DC-3 plane on the remote sand flats of southern Iceland

Our landcruiser managed to get us out across very slippery slushy snow to the site of the crashed DC-3 on the black sand beach. Luckily the clouds were moving quickly, so I was able to use a 10-stop filter to record their movement during a two-minute exposure.

The Reynisdrangar sea stacks

It was never really windy during this trip, but the waves were still too large for me to safely reach the best viewpoint for the spectacular Reynisdrangar stacks. This shot was taken from a distance using a 300mm lens.

Hikers on the edge of the Jokulsarlon Lagoon just after sunrise at 11.30am!

Even though there is only about four hours of actual sunlight (if you're lucky) in Iceland at this time of the year, there is in fact around eight hours of useable light for photography. This is because the sun follows such a shallow arc across the horizon. We were able to work from about 9am until 5pm most days.

The icebergs on the beach were not great this time, so we took a few shots of the lagoon itself and then moved on.

The furthest point of our trip this time was Hofn in south east Iceland

The patterns created by the wind blowing through the sand dunes looked like rivers of frost and snow.

For this trip I hired a Zeiss 15mm f2.8 ZE. The main reason for this decision was to use it to shoot the Northern Lights, as I had recently changed my EF16-35mm f2.8L II for the new EF16.35mm f4L IS. I thought I would miss the wider aperture. I had tried the EF14mm f2.8L II last year and was not impressed with its performance wide open due to the lens exhibiting field curvature. The Zeiss performed well for the Northern Lights, but it is not a lens I would wish to invest in. I found the starbursts it created when shooting point sources of light to be very messy and it also exhibited a strange type of distortion in the corners of the frame which made composing certain scenes quite difficult at times. The EF16-35mm f4L IS on the other hand performed flawlessly once again. Shooting wide open at f4 was no problem, with the image remaining sharp across the frame. The EF24-70 f2.8L II also performed very well and certainly produces the sharpest cleanest starburst of the three lenses.

Skogafoss taken from in the river (wearing Neos overboots)

The full moon rising over Vik church

A nine frame panorama inside an ice cave under the Vatnajokull Glacier

On our final day we hired a guide to take us up onto the Vatanajokull Glacier. Access to the cave wasn't easy due to the conditions and we had to wear full winter climbing gear including helmet, crampons, harness and ice axe. We had to use a rope to descend into the cave entrance, but once inside the view was spectacular!

Our guide Einar underneath the Vatnajokull Glacier

Even though we were still unable to capture any fantastic shots of the Northern Lights this was still a very enjoyable trip and we are already planning to return next winter to do a full circuit of the island.

I am now about to head off to The Isle of Skye to run my Scottish Highlands in Winter workshop. It looks like a little snow may be on the cards....along with some ferocious looking gales!

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