Workshops: Iceland Tour Blog By Brittany Kunkel



Being a photographer in Iceland, you can't help but subject yourself to an exhilarating and exhausting whirlwind of events. As you drive through the vast, otherworldly landscape, the sights become an endless, irresistible blur of inspiration. Welcome to a photographer's paradise: the land of fire and ice. Read on for an inside look at my 12-day photo expedition across Iceland with Johnathan Esper and Wildernesscapes Photography.  

Written by & all photography by Brittany Eliza Kunkel (www.brittanyeliza.com)

 

Day 1

February 5, 2016


The first morning in Iceland always feels a little eerie after stepping off the plane around 7 am, and existing in complete darkness for several more hours. I spent the day in Reykjavík recharging for the long journey ahead. In the afternoon, our group met for the first time in our guesthouse café, where Johnathan made introductions. There were eight of us on this first leg of the trip: two Americans (including me), three Australians, one German, one Finn, and one Thai. Each of the members of the group were traveling solo, with the exception of a couple from Australia. Everyone had varying levels of skill and interest in photography, but we were all thrilled to begin this adventure together. Johnathan, from the Adirondacks, was kicking off his ~40th photography tour in Iceland. He breezed through the trip itinerary, before we hurried off to Reykjanes Peninsula to chase the remaining light before sunset.

 
 

By the time we reached Gunnuhver Geothermal Area, a deep, stormy blue had taken over the sky, with just a sliver of creamsicle-colored light shining through along the horizon line. Despite the less-than-ideal light, we were in awe of our surroundings. We watched and listened to steam soaring up, up, and away, as snowflakes fell and were quickly swallowed up by the warm ground. We floated across lava formations blanketed by rich green, pillowy moss. We sank into rusty red clay on the edges of bubbling mud pools. In a country enveloped by shades of white and blue for much of the year, it was incredible to experience and photograph a brand new color palette.

As the weather went south, our extremities went numb, so we set off for our first dinner at a cozy restaurant called Kaffi Duus, overlooking the small harbor in Keflavík. By the time we arrived back in Reykjavík, we were all ready to get some sleep before embarking on our trip the next morning.


Day 2

February 6, 2016


After breakfast at our guesthouse, we said goodbye to Reykjavík and drove off into a grey morning, along the south coast. Within a couple hours, we arrived at Seljalandsfoss waterfall and armed ourselves with microspikes on our boots before piling out of the van. We snapped some photos from various angles with many other tourists, but then a couple of us decided to go for what I believe is the most interesting shot: behind the waterfall.

We precariously climbed stairs hidden under 5 inches of solid ice, battling wind and icy mist. Eventually, we found ourselves alone and sheltered in an alcove behind the waterfall, surrounded by shattered fallen ice. After taking our photos and drenching ourselves (and our lenses), it was on to the next photo stop.

 

The weather in Vík applied an almost-black-and-white filter to my photographs, whether I liked it or not. It has a sort of ghostly beauty -- the contrast of foamy white waves crashing down on the black sand beach, set against a backdrop of snow-covered cliffs. We spent some time photographing the surf as it flooded under the legs of our tripods, and then drained back into the ocean again. It's a lot of trial and error to get the shot you're looking for, which, in turn, means a lot of running back and forth, and narrowly escaping having saltwater-filled rainboots.

As we continued on our way, we drove through miles of rugged lava fields, coated in fresh snow. The sun finally peaked through and cast beautiful light on the scene, so we pulled over to take some photos. What started as a bleak, colorless day, filled with technical challenges, unfolded into a colorful expression of all that is great about Iceland. We photographed sunset along a rushing stream, which allowed us to capture the reflection of the many colors painted across the sky.

 
 

We continued driving along until we reached our hotel for the evening, where we ate dinner and then went to bed, since it was unfortunately too cloudy for a night shoot. It was a little disheartening to have two nights of bad weather in a row, so everyone was feeling anxious about the possibility of not seeing any auroras during our trip. Johnathan told us that he had never had a trip that didn't see the northern lights at all, knock on wood. But, of course, there's a first time for everything, so we kept our fingers crossed.

 

Day 3

February 7, 2016


An unexpected sunrise greeted us as we reached our first photo stop of the day, so we shot a set of hot pink glowing clouds before taking off on our hike to a waterfall. We trekked up and down and over small bridges until we reached a cathedral of basalt columns shrouded in towering icicles -- with a waterfall pouring through the center. The stream at the bottom was completely frozen and covered in thick snow, so we explored right up to the base of the waterfall, as well as other vantage points around the waterfall. Before we left, rays of sunlight began hitting the 20 foot icicles surrounding us, which made for a sparkling scene.

 
 

On our way out, Johnathan surprised us with a short walk up the hillside to a row of quaint little turf-covered houses and sheds. We photographed some wide angle shots, as well as detail shots of the old, weathered surfaces, and then even threw in an impromptu portrait shoot.

Our next stop was Hofskirkja, a picturesque, turf-covered church surrounded by turf-covered tombs, which were barely even detectable because of the feet and feet of snow on the ground. After capturing the church from all angles, we were on the road again for a longer drive to our guesthouse, sprinkling in a few short stops along the way.

 

After dropping our luggage at our guesthouse, we headed up to the fishing village of Höfn -- our easternmost point during our trip -- for a delicious dinner. Just a couple hours later, after bundling up with multiple base layers, a sweater, a fleece, two jackets, toe warmers, two pairs of socks, handwarmers, two pairs of gloves, a hat, a hood, and a headlamp, I was standing under the lights, watching our first aurora borealis of the tour. Johnathan walked us through best practices for northern lights photography, including typical camera settings and how to adjust depending on the strength of the aurora.

 

Day 4

February 8, 2016


After devouring far too many homemade pancakes at our guesthouse (Johnathan went back for at least 6 helpings), we began the day in the same spot we shot the northern lights the previous night. Now, as the sun rose and cast a warm, golden light on the peaks of Vestrahorn, the wind grew fiercer. Vestrahorn at sunrise is a majestic sight -- and now even more dramatic, paired with fast-moving clouds of black sand.

We wandered around the dunes, searching for the perfect set of leading lines to complete our compositions, all while freezing, getting sandblasted, and having trouble standing in place. Just when we got comfortable and unshielded our lenses from blowing sand, another massive gust would come along and force us to cover up again.

We wandered around the dunes, searching for the perfect set of leading lines to complete our compositions, all while freezing, getting sandblasted, and having trouble standing in place. Just when we got comfortable and unshielded our lenses from blowing sand, another massive gust would come along and force us to cover up again.

 

When my eyes, mouth, and camera were adequately filled with this fine, black sand, I decided it was time to head back to the van before any more damage could be done. Another client, Beth, was making her way to the van alongside me when the wind literally lifted us off our feet and carried us up and over the road. For the first time in my life, I was truly afraid that I would get blown away. After being thrown down, I huddled close to the ground, hugging my camera to protect it from any more sand, waiting for a calm to make a run for it back to the van. By the time Beth and I reached the van, we were shaken, the van was rocking back and forth, and we had now turned our attention to a tourist completely determined, yet hopelessly chasing his jacket that was blowing across dunes at 75 mph. By the time we left, the man and his jacket were both specks on the horizon.

I spent the next few car rides painstakingly picking sand out of every crevice in my camera and spinning my focus and zoom rings back and forth -- until the nails-on-a-blackboard crunch of sand was ground into a usable, yet still less-than-optimal state.

 
 

As we continued on our way, we were surprised by such great light that we made several impromptu stops: mountain views, streams winding through the white landscape, and a pack of Icelandic horses near the side of the road. We eagerly climbed over the fence to play with and photograph a group of 20+ friendly horses, perfectly placed with a stunning mountain backdrop. Next, we went to the harbor of Höfn, where we ate a quick gas station lunch (standard when on the go) and took some photos of old boats. Making our way back west again, we stopped a few more times for reindeer, an abandoned farm, and other scenic landscapes.

At one point, we stopped to take videos of snow blowing wildly across the road. I carefully got out of the van, but made sure to stay sheltered behind it. It was just not my day, though, because I was whipped around the front of the van, unable to even hold in place while gripping with all my strength to the side mirror. My camera slammed onto the hood of the car, breaking part of my lens, and I was thrown to the ground...again. I was shell-shocked for the rest of the day, and had bruises on my legs for the rest of the trip. I'm always willing to give it my all to capture a great photo, even if it means stepping out into unwelcoming weather. But, I did learn a lesson about the power and unpredictability of Iceland's wind, and made sure to be a little more careful from then on.

 

We arrived at Jökulsárlón and the iceberg beach for an awe-inspiring sunset. We pulled on our rainboots and waded in the surf to capture glowing icebergs tumbling around on the black sand -- their color shifting from gold to red to aquamarine with the falling sun. Hundreds of chunks of ice littered the beach, some towering over me. Of everywhere I've been in Iceland, this place feels the most transcendent, otherworldly.

 

After dinner at our guesthouse, we geared up for the night and ventured back over to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon for some aurora hunting. A faint green band stretched across the sky, reflecting off the surface of the lagoon between floating sheets of ice. The aurora was pretty weak, so we didn't have a late night.

 

Day 5

February 9, 2016


"Don't share these GPS coordinates with anyone," Johnathan warned us before meeting up with an Icelandic guide who would be taking us to a secret ice cave. We boarded the guide's super Jeep, drove a few miles down the road, and then made a sharp turn onto a set of light tracks winding through fresh snow towards Vatnajökull Glacier. We barreled across the snow, up small hills and around boulders for about 15 minutes, and then stopped to hike the final 15-20 minutes to our destination. Along the way, we were presented with rules and safety guidelines, and our guide gave us lots of background on the formation of ice caves, how they change each year as the glacier recedes, how he scouts for new caves at the beginning of each winter season, and how the guides make sure the caves are safe for visitors.

 
 

Experiencing the ice cave was nothing short of magical. Rippling rainbows of luminous blue. Layers of history streaked with black volcanic ash. Scalloped edges of ice ablaze with golden sunlight. We took panoramas, detail shots, portraits, and a group shot, of course.

 

After eating a quick lunch at the Jökulsárlón café and watching seals play amongst soaring icebergs, we made our way to Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon. We trekked up a hill through a few feet of snow, and as we reached the crest, a boundless expanse of snow drifts and icebergs revealed itself in the valley below. Patches of florescent blue ice peaked through the smooth curves of wind-blown snow. The lagoon was frozen solid, so it was ours to explore. We meandered through, climbed, and even sat inside of colossal icebergs. It was quiet and calm and peaceful.

We returned to Iceberg Beach for sunset, where we focused on taking long exposures (with neutral density filters) of the ocean draining away from icebergs. Repeatedly running for the best shot, trying to get your tripod set up in time, getting nearly taken out by waves, and getting your boots full of freezing water is incredibly exhausting.

 
 

We were wiped out, so when we checked the weather over dinner, we were given a little bit of relief. The low aurora forecast paired with the heavy cloud cover forecast meant aurora hunting was looking doubtful. We took hot showers and I spent a while rinsing black sand off my tripod legs and out of my snow pants. After hanging them to dry, I crawled into bed, thankful for an early, relaxing night. And then there was a knock at my door.

10 minutes later I was out the door again, bundled up, but with wet hair and wet pants -- turns out blow dryers in Iceland can't accomplish a lot in 5 minutes. About half of the group decided to go out for the weak (and cloudy) display of northern lights. No matter how tired I am, I can't ever find a way to turn down the opportunity to see the lights. You never know when a weak aurora will turn into an epic one. Since the sky, itself, wasn't incredibly interesting, we used flashlights and passing headlights to spice up our photos.

 
 

Day 6

February 10, 2016


Several hours of sleep and then we were wandering across Iceberg Beach again for our final shoot before traveling on to our next destination. I wanted to mix it up -- and stay dry -- this time, so I concentrated on photographing icebergs that were slowly and gracefully sailing out of the lagoon and into the ocean, also taking time to enjoy the seals playfully surfing against the current of the lagoon's outlet. At times, the seals would take a break from the action to watch us intently, almost forming a connection with us.

Our next stop was Núpsstaður, the smallest turf church in Iceland, surrounded by a miniature turf-covered village, all straight out of a fairytale. Even in the colorless dead Icelandic winter, this setting was enchanting. We even got a chance to go into the church, where only a couple of us could fit at a time.

 
 

We couldn't resist stopping to see some more horses along our drive to Dyrhólaey, which was our sunset destination. When we arrived at Dyrhólaey, the group convinced Johnathan that the van could make it up the steep, icy mountain road to the top of the headland, mostly just to avoid a treacherous hike. We did make it, but others weren't as lucky when it came time to go back down. We spent a couple hours photographing our surroundings. Cliffs, seastacks, rock arches, black sand beaches, and mountains, all orbited around the Dyrhólaey lighthouse. Wispy clouds drifted in right as the sun was setting. The sky then shifted from one pastel to the next, as we continue to snap away.

When we were ready to go, a couple of tourists with a rental car had gotten stuck in deep snow, with their car lifted off of its wheels. It was beyond any help we could give with our shovel or a team of people pushing, so we drove the couple to a mechanic in Vík. This detour landed us in a perfect photo opportunity, as an incredible moon rose from the horizon up above the seastacks.

 
 

On the other side of town, a whole couple blocks away, was where we had reservations for dinner at a warm café. When we left to head to our guesthouse, we watched out the van windows as an aurora stretched across the sky. Johnathan decided to take advantage of this now, instead of stopping at the guesthouse first, so we turned off the road and drove off-road through the snow for a few miles, heading for the DC-3 plane crash site. In the pitch black night, the only directions Johnathan had available to him were the tire tracks of other vehicles, which unfortunately were inconsistent and branched off in different directions at times. Eventually we arrived at the plane, where other photographers were already set up and pretty annoyed that our approaching headlights put a hold on their shots. Once we were settled in, we spent a while taking photos from various angles, lighting up the plane from both the outside and the inside.

 
 

Our guesthouse, Lambafell Lodge, was a beautiful rustic log cabin at the base of a mountain. By the time we arrived, it was almost midnight, so after downloading and backing up the day's photos, we went straight to bed.

 

Day 7

February 11, 2016


The seventh day of our tour was a hectic day, as we were saying goodbye to one group member, and hello to two new ones. As we made our way back to Reykjavik to make the swap, we stopped at Skógafoss Waterfall. Here, we stepped cautiously onto a thin sheet of ice, with the river rushing along next to us, and underneath our feet. Our tripods were precariously set up on the edge in order to compose the perfect shot with the waterfall reflected in the ice.

 
 

In Reykjavik, we stopped at two different bus terminals, got lunch, and then, with our new group members in tow, headed north for the second leg of the trip. By the time we got to Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it was already sunset. We stopped to take photos of a group of horses who were on cloud nine to see us. As we continued on our drive, a charming little church sat illuminated against the darkening blue sky and mountain backdrop. A couple hours later, we ate a late dinner: Johnathan consumed a stromboli the size of a large pizza, and a few people in the group tried horse for the first time. When the food came out, there was no shortage of horse jokes and guilt-tripping by passing around our horse photos.

It was after 10 pm by the time we got to the majestic Kirkjufell for a night shoot. It was fairly clear, and the aurora was already strong, so there were people swarming around the mountain and waterfalls. That created a little bit of a challenge, as tiny blue trails of headlamp light scribbled across our photos, accompanied by the ghosts of photographers.

 

The northern lights were well worth the trouble. It was as if someone was zealously doodling above us in neon lights -- and we eagerly watched and snapped away for almost four hours. Johnathan encouraged us to explore different areas, but my fingers had gone numb long ago and could no longer work the buttons on my camera, so I laid down in the snow and just enjoyed the rest of the show.

We finally reached our guesthouse in Grundarfjörður around 2 am, and had a long, glorious night sleep, as we finally got the chance to sleep in for the first time on the trip.

 

Day 8

February 12, 2016


We started the day at Kirkjufell again, and then made our way up through a winding mountain pass to a rustic a-frame shack alone in the barren white wilderness -- used as a respite by hikers and travelers in need.

 
 

Our next stop was Arnarstapi, where we took a hike along the rocky coastline, photographing the waves crashing against cliffs and sea arches. At this point in the trip, everyone seemed to have more confidence and independence, so the group split up, and everyone moved at their own pace. The path ended at a small harbor, where a couple of colorful fishing boats were on their way out to sea.

The Búðir black church set the scene for sunset that evening. A warm veil covered the black and white landscape, bringing it -- and the twinkling, adorned crosses scattered throughout the cemetery -- to life. Our group spread out, photographing the church, the cemetery, and the snowy beach, until the sun sank into the ocean.

 

We returned to Grundarfjörður for a delicious dinner at a cozy, charming old house that had been converted into a restaurant and transported from another part of Iceland to the town in which it now resides. After dinner, we got ready for our sixth consecutive night of auroras. It was record-breaking for Johnathan (and all of us), so there was no way I was going to pass that up. A large, diluted rainbow of northern lights washed across the sky, but it didn't turn into anything more, so we didn't stay out too late.

 

Day 9

February 13, 2016


Snæfellsnes treated us to a mystical sunrise for our last day on the peninsula. The lone peak of Kirkjufell in the midst of a cotton candy sky made for a perfect reflection in an icy lagoon. This was our last stop before dropping off three of our group members at a bus station, and then continuing on the last leg of our trip.

 

We now had a longer drive to the north, traversing farmland and mountain ranges for several hours. It was actually nice to have a break and relax in the van for a while. We made several stops to take photos of winding roads through frozen wilderness, snow-covered lava fields, and a round sheep-sorting pen used during the traditional fall sheep roundup, called Réttir.

On our route to Akureyri, we took a short detour to visit Víðimýrarkirkja, a small, fantastical medieval-style church from the 12th century that's incredibly still in use today. Turf-covered, painted black, rusty red, and sage green, and enclosed by a green picket fence, this church sits in great contrast to its surroundings.

 
 

As the sun began setting, we came upon a sun-drenched scene of horses grazing along the side of the road. We hopped the fence into the field and were instantly encompassed by dozens of horses. Playing with Icelandic horses never gets old, probably because they're like puppies -- adorable, excited, ultra friendly, following you around tirelessly. A short while later, we sat on ice along the edge of a fast flowing river to photograph the sunset.

 
 

We continued on our drive for a couple more hours until we reached Akureyri, and ate dinner at a hopping restaurant in the center of town. Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland, but a distant second, with a population of only 18,000 residents (versus ~200,000 in Reykjavik). Iceland's second largest city is smaller than my small suburban hometown in the US, which is strange to think about. A wall of clouds moved in during dinner, so the possibility of a night shoot was out. It was our first night in a long time without auroras, but that was fine by us -- we welcomed a quiet, early night.

 

Day 10

February 14, 2016


We awoke to a cloud-filled sky, but made our way to Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods. Intense winds blasted mist relentlessly at our lenses, caking them in ice within seconds. It was nearly impossible to keep them clean long enough to take a single photograph. We took shots of the teal horseshoe-shaped falls from various vantage points, and then piled back into the van for our drive to the Mývatn region.

 
 

We stopped along the way to hike around the Skútustaðagígar pseudocraters, and a while later at a mesmerizing setting we were drawn to on the side of the road. A solitary tree was perched atop of a snowy mound in the center of a lake, with its intricate branches and a golden sky reflected on the glassy surface. It felt almost supernatural.

Our final destination of the day was the Hofði birch forest, where we went on a serene walk through snow-covered birch trees. As we ventured deeper into the forest, the peeling birch bark revealed rainbows of oranges and pinks beneath, now glistening in the sunlight. Shielded by the trees in the quiet forest, the world felt still, and it was a much-needed break from our hectic itinerary. Everyone also loved being surrounded by trees for the first time during the entire trip. Eventually, we came to the edge of a lake, the snowy landscape lit up in the color of a tangerine, and we stayed until the sun had set.

 

That night, we checked into our guesthouse, Vogafjós, a series of log buildings set on a sheep and cattle farm. We dined along a glass wall, which separated us from our dinner: cows. A couple dozen cows lined up in an indoor pen, within reach of our table.

After a quick nap, we headed out for a night shoot at Dimmuborgir. By the time we arrived at the lava fields, an aurora was already hovering above us in the sky. We wandered through a city of colossal black lava towers, arches, and caves to find an interesting composition that complemented the northern lights. A narrow trail had been packed down in several feet of snow, and Johnathan warned us not to stray from the path, so as to not ruin future photographs of the fresh, smooth powder. As the lights began to die down, we took advantage of the break and decided to move on to a new location. Our walk turned into a frantic run when an incredibly strong, fast-moving aurora came out of nowhere. The immense lava formations were now working against us, blocking the swirling green light from view. We raced to gain enough elevation, and finally set up a less-than-optimal composition, just so we could capture the lights before they faded again. Three hours and two locations later, we were on our way home.

 

As we were driving home, we came upon another tour group that had gotten one of their vans stuck in the snow. We offered a shovel and a push, but there wasn't any other way we could help, so they were still struggling when we left. Luckily, they had two vehicles, so they weren't stranded.

 

Day 11

February 15, 2016


On our last full day on the tour, we were all completely drained of any energy, and my health was rapidly deteriorating from a cold I developed a few days earlier (I was later diagnosed with pneumonia). Luckily, the dangerous winds and cloudy skies presented us with a break in the afternoon. In the morning, we explored the geothermal area of Námafjall, which was like a lunar landscape, with eerie drifts of steam blowing through the air. The colorful boiling mud pools and active steam vents proved to be interesting subjects, even with a lack of good light. Johnathan warned us to be careful about where we stepped, as the ground is unpredictable and new pools are forming all the time.

 
 

Krafla geothermal power station was our next stop. We stepped out of the van into the Ice Age -- everything was encrusted in inches of jagged, windblown ice. Steam and loose snow whipped around us, as we struggled to keep our feet planted on the ground to take photos.

Soon, the frigid temperature and fierce winds forced us back into the van, and we were on our way to the last stop of the day: Mývatn Nature Baths (the Blue Lagoon of the North). Pools of iridescent aquamarine-colored water broke up the snowy landscape, and thick clouds of steam floated across the sky. It was a winter paradise.

 

We then picked up lunch at a gas station, and returned to the guesthouse for a relaxing afternoon of downtime and an indoor editing session. Johnathan walked us through the elements of a great photograph, and demonstrated how to edit various types of photos, including stitching together panoramas and blending multiple photos for an HDR image. We had our last group dinner alongside our cattle friends again, and then got to bed early since the weather was still too severe to go out for a night shoot. During the night, the power went out, and the wind whistled and blasted huge chunks of snow and ice off the roof, smashing down loudly, directly outside our windows.

 

Day 12

February 16, 2016


Dimmuborgir was our first stop of the day, where we watched the sun rise through arches of rock. We took one final group photo and were on our way back to Akureyri. Along the way, we stopped at Laufás, a small turf village and church that took us back a couple centuries in Icelandic history.

 

By the time we arrived back in Akureyri, it was lunchtime, and Johnathan took us to his favorite Icelandic bakery. After lunch, we headed to the airport, which ended up being about the size of my home grocery store. It took us a minute to read over the security instructions and prepare to go through the security line, and then a whole 5 seconds to walk down the 10 foot empty, security-less hallway until we were surprised by already being at our gate. From the lack of metal detectors and luggage scanners and any actual security guards, I guess they're pretty trusting in Iceland?

 
 

We boarded our propellor plane back to Reykjavik and watched as the edge of the arctic faded behind us. The rugged landscape of Iceland passed slowly below us, until the colorful buildings of Reykjavik appeared in the midst of mountains and curving black beaches. Thank you Johnathan, and goodbye to another wonderful Wildernesscapes tour!

 

For a deeper dive into my Iceland tour experience, watch the video below: