Nature’s Art on Display in Iceland: A Photographic Journey of Iceland
Tour guide Skarpi Thrainsson hikes up Svínafellsjökull glacier, which serves as “north of the wall” in the TV series Game of Thrones.
When it comes to creating breathtaking works of art, it is hard to beat Mother Nature. And few places are more proof of that than the tiny island country of Iceland.
When my partner, Pam, and I told our friends that we were off to photograph on an island, we could see the envy in their eyes as they envisioned us escaping the cold winds of February, to a place with sun, sand and drinks with tiny umbrellas. But when we said the island was Iceland and temperatures would hover well below freezing most days, we could see them mentally revising their opinion of our decision.
As photographers, our preference has always been for subjects that are underwater or in the wild. We had never given much thought to photographing landscapes in Iceland, and certainly not in winter. But as we had a trip to Scandinavia planned, we thought a halfway stop would make sense, so we signed on for a 10-day photo workshop to visit some of Iceland’s most spectacular natural wonders.
Situated in the middle of the Atlantic just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland straddles a major seam between the European and North American tectonic plates. The size of Ohio, it is the second-largest island in Europe after Britain, yet has only about 345,000 people, many of whom are descendants of Norsemen and Vikings who came to the island beginning around A.D. 800.
After a quick five-hour flight on Icelandair from Washington Dulles, we landed in the capital of Reykjavík, a sophisticated city founded in A.D. 874 and home to about two-thirds of the entire country’s population. It has an active nightlife, and displays a wealth of literature, music and art based heavily on the country’s Nordic roots, replete with myths of elves, ghosts and trolls.
Reykjavík is also conveniently situated on the southwestern coast, within close reach of some of Iceland’s most spectacular natural sights. One of the most popular is the 186-mile Golden Circle drive that features the impressive Gullfoss waterfall.
During dinner our first night, we met our fellow photographers—an international bunch hailing from places including Singapore, Taiwan, France and Israel as well as the U.S.—and met our tour guide, Skarpi Thrainsson. He owns Arctic Exposures, which specializes in photographic tours.
Skarpi, an exceptional photographer in his own right, provided an overview of the trip. It would begin with us leaving early the following morning and traveling east along the coastline Ring Road, eventually circling the island in a counterclockwise fashion. He said we had come to Iceland at an excellent time because winter was one of the best times to photograph—as long as we were up to the challenges.
Although Iceland’s summer attractions are many, from glorious waterfalls to cute-as-a-button puffins nesting and feeding along high cliffs, the addition of snow brings a new dimension to the land. Vistas that can appear muted during summer, in winter are trimmed in white—as if by an artist’s brush—as snow settles in nooks and crannies of the soaring mountains and covers homes with a thick blanket.
One distinct challenge to photographing in winter is the cold. It means heavy, waterproof clothing, spiked crampons for walking on slick ice, and gloves that must keep hands from freezing while being flexible enough to work camera controls.
To deal with icy conditions, we would travel aboard a specially designed off-road vehicle. Upon seeing it the first time, with its 46-inch studded tires and beefy, jacked-up carriage capable of carrying 17 photographers and their gear, the group quickly dubbed it the “Vikingmobile.”
We quickly discovered how unpredictable Iceland’s winter can be. Some roads were unexpectedly closed, and high winds and icy conditions occasionally prevented us from getting to some sites. But we persevered and, as Skarpi promised, the rewards were worth it: Every bend in the road seemed to reveal another breathtaking landscape crying out to be photographed.
Snow-capped mountains seemed to surround the entire country, framing a palette of stunning waterfalls, vast glaciers, ice caverns, and high fiords where cliffs tower over the Norwegian Sea. In contrast, other parts of Iceland bubble with geothermal activity, complete with volcanoes, geysers, steaming hot springs, lava fields, and rock vents that spew superheated steam. It is easy to understand why Iceland is often described as a country of fire and ice.
A Rough Start
Our first stop turned out to be inauspicious and gave us a taste of the type of weather we could expect. As we carried our gear down to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach to photograph basalt columns that rise from the ocean like sentries just offshore, the weather turned ugly. In the face of quickly worsening conditions, our group decided to call it a day and returned to the vehicle in a somewhat subdued mood. Fortunately, after that things picked up.
After a walk on Svinafellsjökull glacier, the largest in Europe and a tongue of the massive Vatnajökull ice cap, we visited an ice cave, a tunnel lined with sculpted ice formed during winter by water running through or under the glacier. Svinafellsjökull glacier also gained fame after it was selected as a location to represent "north of the wall” for the TV series Game of Thrones.
Early one morning we visited Glacier Lagoon at Jökulsárlón, and a beach unlike any we had ever seen before. Black volcanic sand was covered with large chunks of icebergs that had broken off and washed ashore. It was as if huge jewels had been strewn across black velvet in a giant’s jewelry shop. Many of the icy treasures had brilliant blue centers, the result of being formed under tremendous pressure.
In the northeast part of the country, we spent time in the Mývatn area where we visited dark lava fields as well as the thundering 100-foot-wide Goðafoss waterfall (“waterfall of the gods”), which cascades four stories. Again, photographing falling water in freezing conditions proved to be a challenge because spray from the falls would freeze upon contact with camera lenses.
Chasing the Dancing Lights
One of Iceland’s most popular winter attractions is the northern lights, which are best viewed from October through March. They are a major reason why travel to Iceland is on the rise.
Scientists explain that the phenomenon is caused by solar winds that push electronic particles to collide with molecules of atmospheric gases, creating emissions of bright light. But to the average viewer it is simply a magical experience. Green and white lights sway in slow motion across the night sky, growing brighter and often morphing to red and blue. Eventually, the lights seem to tire of the dance and grow weaker and start to disappear, only to pop up brightly in another place.
One of our favorite photo subjects in Iceland turned out to be one of the last we would have expected: Driving through the snow-covered country, we would see horses huddled in groups. When we stopped, we found that these weren’t just any horses.
Brought to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Icelandic horse is one of the purest breeds in the world and is mentioned in literature and historical records throughout Icelandic history. They are so protected that Icelandic law prevents any horses being imported into the country, and exported animals are never allowed to return.
But it is their appearance that makes them such great photo subjects. Small in stature—although calling them “ponies” elicits angry stares from Icelanders—they make up for it with large personalities. Icelandic horses spend all year outside and have adapted to their environment with a double coat that provides extra insulation against the cold. They come in many different coat colors and have full, rich manes and tails of silky hair.
Each time we stopped to examine them, the herd would typically trot over for a close encounter. Early one morning we came across a white pair frolicking in a snowstorm, which was magical and akin to watching two legendary unicorns at play. Considering the many photos taken at each herd stop, it could be said that we went to Iceland for the landscapes but had our hearts captured by the horses.
An End Too Soon
As we approached the outskirts of Reykjavík, as a group we were disappointed that the trip was ending. We had seen some exceptional places but universally felt that we had only scratched the surface.
Traveling in Iceland was like visiting a huge art gallery, this one spread over an entire country. As in any gallery, the lighting was exceptional. Skies were often a brilliant blue. On overcast days, sunlight filtered through clouds producing a warm glow. The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular, as were the nights full of dancing northern lights.
Our trip was at an end, but it had created in all of us a desire to return to photograph what we had missed, in a country that is truly a canvas for nature’s masterful art.
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Glenn Ostle and his partner, Pam Hadfield, live in Charlotte, North Carolina. They are longtime contributors to TOTI publications. More of their photography can be viewed at: featherandfins.smugmug.com.