Iceland, The Land of Opposites

It’s just far enough away to be exotic. It’s just big enough to get lost. It’s just wild enough to be dangerous and it’s so beautiful, we can’t take our eyes off it. Iceland is rapidly becoming one of the most photographed places on earth. And with only three people per square kilometer vs the 35 in the US, there’s plenty of open space to create images!

The entire country is similar in size to the state of Kentucky, and yet more images have probably been created in the past 3 years in Iceland than in Kentucky since the civil war. There is good reason for this, and it has much to do with the landscapes created by a land that is still growing and very young, geologically. The place is chock-full of unusual landscapes, and I believe the reason for this is the lava.

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Iceland is one lava flow on top of another, and in many regions covered with a carpet of green moss. When the various types of lava cool, there are many different shapes created, such as the obsidian blocks in the lava flows in the highlands. Compare that to the basalt columns that show up around the coast and behind many of the waterfalls. In total contrast, there are the pumice fields and Rhyolite hills shaping many of the moonscapes in the highlands. The pumice fields from a distance also appear like black sand.

Speaking of black sand, there just happens to be one of the more unusual locations in all the world, a location that is so interesting that it captivates more photographers than any other beach I’ve visited in my home state of California, the Caribbean or even Hawaii. It’s a beach on the southern coast between the famous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and the ocean, where large chunks of ice get pulled out from the calm waters in the lagoon at low tide and flow down a short river into the ocean, where they are then slammed back up on the beach at high tide. I’ve seen some of the most violent surf ever at this beach, throwing 15' high walls of water across the iceberg-laden black sand. On most days, though, when the surf is relatively calm, there’s a plethora of compositions waiting each hour, as new bergs wash ashore, tides change and light varies in its uniquely Icelandic, dramatic way.

This beach is unique in that the crystal clear icebergs are a contrast against the black sand, and at the right tide, they are caressed by the oceans waves, making for dynamic slow shutter speed compositions.

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Then there are the waterfalls. There are way too many waterfalls to photograph, especially considering that many are in inaccessible locations way up on a steep volcanic cliff. However, there are plenty to keep the most adventurous photographer happy for years. Most of the waterfalls live between the highlands and the coast, as this is where all the glacier melt runs down though the layers of lava, eroding canyons and carving out troughs of beauty. This battle between the lava and water is what makes for such a troll-infested, exotic looking landscape. I recall the first time visiting Seljalandsfoss, and running around behind the water like a kid in a candy store. I remember running up the stairs on the side of Skógafoss the first time I laid eyes on the place, and each waterfall since, has been nothing shy of a visit to my childhood fantasies. One of my all time favorite images, I call “Trolls of Iceland” was created up on a steep slope adjacent to Skógafoss waterfall. I was working with a Olympus EM-1 camera that day, so I wanted to stitch many images together to create more resolution. In doing so, I was not as focused on all the details within the composition I was creating. I did manage to capture all the stills, knowing that from them, I could create the image I wanted. Rain set in quickly, forcing me to leave before spending more time enjoying the view and taking in all that was there. It wasn’t until I returned to the states, was sitting in my office and looking at the image that I had just stitched with Photoshop, that I realized what I had captured. Within the moss and lava surrounding the waterfall were the shapes of many troll faces, so many that with just a little imagination, I counted more than 20.

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Iceland is a land of opposites, in that the lava is covered by large icefields. It’s a contrast of big and small, black and colorful, hot and cold, dry and wet, and light and dark. I’m also intrigued by the open spaces. Having grown up in the west and spent much of my youth traveling the roads of Arizona, California, Colorado, and other places, I experienced much of the vastness that had a enduring effect on me and my images. I love composing within the great wide open spaces, where very little breaks up the viewshed.

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I believe Iceland has to come to terms with the fact that their viewshed is unique and needs to be protected, just as the tundra and open spaces of the highlands. After visiting the highlands this past month, I was encouraged to see that Iceland has begun posting signs and educating visitors about the sensitive mosses and plants that should not be driven over. There were many bumper stickers with comments regarding not driving off road and rangers are issuing stiff fines to violators. Like so many great places, when the world notices it, there must be a plan in place to protect and maintain the natural wonders, and I believe Iceland is just now realizing this. Not only does Iceland contain vast expanses of rural and wild country, but also, waterfalls, rugged coast, and magical northern lights.

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The “Breath of the Dragon” is what the Chinese call the Aurora and Iceland has been breathed on every winter, as far as the locals know. During the summer, it’s simply too light out to notice the lights or stars. In the last 3 years the winter months have been quite busy for Icelandic hotels, as the waves of intrigued photographers show up to capture the show of lights. Now, many of the farmers have converted barns into hotels and restaurants, and those that existed are expanding as fast as they can. It is an amazing sight to witness and Iceland offers one of the most dramatic landscapes to view it from. On a full moon near the Black Church of Búdir, we waited with our group as the lights were supposed to show up. The sky was crystal clear and the stars faint from the moon light, we waited and waited. There are many various apps to predict the location and timing of the Northern Lights, but many are simply faulty, as the lights are amazingly illusive. However, that night at around one in the morning a thin and very faint hazy band appeared in the sky above, creating what was to the eye just a jet trail. When this happens, it’s best to take an actual exposure with your camera, as the camera sensor will have the ability to reveal the colors if it’s truly the Aurora. Indeed that night it was, and moments later, shafts of green and red lights were shooting down at rapid speeds. Everyone in our group began running around like chickens with their heads cut off, happily screaming, Oh My God, Oh My God! We photographed until the lights faded, which was several hours.

Icelanders love to get out into nature and have no issues with hiking. There is a large group of trails that connect a network of small huts and hostels in and around the highlands. The hiking is amazing in this region and offers some of the most remarkable scenery around.

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Only miles from the ocean is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, Mt. Hekla. In fact the sign posted along the access roads warns of possible eruption, and that one should download the emergency app to be notified of imminent danger. “ Mt. Hekla erupts almost without warning producing both lava and ash. Seismic activity was detected 30-80 minutes prior to recent eruptions in 1970, 1980-81, 1991 and 2000. Scientists monitor geological unrest in Hekla and report increased activity to the Civil Protection so they can activate their emergency measures.”

My friend and I realized, once more than 30 minutes into our hike that we were embarking on what could be a fatal mission!

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Once you get past the sign, and your fears of the unthinkable, you begin hiking up the gradual slopes to the summit. There are several various types of lava flows to walk over, with one more recent and jagged section that takes some time to negotiate. It was in this section that I experienced something remarkable. It was such an alien looking surrounding that I felt further away from home than I can ever recall. There was a mist rising from the sharp brittle shapes of the lava in the low light of dawn. The path was difficult to locate as there was no warning signs or poles to show the way. The only pole was on the other side of the flow which was about three hundred meters up the slope and invisible in the low light. Each step sounded similar to walking over broken glass on a tile floor. Every now and then I would stop and look for the end of the flow, trying to determine the best approach in front of me. When I got frustrated, not finding anything real straight forward, my eyes would wonder up and out. There I noticed vast valleys, craters, more volcanoes and enormous ice fields way, way off in the distance. This was something very difficult to photograph, and all I could do was experience it taking a mental picture for my memory bank. I’ve been a climber since I was 7 years old, when I first reached the summit of a 14,000 foot high mountain in the Rocky Mountains. Since that time I’ve climbed vertical multi-day routes in Yosemite and ascended glaciated steep ridges up Mt Rainier and others. When asked why I do it, it’s real simple, for memories just like this one. If you want to enjoy Mt Hekla I recommend leaving early enough to watch the sunrise from the summit, which can be done in fairly light skies in the summer months. From the summit of Hekla, you can come to terms with Iceland, it’s vast viewshed, dramatic volcanism, enormous ice fields, and occasional whiff of sulfur. Iceland has it all, and then some. I will be returning for many more experiences in the future, and hope the swell of tourism does not cripple the beauty of this incredible country.

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Life is short, create pictures!

– Marc Muench