Plan for Success – How I conquered Iceland in three steps

Sunset and wildflowers,Vestrahorn, Iceland;

There is no equivalent to Iceland’s overall beauty. From its rugged mountain peaks to moss-covered formations, nothing quite compares. I have been photographing Iceland’s diverse and varying landscapes for several years, each trip revealing more photographic opportunities than the previous. Seasons, weather conditions, and landscape are unrivaled.

From a geologic standpoint, Iceland is unique. Due to its location in the North Atlantic Ocean along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland has dramatic and extreme weather patterns. It sits on two tectonic plates: Eurasian and American, creating many incredible landscape formations from volcanoes to geothermal phenomena. Iceland is largely an arctic desert punctuated by mountains, glaciers, geysers, hot springs, volcanoes, and (just a guess here) millions of waterfalls. It is often shrouded in clouds, rainbows, or grey skies, and even with this, I have never seen such incredible light and beauty as I have in Iceland. There is always something new to see and photograph, no matter how many times you visit. Iceland is a photographer’s paradise.

Twilight over Eystrahorn, Iceland

Planning a photography trip is both exciting and a lot of work. In this article, I want to explain how I plan a trip to any location to make your photographic adventure as successful as possible and fun! Careful planning will create a more productive adventure and pay dividends in the final images.

When I plan a photographic trip, I put three considerations at the top of my list: the time of the year, the moon phase, and locations within the area.

The Time of Year

I choose the time of year as my primary consideration as it’s critical in how the landscape will look. It sets the mood and the tone of the images and tells the story I want to convey to the viewer. Do I want snow, flowers, fall color, or something else? Starry nights, images of the Northern Lights accompanied by
snow? Essentially this comes down to the overall mood. This is the first of many “fingerprints” I give to my images. Suppose I am unfamiliar with a location and what each season might look like in this area. In that case, I will search online for keywords (“Iceland, Fall” or “Iceland, Summer,” for example) and look at the images that come up within the results. Doing this will give you ideas of what to expect in any given season.

The Moon Phase

No matter the time of the year or location on the globe you photograph, you automatically double your chances of a productive photographic trip if you visit your location with around 4–20% moon phase. Why? If you only have blue skies rather than weather that brings dramatic and gorgeous light, you now have the chance to photograph a night scene, and not all is lost. With this slight bit of moon in the sky, it will help to illuminate your scene and avoid casting harsh shadows on your foreground. You now have the second half of the day to create stunning images of stars, the milky way, or the aurora!

One app I use during the planning phase and in the field is PhotoPills. It is indispensable to my workflow and helps me understand the night sky. When I start with the initial planning of any scene, I will go to either Plan or the Moon button on the main menu screen and, with the location selected, get a pretty good idea of how the sun and moon align with the landscape. I can even get the moon phase in there, helping me know which days of the month will have the window of the New Moon and the percentages I mentioned above. It’s a handy tool and is not the only one available. Have a look online, and you will find others, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, which is also a staple for many landscape photographers.

Locations Within the Area

Lastly, I select the locations I want to photograph—in a country, landscape, specific area, or region. Whenever I plan a trip, I use all the tools I have at my disposal, from PhotoPills to Google Earth and Google Maps; each one holds a place in my heart and planning process. I use Google Earth to get to ground level in a landscape. I drop pins and waypoints before I leave home, syncing these with my Garmin so I can navigate to them once I am on the ground—for safety and efficiency. I can also share these pins with loved ones back home, so they will know where I will be should anything happen.

Google Earth allows me to build a robust filing and organizing system with countries, locations, etc., to keep a detailed record of where I want to go and how I intend to get there.

For this particular trip to Iceland in September, I wanted to take all I knew about the country from my previous trips and incorporate it into my wish list—which has evolved over the years. My vision was to photograph the especially soft light of autumn with the lower sun on the horizon matched with the
yellows and golds—yet a bit of green in the ground cover as the season changed from summer to autumn. I also wanted the rivers and streams to flow, so I had to be there before they froze. The biggest aim for this trip was the northern lights, and I knew this could be tricky: too early in the year, and you won’t get them. Playing it safe and going when the time is technically “perfect” would be winter and too cold, nixing out the flowing streams I envisioned. From past trips, I knew you could get the northern lights as early as August, so I planned my trip accordingly and crossed my fingers.

I also wanted to challenge myself to create something new this trip—not just a different image in my library, but something I had never seen before. Photographers can become discouraged thinking a location has been over-photographed. This might lead us to discount a wonderful location, or we may find ourselves setting our tripods in other photographers’ “tripod holes” and missing the beauty and joy of creating something new. That is the essence of our craft—finding inspiration in the world around us. It is the joy of photography.

Aurora over Eystrahorn peak, Iceland

There is an area along the southern highway called Ring Road, which I felt was perfect for my adventure. This area is in a region called Skógar, which holds the famous Skógafoss Waterfall. Just behind Skógafoss is an area I have dubbed “waterfall alley,” as it holds claim to over 26 waterfalls that pour from one to the next as you hike north along the trail after departing the car park. There is also a lesser-known and gorgeous waterfall in this area called Kvernufoss. The general orientation of the area is on the southern coast, with all of the waterfalls I was seeking to photograph having a southern approach: I would be facing north while shooting, which is ideal as the Northern Lights move from north to south; Yes!!!

I stayed in this area for three nights, hiking numerous miles each day, scouting locations, and seeking new compositions that would render the scene how I wanted—should the sky cooperate.

I knew I needed crystal clear nights and a Kp index of at least 3. The Kp-Index measures the disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the solar wind. A great app I use on my iPhone is called Aurora Alerts. You can set your favorite locations in the app, and it will provide pretty accurate and detailed forecasts in these areas for the night sky. When you match this up with a general weather forecast checking for cloud cover and conditions, you can make more educated decisions about locations and if you are planning properly.

When this is all said and done, there is no way to know how your trip will end up. Still, properly planning, familiarizing yourself with the area before departure, getting to know your apps, setting pins or waypoints in Google Earth or another GPS device, and getting ready as best with gear will pay dividends in the field.

I had no idea how my trip to Iceland would work out, but I did know that I put in the effort before leaving home, planned my time in the field to be aligned with the proper moon phase, and ensured my camera and gear were ready. I knew whatever came my way, I would be as prepared as possible. Doing our best and having fun is what it is all about.

6-Image Drone Pano of a double rainbow at sunrise over Vík, Iceland.

Fast forwarding a couple of months, I am now home, rested, and I’ve gone through my images culling and have edited my “gifts” from my time out. I often tell people the way I feel about images on the hard drive and before I open them is how I felt as a child before I opened a Christmas gift; you have an idea of what Santa brought you, but it isn’t until you pull that bow off the top and tear off the outer wrapping will you actually know. And this, my friends, is where the fun begins.

Best of luck to all of you on your future endeavors and trips. I hope this article will help you in your planning phase(s) as you move forward and in your trips. All of us here at Muench Workshops wish you the best and are happy to help guide you should you need. Good light to you and see you in the field.

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