It was rainy in Iceland this past week with no snow on the ground, however my travel companions and I made the most of it and have had a good time. The highlight was strapping on the crampons and crawling into an ice cave for some luminous shots through the glacier.
My northern European winter sojourn continues in a couple of days as we exit the Land of Ice and Fire, and begin our journey to Norway’s Lofoten Archipelago. Stay tuned to the blog and my instagram account (@artwolfe) as always for new photos!
Also a reminder about upcoming events I’m looking forward to when I return to the states:
On March 3rd I’ll be presenting Earth Is My Witness at the NANPA Summit in Jacksonville, Florida. The Summit happens March 2nd through March 4th. This is going to be an informative event featuring talks from many of the world’s foremost nature photographers at a time when an appreciation for our natural resources and respect for our earthly places could not be more significant.
On March 5th, I’ll be delivering my Photography As Art seminar in Atlanta, GA. Sign up now to ensure your spot! Photographers of all skill levels will learn to shoot captivating images regardless of their ability to travel the world or simply their own back yard.
Hope to see you there, and I also hope to see you back perusing the blog in the days to come for more photos from my trip to norther Europe!
I have traveled to Iceland several times in my career to photograph the volcanic landscapes, the icebergs along glacier fed shores, even the diminutive and iconic Icelandic horses. It was on a trip in October 2013 however that I set out with the intention of capturing the aurora borealis or northern lights phenomenon — a spectacular sight I had seen before but never captured to my satisfaction. This was an ideal opportunity to observe them due to the long nights and the fact that we were at a peak in a 9-year cycle of solar activity responsible for generating auroras. Now, I just had to cross my fingers for a clear night and the ideal opportunity during my short, week-long stay.
So this story should be all about auroras however, as I have always said, you must remain open to opportunities that present themselves wherever you are. Don’t be blind to what is right in front of you simply because it’s not what you had planned to photograph when you had first set out. Seize every opportunity, don’t tell yourself “that looks great and I’ll come back and shoot it later”. Weather changes, winds pick up, clouds move, and schedules change. The best time to capture an image is when you first see it.
I was in route to a new location and it was an unusually calm morning. We were simply driving along the northern coast in Vesturland when I saw Mount Kirkjufell with a very light dusting of new snow near the summit which certainly wouldn’t last the day, perhaps not even through the afternoon. What immediately caught my attention was a huge eye staring back at me from out of its side. I had to practically rub my own eyes and look twice but there it was, plain as day, staring right at me. It immediately reminded me of the eye on a US dollar bill hovering above the pyramid. It was a little disturbing even. Had there been any less snow, it would not have been there at all and any more snow and it would have been covered up entirely. It was just that perfect dusting that revealed the eye in the mountain, always there, but rarely seen by passers-by.
All of the elements coalesced that day for this shot. The beautiful symmetry of Mount Kirkjufell, a perfectly placid lake at the base to reflect the mountain and the eye, and then, as we stopped and pulled over to compose the shot, I could see two whooper swans up the lake sitting on the water. They would be too small to see in the final image so I chose not to include them in the composition so as not to distract, however as I stayed with the subject, moving my tripod, trying different exposures and angles they took flight moving from left to right down the lake. Seeing it unfold before me I panned the camera, framed the mountain and shot a sequence of images as the swans passed directly front and center.
Everything had to come together at that moment, entirely unplanned and unpredicted. I love these serendipitous moments. While I always have a plan when I go out to a location, sometimes orchestrating the shot, getting up before the sunrise or planning for a moonless night, working with interpreters and locals or using guides to help find specific animals, it’s these moments that can’t be anticipated, can’t be planned for, that I love and am always on the lookout for.
And that wasn’t the last time a serendipitous moment that would fall into my lap on this trip.
The following day I came across a nice young couple in Southern Iceland and we struck up an instant conversation comparing notes on the landscape and what the other had discovered. It turns out they were professional climbing guides who were more than happy to show me some of the less accessible areas of Iceland on and even under the glaciers. Well I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity. No, I hadn’t come to Iceland for glacier photography nor did I even bring the basic equipment from my own climbing days – it simply wasn’t on the agenda. However, I found myself, later that same afternoon, meeting up with this young couple again and donning borrowed crampons, an ice axe and roping gear and we set out racing the sun late in the day to investigate an ice cave they had told me they had found high up on a glacier.
Practically racing up the glacier was only the beginning as I would soon learn. Once on location we had to rappel down directly into the glacier where a stream had melted out a shallow tunnel beneath the thick ice above. How they discovered this I still don’t quite know as we had to crawl on our hands and knees for over 200 hundred yards under the glacier. “What would drive them to do this in the first place?” I kept asking myself. We were crawling in wet gravel, crossing the stream from time to time, always bent over or on hands and knees, clothes and boots getting increasingly wet with each foot forward, and I was freezing trying to keep hold of my tripod and constantly bumping my backpack into the ice immediately above me.
As promised there was an eventual payoff 200 feet below the surface of the glacier. A crevasse had bottomed out on the stream we were following providing a source of light to illuminate this cavern which they had discovered. It was a spectacular scene and I only had about 20 minutes of light to quickly size it up. I choose a wide-angle lens and exposures started at one minute and only grew from there as I worked fast in the fading light. I love the jade blue cast to the entire scene and the movement in the water. The elements all came together to provide an unworldly scene unlike any other ice cave I have photographed before.
With headlamps, we retraced our route crawling back through the ice cold water and gravel. Prior to leaving for Iceland and even that very morning, for that matter, I had no idea I’d be crawling around underneath a glacier in such conditions. At the very least I would have packed some warmer clothes, heavier rain gear and even knee pads for the trek. I am very aggressive and seeing an opportunity like this, knowing that wind and water can reveal beautiful patterns in the ice beneath snow fields and glaciers, I wasn’t about to pass it up simply because it wasn’t part of what I had planned or imagined when I had set out.
Now did I ever get around to shooting the auroras? Absolutely! Though it was only on the very last day of the week on this long trip that the clouds parted and revealed the dancing colors in the skies over the glacial Lake Jökulsárlón on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. Every night leading up to that last day was clouded over and I had begun to accept that photographing the auroras, the only reason I had initially set out for Iceland, simply wasn’t going to happen on this trip.
Taking one last chance I waited until 1 a.m. and despite earlier clouds that evening, eventually the lights came out and the stars shone, it was like magic. It is a joyous moment as a photographer when you guess right and your effort is rewarded, and even more so sometimes when you take a risk and seize an opportunity.
I love it when it all comes together like it did for this trip to Iceland.
Iceland is a wonderland of volcanic landscapes and this was a great place to try out the new Canon EOS 5DS R, which is even superior to the 5DS I shot with earlier in May. This camera is not about pushing the ISO boundaries into the stratosphere, rather it’s about amazing details in the enlargement. The 5DS R offers much more clarity in the shadow and highlight details, a greater dynamic range, in addition to its obvious pixel packing punch in huge installations. I also like the familiar feel and weight of the camera vs. moving away from the 35mm look and feel to a medium or large format type body. This will be a game changer for packing in a camera with this resolution capability to remote locations where gear weight is an issue.
In spite of the weather we managed to get so much in such a short time in Iceland. The aurora borealis is always a stunner! Also, I can’t resist the adorable and affectionate Icelandic horse anytime I visit the country. In their full winter coats they were probably warmer than I was in my down jacket!
After only a day in Seattle from Antarctica, I flew off to Iceland to photograph the Bárðarbunga Volcano. We were so lucky in our timing! The only flyable four hours in the last seven days was when we were up. It has been unflyable since. According to our guide Iurie it was his best view since it started erupting in August. The weather has been so bad with 135 mph winds that they closed the road to the Jökulsárlón ice lagoon. We are hiding out in Reykjavik. No ice caves this trip, but it’s not bad spending time in the snow with hardy little Icelandic horses.
We are having a great trip in Iceland. I brought this group here for the northern lights, but since it has been cloudy we have been enjoying the spectacular landscape and, of course, the ubiquitous horses. It should be clearing up tomorrow and there has been great solar flare activity, which bodes well for seeing the aurora.
Here are some very nice images from workshop participant Richard Ross. Richard joined Art Wolfe on two international workshops this year. First to Japan and the beauty of Japanese culture, and then onto the amazing landscape of Iceland. Thanks for sharing, Richard.
We had a long day of driving today as we headed back to Reykjavik from the south coast. Late last week the Kafla volcano had a small eruption under the ice, and glacial meltwater rushed down and washed out the bridge on the highway. We were forced to alter our route somewhat and had to retreat through the highlands. Our photographic surprise for today were horses. There’s never a dull moment when these spunky little guys are around—they are truly a horse in a pony-sized package!