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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harris

Iceland - August 2015

Day 1 - Halló from Iceland

What was supposed to be a nice and easy couple of flights turned out to be rather stressful, but after about 12 hours spent in various airports, we finally made our way to Keflavik airport. Another 90 minutes spent getting our rental car (sadly not the Subaru Forrester we were hoping for, but some big Kia instead), we started our 6.5 hour drive to Húsavík for the first stop on the trip.

Driving all around the coast of northern Iceland was pretty amazing (and a bit nerve-wrecking at times). Lots of amazing views, and lots of crazy roads with twists and turns and various animals all over the place. Unfortunately I was behind the wheel, so not many photos from the drive, but we eventually managed to find our way (thanks GPS!) to our first stop. Even though we arrived later in the evening, there was still plenty of light out to take a few photos of the surrounding area.

When I initially packed my photo backpack for this trip and weighed it, it came out to 31 pounds. I questioned the decision to bring so much gear after a few hours of hauling it through airports and in and out of buses and cars, and I was pretty certain I took way too much equipment.... And then I got a chance to actually take some photos. I think the temporary shoulder and back-aches will be worth it when we get back home.

Day 2 - Part 1 - The One with the Waterfall(s)

After being up for 36+ hours and only 2 hours of sleep the previous days, we both fell asleep in record time. Iceland is 5 hours ahead of Chicago right now, and by no means is it the worst jet lag I've ever endured, but we did wake up rather early this morning. The day started off a bit cloudy and overcast, but it started to clear up as the morning progressed.

Thankfully it did, as we headed towards Dettifoss to check out what and Icelandic waterfall looks like. We were not disappointed! Dettifoss and Selfoss (Detti's much more chill cousin) are waterfalls along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, which is water that flows from the Vatnajökull glacier. On the way there we didn't see too much traffic (though we did see a larger number of hitchhikers.. apparently that's normal), so I thought it would be pretty dead there. When we finally made it the parking lot was pretty full and I was worried I might have to throw some elbows to get into some good photo spots. Thankfully the area is pretty large and everyone was spread out between a number of locations, so not much in the way of photographer traffic. I even managed to get out the tripod and Big Stopper at one point when shooting Dettifoss.

I'm using two backpacks on this trip. The 'mothership' is the ThinkTank Streetwalker Harddrive, which is storing everything, including laptop (the 31 lbs mentioned previously all goes in this guy), and then a Ruggard Triumph 35 sling bag for the day trips. I'm still learning the ropes of the two bag system, and I completely forgot to move the extra batteries into my day trip bag. Luckily the batteries died just as we were walking back to the car and I was playing around with the Sony 90mm macro. I managed to get a few shots of some interesting plants before it hit 0%.

Day 2 - Part 2 - Horses, and Downtown Húsavík

After Dettifoss, we drove to a natural hot-spring and got out the bathing suits to

check out what these blue silica pools were all about. It was pretty interesting, and sulfur-smelly (this is an unfortunately consistent theme throughout Iceland, thus far ), but due to steam and water all over the place I didn't bring the camera. After the quick stop in the hot springs, we went back to our cottage and planned out the rest of the day. We spotted some horses on the farm near our cottage, and walked over to say hi. Sadly we didn't have any carrots or apples on us, but Jessica was persistent enough with her horse-wooing sound effects that they eventually came over to say hello.

I was using the 90mm Macro to shoot the horses, and on the walk back to the cottage I spotted a few more tiny colorful items.

After hanging out with the horses, we decided to head into Husavik for dinner. I managed to locate a place that had a decent pepperoni pizza (yeah, I know..) and after that we walked around the harbor area. Due to some sort of science (or perhaps the Huldufólk, the Icelandic elves..) , the sun stays out longer which in turn means the golden hour here is a bit longer than usual. It definitely worked in our favor tonight.

Day 3 - More hiking, more horses

I had hoped to get in a short hike around the Kaldbaks-kot property this morning, but when I got up it was a bit grey and damp out. Thankfully as the morning progressed, the sun started peaking out and the ground dried up some. I started out down towards the lake closest to us, and then started walking around the perimeter. Lots of nice wide-angle shots with the 17-40 and a7r II, and I even managed to get a macro shot or two using the 90mm on the a7s. For the photographers thinking about coming to Iceland, I'm really like the setup of a wide-zoom on one body, and then swapping between the 55mm 1.8 an 90mm macro on the other body. It seems to work very well as a general walk around kit.

Before we left Chicago, we had watched the 'Passport to Europe' episode featuring Iceland ($1.99 on Amazon!) and there was a segment on the horses, and how they have this unique cadence that's only found in the Icelandic breed. After that episode, Jessica was dead set on riding a horse here, and Jean was happy to join her in the ride. We drove out to Mývatn and found a stable so they could get their ride in, while Dennis and I drove to Dimmuborgir to see the lava columns. Unfortunately, the lava columns were far from photogenic (think really big volcano-style rocks that people sometimes have around their landscaping). It was a fun hike though, and after that we came back to pick up the girls and head off to dinner.

Our original dinner place was really busy and rather than waiting 45 minutes for a table, we did some quick research and found Hótel Gígur nearby that had a restaurant. I'm glad we did, because there was some amazing scenery around the hotel.

Day 4 - Cows and Caves

We had a big trip planned for this afternoon, so we hung around the house a bit in the morning, and then towards lunch we took off towards Mývatn. The plan was to eat lunch at the restaurant we had wanted to eat dinner at the night before (Vogafjos Cowshed Cafe), and then on to our big tour. This time the crowds were much more tame, and we managed to get a table after a few minutes. The neat thing about Vogafjos is that everything they serve comes from their local farm.. meat, dessert, etc.. it's all grown on their land. I wish they had grown some wheat, because the bun on the burger I had was straight out of some carb-free diet.. very chalky and thin. The chocolate cake I had for dessert was the best I'd had in Iceland though, so they made up for the pseudo-bun. Anyway, the restaurant is on their farm, and there were cows right around the corner.

After Vogafjos, we headed towards the visitor center where we were meeting up with the tour guide who was going to take us to a lava tube / cave that had some ice caves within. After dodging swarms of flies for about 20 minutes (seriously, here's a YouTube video , it's no joke) we met up with our guide and headed out to the lava fields. Eventually (after some crazy trail driving and carrying of boots and helmets) we hit our destination. I had brought the a7s as I assumed light would be pretty poor, but the only wide zoom I had was the 17-40/F4, which made things more difficult than it should have been. If you're going to do something similar, I'd highly recommend either an f/2.8 zoom, or an ultra-wide (and semi-fast) prime. I ended up with passable shots (at least for blogging purposes), but I don't think any of the cave interior shots would hold up to a decent size print.

That's about it for today. We're heading to Hofn tomorrow which is a ~7 hour drive. Not much in the way of photos since I'll be driving, but if the light is OK when we arrive I'll try to get a few shots in.

Day 5 - Some nice vistas and $63 worth of fast food.

We started off the day relatively early as we needed to make our way down south to Höfn, which is about a 6-7 hour drive (depending on the weather and road conditions). About half-way in, we started looking for a place to eat. We thought we found a nice little cafe in Egilsstaðir, but after walkng in we found out they didn't open for another half an hour. We tried one more place, and it was closed as well. Sensing the fates were not with us, we ended up at a Skálinn. This is basically a chain restaurant attached to a gas station. Don't let that fool you though, it was pretty decent and it's a far cry from those weird Subway gas stations in the states. It's also expensive as heck, we had a few burgers, my pizza and some cheese sticks, and the total came to just over $63. Yep, Iceland is expensive, even when eating 'cheap'.

After another hour or so we merged up with 939 (a pretty crazy dirt road), and just outside of Öxi we saw a vista that was pretty incredible. The clouds were really low and the light kept changing, but I did my best to get some decent shots in.

Finally, we made it to our stop for the evening, Seljavellir Guesthouse, right outside of Höfn. It's a neat hotel, kind like a collection of nicely finished cubicle rooms, with each room having a full wall of windows as the entrance (and nice blackout shades, which was a big hit with Jessica). The views from the hotel were pretty impressive as well.

After a quick rest at the hotel, we went out for dinner at Kaffi Hornið. It was nice to eat with the whole group, and my travelling buddy Will had fun playing with some Kronor at the table, and was pretty pleased with the stuffed Arctic Fox at the entrace. The food was good, and the desert (chocolate brownie) was amazing. I was going to get a shot of it, but it.. uh.. got away from me before I could do that. You'll just have to take my word for it.

That's it for Day 5. Tomorrow brings some sort of glacier viewing, and hopefully my first puffin encounter. Fingers crossed that the weather is nice!

Day 6 - Glaciers, but the Puffins still elude

We started making our way further south today so that within the next few days we'd be in the Reykjavík area. The first stop of interest was Jökulsárlón, where the local glacier empties into a lagoon that feeds into the ocean. You could watch icebergs slowly float along their way from the glacier and eventually out to sea (at least the smaller ones, the larger ones barely move). There were options to take a variety of boats out into the lagoon, but I thought the views were pretty good from the shore (and would be warmer/dryer) so we walked around a bit and got some photos. This is one of the only times I think I felt the circular polarizing filter was really worth it. Lots of relfections to cut out and luckily the sun was in the right position

After the glacier area, we drove another hour or two before coming to Hof, which is a small village in Öræfi. There was supposed to be a cool church I'd seen others take photos of before, and we went looking for it. We thought we had found it, but it turned out to be an old barn / shed, but I think the photos of it ended up pretty cool anyway. We did find the church (Hofskirkja Church) eventually, thanks to Jessica's well developed orienteering skills, and we even managed to get inside of the church for a couple shots.

Next on the drive was Dyrhólaey, just outside of Vik. It's the southern-most point in Iceland which may have been the windiest place on Earth that I've ever experienced. Even down by the beach, sheltered by cliffs and rocks, the wind was still enough to rock my tripod and ruin just about every attempt at a long exposure that I came up with. I managed to get a couple passable long exposures, but it was just too cold and windy to spend the time going after what I had wanted. We also got in a quick selfie thanks to the $10 remote I picked up before we left. It almost looks like one of those selective color photographs with everything but the subject converted to black and white, but it's just the color of the sand and the rocks making it look that way.

On the way out of the Dyrhólaey we spotted a couple neat houses beyond the hills and stopped for some more photos.

Day 7 - Caves, Nerd Stuff and Sparky the Fox

We got into Hveragerði pretty late last night, so I didn't get to see much of the property around the house we're staying in. This morning it was a bit rainy, but I did get out the 70-300L and managed to get a good shot of the river around the house. I'm going to get out there with the tripod and big stopper as soon as the weather clears up a bit, and there's a couple small waterfalls nearby I plan on hitting as well. For now, this is the best that I could get.

After a quick shower and some breakfast, we made our way into Reykjavík. We had a couple of goals, there were some places Jessica wanted to eat at (one was a hot dog stand, so I was definitely on board) and then I wanted to see the main office of CCP Games, who are the creators of EVE: Online, one of my favorite video games (this is the nerd-related business from the prior post). They had built a monument to celebrate the success of the game over the last 10+ years, and I wanted to get a couple shots of that as well. There was a lot of cool ships around their office (boat ships, not space ships!) which was a bonus.

We walked around a different part of the harbor area after that, and I managed to get into street photography mode and get a couple decent shots with the Batis 85.

An hour or so more of walking around we headed back to the house to meet up with Sam, Trish and Dennis who were joining us on our trip into Thrihnukagigur, a dormant volcano about an hour a way. Nat Geo did a documentary on the volcano, and in order to do that and get all their equipment into the volcano chamber, they built a nice window-washer type lift that makes the 120 meter descent pretty easy (if not nerve-wracking). Before we even got to the volcano, we had to hike about 45 minutes on foot, which gave me ample opportunity for some scenic shots.

The volcano erupted about 4,000 years ago during an earthquake, and whatever pressure/heat related stuff went on created a wide array of colors and textures in the chamber where the magma shot up into the sky. We were on our own to explore the chamber and I got a number of shots of people walking around and enjoying the volcano.

After coming out of the volcano, we holed up in their 'base camp' for a bit, and had some soup and relaxed. Their mascot, Sparky, an arctic fox decided to pay us all a visit. He literally walked into the base camp lodging area, looked around for some food, and decided to play cute until people fed him. The guides were all about feeding him, so I ended up with a number of good Sparky images.

Tomorrow is a bit of The Golden Circle, though we've seen a number of similar geological features already so we may shotcut it a bit. In the evening we'll be back in downtown Reykjavík for dinner and some evening photographs of the city.

Day 8 - Golden Ring, Geysir, Gullfoss and Grillmarkaðurinn

We started out the day by doing a truncated version of the Golden Ring, hitting Gullfoss (waterfall) first, and then back-tracking towards Geysir (the origin of the word "geyser") to see Strokkur, an active geyser. Gullfoss was pretty impressive though quite packed with tourists. It made for some good scenery just walking around the area, and I broke out the big stopper to try and get some nice images of the falls.

After Gullfoss we headed to the Geysir area to check out the geysers, and got to watch Strokkur erupt a few times. It's funny watching the tourists, because you don't really have much warning when the geyser will erupt, so people are just standing around with their phones or cameras pointed at this hole in the ground. Everyone is frozen, just waiting for it to erupt. I brought the a7r II, and the continuous shooting mode made it pretty easy to get decent shots of the eruption. One of these days I'll make an animated gif out of the whole series

After that we came back to the house and I managed to climb my way down to the river in our back yard (from yesterday's image) and set up the tripod and big stopper to get some long exposures. I had never done that before and I learned a few things. Firstly, water shoes are necessities (luckily I brought some). Secondly (and I guess thirdly) getting to the actual river can be difficult in a lot of instances (lots of brush and uneven ground to cover), but once in the water, actually moving against the current and walking on slippery rocks while balancing a tripod and expensive camera is nerve wracking, and not easily done. Finally, I learned that long exposure of flowing water is pretty boring, unless you get some rocks in there to stir up the motion of the water. Anyway, here are a couple from the set. Next time will be better!

After a quick shower to get the Icelandic river gunk off my legs, we headed back into Reykjavík for our dinner reservations at Grillmarkaðurinn. This was a pretty cool restaurant, and a very neat interior. I'm pretty sure it turns into a club at night, it was really dark and had a modern, outdoors inspired interior. The food was really good.

After dinner we walked around the city a bit and I managed to get some nice city-life shots before we made it to the car.

Tomorrow we're back into the city for the maraton that Dennis and Sam are running, as well as Trish's 10k. Not sure what that'll entail photography wise (probably images of sweaty, tired, and relieved people) but I'll put something up for you all to look at!

Day 9 - Marathon Day!

Most of the times we go on these slightly crazy trips (see the Kenya/China travel albums), it's based around Dennis doing a marathon. I attempted to join in at one point, even finishing the half marathon in Kenya, but ever since my IT band and I had a falling out, I've been sidelined and bumped to photographer duty, which is fine by me. This trip was no different, and our last full day in Iceland was spent in Reykjavík for the marathon. Trish ran the 10k and pulled a PR, which unfortunately meant she was sitting around for a number of hours waiting for Sam and Dennis to finish the marathon. We met up with her around noon, and I started shooting the area. The family/kids race was about to get started, and for the littler kids they were either watching from the sidelines or playing around in the park

At around 3.5 hours Sam crossed the finish line, and unfortunately it was as we were fighting our way through to the sidelines for photos that he popped up, so I only managed to get one shot of him before the finish, from the side.

Dennis came less than an hour later so we were prepared a bit more for him. We caught up with him a few minutes after finishing to congratulate him. I don't know the exact number, but this has to be at least his 70th marathon completion.