PHOTOGRAPHERS CALL IT ‘golden hour’ – the warm soft light that occurs briefly after sunrise or before sunset. So imagine, then, a place where that sweet golden light of sunset lasts for hours.
Here in Iceland, in July, three weeks after the summer solstice, we have found that place. Midnight Sun at this time of year means that the sun does not set until, well, midnight. Then for the next three or four hours it lurks just below the horizon, creating a bright twilight that lasts until sunrise.
We have come to photograph the wonders of Iceland under the Midnight Sun. Our small group of photographers is travelling with Iceland Photo Tours, a well-known local company specializing in photography holidays. Professional photographer Kaspars Dzenis is our guide and mentor for the next two weeks. His experience and knowledge of the landscape ensure we have the best opportunities to capture Iceland’s green beauty during the day and – weather permitting – in the long hours of the Midnight Sun.
Our itinerary will take us clockwise on Iceland’s Route 1, or Ring Road as it is known. As the name suggests, this scenic road
circumnavigates the country in an easy-to-navigate 1,328 km loop and includes many of Iceland’s best attractions. Our journey will be longer as we plan to include sidetrips to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Eastfjords. There are long days ahead and many miles to cover, but the excitement is palpable as we start our journey.
AS WE HEAD NORTH from Reykjavik, towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, our first stop is – no surprise – a waterfall. This is the first of countless waterfalls, each one more beautiful than the last. Iceland reportedly has 10,000 waterfalls (foss is Icelandic for waterfall) from tiny glacier-fed cascades to superstars like Dettifoss and Godafoss in the north, and Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss in the south. These giants are amongst the country’s most popular attractions and are easily accessible from the Ring Road. They are often very busy during the day, so when possible, we visit later in the evening to take advantage of the extended golden hour light.
Our first midnight sunset is iconic Kirkjufell, Iceland’s most-photographed mountain. As expected, we are not the only photographers here this evening and tripod space on the small pathways is tight, but we are prepared. Planning ahead, Kaspars had brought us here earlier for a short “practice” session, identifying the best camera angles in advance so we can quickly be in place when the sunset magic begins.
We spend two days in Mývatn, a geothermal area known for bubbling mud pots and steaming lava fields but our focus is a pair of waterfalls, majestic Godafoss and fierce Dettifoss, Iceland’s most powerful waterfall. We explore them from both sides, Kaspars always alert for interesting vantage points. For the sure-footed, there are rough trails to the edge and bottom and several of my colleagues go down for a closer look. Nervous of heights, I am content to stay in the safety of the sturdy viewing platforms.
I make an exception when we get to breathtaking Seljalandsfoss, a 60m cascade off a sheer cliff on the south coast. The classic photograph here is from behind the falls, so just before midnight, we clamber up the muddy path through a gale of wind and spray from the falls, dragging our camera gear over the treacherous wet rocks. Joining a row of other shivering photographers, we set up our tripods and wait for the perfect light. Tonight the weather gods smile on us and at the last minute the clouds break for a warm glowing sunset.
WE FIND ICELAND’S churches surprisingly compelling in a country known for dramatic scenery and otherwordly landscapes. We see small traditional red-roofed churches everywhere and are charmed by their simple beauty and often-scenic settings.
One afternoon, we visit the famous black church at Budir, in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It’s so renowned that the tiny parking lot is jammed with coaches when we arrive. Fortunately, the long daylight hours allow us the luxury of returning later that evening when it is quiet. Our patience is rewarded with serene images filled with moody light and dramatic skies.
We also find our way to a few of Iceland’s historic turf churches. Although turf has been used in Iceland as a building material for centuries, it is fragile, and only six of these now-protected churches remain.
Turning north from the Ring Road, we head for Grafarkirkja, the oldest of the six. The tiny wood and turf structure sits on a lonely plain against a backdrop of distant mountains. The church is no longer open to the public but we peer through the windows at the beautifully hand-carved wooden interior and marvel at those who created this church some 400 years ago.
WATERFALLS AND CHURCHES are lovely and photogenic, but in our hearts, what we all really want to see is Icelandic horses.
Descended from the horses brought by Norse settlers in the 9th century, the purity of this breed has long been protected by strict laws forbidding the import of any other horses into the country. Prized for being strong and hardy, they are stocky with short legs and thick shaggy manes. But although they are relatively small, we are firmly reminded, “Don’t call them ponies!”
There are 80,000 of these horses in Iceland, and we see them everywhere along the road, but as there are no shoulders on much of the Ring Road, it can be difficult to pull over. Still, Kaspers always seems to find a safe place to stop when we simply must have one more horse photo.
We are fascinated by these gentle creatures and soon realize that the feeling is mutual. Friendly and curious by nature, they waste no time coming to greet us at the fence. We are unprepared and have no treats for them, but they don’t seem to mind. No telephoto lenses are needed here – they come right up nose-to-nose, demanding a nuzzle and an ear scratch. We are happy to oblige.
JULY IS PEAK NESTING SEASON in Iceland and that means puffins. Our itinerary includes a long – but scenic – side trip to the remote puffin colony at Borgarfjör›ur Eystri in the northernmost part of Iceland’s Eastfjords. Atlantic Puffins spend most of the year far out at sea, but every summer some 10,000 pairs return to their annual nesting grounds in this pretty harbour.
A thoughtfully-designed series of boardwalks and viewing platforms allow us to get astonishingly close to the charismatic little birds without disturbing them. Even when they are so close, we can almost touch them; they pay us no attention as they bustle about their burrows.
Nesting birds are everywhere we look. In the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we visit sea cliffs home to vast colonies of kittiwakes, a type of gull. Real estate on these cliffs is precious, and nests are built on impossibly tiny ledges. Watching through my telephoto lens, I am transfixed by the melodrama of life on the cliffs – fluffy chicks clamour for food; thieves and bullies swoop in to steal an unguarded morsel; victims protest indignantly – and all accompanied by a soundtrack of noisy avian bickering.
Arctic Terns are a distinctive sight along the roadsides, swooping and diving as they deliver food to their chicks. They nest on the open ground in damp and rocky areas – which we think seems risky for the youngsters. Kaspars laughs and assures us that the terns will ferociously protect their nests, and that most predators know better than to tangle with them.
However, a few days later, when we discover a small flock of terns brazenly nesting in our hotel car park, it’s a too-tempting photo op. I wish I could tell you it ends well, but – in perfect Hitchcockian style – a squadron of angry dive-bombing birds with very long, sharp, pointy beaks quickly sends me scurrying for shelter
ICELAND’S 130 VOLCANOES are quiet during our visit, but we see the results of ancient volcanic activity everywhere: miles of lava fields like moonscapes; basalt columns that remind us of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland; geothermal hot springs, steaming mudpots and spikey mountains. And of course, black beaches. We have already visited a couple of these beaches in the north, but they are eclipsed by the spectacular black sands of the south coast. The most famous beaches near Vik offer miles of sparkling black sand and volcanic pebbles polished smooth by the waves.
But first up is dramatic Stokksnes, a dune-studded headland in the Eastfjords with a small but perfect black beach set against the panoramic backdrop of the much-photographed Vestrahorn. This expansive scene is a great reason to bring your wide angle lens (newer cell phones with wide angle capabilities also do an excellent job of capturing a scene like this). We spend a couple of hours wandering the uncrowded dunes, capturing the sheer beauty the volcanoes have wrought here.
Leaving the Eastfjords, we turn west on the Ring Road along the south coast. Most of Iceland’s volcanoes are in this southern part of the country but here we find the glaciers too – fire and ice side-by-side.
A remarkable ten percent of Iceland is covered in glaciers, the largest of which is Vatnajökull, covering more than 4,000 sq km. These majestic slow moving rivers of ice are our constant companions for the next couple of days.
We spend an evening capturing the soft light of the midnight sun at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where Brei›amerkurjökull glacier comes to the end of its journey. Large chunks of luminous blue ice break away from the glacier and drift through the lagoon until they are finally swept down a channel to nearby Diamond Beach and battered to pieces by the Atlantic.
As we drive back to our hotel well after midnight, I realize that Kaspars has turned on the headlights for the first time since we arrived almost two weeks ago. The midnight sun is coming to an end, along with our Iceland adventure.
Written by Linda Crawley for Cruise and Travel Lifestyles (winter/spring 2023)