It's All About the Light - An Icelandic Road Trip - Part 2

Part 2 of a 10 day photographic journey through Iceland's icy northern landscapes under a sky caught in perpetual dusk.

By Mike Best July 20, 2018

The next stage of our journey through the country of endless dusk takes us to the majestic Westfjords and Ísafjörður

Previous instalment: An Icelandic Road Trip - Part 1

Full disclosure is probably due. I wouldn’t actually consider myself a landscape photographer, per se. Unlike my traveling companion, Ross Buswell who, when shooting, is at great pains to be where other humans are not. I, on the other hand, usually have my camera pointed the general direction of people or at least things made by people - neither of which were in great abundance by the time we arrived in the Westfjords.

Still, while it might have been a little outside my normal style of photography, the Westfjords certainly presented little hardship as a photographic subject. The natural environment of Iceland’s most Northern region, especially when still dusted over with snow and ice, provide a jaw-dropping picture postcard opportunity at every bend in the road. The drive up to Ísafjörður theoretically only takes 3 hours or so, but much longer when it is frequently punctuated by Ross suddenly veering the car off to the side of the road because we have been smacked in the face with another irresistible piece of scenery that could not go uncaptured.

Snowplowing a Mountain Pass in the Westfjords
Snowplowing a Mountain Pass in the Westfjords - © Mike Best

Even when driving down the road there was plenty of great material. Ross had mounted a Blackmagic video camera on the windscreen to capture video footage through the windshield and has since been putting together what I expect will be some lovely time-lapse sequences of the trip. It was my job to occasionally rack the exposure to compensate for changes in lighting, which I dutifully ignored, being too consumed by gawking at each new breathtaking scene unfurling around the next bend and trying to fire off shots myself through the increasingly grubby windscreen.

Photo Tip: Shooting through a car window is not ideal. Because of the speed of the car, objects - particularly close up - can easily blur out and you have a good chance of picking up reflections and dirt from the windscreen.

There are however a few things you can do to improve your chances of getting a usable shot. Firstly, crank up your ISO sensitivity quite high: 1600 to 3200 range (or even higher at dusk). This will allow you to use a higher shutter speed; at least 1000th of a second to compensate for the car movement. Also, don’t put the f-stop too high. Something like f 4-5.6 is fine, as you want a slightly shallower depth-of-field to avoid focussing on windscreen gack and reflections.

Finally, try to shoot forwards, rather than through the side window. Keep the camera lens as close as you can to the window glass (without bumping it) and focus on the horizon or objects in the distance.

As we got closer towards the town of Ísafjörður, the scenery started to get pretty mind-blowing. Take this little stop off spot for example. I’ve not included the picnic tables nearby, which I presume are a lot more inviting in the relative warmth of summer than under contstant waves of eyeball freezing gusts of wind in March.

Majestic Westfjords in Iceland

Snowdrift on Westfjord in Iceland
Snowdrift on Westfjord - © Mike Best

Another Planet or the Westfjords
Another Planet or the Westfjords - © Mike Best

It’s worth mentioning that trapesing around on snowy northern riverbanks can be extremely dangerous if you are not cautious. It’s very easy to hit a sink-hole that looks like its covered with snow, but in fact, has flowing water or gaps below. It would definitely not be pleasant dropping into the sub-artic drink, so it’s good to be mindful before heading off the side of the road. Never venture onto permafrost or a glacier without a trained guide.

I’m not sure what that then says about this cabin precariously perched above a huge snowy cliff…

Balancing on the Edge of Snowbank in Iceland
Balancing on the Edge of Snowbank - © Mike Best

Ok, of course, that’s a little bit of forced perspective at play. It is, in fact, a small ditch in front of me and the cabin is far in the distance. It’s a cool thing to work with when shooting these snow-covered landscapes though, as there is often no clear frame of reference for distance, so you can have some fun playing with compressing depth perception.

Dog in snow in Iceland
Making Friends with the Locals - © Mike Best

Along the way, we also found lots of opportunities to explore interesting little off-roads. Often they would lead up to an old church like the one above. It always amazes me how one can find themselves in these seemingly utterly remote locations, with no one around for miles, and there will be this little chapel or stone church. Like who was it that decided: ‘yep, here is the spot, absolutely nothing here for as far as the eye can see. Really nice and remote and also quite inaccessible. I know, let’s stick our church here.’ Well anyway, they do make for a good photo opportunity.

You can see Ross had a visitor come along when shooting the church. There were a couple of super friendly dogs that were extremely happy to see us. So much so that they kept diving frantically under the car tires as we drove out. I had to jump out of the car and try to lure them away while Ross made a run for it so we would not risk running over someone’s best friend in the middle of nowhere.

Tranquility in the Westfjords
Tranquility in the Westfjords - © Mike Best

Around Ísafjörður

We arrived in Ísafjörður late in the afternoon, in time to grab dinner and head out and climb a hill above the town for a spot of northern lights hunting. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be seen and we were soon getting pelted with sheets of icy rain. Landscape photographers live for this stuff I think. We decided to pack it in for the night.

Tranquility in the Westfjords
Ísafjörður in Winter - © Mike Best

We spent the next day exploring around the Westfjords, and taking many, many pictures - too many to talk about here. It was a case of drive around, see incredible, breathtaking scenery, shoot loads of pictures. Get cold. Rinse and repeat…! These are few of the shots I’ve processed so far. I will likely update this gallery with some more as I go along.

Snow covered cabin in Iceland
Snowy Cabin - © Mike Best

Wintery Lake in the Westfjords
Wintery Lake in the Westfjords - © Mike Best

Broken Pier on a Northern Lake
Broken Pier on a Northern Lake - © Mike Best

Fragments of a Chimney in the Westfjords
Fragments of a Chimney in the Westfjords - © Mike Best

It was then back to Ísafjörður for the evening, to recharge personal and camera batteries, and prepare for the long drive down back through Westfjords and into the next leg of our journey across the north-west of Iceland.

Steely Blue Westfjords
Steely Blue Westfjords

I hope you enjoyed the latest installment. I’d love to hear your comments or your own experiences traveling and photographing up north.

Hmm... my friends would love this