Land of fire and ice. Volcanoes, waterfalls, lava fields, black sand beaches, craters, mountains, glaciers, ice caves, fjords. The list is endless of what Iceland has to offer. Seeing photos from other photographers created this concept for me of Iceland as a nature-lover's amusement park. In a good way, I mean. There is just so much to see and experience on that remote and empty island. This January, it was finally time to see it with my own eyes. My wife's birthday was as good an excuse as any to head to Iceland. This post will be a bit longer than usual, simply because Iceland is a feast for the eyes.
Having recently made a few changes in my photo gear, this would be the first real trip to take the Nikon Z setup I have been acquiring over the last months, replacing my Sony and the Leica SL. I took two Nikon Z6 ii's and a total of four lenses; the Nikon 14-30mm F4 S, the Nikon 20mm F1.8 S, the Nikon 50mm F1.8 S, and the Nikon 105 F1.4 F-mount lens with the FTZ ii adapter. I also brought some Kase magnetic filters to capture all the waterfalls. This setup fits very well in my Shimoda Action X30 backpack. It comes highly recommended and I will write a separate post on that bag.
We arrived in the evening and as there are only about 5 to 6 hours of sunlight at this time of of year, we did not really see anything of the landscape because all around us was darkness. It did not take long for the magic to show itself though as the next morning we were treated to a setting moon that we could see right from our hotel room window. It was slowly getting light and this created a surreal atmosphere with the colors of the moss covered lava and the silica filled water very much in sync. I took this photo with the 105mm F1.4 for F-mount on a tripod. Not the obvious choice for landscapes but I really like the way this lens renders. The new FTZ ii adapter feels really well and the removal of the tripod hump has created a much more satisfying experience of shooting F-mount lenses on Nikon Z bodies. AF performance is really solid, and it allows so much more control compared to F-mount Nikon cameras.
The next photo is another example of how the 105mm works well for photographing nature. The lens is really sharp and the shallow depth of field allows you to create a bit more dreaminess to a scene. There are other times when you grab your wide-angle and focus stack so everything is sharp and in focus but sometimes you want to capture the feeling of the surroundings more than anything else.
Some F-mount lenses, like the 105mm F1.4, hold a special place in my heart but the more modern lenses for Nikon Z are also absolutely fantastic. When the first lenses for the Z-mount came out, it was clear that Nikon was going to go for a strategy of having 1.8 and 1.2 variations for the more common focal lengths. This raised some questions as many people were expecting 1.4 lenses. Having spent some time with these newer 'standard' 1.8 lenses, I can only say that they do everything you want, except if you want an extremely shallow depth of field. The new S-line lenses for Z-mount (I find the 'S' naming very confusing by the way...) are great in their own way and in most cases, I never felt I needed a faster aperture. This all depends on your style of shooting of course.
After having enjoyed the Blue Lagoon we were treated to another nice surprise the next morning. Fresh snow had fallen overnight and this made the landscape look very different. The white snow had it's own way of bringing out the rare blue from the silica infused water in the lagoon.
One thing that Iceland is known for is waterfalls. I had heard about how immense some of them are but what I did not expect is just how many there are! When you drive on the main road you see waterfall after waterfall. And not just small ones, some of them are really big but they are just there, not as a tourist attraction but just part of the landscape. In any other country, waterfalls like these would be destinations in their own right. In Iceland, they are just part of the passing scenery. The truly epic ones are indeed tourist destinations and rightfully so. I was in awe of the size and variety of them. We returned to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall because on our first visit the weather had been very bad and rain was pouring down. When we passed this waterfall on the way back, the weather was really nice. It was the end of the day in terms of light but we were just on time to take a photo. These two shots really show what a difference the light makes on a scene. One is not necessarily better or nicer than the other, they are just very different. I chose to also compose the shots differently to emphasize the conditions. On the second shot, there was a really great sky so I wanted to create room for that.
Both photos above were taken with the Nikon 14-30 F4 S lens for Z-mount. This lens has a very useful focal range with an F4 aperture which works well for landscape and nature photography. What sets this lens apart are two things. First, it is very sharp and delivers great results. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it is surprisingly small and light. The lens has a collapsible mechanism which may ask questions about the weatherproofing but Nikon states that it is and it's been under some pretty rough conditions this week and withstood them with no problems at all. It is great to be able to pack a lens this compact in your backpack for those wide shots. I used it mainly at the wide end and I am quite happy with the results.
I use the Kase magnetic 'Wolverine' filter system with it. I can't say enough positive things about this system. I don't use filters that much and when I do, I want to be fast with it. The beauty of the Kase system is that the filters just stick on to the holder without having to screw them on and off. This makes swapping and combining filters very easy and fast. As the photo above shows, there is always room for what is called a user error though. For about 5 minutes, we had the sun breaking through which provided a beautiful glow on this canyon we were at. I just don't have a lot of experiences with shooting waterfalls and I totally underestimated the amount of spray a big waterfall produces. I ended up with a lot of drops on my filter and the end result was not what I hoped for but I like the photo nevertheless.
We were relatively lucky with the weather for the week we spend in Iceland. The island is known for rapidly changing weather conditions but when we arrived they just had a three week spell of grey skies with rain. Fortunately, the conditions were a lot more varied in our week. We had our share of endless fog and rain but also nice conditions with one day of clear skies with a little bit of clouds.
One of the waterfalls I looked forward to visiting the most is called Skogafoss. It falls against this dramatic wall of basalt columns and the water gives them a beautiful shine. The day we visited this waterfall it was raining cats and dogs and this was a real test for the waterproof capabilities of the gear. All held out very well, but the conditions were very difficult. Having learned my lesson about waterfall spray, I was able to produce a cleaner shot. Honestly, no matter the conditions, this is an amazing waterfall and the snow helped to bring out the brown moss that grows on the rock.
As I mentioned in the intro, I had high expectations of Iceland. Having seen so many images over the years, there was a risk that my expectations were too high. That somehow I would look at a waterfall or an ice cave and not be as impressed as I thought I would. The reality was the opposite. Seeing the beauty of this island in real life was far better than any expectation raised by seeing so many photos of it before. A good example was the ice cave. You know you are going to get amazing blue colors and little streams of water that are hopefully lit up by sunlight. While I did my best to capture this, the beauty of these caves is even more stunning when you stand in them with your own two feet.
The ice caves are formed by underground rivers below the glacier. Vatnajokull is the largest glacier in Europe and when you drive by it you realize just how big it is. It covers almost 8000 square kilometer and is 900 meters thick at some places. We did not only get to experience the ice cave but we also went on a short hike on top of the glacier. The next two photos were shot with the 105mm to really be able to show the size of the glacier.
It was quite windy and we had to be anchored on a line to be able to walk on the glacier. This makes me want to highlight again that having a good bag is ever so important. It wasn't so easy to stay upright, hold the line with one hand and open the side access flap on my backpack with the other to reach for one of my two cameras. But the Shimoda bag worked very well in this scenario. I love that it has a side access as well as a large open 'door' on the back.
On top of the glacier we were led to another amazing experience. A rather small stream of melting water had created this giant carved out space in the glacier. The guide called it the blue rose and we could step into it and follow the flow of the water. Next winter, this will all be gone as the glacier shrinks and regrows so we were grateful to have been able to see this. Shrinking is also very much going on in general with the glacier. Our guide showed us where the glacier was a few decades a go and today it retracts by about 80 meters every year. There are always natural forces at play that determine the size of the glacier but it is pretty clear that the speed with which this is happening is the result of man-made climate change. A pretty sobering sight.
The day was made even better by a turn in the weather. Most of the day it was dry and slightly overcast but at the end of the afternoon the sun came through. This allowed us to see a beautiful sunset at the Diamond Beach. This is the beach where the blocks of ice that are broken off from the glacier glide into the sea. The wind kept most of the bigger 'icebergs' in the laguna but there were still some smaller ice blocks on the beach.
The day was already spectacular enough but the night had some extra surprise waiting for us. The forecast for an Aurora Borealis sighting was not good, and it was a full moon on top which usually makes it harder to see even on a night when the Aurora conditions are good. We set our alarm nevertheless and against the odds, we got quite a good sighting of the Aurora in the sky above our hotel. Part of the reason why I brought the 20mm F1.8 and not just do it all with the 14-30 F4 was to be able to take advantage of its bigger aperture for when the Aurora would show itself. Exposing for about 6 to 8 seconds was enough to capture it without creating star trails. The sharpness and the rendering of the 20mm S lens is really stellar, pun intended.
So far, I was very pleased with how the Nikons behaved. The cameras and lenses got very wet, very cold, they had to cope with lava sand blown at them at high speed, and hot steam above some of the natural hot springs. And they never skipped a beat. The 14-30mm proved a real workhorse, the 105mm was delivering its usual excellence and the 20mm is a focal length I still need to get used to but when it fits, it works really well. I did not use my 50mm as much on this trip. I have two Z6 ii bodies and usually had the 14-30mm on the one and the 105mm on the other, only occasionally switching to the 20mm when needed and the 50mm rarely so. My Capture One catalogue tells me that of the keepers, I shot about 40% with the 14-30mm, my next used lens was the 105mm with a little over 30%, third came the 20mm at just over 20% and finally the 50mm with just under 10%.
Already impressed with what we saw, we were only halfway through our week. The following day we visited some of the other classics in the south west of Iceland. This being our first trip, we had to make our way along the classics before digging into the lesser known attractions of this volcanic paradise on another trip in the future. The next stop was the black beach. This was one of the more crowded spots, although with it being winter and Covid-19 still impacting travel, it has been quite empty everywhere. Nevertheless, the black beach had its fair share of tourists, including us. I never quite understand why some photographers get upset that there are other people in the location they want to capture. I understand that it is nicer to have a clean and pristine view of whatever landscape you are photographing but I believe that I have no more 'right' to be anywhere compared to anyone else. I usually just try to find a way to frame a scene to exclude other people, or I simply let them be in it.
After the black beach, there was only one thing to do next: more waterfalls! Skogafoss is one of the more famous waterfalls and the size of it is truly impressive. This waterfall is probably one of the most photographed waterfalls in Iceland. But I had to add my own take on it, nevertheless. As most of these amazing locations have indeed been captured in ways that us mere photography mortals will never match, let alone surpass, I think wanting to still take that photo comes from a sense of connecting with that specific moment in time and the art of taking the photo. I could browse the internet for a much better photo of Skogafoss. But that would not give me the same satisfaction of my capture as this is a moment frozen in time when I was actually there. In our case, this was when the sun was setting and the light was incredibly yellow. It was so saturated that I had to downgrade it a bit in post, otherwise it would look unreal, even though that was what it looked like in real life. From a composition standpoint, the options to play with the way you capture a waterfall this size are limited to give it your own twist. I have learned to not feel the need to have to look for your own unique framing. Sometimes the best photo is the one everyone else is taking. What I did realize though is that shooting something so impressive with a wide-angle lens sometimes doesn't really capture the enormity. So I looked to my trusty 105mm again to bring a different perspective.
No trip to Iceland is complete without stopping to say hello to the Icelandic horses. It is a specific kind of breed that is unique to the island and apparently has a unique gait compared to other horses. They are very friendly and very accessible, even for someone like me who is not really at ease with horses. The 105mm was a great lens to have to capture some of the horses' detail, while the 50mm allowed me to capture some context but still feel close.
Our second to last day was one where the saying that Iceland has the kind of weather where all seasons show itself on one day came true. And it was especially windy, this proved to be too much of a force for my very light travel tripod I brought along. It was impossible to keep it still so I ended up taking some very short exposures and it was even better to do it handheld because I could use my back to keep out some of the wind. The sensor stabilization in the Z6 ii proved itself in this situation. The waterfall I tried to capture under these conditions is called Gullfoss and it is one of the biggest in Iceland. It cascades down over multiple levels and it is impressive to see the water finds its way down. The time we were there we had the weirdest weather. Because of the very strong winds, everything was changing super quick. We had a relatively calm sky for ten minutes, then we had a snowstorm for ten minutes, only to have another one after a very short period with some sun. Crazy stuff, but a lot of fun to be in.
We also stopped at the famous Geysir that day. This was probably the least interesting thing we visited. It was still cool to see but for me it paled a bit in comparison with so much awesomeness everywhere else. There was a nice walk around the park though, which had some beautiful views. I once again opted for the 14-30mm to capture the scene. I have truly had a chance to learn what this lens can do and I am very impressed. And did I already say how small and light it is? I know I did but it is worth saying again :).
Last stop: Reykjavík. To close off a week full of impressions of a truly different kind of place, we spent the last day in Iceland's capital. It is a relatively small city but there is a nice atmosphere. I had the impression that the ubiquitous presence of chain stores didn't dominate the city center as much as elsewhere. Perhaps this is due to active policy but I liked it very much. The one photographic 'target' I had in Reykjavik was of course that church.
We've really only seen about a quarter of the island, and then only the obvious highlights as this was our first time coming here. What I can say though, is that Iceland is difficult and easy to capture at the same time. The landscape it so beautiful that you almost cannot take any bad photos of it. But at the same time, it is incredibly difficult to capture just how beautiful and impressive it is in real life. This has become a place that my wife and I will cherish and will want to return to. Perhaps in the summer as I think the island will become a whole new place to us.