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Low tide on the Reykjanes peninsula

Rocks and seaweed at low tide near Grindvik on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland. (Eric Girouard)

Rocks and seaweed at low tide near Grindvik on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland.

Reproduction licenses and fine art prints available in the online store.

The Reykjanes peninsula is just slightly southwest of Iceland’s capital city Reykjavik. A veritable treasure trove of landscapes, it has nearly everything to arrest a photographer’s interest: the ocean, endless lava fields, fumeroles, cliffs and seabirds.

I shot this image on my first full day exploring Iceland. Even though it was the first of June, the weather was blustery and cold and the sky clung close to the mountain tops. It gave the scene a quintessential stormy North Atlantic feel that captures the day well.

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Snaefellsnes peninsula’s coloured hills

Mineral rich soil exposed on the barren sides of mountains in southwest Iceland's Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Mineral rich soil exposed on the barren sides of mountains in southwest Iceland's Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Reproduction licenses and fine art prints available in the online store.

The landscape is otherworldly in Iceland. For a first-time visiting photographer, the lasting impression of the country is that you could pick a spot – any spot – on the island and have enough quality subjects to photograph to justify the entire trip. The problem, unless you have a lot of time on your hands, is deciding where to go and where not to go. Luckily, the Snaefellsnes peninsula is a wonderfully condensed version of all of Iceland’s geographic wonders. It also happens to be very close to the capital city of Reykjavik (and the Keflavik airport). Starting with the sea stacks at Londrangar and the famous Kirkjufell mountain, Snaefellsnes also offers abundant seabirds, volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, the rough North Atlantic waves and fantastically sculpted mountains all in a short drive northwest of Reykjavik.

The peninsula’s main attraction is the Snaefellsjökull volcano which is one of the most famous symbols of Iceland. Standing at 1446 meters tall, Snaefellsjökull is the highest mountain on the peninsula. The volcano is also famous for being the entry point to the bowels of the earth in Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Driving around the peninsula, you pass by many exceptionally beautiful places such as these exposed mineral deposits on the barren sides of mountains. Recent geological activity (Iceland is geologically the youngest place on Earth) is visible everywhere here and makes for the most fantastic images.

Mineral rich soil exposed on the barren sides of mountains in southwest Iceland's Snaefellsnes peninsula. (Vertical detail)

Mineral rich soil exposed on the barren sides of mountains in southwest Iceland's Snaefellsnes peninsula (vertical detail).

Reproduction licenses and fine art prints available in the online store.

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Tidal pool and anchor on Heimaey island Iceland

Tidal pool, lava rocks and rusted anchor on Heimaey, Westman Islands, Iceland

Tidal pool, lava rocks and rusted anchor on Heimaey, Westman Islands, Iceland.

Reproduction licenses and fine art prints available in the online store.

During my recent visit to Iceland, last June, I was pleasantly surprised at the rich and diverse landscapes to be discovered on the small (13.4 square kilometres) island of Heimaey (“Home Island”), located just off the south coast of the Icelandic mainland. It is the largest island of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago and also the largest and most populated island off the Icelandic coast. It is the only populated island of the “Westman” islands with a population of 4500 people.

Heimaey is a ruggedly beautiful mixture of volcanic mountains, lava fields with strange dark lava rock formations, lava tubes, windswept fields and green mosses.

This scene is right by the golf course, on the western edge of town at the water’s edge. Beautiful, green, lush and rugged we loved this scene and for a while we believed that we were in Hawaii.

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Öxarárfoss is a small (20 meters) waterfall in Þingvellir National Park, Iceland. It flows from the river Öxará and falls into the rift in between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Öxarárfoss is a small (20 meters) waterfall in Þingvellir National Park, Iceland. It flows from the river Öxará and falls into the rift in between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Reproduction licenses and fine art prints available in the online store.

Öxarárfoss is a small waterfall in Þingvellir National Park in southwest Iceland.

Þingvellir is a site of historical, cultural, and geological significance. It is one of three sites (Þingvellir, Geysir and Gulfoss) known collectively as the “Golden Circle” which is a tourist route that extends from Reykjavík towards central Iceland and back over a course of about 300km.

Þingvellir is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

North America ends here

Geologically, Þingvellir is the site of a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. On one side of the rift, you can see the European tectonic plate and the North American one on the other. The river Öxará crosses the park and forms a waterfall at the Almannagjá rift where it falls in between the plates. It is a very special place to visit for anyone with an interest in geology.

Almannagjá rift

Trail in between the continental plates.Almannagjá is 7.7km long rift, as much as 64 meters wide and marks the eastern boundary of the North American plate.

In this sense, Öxarárfoss is the very last waterfall in North America. It’s waters tumble over the lip of North America and flow downstream into Europe.

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Chasing the midnight sun in Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss is a sixty meter high (200ft) narrow cascade waterfall in southern Iceland.

Seljalandsfoss is a sixty meter high (200ft) narrow cascade waterfall in southern Iceland.

Reproduction licenses and fine art prints available in the online store.

On a photographer’s  bucket list of places to visit in southern Iceland, few rank much higher than Seljalandsfoss.

Easily reached by car from Reykjavik and located quite close to the Ring Road, Seljalandsfoss is a sixty meter (200 foot) high waterfall with a very thin cascade. Stunningly set on ancient coastal cliffs, one of Seljalandsfoss’s most attractive features is that there is a trail that allows visitors to walk behind the falls.  If you time your trip right, you can witness a spectacular sunset scene with the water in between you and the horizon. Not your usual perspective!

I met up with German photographer friend Tobias Knoch in Vik and we drove west together aiming to capture the midnight sunset at Seljalandsfoss.

The classic photographer’s point of view of the falls is from the summit of the hill just to the right of the cascade. We hiked up to the top, passing another photographer on the way up. At the summit, we were joined by Marcelo De Castro, another photographer friend from Brazil.

Out came the tripods, lenses, cable releases and filters. And the wait for the light began.

You can’t always get what you want

In mid-June of this year, large swaths of southern Iceland were heavily overcast. Photographers were zooming about crisscrossing the coastal areas as they chased the light from one valley or mountain slope to the next. On the night we travelled west from Vik, although the sky seemed promising near Skógafoss, the clouds set back in during the course of the next 30km as we approached our destination.

A gloriously colorful sunset was not to be had that night. We tried long exposures and a few other techniques to “get something” – but the color was not there to be seen. We left early.

I returned to Seljalandsfoss several times during the course of the next few days. It was always gray, heavily overcast and often crowded by tourists. I headed off to the Vestmann Islands instead.

Third time lucky in Seljalandsfoss

My third attempt to capture sunset at Seljalandsfoss didn’t seem very promising at first.

The sky was overcast again. Many photographers were walking about trying to find a suitable spot to setup their tripods. You could almost feel the collective anticipation as they all hoped for a break in the clouds. Some were down by the river in front of the falls. Others were off to the right slightly behind the waterfall (and probably getting soaked by the spray). Others were on the hill like I was.

Sunset was scheduled for around midnight that night, which meant that the good warm light would be somewhere in between 11pm and 12am. I had arrived early around 10pm and was setup and ready to shoot by 10:15pm.

And then it happened. At 10:30pm, a hole in the clouds briefly passed in front of the sun. The cliffs at Seljalandsfoss turned to gold.

It lasted only five minutes and disappeared as quickly as it came.

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