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WINTER IN ICELAND

Reynisfjara black sand beach near the town of Vik in south Iceland in the winter.

Reynisfjara

1.3 sec, f/11, ISO 80


On this frigid December day, a thick sheet of snow covered a good part of Reynisfjara beach. A strong wind was blowing off shore, and the exposed black sand shimmered in the sun as the Atlantic waves receded off the beach. The large basalt sea stacks, Reynisdrangar, towered in the distance, unmoved by the powerful incoming waves.


We had landed in Iceland earlier that day, a few hours before sunrise. The days are short at this time of year, so we were eager to pick up our rental car and get on the road to our first destination - the coastal village of Vik, home to Reynisfjara black sand beach. The sky was still black when we walked out through the sliding doors of Keflavik International with our bags and car key in hand. It was cold but calm. A layer of snow blanketed the walkways and parking lot, and we had to shovel around our SUV before we could get moving. Finally, we loaded our bags, punched our destination into the GPS, and were on our way.


Despite having four-wheel drive and studded tires, it was difficult to pick up speed on the snowed over road. After not seeing any headlights for an hour or so, I began wondering whether we took a wrong turn or if the road might be impassable ahead. As suspected, soon enough we came upon a car stuck in the opposite lane - the only section of the road which was somewhat passable here - though not for a sedan. Together with a fellow traveller, who was already at the scene, we managed to push the driver our of the deep snow. He promptly turned around and headed back in the direction he had come from, into the darkness. We were halfway to the southern coast and it was too late to turn back - so we decided to attempt the crossing. I took a deep breath, stepped on the gas and aimed for the narrow tracks in the snow created by earlier vehicles. Luck wasn't on our side either but, thankfully, we got help as well and were out in no time. It was a smoother drive from the on.


As we neared the southern coast, we encountered another delay - an entire section of Highway 1 was impassable and closed while snow was being cleared. None of this should have been a surprise, considering the time of year, but I was overly optimistic in my planning. Luckily, golden hour lasts all day during winter in Iceland and, if the skies are clear enough, you'll be treated to beautiful colours from dawn until dusk. It happened to be one of those days. We finally reached Reynisfjara beach well into midday, when I took that first shot. We walked on the sand, indulged in the view for a short while, and headed indoors for a much needed bowl of hot soup.


Little did we know, we had just enjoyed the last bit of relative calm. The next two days were spent cooped up in a nearby hotel while most of the country's roads became impassable after that night's snowstorm. We had to completely reshuffle our itinerary but, once were finally able to return to the capital region, things brightened up - literally.

Bruarfoss waterfall in the winter in Iceland.

Enchanted Brew

0.4 sec, f/13, ISO 64


We relocated to a hotel in Reykjavik, and were now within driving distance of Bruarfoss - a quaint and unique waterfall. To reach it, we hiked 3 kilometres along a narrow path in the snow, winding through plains and woodland, following the stream flowing from the falls. The spikes on our boots helped as we trekked over packed snow. The sky was beginning to light up as we stepped onto the wooden bridge overlooking Bruarfoss. We were entirely alone. The cascading turquoise waters and its majestic swirl were an incredible sight, made especially beautiful by the surrounding snow-white shores and mountain backdrop.


While researching locations prior to this trip, I've come across so many stunning images of Bruarfoss that I felt I might be underwhelmed when I saw it in person. The effect was entirely the opposite. No photographs, including this one of my own, do the place real justice. As I edited this shot, I did my best to get the blue-green hue of the water just right, but nothing compares to seeing its beauty and unique flow with your own eyes.


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Reykjanes is a location we somehow overlooked on our last trip to Iceland a few years ago. The peninsula is a relatively short drive from Reykjavik, but after the recent snowstorm the roads outside of the city were still very much icy and snow packed. We got as close as we could to the coast, parking the car at the end the snowy trail, down past the lighthouse, and made our way towards the water on foot. It was a cold morning, 10 or 15 degrees Celsius below zero. As we stood at the southwestern tip of Iceland, looking out towards the Atlantic, the ocean waves rolled in one after the other, hitting the jagged coastal rocks and occasionally crashing hard enough to send an explosive splash up into the air in front of us.

Winter sunrise from Reykjanes peninsula in southwest Iceland.

Beacon of the South

13 sec, f/13, ISO 80


A day or two earlier, at this same location, we had witnessed our first show of the elusive Northern Lights. Halfway through our trip by now, we finally had clear skies, and knew this was our chance to see the Aurora before we leave the country. Late that night, we drove out to the coast at Reykjanes and waited. It was the coldest night yet, around 20 below zero, and despite being dressed quite well we could only spend minutes at a time outside the car. We sat in the darkness, headlights off and heat running, looking through the windows for signs of green in the sky. Occasionally, we'd spot faint grey-green slivers on horizon, first signs of the Aurora easily mistaken for ordinary clouds. Often unsure if they were really there, or if our mind was just playing tricks on us, we pointed our phone cameras at the sky as a test - the green, if it was really there, was more evident on the screen. Finally, we were in luck.


The patterns got greener and brighter, beginning to move around the sky, first appearing over the lighthouse behind us, then shifting towards the coast, and eventually lighting up other parts of the horizon. Outside now, in the freezing cold, we could hear waves splashing against the coastal rocks, and felt the icy wind blowing from the ocean.


I looked straight up. The patterns, directly above us, were ever-changing, slowly dancing in front of the stars, and every few seconds materializing into a newly created image in the sky.

Northern lights (Aurora Borealis) over Iceland in the winter.

Spirit of the North

2.5 sec, f/1.8, ISO 2000


What I didn't capture on camera was the even more spectacular Northern Lights show we witnessed later the same night. As we were returning to Reykjavik, now driving on a busy motorway and surrounded by city lights, ribbons of green and purple appeared in the sky ahead, and started moving right over the city. They were unmistakable this time, brighter than we'd seen before, despite the surrounding light pollution. Bands of light in multiple colours - green, purple, events hints of blue - were flowing across the dark sky. We pulled into the next gas station, and got out of the car to enjoy this amazing sight. The show lasted no more than about 15 minutes. We caught a few last glimpses of it after pulling into the driveway, and the sky went dark again. It was as if we had imagined the entire thing.


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Our next destination was located on Snaefellsnes peninsula in West Iceland. This area is home to Kirkjufell mountain, by some accounts the most photographed in the country. Although its name means "church mountain" it reminded me more of a wizard's hat - at least from this viewpoint. The surrounding area is relatively flat, so Kirkjufell stands out among the landscape. The mountain changes shape as you drive around it, making for a multiple unique viewing angles. After weeks of sub-zero temperatures and days of heavy snowfall, the foreground waterfalls were frozen solid, with the surrounding area blanketed with snow.

Kirkjufell mountain covered in snow on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in west Iceland in the winter.

Age of Ice

30 sec, f/11, ISO 200


Later that day, after warming up at a local cafe, we headed towards the coast. It was nearing sunset as we drove from Kirkjufell to the west of the peninsula. The skies were clear, a blue-yellow gradient with orange-pink clouds lining the horizon, and the moon got brighter as the day-long golden hour was coming to an end. We passed through endless lava fields - black porous rock powdered with snow. Volcanic mountains and craters, small and large, would occasionally appear along the road - whether extinct or just dormant, I could not say.


Snaefellsnes felt like a world of its own, unlike any other part of this already unique island.

Moon over the mountains on Iceland's Snaefellsnes peninsula in the winter.

Snaefellsnes Sunset

1/125 sec, f/8, ISO 400


On our last morning in Iceland, the first of 2023, we drove out to Thingvellir National Park. We got little sleep after dinner and fireworks in Reykjavik the night prior, but the forecast was clear for our last day here, and we wanted to take full advantage. Thingvellir is home to a most unique location - the junction of Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, the only place on Earth where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge can be observed above sea level.


We couldn't have asked for a better final morning. After watching the sun rise, we picked up some tea and headed to the airport. Despite the cold weather, risk of heavy snow storms, and dangers of winter driving, we decided a winter trip to Iceland was absolutely worth it.

Junction of tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park in Iceland on a winter morning.

Earth's Ends Meet

1/125 sec, f/13, ISO 400


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