Category Archives: Iceland Travel Blog

The Andrew Johnston Iceland Camouflage Masterclass

The Andrew Johnston Iceland Camouflage Masterclass
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 26-08-2011 15:19 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm (~45.4mm) | Location: Kirkjufell | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

The trouble is, there’s a recurring theme here…

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Iceland Album Now Online!

0811 7D 6859
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Date: 21-08-2011 16:56 | ISO: 200 | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm (~45.4mm) | Latitude: N 64°19'34.82" | Longitude: W 20°7'28.19" | Altitude: 218 metres | Location: Gullfoss | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

I’ve finally posted my complete album from the 2011 Iceland Trip! Please look inside and let me know what you think…

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A Delightful Little Surprise

Waterfalls at Veldivnathraun, Iceland
Camera: Canon PowerShot S95 | Date: 24-08-2011 19:02 | Resolution: 3648 x 2736 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -1/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/1000s | Aperture: 3.2 | Focal Length: 10.7mm | Location: Hrafntinnuhraun | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

I’ve just finished processing the photographs from my 2011 trip to Iceland! I’ll get the best up on my site over the next week or so. At least I’ve avoided the second anniversary of the trip…

There was a wonderful little twist in the tail. I was processing the last few shots, most of which were taken on my Canon 7D, and the very last were a couple of shots taken walking away from one of our locations, when the sun suddenly hit the waterfalls just right. I assumed that these were also from the 7D, but the filename and data tell a different story. These were taken on my diminutive Canon S95. Not bad, huh?

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Back to the ‘Fray

Monochrome HDR shot of the "Ugly Pond" and stormy sky beyond
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 24-08-2011 10:43 | ISO: 100 | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 30.0mm (~48.6mm) | Location: Einbúi | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

Oh well… The annual pilgrimage to the sun has come and gone, and it’s back to the ´fray. (I assume that “fray” is a contraction of “affray” – is that correct?)

Updates to my web site are almost complete. As a salutary lesson to others in a similar position, what I had hoped would be a few weeks’ work turned into something which chewed up most of my “development” time for over three months. However I now have a site which works well on almost all devices (although there are a couple of outstanding oddities and the style sheets still need tweaking for phones with relatively low resolution screens, such as older iPhones). I’m hoping my “lessons learned” will make interesting reading to anyone with a similar challenge, and I’m also confident that future changes will be easier to achieve.

I’m also hoping to get back to blogging on other topics, which have been neglected a bit in recent times. If you have any preference on topics then please let me know.

Most of my recent posts have been book reviews, and I thought the blog needed a picture at the top, hence the above. I’ve been processing some outstanding photos from my Iceland trip, and I was rather taken with this one, which is another HDR monochrome development from three originals processed using Photomatix. What do you think?

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Fixing Holes

Fixing a Hole: Iceberg on the Jokullsarlon glacial lake, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 27-08-2011 11:08 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/40s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 100.0mm (~162.0mm) | Location: Jökulsá | State/Province: East | See map | Lens: Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM

I’m making decent progress rolling out my new design to the website, but apologies if you’re waiting for some more interesting content!

I’ve now got to the “fiddly” stage, making sure that the new theme works on the slightly more tricky pages. Basically a process of “fixing holes”. I’ve also been processing a few more of my photos from Iceland, and I thought this one a neat echo of my other activities!

Please let me know how you get on with the new look website, and particularly if there are any problems on particular devices or browsers…

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Photographing Waterfalls

Gullfoss, Iceland, up close and personal
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 23-08-2011 11:02 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/100s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 85.0mm (~137.7mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

I’m afraid I don’t subscribe to the received wisdom that waterfalls should be photographed with long exposures which capture the flow as a sort of silky mush. That might work for gentle trickles in dappled glades, but if you’re looking at something like Iceland’s mighty Gullfoss you (or at least I) want to somehow capture the power of the flow. However, just setting a fast shutter speed, pointing the camera straight on and freezing the motion doesn’t always work either.

I took around 100 shots around Gullfoss. I’m only really happy with a handfull, but yesterday I discovered this one which I think really works. Although I’ve labelled it “up close and personal” it was actually taken from further away than some of the others, but I like the pattern of flows and rocks revealed in the portrait orientation. I also think that the 1/100 shutter speed gets a pretty good balance between “flow” and “power”, although it’s a lot faster than some would go for. What do you think?

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The Back of Beyond

"The Back of Beyond" - scene from the Fjallabak region, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 24-08-2011 10:48 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/100s | Aperture: 11.0 | Focal Length: 80.0mm (~129.6mm) | Location: Einbúi | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

I haven’t posted any photos since the end of our USA trip, but I have, finally, got back to sorting out my Iceland photos from last year. I thought, therefore, I would share this shot with you. It’s from an un-named spot in the Fjallabak region. Fjallabak (pronounced fiat-la-back) means “back of the mountains”, which is delightfully literal in this case.

I love the various circular swirls which are a recurring feature in this image. I’m not sure whether they all have a common geological cause.

I also did an HDR version of a similar shot, which brought out more of the sky detail but reduced the nice smooth feel of the mountain shapes. However, the black and white conversion looks quite dramatic, and with a slightly different crop works quite well:

I need to do a bit more work on the HDR version – at full resolution there’s a bit of odd “banding” in the sky – but I think it looks promising.

Which do you prefer?

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That Shouldn’t Have Worked…

Mountain stream at Graenfjall, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 26-08-2011 16:21 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/5s | Aperture: 14.0 | Focal Length: 26.0mm (~42.1mm) | Location: Grænafjall | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

There’s a lovely moment in the film Sahara where Pitt and Giordano are following a typically desperate plan in the hope that if they can kill the villain his men will just surrender and lay down their arms. When, to their surprise, this starts to happen they look at each other and say simultaneously “That shouldn’t have worked…”. This is the photographic equivalent.

There are two schools of thought on how you should photograph moving water. One approach is to use a fast shutter speed and “freeze” the motion. I’m convinced that this is the best approach for large waterfalls, fast rivers or large waves, and you’ll see it in many of my photographs. As long as there’s enough light then there’s no major technical challenge with that approach.

The opposing school of thought is that you use a very slow shutter speed (typically a large fraction of 1s) and show the water as a blur. This expresses the direction of motion, but personally I don’t think it expresses the force or the dynamics so well. However, as Iceland has almost as many waterfalls as Venice has gondolas (see “Waterfalls, Waterfalls…”) I decided that this was an ideal opportunity to experiment.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the slow shutter speed approach does work, but it works best for small features with complex flow patterns, but relatively low flow speed/force. I’ve also reached the conclusion that a lazy man will work harder to avoid work than to actually do the job! :)

Here’s the official, recommended method to get a shot like the above:

  1. Pre-visualise the result you want, ideally using a cardboard rectangle instead of actually looking through your camera’s viewfinder.
  2. Set up your tripod. The heavier this is the better. If the waterfall is a long way from the road be grateful for the exercise. :)
  3. Curse when you realise that to position the tripod correctly either it, or you, are going to get very wet.
  4. Turn off image stabilisation, and mount your camera on the tripod. Attach the remote release.
  5. Fine tune the camera and tripod position to get the composition right. Curse when more of your kit gets wet.
  6. Set the exposure to get a shutter speed of 1/4 to 1s. Start by selecting the lowest ISO and a small aperture (say f22). If this isn’t enough, attach a polariser. If this is still not enough, take out the Lee/Cokin filter kit, mount up the filter holder, and slide in your neutral density filter(s).
  7. Meter carefully. Typically the highlights will be very bright if there’s any direct sunlight, and automatic metering may either over-expose or under-expose depending on how much of the scene is bright water relative to the rest.
  8. Take the shot.

In fairness, this method works well, even if your photography costs $10 a shot and you don’t see the results until six weeks after leaving the location. However, here is the alternative Andrew Johnston Patent Digital Method:

  1. Wander over to the interesting waterfall, and decide that this is one you want to photograph with blurred movement.
  2. Realise that it’s a long walk back to the jeep, and you can’t be ****d to get your tripod. Anyway, where you want to stand it would only get wet…
  3. Set your camera to its lowest ISO, aperture priority and a high aperture. On an APS-C DSLR you probably don’t want to go much higher than f16 as diffraction effects start to kick in.
  4. Make sure image stabilisation is on. If you want to control reflections and highlights attach a polariser and get it set right.
  5. Take a quick shot to check exposure. Dial in exposure compensation as required.
  6. If the resulting shutter speed is in the region of 1/10s – 1/4s you’re probably OK. If it’s too low, just reduce the aperture. If it’s still too high, take the ND filter out of the filter pack.
  7. Realise that the Cokin filter holder is in your other camera bag, which is in the jeep. See point 2. So don’t worry about the holder.
  8. Hold your camera firmly in your right hand. Hold the filter in the left hand, in front of the lens.
  9. Fine tune the composition, breathe in, and take the shot. Check the sharpness of the static elements on the LCD. If they are sharp enough then you’re done, if not go to step 8 and try again.

OK, if I’d had my Cokin filter holder in my bag I would have screwed it onto the front of the lens, which would at least have allowed me to brace my camera with both hands. What’s interesting is that Image Stabilisation technology is good enough that you can get decent hand-held shots at this shutter speed, and immediate digital review allows you to check their sharpness.

Next week – how to induce temporary paralysis so you can hand-hold for 25s for fireworks!

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Iceland Photography Tips – A Spare Everything!

"Steamed" - action shot of the author, by James Chambers
Resolution: 531 x 397

Iceland is a great place for photography, but you need to be properly prepared to get the best of it, and not come away disappointed.

First, unless you’re very good at research, navigation and off-road driving, you need a guide. Sure, you can get to the well-known sites a short drive from Reykjavik or along the coast road under your own steam, but you’ll miss many of the most stunning locations in the interior. However, if you want to spend serious time on your photography you need to be with a group, and guides, who understand your needs. I can’t praise highly enough the great service I had from first contact with Nature Explorer. Hawk and Finn are both great company, skilful drivers, knowledgeable and entertaining guides, and impressive photographers in their own right. Their administrative staff are also excellent, and their resilience to problems comforting. I’m very happy to recommend them.

Next, dump your preconceptions. Even short distances or intervals bring dramatic variation in scenery, weather and lighting. Well known sites may be quite crowded, or almost empty. A classic view may disappoint, and then half an hour later a less obvious subject may be portfolio material. Dedicated dawn-watchers may disagree, but in my view timing isn’t critical – “golden hour” extends well into the morning and from late afternoon, but more importantly the quality of your light is much more likely to be controlled by the weather than the hour. Iceland rewards being prepared more than missing breakfast and supper.

Protect your kit well, and carry spares for everything! Iceland is a harsh environment. You’ll be doing long distances on rough roads. The volcanic dust and ash gets everywhere, and is very abrasive. You will end up soaked by rain, waterfalls and geysirs (in my case, “all of the above”;)). The failure of my 15-85mm lens wasn’t the only hardware problem in our group, although the others were mainly more minor problems with things like batteries, filters, lens caps and retaining rings. Several cameras gained battle scars from knocks and falls. I also managed to destroy a pair of trousers and gave up on a faulty battery. Nature Explorer even had to resort to a spare super-jeep!

As a minimum, make sure you have a second camera body and a second “standard” lens (whatever that means for you). My cheaper Canon 17-85mm lens rescued my trip. Consider carrying three batteries for your main body in case one dies as happened to me. Also remember one of the hidden advantages of using mid-range Canon kit – someone else in the group may be able to help. You will end up shooting in wet or dusty conditions, so a Kata Rain Bag or similar, and cheap filters you don’t mind wiping with anything to hand are both essential!

Iceland is cold, but it’s not the temperature that gets you (for our trip it was consistently above freezing and up to 14C), it’s the wind. The answer is lots of layers. For me the combination of sweatshirt, microfibre jacket with detachable lining, warm hat and raincoat with hood was about right, but others might need even more. I can also recommend carrying a flask of coffee. I ended up buying one on the first day, and leaving it behind, and had to haggle with hoteliers a couple of times about filling it, but it was well worth the effort.

Deep pockets are useful in two different ways. In a practical sense they are a great solution to the ridiculous baggage limits airlines are progressively imposing. If you can shove a couple of lenses into your trousers and heavy batteries into your jacket then the baggage allowances become less of a problem.

In the metaphorical sense you need to be prepared for high prices – Iceland isn’t cheap, especially by the standards of say the USA or southern Europe. That said, by UK standards and given the current exchange rate it didn’t feel that bad. I will comment on the recommendation made by almost every web site and guide book to buy lots of booze at the incoming duty free store. I’m now convinced this is a con trick to get free beer for Icelanders. Unless you’re a real alky, don’t bother.

Don’t expect to get anything done on the go. I had visions of sitting in the jeeps reading, writing my blog on my iPad, or at least preparing for the next location, but despite Finn being a very smooth driver this was absolutely impossible – the roads are just too rough. Not for nothing does my map of Iceland have a road classification I have never seen before: “main road – unsurfaced”. :)

Be prepared for all photographic opportunities, and for lots of shooting. Although my Canon 7D got most use, the 550D also came into its own for wandering around Reykjavik, and I always had the S95 in my pocket for the unexpected. I shot at every focal length from 10mm to 300mm, and at every speed from 25s for the fireworks to 8 fps for the puffins in flight. I photographed landscapes, buildings, people and action. By the end of the trip I had exceeded my Cuba shooting total, having exposed around 2100 frames, with ~1150 (~30GB) retained for further processing after initial filtering. I used about 56GB of CF cards, plus a small amount on 2 8GB SD cards for the two smaller cameras.

There’s a saying “chance favours the prepared mind”. If that’s ever true, it’s true of photographing Iceland.

If you want to see more of my Iceland photography blog, or get a few specific location ideas, please go to

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Shoot Only Puffins, Leave Only Footprints

Puffin in flight at Dyrholaey, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 28-08-2011 13:15 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/320s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 180.0mm (~291.6mm) | Location: Reynisdalur | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM

I was ready for a quiet day of mainly driving on Sunday. I was also ready to report a total of about 1800 shots taken, which is a bit lower than for the Cuba trip, not unreasonable given the slightly shorter duration and the fact that this was mainly landscape photography.

Then we got to the puffin colony… :)

Having visited a couple of interesting rock formations (basically basalt columns like Staffa or The Giant’s Causeway), we drove a short distance to the top of the cliff, which was essentially home to thousands of puffins, which were variously sitting quietly or diving off into the sea to catch food. They seem to be quite unafraid of humans, and because of the prevailing wind onto the cliff they had to glide slowly at take-off and landing, sometimes very close to us, which made photography feasible, if still challenging.

Of course, this is what my kit, consisting of the Canon 7D and 70-300 IS lens, is built for. Any minor inferiority complex relative to the 5D and medium format brigade vanished in the face of my 8 frames per second and high performance auto-focus, and I got a number of good shots. The above is probably one of the best, although there are several other good candidates.

It did put the shooting total up a bit. In less than an hour I took well over 300 shots, filling a 16GB memory card and flattening a battery, but who cares. Together with the other shots from the day the total now stands over 2150 – even higher than Cuba!

Our hosts had organised a wonderful end to the day. In the outskirts of Reykjavik we diverted to the hospital where Gruni (Finn’s wife, who had joined us on the tour) works. There we were doubly treated, both to a celebratory glass of champagne and a couple of chocolates, but also to an exhibition of the best of Finn’s photographs, in wonderful large prints. Definitely something to aspire to.

I’m back in the hotel, and busy packing for an early start. I’ll do a final post when I’m home, summing up and listing my tips for any future travellers, but it’s been a wonderful trip and highly recommended to anyone else who wants to try.

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Fire and Ice – Delivered

Fireworks over the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM | Date: 27-08-2011 23:13 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 8.0s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 13.0mm (~21.1mm) | State/Province: East | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM

Saturday was when our tour really delivered on its “fire and ice” moniker. We started the day at the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, where an edge of the enormous Vatnajokull glacier calves off into the sea. Whereas 100 years ago this was happening quite close to the sea’s edge, the point at which the icebergs fall from the glacial edge has progressively moved back, and they now fall into a lagoon of mixed salt and freshwater where they tend to hang around for a few days before drifting out to sea. Apparently the edge of the glacier is retreating by a massive 200m per year (due more to the effect of the incoming salt water than global warming), making this the fastest-changing glacier in Europe.

This has famously been used as the location for two Bond films, most notably the car chase in Die Another Day. The problem is that due to all the salt water, it doesn’t usually freeze even in mid-Winter. So they temporarily blocked up the lagoon outlet to stop extra salt water coming in, and waited three weeks for the lagoon to freeze. Why they couldn’t just find a suitable frozen lake somewhere is a good question, so far unanswered.

It is a very dramatic location for photography, with all the shapes and colours in the ice, and under constant change as the ice moves, often twisting and tumbling suddenly as the balance of the mass above and below the surface changes.

After lunch we headed up the coast via another, much calmer glacial lagoon to a waterfall surrounded by basalt columns. Unfortunately we got there just the same time as a bus load of grockles who all wanted to sit right in the middle of the stream for about 1/2 hour having their photos taken… Grr :(

The last stop before dinner was a quick walk up alongside the glacial tongue right behind our hotel. This was useful to get a sense of the enormous scale of these, and then try and imagine that each is only a tiny corner of Vatnajokull.

After dinner it was back to Jokullsarlon for the “fire” part of the day – a once a year fireworks display over the lagoon. This was brilliant, and I hope I’ve done it justice.

Sadly, it’s the long drive back to Reykjavik tomorrow, with limited photography, and then home. However, it’s been a wonderful trip, with an amazing and unexpected variety.

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Floating Ice

Iceberg at Jokullsarlon, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 27-08-2011 10:06 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 180.0mm (~291.6mm) | Location: Breiðamerkursandur | State/Province: East | See map | Lens: Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM

This is a small iceberg floating in the Jokullsarlon galcial lagoon – see post above for details.

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One from the Road

An edge of the Vatnajokull glacier reflected in a pond
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 27-08-2011 09:30 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 47.0mm (~76.1mm) | Location: Jökulsárlón | State/Province: East | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

Saturday consisted of various views of the Vatnajokull glacier.  Here’s one taken by shouting “stop” at Finn when we saw a puddle which reflected this glacial tongue in good light. Thankfully his quick reactions didn’t cause an accident.

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Also from the “Foss a Siva”

Hut adjacent to the Foss a Siva waterfall, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 26-08-2011 18:12 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/25s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm (~45.4mm) | Location: Eystri-Ásar | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

Here’s another view of the field beneath the Foss a Siva. I loved the light, and the simple colour palette, and just wanted to share this with you.

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Other People!

The "Foss a Siva" waterfall, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 26-08-2011 18:10 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 26.0mm (~42.1mm) | Location: Krossfell | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

We continued our move south-east on Friday, moving from the highlands down to the coastal strip, and round Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull.

We spent the morning at Landmannalaugar, which is a popular destination for all tours, so there were lots of other people, whereas we’ve been almost entirely on our own at most locations since leaving Gullfoss. I’m not sure I understand why Landmannalaugar is quite so popular. It’s pretty, but not as dramatic as other sites we’ve seen. I suppose the fact that it’s accessible on fairly easy roads and that it serves as a good jumping-off point for several hiking routes explains it. Anyway, we did a nice circular hike which would take a determined hiker about 1 hour, but kept a wander of photographers (is that the right collective noun? :)) entertained for about 3!

After that we drove south over the edge of the highlands, capturing various mountain streams on the way, and down to join the ring road near the south coast. Last stop of the day was the “Foss a Siva”, a delightful waterfall / cliff / meadow combination in near perfect late-afternoon light. That’s the shot for today.

The remainder of the drive was interesting for seeing the enormous Vatnajokull glacier gradually being passed on our left, while we travelled through the rugged Laki lava field. This is the outpouring from the 1783 eruption. It’s about 40km wide and totals  something like 16 cubic kilometres of lava, the largest from any single eruption in recorded history.

Saturday will be glaciers, glaciers and yet more glaciers, ending with a firework display on the glacier at Jokulsarlon.

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Sandwich Day

Lake and mountain panorama in the Vatnaoldur region, Iceland.
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 25-08-2011 12:13 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 20.0mm (~32.4mm) | Location: St�ra-Fossvatn | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

… and I don’t mean the nice ham and cheese one I had for lunch! :)

I asked for a less dramatic day today and got it. We started with a relatively short drive through a completely empty black sand desert. Apparently the sand and the layer of lava below it are so porous that the substantial rain and snow drain very rapidly through to the next non-porous layer. Combined with Iceland’s low temperatures and high winds this creates completely barren areas but where the water gathers they are dotted with large rivers and lakes providing oases of fertility, and welcome splashes of colour.

The weather was glorious, sunny, calm, even relatively warm (about 9C), and the visibility was amazing, with distant peaks and glaciers clearly visible.

During the middle of the day we moved into an area known as Vatnaoldur consisting of a large number of these lakes separated by slight ridges providing panoramic views from colourful foreground right to the mountains and glaciers in the background. Lunch was taken in a charming little spot by one of these lakes.

However, our guides, and Iceland, were just lulling us into a false sense of security. To get back we had to traverse another enormous desert area. This was an impressive demonstration of our drivers’ skills, as it occasionally meant navigating the jeeps over large areas of bare rock, and it provided a couple of interesting photo opportunities at interesting rock formations.

The wind was starting to get up, and by the time we made the last stop of the day (a waterfall, surprise, surprise) it was almost too strong to stand in holding a camera steady. However, the forecast is good and we’d had an excellent day, a real “desert sandwich”.

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Desert Flower

Sparse vegetation near a river contrasted with the black sand desert behind in the Vatnaoldur region
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 25-08-2011 10:55 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/15s | Aperture: 18.0 | Focal Length: 26.0mm (~42.1mm) | Location: Vatnsskarð | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

One of Thursday’s shots, showing the sparse vegetation a near a river contrasted with the black sand desert behind.

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An Eventful Day

Ice detail from the glacier edge at Hrafntinnursker, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 24-08-2011 15:26 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 1/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 9.0 | Focal Length: 300.0mm (~486.0mm) | Location: Hrafntinnusker | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM

Wednesday was a fascinating and rather eventful day. We started off gently enough with a group of locations around Landmannalaugar which were a combination of black hills streaked with almost fluorescent green moss, and colourful tarns surrounded by black, brown, green and red rocks.

After that, we headed for Hrafntinnursker (=”Obsidian Skerry”). At last we were off roads which could be handled by any reasonably capable car and into an environment really suited to the super jeeps. The first highlight was a small hilltop half-way up the mountain which has a commanding panoramic view of much of southern Iceland, including ten of the country’s thirteen or so glaciers.

A mile down the road was a deep river and Haukur decided it would produce good promotional material to have our jeep going through it while he took pictures. This started well enough, but we suddenly hit a deep patch, the jeep canted over to 45 degrees and the engine cut out. The other jeep was back down the hill remarkably quickly and towed us out, but not before my corner of the car had started to fill with water (the level of the river was only a couple of inches below my window). We had a few wet feet, but the cameras were dry! The guys decided to leave the car and have it checked by a mechanic before attempting to restart the engine (turning a flooded diesel can cause a lot of damage) and we continued in a single jeep.

We eventually got to Hrafntinnursker, which turned out to be an absolute photographer’s heaven, and the fact that we had to spend some extra time there while the jeeps were sorted out was a benefit rather than a hardship. In one small area you have the edge of a melting glacier, a load of very active geothermal vents, a mixture of rocks including large quantities of obsidian, and both hot and cold running water! This is genuine “fire and ice” as per the tour’s title.

The second event of the day was of my own making. I tried to cross a small stream and as I placed my foot on the far bank it crumbled and I went tumbling. I was unharmed, and I managed to protect the camera so that although it got scuffed on one corner no worse harm was done. What’s a well-used camera without a couple of battle scars anyway? However, my clothing did not come off so well, and my brand new North Face waterproof trousers suffered what is described in engineering terms as “catastrophic structural failure” (ripping from the waist band to halfway down the thigh). Fortunately the Levis underneath were unaffected,so modesty was preserved, but there was a sudden and distinct shortcoming in the insulation department!

So great photography, but I’ll be pleased if tomorrow is as photogenic but somewhat less eventful.

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Glacial Panorama

Panorama from hill near Hrafntinnursker, Iceland, showing multiple ice caps and glaciers
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 24-08-2011 12:32 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/100s | Aperture: 14.0 | Focal Length: 38.0mm (~61.6mm) | Location: Lj�tipollur | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

This is a panorama from just one side of a small hillock near Hrafntinnursker which has a remarkable view. Bewteen this and a similar view the other way you can see no fewer than ten of Iceland’s glaciers. The one on the left in this view is Eyarfjallajokull which caused all the trouble last year. Just out of shot to the left is Hekla, its much larger cousin which geologists say may be starting to rumble towards its first eruption of the jet age.

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Pollur (tarn) near Landmannalaugar, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 24-08-2011 11:12 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/50s | Aperture: 11.0 | Focal Length: 26.0mm (~42.1mm) | Location: Tjörfafell | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

This is a rather nice pollur (=”tarn”) near Landmannalaugar. I particularly like the red, green and blue palette. I’m beginning to get the hang of Icelandic pronunciation. It seems to mainly involve putting at lot of “t” sounds where they wouldn’t occur in English. For example, “pollur” is pronounced “pot-lert”.

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Waterfalls, Waterfalls…

The twin waterfalls at Haifoss. Taken lying on my front, camera held in front of me out over the edge.
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Date: 23-08-2011 14:09 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -2 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 10.0mm (~16.2mm) | Location: Fossalda | State/Province: South | See map

With the original cinema release of Life of Brian the Monty Python team included a wonderful documentary spoof called Away From It All, which includes at one point the memorable line “Gondolas, gondolas and more ****ing gondolas”. Tuesday’s journey through Iceland could easily be titled “Waterfalls, waterfalls and more bloody waterfalls” :)

Don’t think I’m being churlish – they were actually quite different, and it was a natural effect of driving along the edge of the highlands between the Hofsjokull Glacier (the one in the middle) and the mass which is the giant volcano Hekla (with the smaller but more recently troublesome Eyarfjallajokull), that we’d pass where several rivers drain rapidly onto the coast.

We started off visiting Gullfoss (= “gold waterfall”) from the East side, which gave us quite a different perspective to the usual tourist view from the West. We waited ages for a shaft of sunlight to create a rainbow in the spray, gave up, and then just as we were leaving the sun came out. I was at the back of the line, and close enough to run back and get one shot! Score 1.

We then had a moderately long drive underneath a power line through a fairly empty rocky desert, but this was justified by Haifoss (= “high waterfall”), where twin waterfalls empty straight down about 1000ft into a narrow gorge. I used the famous “switch on live view, lie on your belly and lean out as far as you dare” method to capture the above shot. I was really in the zone, clicking away, and didn’t realise that the rest of the group had already gone back to the cars until I could hear Finn shouting for me. Just as I was leaving a shaft of sunlight created another rainbow. Score 2.

A short drive took us to Gljufurleitarfoss (= “I haven’t got a notion on this one waterfall” :)) which was a dramatic contrast to the very stark beauty of the first two, a real oasis. I had to check we hadn’t gone through a stargate or similar – this green, lush, calm valley really didn’t look like Iceland. I suppose the reason is the way it is sheltered almost all the way around by moderately sharp cliffs – in Britain it would almost certainly be Coombe or Cwm somthing.

Sadly after this it was back on the bare, rocky roads to our last stop, Dynkur (= “nor this one, but it probably isn’t -waterfall”), which is another large, powerful and wide waterfall like Gullfoss. The hike in and out was quite interesting through dense moss, ferns and blueberries quite unlike the sparse vegetation elsewhere. Then it was off to the hotel via a shortcut which involved taking the jeeps through a quite deep and fast moving river. We got some great shots, and Hawk announced that “he loves his job”. Excellent.

I’m writing this with the most wonderful rich dawn light outside the window. Sadly Hotel Highland is located mainly to service a big dam and hydroelectric power plant, and all I can see out of the window is some grass, a sheep, and a couple of power lines. Oh well…

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Our Guides

Our drivers/guides. Fiinn. the fater in the foreground, Hawk in the background.
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 23-08-2011 14:59 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/6s | Aperture: 16.0 | Focal Length: 44.0mm (~71.3mm) | Location: Háifoss | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

Meet our guides. I’m doing this trip with an Icelandic company called Nature Explorer, which is run by Haukur “Hawk” Parelius, in the background in this shot. He has several drivers, but always does the Fire and Ice trip himself, usually accompanied by his father Finnur “Finn” Frothason. I haven’t quite worked out why Finn (who’s originally Danish) uses an Icelandic patronimic, and Hawk who was born in Iceland, doesn’t!

Both are wonderful guides, with a great sense of fun, excellent English, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Iceland and other subject matters. Highly recommended.

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A Day of Travails

Fire meets ice at Kerlingfjoll, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 22-08-2011 12:59 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 2/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 31.0mm (~50.2mm) | Location: Blákvísl | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

You don’t realise quite how empty the interior of Iceland is, or just how much time you’re going to spend bouncing over unmade roads through deserts of rock and mud. It’s not surprising that NASA test their extra-terrestrial rovers here. Fortunately the scenery when you get to each location more than makes up for it.

We started Monday by driving up to Kerlingfjoll (which roughly translates as “Bitch Mountain” :)). This is an amazingly colourful geothermal centre reminiscent of The Artists’ Palette in Death Valley, only with ice, rain, snow and steam all mixed in! The only problem was that it was blowing a gale, tipping with rain and only just above freezing. I braved it with my new raincoat, Kata rainbag and cheap filter on the camera, and got some great shots. One of the rest of the party had a little Canon in a waterproof housing (like I use for snorkelling) which was maybe slightly OTT but worked well, and her husband had a rainbag like mine, but everyone else gave up on photography which was an enormous pity.

After lunch we travelled up to Hveravellir (“Hot Field”), to see another geothermal display, this time a mix of hot pools and small geysirs. On the way back we diverted up to the Langjokull glacier, at a point where the jeeps could actually drive up onto it. This was a brilliant experience.

Unfortunately at this point I realised that my main 15-85mm lens was starting to play up, and my photos from the glacier aren’t that great. I don’t know whether it’s the vibration, the moisture or just a fault which was waiting to happen, but I’m getting a nice soft focus at the top/left of the picture, whether I want it or not :(. Fortunately I also have the 17-85mm as a spare, so hopefully this won’t put too much of a dent in proceedings. Yesterday also saw the possible demise of one of the batteries for the 7D, but I won’t know until I’ve recharged and re-tested it.

I’m going to start building up a list of tips for a trip such as this, but a spare everything, a rain bag and a cheap filter you don’t mind wiping with anything to hand are all essential!

Hotel Geysir may look nice, and dinner was great, but the rooms are a bit chilly and there’s really nowhere to type on the PC, so I’ll stop here… More tomorrow.

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Please Don’t Shoot the Motorcyclists!

"Please don't shoot the motocyclists!" Road sign near Geysir, Iceland.
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 21-08-2011 17:17 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/50s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 50.0mm (~81.0mm) | Location: Gullfoss | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

´Nuff said…

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It Now Costs a Pound to Spend a Penny!

The big geysir Strokkur starts to erupt.
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 21-08-2011 17:58 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/250s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 40.0mm (~64.8mm) | Location: Skersli | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

Just a quick update today, as I’ve had a few computer problems and time is tight…

Yesterday we were picked up from the hotel in two enormous “superjeeps”, which started life as Nissan Patrols but now stand about 10ft tall, and headed out into the country. The day’s itinery focused on the well-known natural sites within a day from Reykjavik, so we started (via a trip over the mountains to see a geothermal power plant) with Thingvellir, which has both historic interest, as the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th century until the 19th, and also geological interest, because it’s where you can most visibly see the North American tectonic plate moving away from the Eurasian plate, at about 1cm/year.

After that we travelled up to the big waterfalls at Gulfoss. I decided to try and get a close-up, which meant descending into a large cloud of spray, but thanks to my Kata Rainbag for the camera, and an excellent North Face raincoat I’d picked up in Reykjavik, both camera and I stayed adequately dry, and I got some good shots. They need a bit of work to bring out the best, but hopefully I’ll post one before the end of the trip.

After that we took the scenic (i.e. dirt track) route back to Geysir, which gives its name to powerful host springs in languages the world over except, ironically, Icelandic! Actually this is a little disappointing if you’ve been to larger sites such as Yellowstone, but it’s well worth seeing if you’re here… We wandered up the path to the main geysir, Strokkur, and waited. Suddenly this dome appeared, and the geysir erupted. And guess who was standing in exactly the wrong place? No raincoat, no rain bag – I got absolutely soaked. Fortunately I managed to turn quickly enough so that I took most of it on my back, and no harm was done. When I realised what was happening I was immediately worried that I might be scalded, but the temperature was fine, like taking a nice warm shower with your clothes on. Well at least the shot was worth it.

If you’re puzzled by the title of this piece, let me explain… Before I came away I was reading my mother’s journal from her Iceland trip, in the early 90s. At that time none of these sites had any significant development for tourism, and she remarked several times how unspoilt and un-commercial they were. That  has changed. You can still visit the attractions free of charge, although I suspect the paths and car parks are a bit more obtrusive than when my parents came, but you are also encouraged to visit the visitor centre / restaurant / shop and, of course, use the facilities should you need to do so. At Geysir and Gulfoss these were free of charge, but at Thingvellir they were extracting a punitive 200 ISK (about £1.10) for the privilege. Adam, the other British person on the trip, looked at me and we both said almost simultaneously “that’s a pound to spend a penny”*. Blank stares from those with other financial contexts. Oh well.

* Explanation for the foreign, the young and the hard of thinking: before Britain changed to decimal coinage in 1971 the standard charge for a public toilet had been, for many years, one old penny, 1d. “Spending a penny” was a convenient and common euphamism. The expression still works, although mainly as a measure of long-term inflation.

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Reykjavik “Culture Night” – The Other Side of the Coin :)

The other side of the Reykjavik "Culture Night" Festival - the Pole Dancing competition!, Iceland 2011
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 20-08-2011 18:03 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 35.0mm (~56.7mm) | Location: Adam Guesthouse | State/Province: Capital Region | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

And here’s some more of the flower of Iceland’s youth! Judging by the outfits Reykjavik has at least two pole dancing clubs in competition with one another. I would say it keeps them off the streets, but of course yesterday that wasn’t true. :)

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Reykjavik “Culture Night” – One Side of the Coin

Folk Singing at the Reykjavik Culture Night Festival, Iceland 2011
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 20-08-2011 15:03 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: -1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 38.0mm (~61.6mm) | Location: Kringlan | State/Province: Capital Region | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

I wanted to show the breadth of the “Culture Night”, and was torn between these three cute Icelandic maidens singing their very tuneful folk songs, and the pole dancing. I suspect in the interests of journalistic integrity I have to take a leaf from the BBC’s book and show both…

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Updates from Iceland…

The Harpa Concert Hall lit up for the Reykjavik Culture Night Festival, Iceland 2011
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 20-08-2011 22:55 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 25.0s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 15.0mm (~24.3mm) | Location: Government Building | State/Province: Capital Region | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

From the Ministry of Odd Coincidences: I’ve been on four organised photography tours, and I’ve now been in the right place to witness marathons or “fun runs” on three of them. The latest was the annual Reykjavik Marathon. I wonder why this keeps occurring?

From the Health and Safety Executive: If you sit down at lunch and all the welds holding the seat to the chair legs suddenly fail, it isn’t necessarily because your wife is right and you’re overweight. It could simply be down to the fact that the chair has been out in one too many Icelandic storms and the restaurant should apologise to you instead of the other way around. The lesson: understand how to inspect a cracked weld for rust (and maybe lose a few pounds too! :)).

From the Department of Pointless Activities: If a restaurant has limited English reading matter, a two year old copy of Stuff really is probably worse than nothing. It’s quite scary how many of the new gadgets in that magazine have been, gone and already been replaced.

From the Icelandic Department of Culture (OK, they really exist, but why spoil a good format?): Reykjavik “Culture Night” is a fascinating thing to experience. Having seen the Marathon off this morning downtown Reykjavik was a bit dead, and I got a taxi over to the big shopping mall, and had lunch there. When I got back, Reykjavik was completely transformed, with almost the whole centre pedestrianised and every street corner sporting a burger/beer stand and live music. It looks like almost the whole Icelandic population has turned out, and I’m amazed that the country has that many musicians and PA systems.  It’s not even just music – one square was hosting a pole dancing competition! The only minor problem is that the area opposite my hotel has been given over to an Iron Maiden tribute band. They’re not without talent, but very loud…

I’m off now to sample some more of culture night. Hopefully I’ll be able to update you later with some pics of the fireworks.

… The remainder of Culture Night was a mixed bag. The big Jazz concert to start the Jazz festival was, to be as charitable as possible, “simply weird shit” (the uncharitable wouldn’t bother with “weird” :)).  However, once I gave up on that and went in search of a drink I found an amazing Christian blues band playing in the back of a tiny coffee house. The fireworks weren’t quite where everyone expected them, and by the time I’d moved and got the camera settings right I didn’t get many good shots. On the other hand, the lighting up of the Harpa concert building worked wonderfully, and I got a couple of decent shots, one of which is the image for today.

The guides arrive early Sunday, and then the landscape photography begins. Watch this space.

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Andrew’s Gone to Iceland – and Not Just for Fish Fingers!

The Hallgr�mskirkja and statue of Lief Eriksson in Reykjavik, Iceland
Camera: Canon EOS 550D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 19-08-2011 19:57 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 1/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 11.0 | Focal Length: 26.0mm (~42.1mm) | Location: Íslenska Óperan | State/Province: Capital Region | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

Well my Iceland trip has finally come round – I just hope it rewards the wait. As many of you will know I originally tried to do a trip to Iceland last year, but was stymied by a combination of volcanoes and economic uncertainty, which meant that there were insufficient other takers. This year things looked better, but it still took a couple of months of emails with the tour leaders before things were settled.

The waiting continued at the airport. The check-in and gate check processes were both interminable, with long queues which between them chewed up over an hour. Now it’s ten minutes past departure time, and I’ve just watched the baggage handlers unload a plane load of frozen fish from our hold, and only just start to load our baggage, one item at a time. I thought the aviation world discovered palletised baggage and freight about 40 years ago? I can see this flight running at least an hour late, and to think I rushed lunch because of the check-in delays…

I’m sitting in a plane with a seat pitch which makes Michael O’Leary’s plans to offer standing accommodation on Ryanair look half reasonable, and I’ve just scratched the back of my iPad quite badly on a very ill-designed “seat pocket” with near zero capacity and an exposed screw head just inside. Iceland Express is definitely at the EasyJet end of the scale.

At least I’m getting better at beating unreasonable baggage constraints, even if I did have to walk through check-in like John Wayne due to the lens down each trouser leg! Also I’ve discovered that if you can lift your camera bag with one finger they assume it’s light and don’t bother to check the weight. At last the weightlifting comes in useful.

… The flight was uneventful if a bit boring. There was no in-flight entertainment, and the noise levels were a bit too high to watch any video on my iPad. Oh well, thank goodness for Kindle and Angry Birds :)

The road from Keflavik to Reykjavik is flat and straight, with nothing much going on either side, but there are tantalising glimpses of more promising terrain in the distance. What is interesting is that you can see sunlight, cloud, dry weather and rain patches in the same vista. I see what they mean about waiting 5 minutes if you don’t like the weather here.

… Reykjavik looks a lot as I expected, clean and Scandinavian, although there’s almost a North East USA feel to some of the road and larger building layouts. After I settled in at the hotel I wandered down to the town centre, and got a couple of shots including this rather nice one of the Hallgrmskirkja and the statue of Lief Eriksson in front of it.

The daily cycle is going to challenge an early bird like myself. Sunset is after 9, and sunrise about 5. I was just starting to stir this morning and was rudely awoken by a party coming down the street, presumably having just been chucked out of a night club!

Oh well, I didn’t come here to rest. I have a free day in Reykjavik today, and the tour proper starts tomorrow. I’m going to try and update at least once a day – connectivity doesn’t seem to be a big challenge like it was in Cuba – so please check back soon.

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