Even as the busy roads, and bright lights of Reykjavik receded in the rear view mirror of the rental car, the inky blackness of wild Iceland beckoned ahead. It was already after 8am, and yet the tight grip of night would not loosen for nearly two hours. This is winter in Iceland, a short window of daytime, slightly over five hours, my companion, Alison, and I would be at our destination, Kirkjufell, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula well before the sun finally rose.
We were soon fully enveloped in the dark, pre-dawn morning, only disturbed by the occasional lonely, distant light from isolated dwellings. The tarmac road snaked away into the pitch black wilderness, hugging the coast, with only the reassuring reflection of the headlights on the road markers as guides.
Slowly dark shapes began to emerge from the cloak of night, skulking mountains beginning to show their huge mass. At first barely discernible, but gradually like great sleeping leviathans waking from a deep slumber they shrugged off their black shroud. Ageless, and majestic, their splendour becoming clear as the first light began to hit snow-topped peaks, still cloaked in swirling mists. Fingers of icy snow reaching down their steep flanks, like veins on old hands.
Arriving at conical Kirkjufell, as the first shades of sunrise drifted across on dark, foreboding clouds, scudding across the sky carried on southern winds. We weren’t blessed with ideal conditions, the light wasn’t bad, but the breeze creating ripples, and small waves in the tidal flats, disrupting the perfect reflection we were hoping for. However, photography is often about making the best of the weather, and conditions, it’s unlikely we’d get a second chance, so this was the challenge.
It was several hours later that the first rays of sun could actually be seen peering over the surrounding mountains, but the sun never showed itself to us all day. Later, we followed the coast road up to Ólafsvík, a small town near the tip of the peninsula, and even took our game little hire car up to Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 yea old volcano, which is now home to a glacier; a stark, and unforgiving winter wonderland. The vehicle had a little more Viking spirit than four-wheel drive capacity however, and baulked at some of the snow drifts, so a controlled retreat seemed the order of the day.
The village fishing fleet was safely holed up in the harbour, with storm warnings being forecast for Iceland the following day. However, this didn’t prevent us enjoying a tasty fish and chip supper, watching Liverpool play football, with some enthusiastic local supporters on a service station television.
It was after 5pm, as we started the long drive back to Reykjavík. Night as if regretting relinquishing it’s earlier hold, had already descended, an inky shroud enveloping the details of day, swallowing the highest mountains, and largest cities. Darkness is a constant companion for photographers here, even though chasing the light is an obsession.
Photography in winter Iceland is about research, being prepared to travel, and being flexible. The weather, and aurora forecasts seem to change hourly, never mind daily, and planning a location to shoot, usually requires a relatively early start, and crossed fingers. The bonus is because the winter sun is lazy, and doesn’t rise until after 10am, ridiculously early starts aren’t necessary.