Iceland from another perspective: its elements!

As Iceland’s tourism is presently skyrocketing, probably out of recognition after one of its volcanoes (Eyjafjallajökull) erupted in 2010, it was imperative for me to get there while the nature is still preserved. Rest assured that there were other obvious reasons...

As I have always desired to see some decent overhead auroras (after the great shows in Denmark, one needs to move on to something a bit grander!), and as I love nature in general, I have been pretty certain for the past year that my next week vacation should be Iceland. The reason for that? Iceland is arguably the homeland of the aurorae borealis and probably contains a unbelievable number of national parks and places to see. Home to only 323,000 (as of 2013) inhabitants over 103,000 km2, the country has known a soaring reputation for sight-seeing and tourism, certainly after the eruption of the unpronounceable volcano that wreaked havoc on European air traffic back in 2010. The main question remains, why would you go spend your holidays on an island where some volcano can explode any moment now? Because one needs to be willing to take risks to experience the greater things in life of course!

And hey, honestly, would you pass on the occasion to see this? No, I didn't think so! Last October with my roommate Ulrik, we decided to take a planned vacation, and it probably took us thirty seconds to agree upon the destination, as we both we eager to visit the land of ice and fire. As soon as we landed in Keflavik (a town outside of Reykjavik), we knew we were going to have an easy and unbelievable trip. Everything is made to ease up tourists' lives. We rented a car and hit the road. We spent the first night in Reykjavik to eat out and see some of the monuments, but let's be real here, I didn't come to see cities and houses! On our way to the hostel, we came across one of Iceland's featured challenge: weather shifts. We did not understand right away what was happening, but we got from okay weather to a pea soup fog and heavy rain out of the blue. I would understand just on the last day where these changes come from: the intense volcanic activity.

During my week of backpacking with my roommate Ulrik Møller from Denmark, I was struck by how mineral Icelandic landscapes are, underlying harsh and inhospitable living conditions. The biting cold, the constant moist and the nutrient-poor soil offer shelter to only the most docile species. Although barren in appearance, Iceland is far from being boring. The experience of a week and the whole impression of the country helped to find a fitting title for the short film I was going to make in the end: ‘Elements of Iceland’. If the land is not defined by its biodiversity, it surely constituted by the elements. A good example of deprived wildlife (in the winter at least) is probably in the mountains where the snow plays an amazing contrast with the black basalt rocks and the green and yellow patches of grass or moss. However the most striking instance was, to me, when we hiked around Mount Hekla, Island's most feared volcano (Anecdote: Mt. Hekla consistantly erupts every ten years, but still hasn't since 2000. Just do the math, that's why Islanders are frightened). The mountain is surrounded by a river beyond which grass and small beech trees grow, but within the perimeter of the flowing waters lies a barren desert of small basaltic pebbles, where only the most robust lichens and fungi can grow.

Most of the wintery plants and animals abounded more in the þingvellir National Park area (probably were it is protected). I saw some white grouses, mice, owls, and something that is big enough to kill swans and sheep (might have been arctic foxes?). Þingvellir National Park is a sight-seeing must were you can experience the true geology of the mid-oceanic rift (where oceanic plates are created). You can snorkle the cobalt-blue waters of the gorges and see plenty of waterfalls and mountains, as well as rich wildlife. That was the perfect location for me to shoot rocks, mountains and of course the famous aurorae borealis. We basically got rained on the whole week, but I somehow managed to take advantage of at three-hour clear sky window to go out and shoot, and sure enough they came, only with a Kp of 2.33. They exploded like I've never seen before, and they came overhead, which is what I came to see. Solar winds weren't strong enough to experience a corona, but I was still in awe of the show, of which you can see a picture below.

The whole idea of the trip and the canvas for my film was to present Iceland in a different way (as there are a myriad of beautiful videos out there), by juxtaposing all the elements that highlighted my seven days in the country. I also tried to put them in an order that would allow me to find nice transitions, from ice to liquid water, from Earth to air and from light energy to heat energy. The challenge was for me to showcase the elements without any human interaction in the frame to get a purer picture of the mineral nature of Iceland. I stayed in the south-west part of the country and was based at 10 kilometers from Þhingevellir national park where I shot the oceanic rift scenes and all the northern light pictures. We drove all the way to Vatnajökull glacier and Jökulsárlón lagoon to get the ice pictures. The hotspring/steam/geyser scenes were shot in Geysir and Reykjadalur, where I was able to get tremendous geyser explosions and colored bacteria deposits (see picture below). We also shot at some remote locations, such as near Mount Hekla, Friðland að Fjallabaki, or Eyjafjallajökull…

The very first challenge was to get a maximum of clips and pictures under almost constant rain for a week. It took a serious toll on my cameras, as plastic bag protection obviously wasn’t enough (my Sony a7r2 almost died!). My roommate and I drove and hiked each day in specific locations, most of them being far from tourists. We saw the sun just a couple of times, and a lucky window of 3 hours of ‘cloud-free’ (said the Icelanders :) ) gave me the opportunity to shoot some beautiful green and purple aurorae. The second challenge was the wind: being allowed 23kg on-board our flight, I only took the lightest tripods, meaning that they weren’t as sturdy as those at home, and a lot of my shots needed post-process stabilization.