My life’s work is photography. I earn my keep here on this Earth by capturing light, taking risks, and telling stories. Occasionally, I get the opportunity to share the burden of adventure travel with like-minded individuals.
In January of 2017, I got to embark on a winter photography journey across Iceland with a fellow Marine and excellent photographer named Aaron Moshier (aaronmoshier.com), along with Aaron’s brother Joshua.
Aaron and I go back nearly a decade to the hills of Quantico, Virginia. We battled through sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion, tests of character, and mind games together to earn the title of United States Marines. After that, we were stationed at nearby bases on the West Coast and used our weekends to develop our photography work alongside each other.
On the beaches of San Diego, in the mountains of Yosemite, and through the rocky canyons of the Anza Borrego Desert, we kept pushing the envelope with our photography, but more importantly, our hunger for thrill seeking.
We culminated our years of experience as photographers, outdoorsmen, and military planners when we embarked on a seventeen-day winter photography project in the unforgiving and alien landscape of Iceland. We planned for logistical factors, camped in the snow, hiked icy trails, tracked atmospheric conditions, made critical decisions on the fly, and created some of the most incredible images of our careers.
We each set off with our Canon 5D MkIVs as our primary camera bodies. I also brought along my Canon 7D MkII for wildlife work and my Canon 5D MkIII as my backup, and Aaron’s secondary was his 5D MkIII.
Our lenses included: Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II, the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II, the Canon 300mm f/4L, the Canon 14mm f/2.8 II, the Canon 135mm f/2.0L, the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, and the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L.
For long exposure work, we employed the 100mm Lee Filter System with a variety of polarizers, big stop filters, and gradient filters.
Aaron also added a DJI Phantom IV Pro aerial vehicle to our image gathering arsenal. With his aerial footage combined with video from my Canon 5D MkIV, we put together a little something to illustrate the environment in which we worked on a grand scale.
Upon Landing in Reykjavik, we rented an Isuzu D-Max 4×4 with studded tires for the icy roads, stocked up on groceries and fuel for our JetBoil cooking systems, and headed East. We traveled in a generally counter-clockwise direction around the island, with the exception of the final three days. You’ll have to read on to discover why, though.
After a brief night’s sleep in Reykjavik to catch our breath, we set off for the bizarre, turquoise-hued, glacier-fed waterfall of Bruarfoss. This peculiar cascade is by no means an easy place to find, but the seemingly unnatural color of the water makes it worth interpreting the imprecise directions and vague trail.
I chose to use a slow shutter speed of just over half a second to give the moving water a slight blur and produce wispy textures, as if it were painted into the scene with brush strokes.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Southern Iceland offered us the most abundant visual bounty of the excursion. At our disposal were plane wreckage of a U.S. Navy DC-3, our first encounter with the Aurora Borealis, volcanic pebble beaches, glaciers, icebergs, and ice caves that presented a treasure trove of natural beauty.
From Vik to Jökusárlón to Höfn, we were overwhelmed with awe. In many cases, we unloaded our gear, but had a hard time deciding where to begin shooting. It seemed as though every direction we faced held a scene worth framing, and we didn’t want to make the mistake of wasting our opportunities.
Reynisfjara Beach has become infamous over the years due to the dangerous nature of both its rapidly fluctuating tide and the frequency with which rogue North Atlantic waves, sometimes called “Sneaker Waves,” wash people out to sea.
Two days before we arrived, a German tourist was swept away by one such wave when she and her family lingered too long as the tide started to rise. Sadly, she perished as a result, which reinforced our urgency to work quickly and vigilantly while in the tidal zone.
Despite its danger, the beauty of the beach and the oddity of its basalt columns continue to attract over one million visitors each year.
Reynisdrangar Basalt Columns – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/125s, f/6.3, ISO 250, 24mm
We arrived at Jökusárlón’s “Diamond Beach” at night under a full moon, and were awestruck by what lay before us. The icebergs, polished by the act of pitching and rolling in the North Atlantic before being washed ashore, glowed in the moonlight. We set up our tent behind the beach’s break wall and awoke to a sunrise that gifted us with its warm rays, contrasting the cool blues of the ice.
As with the waterfalls, I chose to slow my shutter speed and allow the waves to blur, emphasizing their sweeping motion. The beach is named for its resemblance to a length of black velvet sprinkled with several thousand uncut diamonds.
Jökusárlón “Diamond Beach” – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/20s, f/22, ISO 100, 50mm
Jökusárlón “Diamond Beach” – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/4s, f/5.0, ISO 100, 24mm
Jökusárlón “Diamond Beach” – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/5s, f/22, ISO 100, 24mm
Jökusárlón “Diamond Beach” – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/200s, f/3.5, ISO 100, 50mm
Stepping into an ice cave is perhaps the closest I’ll ever come to stepping into another dimension. According to our guide Boggi, the caves we explored were approximately 1,200 years old. Carved by running water underneath the glaciers that surrounded us and shaped by Arctic winds, the natural wave patterns are mesmerizing.
Dry to the touch, the walls of the caves feel like thick glass; and are astoundingly dense, as it turns out. The weight of the ice above our
heads had slowly compacted the walls around us to a density six times greater than the ice with which you and I are more familiar – such as the seasonal ice you might find on a frozen lake.
Vatnajökull Glacier, “Dark Reuben” Ice Cave – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/5s, f/8.0, ISO 400, 24mm
Vatnajökull Glacier, “Crystal” Ice Cave – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/5s, f/22, ISO 100, 24mm
Vatnajökull Glacier, “Black Reuben” Ice Cave – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II – 0.5s, f/11, ISO 100, 14mm
Vatnajökull Glacier, “Crystal” Ice Cave – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/4s, f/16, ISO 2000, 28mm
Jökusárlón Glacial Lagoon – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II – 1/80s, f/7.1, ISO 400, 70mm
Our time in the East Fjords was short and sweet. With most of the country still ahead of us, we dedicated two days and a night to the charming fishing villages of Eskifjörður and Neskaupstaður.
Challenged by mostly featureless skies, we focused on the details of the villages. Boats and barns acted as interesting set pieces, while the highlight of the region was a close encounter with the elusive Arctic Fox.
Vatnajökull National Park, “Crystal” Ice Cave – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/4s, f/16, ISO 2000, 28mm
Casual tourists and intercontinental stopover passengers often neglect Northern Iceland, especially in the winter. Distance from the capital of Reykjavik, a lower population density, and a more volatile climate contribute to a more unforgiving experience – if that appeals to you. It certainly appealed to us, as our goal was to illustrate the rugged side of Iceland.
The gems of the North included the grand cascade of Goðafoss, the Aurora Borealis shimmering through the volcanic arches of Dimmuborgir, and the boiling mud pits of Hverir Поле Гейзеров.
We found the iconic Icelandic horses to be quite friendly, for the most part. There was, however, one exception. When we were caught in a blizzard north of Skagaströnd we came across a lone mare that had been separated from her herd.
In the confusion of the blizzard, she had jumped the fence of her pasture and found herself isolated in the frigid wind. As much as we tried to help guide her back to the warmth and safety of her herd, it was futile. We can only hope the harsh blizzard let up in time for her to find her way back through the fence and rejoin her herd.
When we arrived at the Snæfellsnes Peninsula on the west coast, we were beginning to lose steam. The two weeks of winter camping in Iceland were starting to take their toll on our bodies and minds, but the region held two points of interest in particular for which we had saved our energy.
The weather took a turn for the worse, so we knew we weren’t going to capture any sunrises, sunsets, or Aurora. As such, we decided to embrace the stark conditions and adopt a moodier tone for our work when it came to shooting the famous Búðakirkja “Black Church” at Búðir, as well as the iconic peak and waterfall at Kirkjufell.
Kirkjufellfoss & Kirkjufells – Canon 5D MkIV – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II – 1/10s, f/8.0, ISO 100, 28mm
With fewer than three days left, and determined for one more shot at the Aurora, we dried our wet boots at a hostel in Ólafsvík. The forecast was, as it had been for the previous week, discouraging. As we resigned ourselves to being defeated by impenetrable cloud cover, we monitored the atmospheric conditions of every corner of the island, hoping for a break. We even briefly considered a quick flight to London because we sat in such poor conditions for photography.
Our breakthrough came late at night when the weather began to clear around Höfn. On our first pass through the region, we attempted to photograph the picturesque mountains of Vestrahorn, but they were obscured by heavy fog and offered us no usable images. The forecast around Höfn called for a strong Aurora and partly cloudy skies, which was a favorable alternative to heavy snow everywhere else.
Obviously, Mother Nature offers no guarantees, but if we were willing to drive nonstop through the night, we could earn ourselves an improbable shot at redemption. As we’re known to do, we rolled the dice.
Iceland has a singular beauty about it that can’t be replicated in other corners of the globe. While some other Nordic countries possess similar jagged icebergs, colorful buildings contrasted against the white snow, and opportunities to see the Aurora Borealis slowing swaying back and forth overhead, Iceland stands apart as a seemingly alien landscape.
Iceland may share linguistic and cultural similarities with its Scandinavian neighbors, but its offerings of volcanoes, lava fields, glacial lagoons, boiling mud pits, and rugged locals provide a unique experience. As I developed my craft over the years, I watched photographers I admired produce fantastic images in this country. I saw scenes that looked as though they could have been torn straight from the pages of a sci-fi serial, and I was inspired. I was dead-set on making this trek one day, and I’m grateful to have made it with my Marine brother Aaron and his brother Josh. I feel like we caught the last train out of the station, in a sense, as Iceland becomes less mysterious and more overrun by casual tourists each year.
Following the economic recession of 2008, Iceland invested heavily in its tourism economy. As a result, the small country of 334,000 went from attracting 600,000 visitors per year to 4.4 million per year over the next decade. The waterfalls along the main roads now have paved walkways, bathrooms, and tour bus parking lots. Posh accommodations are easily accessible for travelers who value their creature comforts, and it’s a popular place for honeymooners and retirees to see the sights without straying too far from their cars.
As a photography destination, the landscape of Iceland is a dream come true, but now that dream is coming true for a larger number of photographers. We had to go while the sense of wonder surrounding such a special place still remained. Soon, images of Iceland will be a common feature in every travel photographer’s portfolio, which is why Aaron and I chose to take our trip a step further and turn it into an adventure. It’s why we chose to go in the dead of winter, camp in the wind and snow, and hike the most remote trails. We sought to show how Iceland still has a wild side to her that has yet to be tamed.
Perhaps our yearning for the ruggedness of the wild world stems from our background as Marines, drawing a perverse satisfaction from hardship and reveling in the stories we get to tell by thriving in austerity. Maybe it’s just inevitable that we all fall in love with nature after leaving the pavement behind, and therefore will always seek out the undisturbed corners of the Earth. Whatever the case, we’ll always look back on our wintry Icelandic experience, knowing we chose the more difficult path and are better for having done so.
For More of Noel’s photos, videos, and travels, follow Noel Marcantel Photography on Facebook and Instagram: