Chasing the light (nearly 24 hours of it) in Iceland

The sea shapes amazing translucent forms of ice at Ice Beach near Jokulsarlon

Navin Sarma

Sometime in the last 10 years, the rest of the world seems to have discovered that Iceland is not actually a giant iceberg floating in the North Atlantic. It’s actually a surprisingly green land (at least outside of winter).

It’s probably not a great coincidence that the rise in Iceland’s popularity follows the advent of digital photography. Nothing like seeing images on flickr and, in more recent years on Instagram, to pique your curiosity about a place that sits conveniently between New York City and London.

Navin Sarma saw those images and knew it was a place he wanted to explore. For Sarma, a Washington, D.C.-area photographer, it was a trip he was finally able to cross off his list during a quick touchdown and whirlwind visit this past fall.

While Sarma is drawn to natural landscapes, it’s probably better to describe him as a fine art photographer. He creates dreamy, dramatic images by pushing his boundaries with an artist’s appreciation of how color, shapes, movement and light interact.

We asked him to talk about the allure of Iceland.

Icebergs line the shore of the black sand beach near Jökulsárlón

Focus on the Story: Iceland is one of the hottest destinations around for photographers, especially landscape photographers. How long had it been on your radar? And what is it about Iceland that had you most excited about visiting?

Light shines through the violent waves and translucent icebergs of the ice beach

Navin Sarma: Iceland has been on my radar since I started landscape photography! Many great photographers have visited this incredible island over the past several years and it’s no wonder why it is so popular. Recently, even more people have visited Iceland given some pretty amazing travel deals. I was just waiting for the right time to visit given that the seasons bring so much change to the island. In the winters, there is only 4 hours of light and a lot of weather and wind, making travel (especially for a first time visitor) difficult but allowing much possibility to witness aurora under mostly dark skies. Summer is ideal for the first time visitor, allowing for the “midnight sun” or “forever light” with over 20 hours of sun and milder temperatures. But I went in October in the fall, for a mix of the two conditions: just enough light to ably travel, and just enough dark to allow the possibility of witnessing aurora. Unfortunately, October also means rainy weather and that’s basically all I saw for my 4 days in Iceland. I made do and used pockets of dryness and openings to the sky to make the images I came away with.

I’ve already mentioned how impactful the weather and season can be in Iceland and that is one of many reasons to visit during any time of year. You can have a vastly different experience each time you visit. But also – Iceland is an amazing and unique location defined by its volcanism and location and with extreme and varied visuals in a small radius. One can witness massive waterfalls, majestic glaciers, iceberg beaches, imposing seastacks, beautiful rock formations, and varied wildlife all in a single visit as I did. If you love surrounding yourself with nature, Iceland is a must visit despite its increasing commercialism and popularity.

Sunset at Vesturhorn.

FOTS: When people think of storytelling, they often don’t think of landscape photography. What kind of stories do landscapes tell and what story did you want to tell when you set off for Iceland?

NS: To me, the strongest landscape, and perhaps more accurately nature landscape photography tells a story about man’s appreciation for the natural forces that dictate his being. One can appreciate nature’s beauty, scale, intensity, violence, ruthlessness, detail, and elegance — sometimes all at the same time. Through my photography, I try to make the viewer, who may not be a photographer, think again about the world around us with a sense of wonder and awe not so unlike what we feel when we consider our own being and destiny. In a place like Iceland, creating such a story through imagery is significantly easier given the scale of the sights so prevalent throughout the island.

FOTS: There’s obviously a lot of Icelandic photos out there from other photographers Do you study other people’s work to see how you might approach the same location as far as angles and perspectives? Do you find that puts pressure on you not to recreate the same shot?

NS: There is so much photography of Iceland, it can really make your head spin! It’s easy, and perhaps a cop out to discount a place because it’s been shot to death. But a place like Iceland is certainly worth a visit and to photograph because of how unique and amazing it really is.

Like most other places I have shot, I do research on locations and an integral part of that research is to see images shot there. I generally try to review enough photography to get a sense of the place to see whether its worth a visit given the amount of time I have. I then just go to the location and try to use my own intuition to shoot the scene while sometimes actively avoiding compositions I know I had seen in the past. I certainly would rather create something risky and new than recreate something that has been done in the past. To me, the latter takes away the fun and challenging, more creative parts of photography.

FOTS: You only spent four days in Iceland, yet came back with a lot of killer shots. How much planning went into the location and timing of your photo sessions?

NS: Planning is really crucial for landscape photography, and it all comes back to time. I always start with how much time I have and factor in driving distances, sunrises, sunsets, hotel/camping locations to come up with a general plan. But staying flexible is the key for me. There are certain events you cannot predict that can have a major impact on landscape photography — in my case it was the constant rain that I couldn’t have known about when I booked the trip, and the aurora forecasts that are only about 36 hours in advance. The most successful trips are those where I have a plan, backup, and another backup then go by feel in the moment to decide where to go when, when to go to next location, and when to just rest. Luck is a big part of it all — especially when you are subject to the elements around you.

FOTS: Iceland is a pretty temperate climate. Did that surprise you? Anything you didn’t expect during the trip?

NS: The weather was quite warm during my mid October trip… comparable to higher altitudes here on the east coast at the same time of year. Definitely surprising given how close Iceland is to the poles. While I did expect rainy weather during the typically rainy October, the constant rain I witnessed was a little disheartening at times. But the amazing infrastructure that Iceland offers for travelers was certainly a surprise. The ring road is in amazing shape, allowing access for many cars to some very remote places. There is also 4g LTE coverage in most of these amazing locations… an instagrammer’s dream. You would be hard pressed for better roads or better coverage in any remote park in the USA.

The most successful trips are those where I have a plan, backup, and another backup then go by feel in the moment to decide where to go when, when to go to next location, and when to just rest. Luck is a big part of it all — especially when you are subject to the elements around you.

FOTS: Again, four days isn’t a lot of time to see a place as big and as diverse as Iceland. Any shots that you didn’t get that you wish you had? Advice for people who want to plan a trip?

The moon peaks through clouds at sunrise at Jökulsárlón

NS: I only had time to traverse the bottom half of the island from west to east. I targeted some of the locations that appealed most to me via photos I had researched: Skogafoss, Jokulsarlon, and Vesturhorn. I nestled in a few other spots on the way, but it was certainly a wham bam type of trip. I would love to spend more time in the area I covered, despite not even visiting the northern coast or any of the interior. I would love to come back in winter to explore an ice cave or two and witness the aurora that I had missed on this trip (in fact, a very intense aurora storm passed through Iceland just days before I visited).

My best advice for planning a trip is… when you find a good deal (Wow air from BWI is amazing), just book it. Especially if it’s spring or summer when travel is easier. There is so much to see, many places to stay, great infrastructure that makes you feel like you aren’t so far from home. Visiting Iceland is truly a great way to appreciate some of the greatest sights on earth.

All images © 2016 Navin Sarma. You can see more of his work on his website and Instagram

Jökulsárlón panorama.