Kirkjufell mountain in the west of Iceland was already said to be the most photographed landmark in Iceland – I’d say that is undoubtedly the case now, since it made a cameo as the ‘arrow head’ mountain in Game of Thrones. While the mountain is easy to reach by car, there are few things to know beforehand in order to capture the true majesty of the mountain.
Firstly, the classic composition with the waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss in the foreground will require actually following the path from the parking lot up and over the waterfall and back down the other side in order to have both elements in your scene. Depending on when you are there, this may be more or less obvious. If you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to miss. However there are usually a number of photographers there, standing on the far side of the waterfall – just remember you don’t have to get your feet wet in order to cross, just go up and over.
This first point brings us quickly to the second: naturally you want more than just the classic composition. Bring appropriate footwear in order to be able to get off the beaten path and try out some different angles. Generally speaking Iceland is often wet, however Kirkjufell being on the coast and next to a waterfall is a little boggy in certain areas. There is some room to explore, however certain areas are fenced off as they are used as farmland.
The third recommendation is perhaps the most important: leave yourself some time. The weather is always a bit iffy in Iceland, and if you’re keen to get a good shot, leaving only one evening or one morning to get your shot might mean getting unlucky (as I was on one day). Take the contrast of the photos above and below. It was particularly cloudy but I hung around and waited to see what the light would do, fortunately towards sunset some rays made it through the clouds and made for some nice playing of light on the mountain, however it could just have easily stayed overcast and given the time constraint on the first visit, I wouldn’t have gotten nearly half-as-good shots. The second time around I stayed closer to the mountain in order to catch Kirkjufell awash in northern lights, details about that further below.
Kirkjufell and its surroundings are also a great place to catch another nordic icon, the northern lights. Getting both these icons in front of your lens is tricky. Your success in this endeavor will depend greatly on the weather. However I have a recommendation which should increase your likelihood of getting the shot. I know it’s probably already a given, but in case you are unfamiliar with aurora borealis, you should know that they can only be seen at certain times of the year. Having said that, I did see some northern lights in Iceland in August, however they were quite faint. You’ll have much better chances and greater spectacle in the winter months. This fact presents its own challenges, such as having adequate transportation and proper clothing.
Once you’ve made those arrangements here is how I would go about catching the northern lights at Kirkjufell. There are a number of places to stay around Snæfellsnes, but I would find a place in the town nearest the mountain, namely Grundarfjörður. It might be a tad more pricey, but the whole idea is to be able to take advantage of a good situation, fast. The first time we stayed on Snæfellsnes, we were on the south side of the peninsula. It would have taken us a solid 40 minutes just to drive to Kirkjufell, and some more time to find a location and set up the tripod (in the dark). There’s a good chance we would have missed our chance. The second time around, I stayed in Grundarfjörður and had the good fortune of having a room with a window facing north. The chances of seeing northern lights were 3 on a scale of 9, and the weather forecast was cloudy – in other words the furthest thing from a guarantee. Nevertheless I wasn’t stuck sitting in my car, I was in a warm and cosy room working on photos, for what ended up being hours, and periodically peaking my head out the window. I had actually given up and had showered and changes into my pajamas and was about to turn in at 3am, and boom! There they were, impossible to miss, big fat streaks of green in the sky. I have also provided more technical camera details on photographing the northern lights. Long story short: having a few days close to your destination will increase your chances of getting the shot you want. Due to unpredictable and changing weather it is important to stay mobile, and flexible.