Perched on the edge of the Arctic Circle is a Nordic island country that’s almost as well known for its tumultuous Viking history as it is for its ethereal volcanic landscape. Geologically young and full of promise, Iceland is appealing to nature photographers for the latter. What many overlook, however, is that Iceland is also home to a rich variety of wildlife, especially birds. In fact, the summer is when the revered midnight sun provides hours of gorgeous soft light for landscape photography. On the other hand, this same time is also when more than half of the world’s population of Atlantic puffins gathers there to nest. This is precisely why one hot and humid day early in July I packed it all up to spend a few weeks in Iceland solo in search of my perfect puffin photograph.
I’m the kind of photographer that really puts a lot of planning into my projects. I like to have a list of ideal locations with times of day to be there and exactly what I want to see, but I never restrict myself on time. In fact, I often tack extra days onto a trip just in case. You never know what the weather will be like or if you will discover something unexpected. With the puffins, this strategy ended up saving my trip. Nearly every day that I was in Iceland was overcast and rainy with very poor lighting conditions. Crank your ISO—the show must go on, and so it did!
My journey in Iceland was a clockwise adventure as I traversed the coast from one cliffside fishing village to another searching for just the right location. I tried the puffin colony at Arnarstapi near Snæfellsjökull National Park, which has trails and a stunning sea arch, but it was not the ideal eye-level experience that I was seeking. There’s a famous spot, Látrabjarg, in the West Fjords that I was tempted to try. Honestly, I’d recommend this location to anyone—it’s that good. For me, though, while going there would be a sure thing, I wanted to create something different and avoid the crowds. I had an image in my mind of a puffin in wildflowers. My perfect shot. Could I get it there? Yes. However, it would be the same puffin in sea mayweed flowers that you see on the postcards. Truly lovely and iconic imagery for sure, but why settle?
After nearly two weeks and over 1,400 miles on my rental car searching secluded cliffs in the rain from Tjörnes to Dyrhólaey, I finally found my shot by backtracking through the East Fjords. It was pouring out as I neared yet another quaint fishing village. As I looked for somewhere to park, one steep cliff jutting out much higher than the rest caught my eye. It would have made for a striking landscape photo as the rain was coming in sideways and the waves were crashing against it creating a lovely mist. Even at a distance I could see the familiar buzz of puffins circling around as they departed to hunt or returned with beaks absolutely stuffed full of fish. As I neared the cliff on foot, I was delighted to find that one side of it was covered in a rich blanket of yellow alpine cinquefoil wildflowers. It was everything I could have hoped for and ripe with active puffin burrows. I spent the day filling my memory cards with puffins and then just sat there and enjoyed the experience and satisfaction of a long journey well rewarded.
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS 7D, Sigma 50-500mm OS, ƒ/11 @ 500 mm, 1/125, ISO 1000, handheld, Lexar Pro 1066x 32 GB compact flash cards, LensCoat Raincoat Pro cover, Lowepro Mini, Trekker AW backpack.