Puffin Cliffs at Vik

Sorry for the misleading title about puffins. Although this coastal location near Vik in South Iceland is a fantastic spot for puffins, this article is about the landscape. I think we saw a couple of puffins here on this trip. If you time it right, this can be excellent for photographing puffins.

Mountain Road

The cliffs at Vik are part of Reynisfjall. Most tourists will know Reynisfjall Mountain as they come downhill on the ring road approaching Vik. This significant hill separates the black sand beach at Reynisfjara and the black sand beach in Vik. It is part of an ancient volcano. The ring road has quite a winding road that climbs the hill as you approach from the West. As it smooths out you will see a marked road down to Reynisfjall. Then there is a smooth climb and descent into a winding valley. As soon as you see Vik, the mountain road is just on the left. The mountain track warns about the road being difficult and requires a 4×4… or you can walk. The road is steep as it zigzags up the side of the hill. Several points give you a fantastic view over the Village of Vik. It’s little housing estate with a school, swimming pool and athletics track separate the ring road from the black sand beach. The viewpoints let you see right along the shoreline to Hjörleifshöfði. The mountain road gets incredibly rough at the top. Not only 4×4 but a BIG 4×4 is recommended. At the top of the road is a radio mast & weather station. The road continues towards the sea cliffs and it continues quite a way.

Reynisdrangur sea-stacks

At the head of the land, there is a sudden drop off to the rocky beach below. The edge of the cliff is jagged and you can see where parts have recently dropped onto the beach below. A small distance out are the Reynisdrangar sea-stacks. The local myth from the middle ages describes one of the stacks as a troll. He is dragging a 3 mast ship behind him and was desperate to get back to the shore before sunrise. Unfortunately, science of geology has since taught us that the sea-stacks were the plugs for a massive volcano which created the Reynisfjall hill we just drove up. The sea has eroded most of the crater away leaving the steadfast Reynisdrangur sea-stacks. As you look down on them you are looking at where the center of the ancient volcano would have been. Those volcano plugs are made of a very dense form of basalt and are erosion resistant.

Reynisdrangur and Reynisfjall

The iconic shape of Reynisdrangur and Reynisfjall cliffs on the right.

Sense of shape

In my photograph, I wanted to communicate the shape of the sea-stacks. In the village of Vik, the shape of Reynisdrangur is iconic and you will see it everywhere. For this reason, having a long shadow exaggerated the shape. The view from the high cliffs compresses the height of the stacks and their pointy-ness. To achieve the long shadow, I went up there on a Summer evening. I want to include the edge of the cliffs in this first shot to communicate a sense of grounding. Without this, the photo could have been taken from a plane or drone. The cliff edge gives the viewer something to relate to in this otherwise natural abstract. I chose a part of the cliff at an angle to add some interesting shape. Combined with the bow of clouds, the cliff edge helps to frame the sea-stacks.

Reynisdrangur sea-stacks in Vik

Reynisdrangur sea-stacks from Reynisfjall cliffs. Canon 5D2 with 24mm prime lens.

Vertical Shot

As well as a long shadow, I wanted some colour in the sky. So, I was prepared to commit to this location for the sun-rise. I chose a vertical composition to allow for a small proportion of sky as it became colourful. The vertical orientation allowed me to capture the rugged face of the puffin cliff as well as some wave action on the beach below. All the time, I am careful to give the Reynisdrangur sea stacks some space in the frame.

Reynisdrangur sea-stacks vertical

Reynisdrangur sea-stacks from Reynisfjall – Canon 5D2, Canon 24mm Prime – 30 second exposure.

On my hunt for puffins, I headed West and captured this view towards Dyrholaey. The black sand beach stretches into the distance like an ebony fretboard. In the distance sea-cliffs you can see the hole in the cliff and several blocks of basalt out to sea. The Dyrholaey cliffs are also good for spotting puffins. To the right of the black sand beach is a lagoon which connects to the ocean at very high tides.

Reynisfjara Beach

Reynisfjara Beach from Reynisfjall Cliffs

The Descent

Getting back down the mountain road can be interesting. I used to put my Nissan Patrol into low-4×4 1st gear, and just let it climb down on it’s own. No brakes or accelerator required. It is also possible to go down on the opposite side to the Reynisfjara beach. This route is even more challenging. It requires an experienced 4×4 driver.