Hailstones lashed down from the graphite-grey sky, stinging my face; I winced as the wind whipped the storm up into a blazing fusillade of ice. Above the rattling of hail on my raincoat I heard the Atlantic exploding furiously against serrated cliffs. Then, as though a switch had been flicked, the storm was over. I uncapped my lens, fitted an ND filter, and captured one of my favourite photographs: the Svörtuloft lighthouse at Öndverðarnes, gleaming bright orange against the stormy sky.
I really can’t say what attracts me to this photograph so much; partly, I’m sure, it’s because of the challenges involved in reaching the Svörtuloft lighthouse (properly named Skálasnagaviti). Öndverðarnes is the westernmost point of Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula, and it is punishingly hard to reach. I’d hired a Dacia Duster 4×4 for my two weeks in Iceland in winter 2016, knowing that trips to remote spots needed a sturdy vehicle. Solid enough, the car still struggled as I made the lonely trip west towards the headland, negotiating hairpin bends, steep hills and an occasionally indistinct track slick with snow slush.
The route out to the Öndverðarnes bounces across a dark lava field – it’s this lava that gave Svörtuloft its name (meaning ‘black ceiling’). The coast here is a high wall of black lava, a treacherous cape on which ships have been wrecked and lives lost. Little surprise lighthouses are needed here: in the bleak weather that can plague this remote place, sailors need all the help they can get to avoid the perilous black rocks.
In winter conditions the landscape here is unnaturally monochrome – everything, from the sky to the snowy fields, is white, black or grey. Occasionally a patch of brownish grass lends a brief, mournful dash of colour, until eventually the monotony is relieved by the bright orange lighthouses at the tip of the headland. To the north lies the squat Öndverðarnes lighthouse. To the south, my target: the Svörtuloft lighthouse, Skálasnagaviti.
I’d visited Iceland to shoot as many photographs on film as I could, but on this bitter day I’d packed my weather-sealed warhorse, the Olympus OM-D E-M5. I’ve written often enough about why I use Olympus kit; suffice to say, its weather sealing made my E-M5 an indispensable companion on countless treks and mountain days, and certainly kept it safe from the elements at Öndverðarnes.
I walked out into the lava field to set the shot up, with the Svörtuloft lighthouse’s easternmost face entirely flush to the camera and set in the exact centre of the frame. (The day’s violent and chaotic conditions seemed to beg for the juxtaposition of exact symmetry.) An ND grad filter helped me balance the exposure, retaining the sky’s glowering darkness that threw the lighthouse into such stark relief. After the lengthy journey and the long wait for the storm to clear, the final exposure captured just ¹/₃₀ second of my visit – a tiny fraction of time after a signficiant effort.
I’m a highly self-critical photographer, but ‘Svörtuloft Lighthouse’ is one of those pictures that I’ve always loved – not least because it was shortlisted for an Association of Photographers Award (along with my winning entry). When I look at it I can still feel the shuddering journey across the lava, feel the hail stinging my face, and smell the mineral cleanness of the sea air. If only every picture could evoke such strong memories.