In Focus: photographer Rachel Sarah shares her extraordinary Iceland escape

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As a travel photographer, I find that each new location calls for a slightly different style and approach dependent on the geography, character and culture. On the run-up to capturing Flash Pack’s Winter Iceland adventure, I spent a week driving around the country to get a real feel for it. 

I was instantly struck by the contrast between the bitter cold and coziness. In many ways, Iceland is such a wild and expansive setting. It’s home to a small population of just 394,500 people, with the majority living in or around the capital, Reykjavík. I found I could drive for hours through open, icy landscapes, with mountains looming out of nowhere and without seeing a soul. It felt quite surreal, especially coming from the UK where everything is so close together.

Iceland is also a destination that encourages you to get toasty and snug. Once the trip started, some of my happiest memories came from being in the van with the group. Wrapped up in colourful pink and purple snowsuits, we got to admire the landscape from the inside out as we road tripped from one stunning waterfall or geyser to the next.

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My aim is to create documentary-style photography

Group travel is a very special experience, and even more so when you’re somewhere like Iceland. It’s such an extreme destination you feel like you’ve stepped into a different world. That novelty is exciting and, as a result, really bonds people together. From our first evening together in Reykjavík there was a real sense we were embarking on something different.

My aim with Flash Pack adventures is to create documentary-style photography. I don’t want to disrupt the experience so I rarely get Flashpackers to pose for images. Instead, I remain on the periphery to give people space. However, I’m also very much part of the group as well and I make friends just like everyone else. 

That said, I do have to focus hard to get the right shots. Iceland was beautiful but it was also more challenging to photograph than other Flash Pack trips I’ve been on, such as Turkey, because of the climate. In the middle of winter you only get four hours of daylight to work with. Our group happened to arrive in particularly stormy conditions, too, with fierce winds and fresh snowfall throughout.

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The scale of the Sólheimajökull Glacier is hard to put into words

It was exhilarating to witness but I worried that my kit, especially my drone, would struggle in such cold temperatures. At one point, while trying to capture a waterfall shot, temperatures were so cold that I could barely hold my camera. I ended up taking one photo and dashing back inside.

On day two of the adventure we donned crampons to ice hike across Sólheimajökull Glacier. For many people, it was the first time they’d held an ice axe, let alone navigate their way through caves and across crevasses. 

Sólheimajökull Glacier covers an area of around 44 square kilometres dotted with crystal blue ice and distinctive textures. The sheer scale of it is hard to put into words. I ended up flying my drone overhead to convey the tiny size of our group in contrast to this vast mass of snow and ice. It was so epic, everyone loved it. Our reward was a dram of whiskey that we took turns drinking from a luge we’d shaped out of ice.

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We stopped off at a waterfall on the edge of a glacier

The next day, we went off-roading in a super-jeep through the breathtaking Valley of Thor. Again, the weather was really dramatic, with heavy snow pelting down from all angles. The team dropped me off so I could take a series of reverse photos looking back on the vehicle as it ploughed through raging river currents. En-route we also stopped off at a waterfall on the edge of a glacier. I ended up lying on the ground to get a long exposure shot that would capture the silkiness of the water.

Later, we traveled to a canyon that featured in the smash-hit TV series Game of Thrones. During summer, it gets quite crowded but when we visited we had the entire place to ourselves. It was so remote our group ended up making fresh tracks wherever we went in the untouched snow. 

Every two minutes, someone fell over, which meant we spent a lot of time doubled up laughing. There’s something about so much snow that brings out the inner children in everyone. You allow yourself to play in a way you’d never normally do as a professional adult in everyday life. Before we knew it, the canyon expedition descended into a giant snowball fight. It was pure silliness and fun.

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The final day saw sun breaking through ice-blue skies

Outdoor adventure aside, another part of Iceland that I loved was the food. Wherever we went, we were treated to innovative, amazingly presented cuisine, like seasonal Arctic charr and Ástarpungar (an Icelandic version of doughnuts). For our lunch on day four we ate in a greenhouse powered by geothermal energy at Fridheimar, a family-run tomato farm. It was an incredible place. We were surrounded by vines and every single dish, including the dessert, was made from the tomatoes. 

On our final day we visited some of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls and erupting geysers along the Golden Circle route. The light was gorgeous. It was bright and vivid with a golden sun breaking through ice-blue skies. This allowed me to capture little details, such as how the wind whipped up gusts of ice particles or sent plumes of geyser steam flying across the plains. It really was spectacular, and somehow peaceful, too. It was truly Iceland at its best.

Rachel Sarah is a professional photographer who shot Flash Pack’s adventure to Iceland.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Rachel Sarah

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