Calgary-based destination wedding photographer Gabe McClintock knew he found the perfect adventurous couple when they agreed to hike right towards an active volcano in Iceland to create the most unique set of elopement photos they could imagine.
After having shot locally in Calgary, Canada, for ten years, McClintock had begun to feel the itch for adventurous destination weddings and elopements. The lack of inspiration came to a halt in June 2014 when McClintock had an opportunity to travel to Iceland for an elopement. That session completely changed his life.
“I knew from the very first picture I took that day that these were going to look great, but I had no idea the attention they would receive just a month later,” McClintock tells PetaPixel.
The images from the elopement were featured by PetaPixel and several other publications. After that, the media continued to feature the story, putting millions of eyes on McClintock’s images. The couple in the photos, Sarah and Josh, were even interviewed for The Today Show.
Although the media attention didn’t instantly result in bookings, about five months later during the peak season for engagements, emails began pouring into McClintock’s inbox. Faced with the surge, McClintock transitioned to become a destination wedding photographer and hasn’t looked back since.
In 2021, McClintock received an inquiry from Nina and Rand who were looking to elope in Iceland and were flexible on their date; they wanted to schedule a session somewhere between September and October 2021. The plan was to start with a ceremony at Reynisdrangar, a set of rock formations situated on the coast in southern Iceland. After that, they would make their way up to Dyrhólaey Lighthouse — a castle-like lighthouse and a popular tourist attraction in Iceland — and then head back to Reykjavik, stopping along the way to shoot.
Less than a month away from the elopement, McClintock asked the couple if they were willing to change up the itinerary and take a hike up towards a volcano instead. Although McClintock wasn’t entirely sure on what they would see out there or how long it’d take to get to the best viewpoint, he wanted to ask them nevertheless.
Just a day before flying out, McClintock saw online that the volcano, idle since April, started to show signs of a possible eruption. After some research, he found out the best hiking route was also the longest — about 1.5 to two hours. He asked Nina and Rand if they were willing, and they replied they were up for the adventure. Nina had even brought a backup dress if the volcano’s hike was too hard in her original elopement dress.
The elopement ceremony went as planned, followed by a few moments of shooting the couple along the beach nearby before continuing the journey Skógafoss, a picturesque waterfall.
“Just minutes into shooting, Nina was tripped up running from a wave, slipped and fell into the water, getting soaked,” says McClintock. “She simply got up, laughed it off, and we continued shooting. It was pretty incredible!”
During their drive to the waterfall, Iceland’s news and social media pages began to report that the volcano had erupted, wiping out one of the hiking trails and leaving many others closed.
“I could see the plume of smoke and ash up ahead and called Nina and Rand to say that we should still go and meet at the trailhead and see if it’s closed,” says McClintock. “My thought was, ‘how can they close a volcano?’ I wanted to see for myself if others were coming down or making their way up.”
McClintock found a trail that was still open, and the trio started packing up their bags in the parking lot — masks for the air quality, food and water, and headlamps for the hike back down.
For his gear, McClintock had packed two Canon 5D Mark IV bodies with three lenses — Canon 35mm f/1.4L, 50mm f/1.2L, and 24mm f/1.4L. He also brought a GoPro, which he mounted to the camera’s hot shoe.
“The shoot was nothing short of incredible. There were many moments during it that I was simply in awe. I couldn’t believe that it was really happening and that we happened to be too up there as the lava started to flow again.”
Although the resulting pictures are breathtaking, it was obviously a challenging shoot. The air was cold overall and depending on the direction of the wind, it would blow freezing or scorching air from the lava up onto the land.
Sulfur dioxide gas didn’t make it any easier either — “a gust of wind in our direction would make our eyes water and take our breath away.”
Thankfully, the wind constantly changed directions which gave them time to shoot. The session concluded around 8:30 at night, when the wind picked up and the rain started to fall, followed by a dense fog rolling in.
“Definitely not ideal conditions to hike down a mountain in the dark, on an unmarked trail in the middle of Iceland,” McClintock recalls. “The conditions got worse and worse as we made our way back. With the relentless wind. We finally arrived back at our cars three hours after leaving the volcano — exhausted, freezing cold, and soaking wet. But, what a way to end an incredible adventure!”
Image credits: Photos by Gabe McClintock.