During a visit to Yellowstone National Park in 2016, for the first time I came face to face with the internal plumbing of the earth. Geysers, steam vents, thermal pools and mud pots were all on full display, illustrating direct evidence that things of monumental extremes are always going on out of sight, under the surface of our planet. With the Atlantic Ocean Ridge running through Iceland, it is a hot spot for volcanic activity with fully one third of all lava flows on earth running through the Icelandic volcanic system. The last volcanic eruption there occurred in 2010, but there have been an astounding 18 eruptions in Iceland in just the last 30 years! Needless to say, I was anxious to see some of the geothermal areas up close and personal during my trip.
Geysir was on the itinerary for the very first day, and with eruptions about every ten minutes, I hoped to photograph it often; at night under the stars (that was an ill conceived notion), and during a sunrise, sunset, or both. Well, none of those photos ever came to fruition as, I was to quickly discover, there was no actual night in Iceland during the latter half of May, and heavy cloud cover snuffed out any form of sunrise or sunset lighting.
But I looked forward to visiting Myvatn (pronounced Mee-vat) later in the trip, and hoped my luck and weather would take a turn for the better. As it turned out, my luck did change and, although there were plenty of clouds at times, there was no rain. It seems that no matter what the weather conditions may be like, we have to make adjustments for those conditions. The most important adjustment is to change your preconceived notions of the images you want from a particular location, and work with the conditions instead of trying to make the conditions work for your previous intentions. It’s not easy to make the transition, and I find myself on the wrong side of that equation many times.
As in Yellowstone, the most intriguing aspect of these thermal areas, is the coloration. Blue was the color that really struck me in the Hverir area, just east of Myvatn, and I tried to incorporate it into several images. It occurred mostly in the mud pots of boiling ooze, but also in the coloration of some of the sand patterns and one particular small stream. In that image, I used the blue stream bed as a leading line from the foreground rocks to a large (small in the photo) steam vent located in the Krafla area in the far distance. In the image at the top of the post, that same steam vent is included in the photo taken from the same spot, but taken at 100mm, while the stream was taken at 17mm. These two images illustrate how a wide angle lens makes distant objects recede in the frame, which can be overcome using a longer (normal?) focal length lens to keep distant objects in proper perspective as we see them, and then create a panorama to include all that you want in the frame. However, in the stream photo, using a more normal length lens would not have worked in that particular instance, mainly because of the physical features of the location (couldn’t move further back and still have an unobstructed view of the rocks), and the inability of the longer focal length to keep both the foreground rocks and distant mountains in focus. A focus stacked, panorama would have been too much to handle… at least for me. So I opted for the easier, wider lens.
The sand pattern came down from an overflow of one of the blue mud pots and spread out like the delta of a river at the entrance to the ocean. Since the sky was mostly clear in the late afternoon when I took the photo above, the cool blue from being in the shade of some cliffs to the west, seemed to make the color even more intense, and the polarizer cleared the way through any glare straight to the color.
There were steam vents sending out a continuous plume of white vapor into the sky that you could walk right up to and photograph, and if they were present, clouds in the sky can enhance the mood of the scene. Clouds are always the big variable in the conditions, and they can both make and break a photo. In many of the scenes that include both the sky and land, there is a disparity in the light values between the two. When there is a straight line horizon, to lessen that light value difference, a hard edge ND filter can be placed in front of the lens as in the images above and below left, while a soft grad was used for the steam vent without clouds (below right).
Since “film” is free, there is no shame in taking many images of the same scene to get moving elements in a more desirable position. In these circumstances, using a tripod is critical. It allows you to transfer a single element that, in your estimation, appears at its most advantageous to another almost identical image, that can add significantly to the intended final combined image. For the image above on the left, this was the only shot of many where the left steam plume was vertical; in all the other takes, they both drifted to the right. No changes were made here, but if you were looking for both plumes to be vertical, there is no need to capture it in a single image. Just combine the two that have the plumes you want.
For the image on the right, since the cloud was forever changing rapidly, I took a multitude of images while standing next to the camera, just waiting for the steam to wrap around the sun without covering it at all. Many of the attempts were close, but failures nonetheless. Luckily I won the race against time and managed to record one before the sun dipped below the horizon.
For most of us, taking trips like this are a one time event, something that won’t have you saying, “I’ll get that when I return.” So, burn the film! Take as many shots as necessary to get the final image you want. Get all the “data” you can so you can combine different exposures, different focus points for stacking, or even whole areas of the image. Get it all before you leave, so you can return home without any photographic regrets.