Almost twenty years ago, in the prehistoric era of philm photography, I was confronted with some conditions that wouldn’t allow me to photograph this crabapple tree. Even a very small aperture (f/32!!) wouldn’t get the trunk and buds all in focus, and with the film rated at ISO 50, a really long exposure would be needed. But it was a bit breezy, and the branches wouldn’t stay still for such a long exposure. The necessity was to photograph the tree; the mother of invention was to take a multiple exposure. Sixteen, in fact…on a single frame of film. Shooting wide open (f/4), the 135mm equivalent telephoto lens would have a very narrow depth of field. So the lens was focused on various parts of the tree for each of the sixteen exposures that would add up to be properly exposed if it were only a single exposure. Focusing on the nearest branch threw the background into a blur, while focusing on the background made the near branches blur. This was the very first image made that altered reality, other than the usual bad under or over exposures.
Most people who know me, know that I am not a big fan of photo workshops. Not that they don’t provide a meaningful service for those who sign-up for them, but the rigidity of the schedules and constantly being with other people is in opposition to the things I look for when I travel to photograph the landscape. The group sometimes becomes a slave to the itinerary, moving from place to place without considerations for changing circumstances. I have witnessed this many times and one example along the Blue Ridge Parkway comes to mind which clearly illustrates the point.
Photographing a valley with great early morning side lighting, I was there for quite some time with no intension of leaving just yet. A workshop arrived, everyone piled out of the cars, spread out along the side of the road taking pictures, and before you knew it, the group leaders were telling everyone to pile back into the vehicles because they were going to another location where there is “better light”. Well, it happened I was just about finished there, and I didn’t know what light might be better than we were witnessing at the moment, but thought following them would lead to another location with great light. Well, they headed down on the north side of the range where it was in complete shade to take photos of a pretty lame waterfall. They gave up great lighting (bird in hand), probably so they could check off another box of places they went to. That’s just one instance. I hope I don’t get too much flack, but that’s the way I see these things.
Now that I’m off the soapbox, I can explain a bit more. With just a few more days in the trip, I was at Anastarpi, on the western most end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. At the time, I felt I had to make a decision as to how to spend those last few days on this trip since I had come to a point where my circular path around the island had been completed. I came up with an idea, a possibly crazy idea depending on how you look at it, to drive back to Jökulsárlón, the Glacier Lagoon. It was about 6-7 hours and 555 kilometers (345 miles) away, but I felt I could get there in time for a sunset, thanks to the long days this time of year. There were no clouds in the sky where I was, and prospects for photography were pretty dim there until sunset anyway.
So I hit the road and kept driving until I reached the lagoon and was there to witness the best sunset or sunrise of the entire trip. See the photo on the top of the previous post and the last one in this post. After the sunset, I got a bit of rest and then looked to do the sunrise at Diamond Beach, on the other side of the highway. I managed a few decent shots there in the pre-dawn (top of post) and headed back to a different area of the Glacial Lagoon, and squeezed out a single decent shot as the sun began to show some color in the clouds (above). I thought things would look better back on the other side, so I hopped back over to the Diamond Beach side for a second time and managed to get a few more decent images that included the sun partially hidden by the clouds.
I’m not sure if all that moving would have been done with a group, or would they have stayed at just a single place. Or after the sunset, they may have had to “retire” to a hotel somewhere, none of which are very close (and skip the sunrise??).
In any event, these last two shots of the ice stacked up on the shoreline of Diamond Beach, are a case of securely planting your tripod into the sand and taking several versions of the same scene. For the first, the black sand reflects the color and shape of the large berg in the foreground, while this one above shows the surf receding back toward the ocean, adding a sense of motion. It also has a stronger “wet” line leading toward the sun, which adds a bit more depth to the scene with a stronger leading line. After looking at these two images, I wondered if it might work to combine the two, adding the sharper edged wet line to the frame without the surging surf. Or clean up some of the surf in this one so the reflections of the berg are in the sand.
But that is something that will be left for another day when there is sufficient spare time that seems to be at a premium these days, as I’m sure it is for most folks. But these two illustrate why it is important to take several frames, especially along the beach, of the same scene to combine the best of two or more frames. It may work, to do what I mentioned, and it may not. But if you can think of what is possible using the software available to us these days, you may owe it to yourself to, at the very least, try it.
So, was it worth it to have made the trek? Who knows what images I may have found if I had remained in Anastarpi and the western part of Iceland. There were a quite a few locations that I had researched that would have filled my time there and probably proved to be a viable path to take. But the tug of Jökulsárlón was something I couldn’t resist… and to see all those places I had gone to earlier in the trip, but not seen because of all the low hanging clouds and mist (above, through the rain and front windshield). I know I am happy with the images I did get. And I know that a tour or photo workshop would not have done it.
Note — It has been about six weeks since I’ve returned as I write this, some two weeks before it is actually posted. I learned yesterday from a photographer and YouTuber I follow, that it has not rained in south Iceland (Jökulsárlón) in six weeks!!! Yes, those are tears in the lower left corner of the murky photo…
In any type of photography, light is the single most important element in creating an image. It is especially important when photographing the landscape, simply because the same scene in different lighting conditions greatly affects the resulting image. That’s why you may hear that a particular scene may be better photographed during a particular time of the year when the sun is further south or further north, changing the angle of the light, creating shadows where there were none six months earlier or after. The same holds true for how high in the sky the sun is, or what the cloud cover is and the height of those clouds. So many variables that can have a profound effect on your image.
The image above clearly illustrates how light, or its absence, plays an important role. During this revisit of Jokulsarlon, the glacial lagoon, I was lucky to witness an incredible sunset at this unique location. Since there is never a cast in stone schedule on my trips, as there are on tours or photo workshops, I was free to travel half way across the country to revisit a few of the places that were totally obscured by clouds during the first pass through. On my previous visit earlier in the trip, the glacier, mountains and anything beyond were completely obscured by low hanging clouds and mist. Any photos taken then were of things close by and in most cases, the blank gray sky was something to eliminate from the frame. On this day, the sun set at 330º or north-northwest on the compass, and gave the clouds a wonderful red and pink color. However, during the winter solstice, the sun would set at 208º, in the south-southwest; a completely different location along the horizon, and any sunset color would most likely, not be over the glacier, but behind this view. Although Iceland is a bit more extreme in this regard compared to areas on earth in the lower latitudes, what time of year you visit a location needs to be taken into consideration to anticipate where the sun will set and rise for the images you want at a particular location. When you get to a location, you don’t want to be disappointed to find the sun setting in a completely different direction than you expected. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a great application to research this and anticipate where and when both the sun and moon will rise and set.
In most of the images included in this post, the light was unexpected although its direction was known by the prior research. But being in the right place when the light did occur, helped in just being able to get a photo when the light broke out rather than seeing it and not being at a good location and prepared to trip the shutter. For the image above, I was already in position on this mostly cloudy day when these two horses meandered into the scene; but there was no light. When this fabulously red light did break out from the clouds just as the sun reached the horizon, I was ready to click away. It lasted only a few moments, and I did have to run along a fence as the horses moved in order to keep the volcanic cone in position relative to the horses to keep the balance in the scene. Even then, I kept shooting hoping for the good positioning of each horse. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it may be helpful to take multiple images of the scene if there are moving elements as the horses here, and combine images later so those elements appear in their best position. That is why it is so important to take your photos on a tripod. The final image of the horses is a composite of two where in one frame, the white horse is as it is seen here, but the darker horse was angled directly towards my position not revealing much of its body. I opted to extract that horse from a previous image where it is standing in the same place, but its head is turned in a way that revealed a bit more of it’s body for a more pleasing image than either of the two separately.
Gulfoss was the first huge waterfall I visited and I stood in awe of its thunderous power. But the initial visit was overcast with ferocious winds and nothing in the way of light. (You can see that photo here). The next morning I headed there again from the campground (parking lot) around sunrise, but the thick clouds and wind were still there, making prospects pretty sketchy. I was the only one there, and for a few moments the sun played peek-a-boo through the storm clouds and I managed to click off a few shots when the sun shone through. I didn’t dare venture down closer to the water because both me and the camera would have been soaked in the spray, and also didn’t want to miss the chance to record the fleeting sunlight from where I stood, because I knew it might not return again. Had I given up because of the clouds and not even gone back a second time, when the sun did pop through creating this scene, there would have been no one there to record it.
At Kirkjufjara Lagoon from the east side near Reynisfjara Beach, it appeared that the sun might fall below the clouds and light them up around sunset, making me giddy with excitement against a backdrop of continuing clouds and rain since the beginning of the trip. The strong winds continued, creating the ripple pattern in the water, and I took this shot while the sun was still blocked by the clouds, rather than having the full sun wreaking havoc on the tonal range. I stood there for quite a while hoping for better light, but as it turned out, the sun never appeared, nor did any of the clouds take on the sunset glow I’d hoped for, as more clouds moved in blocking any of that light. If the water were calm, there would have been more reflections which may have improved the scene, but the clouds, wind ripples and the light were a happy gift on this particularly tough photographic day.
This final image was a complete grab shot. Driving along the highway under complete cloud cover, I drove into some fog which made conditions even worse. At the time, I was only intent on getting to my intended destination and getting some rest, thinking photography was done for the day. But as I continued on, I drove out of the fog to reveal one of the most colorful skies I had seen in a very long time. The fog bank was now much further inland, and I was able to find a spot to pull off the highway (not very easy in Iceland), grab my gear and run to the opposite side of the road. Luckily, there was a small pond of water that held the sky’s reflection for some foreground interest, and the top of the mountain above the fog added some mood and an additional layer to the scene. But nothing was done on my part in anticipation of this possibility. It was simply a gut response to the conditions. Just a quick change to the telephoto. No time to search for leading lines or close foreground interest…no time whatsoever as the color faded pretty quickly into an overcast dusk.
Many times light can be fleeting. But extensive research, determination to get to a location in spite of poor prospects, and luck can put you there at just the right time to capture those short moments of intense light and/or color. A good motto to go by that also serves well in purchasing Lottery Tickets is: “You gotta be in it, to win it.” Don’t stay in the hotel or your sleeping bag, get up and be there when it happens! You can rest when you get back home…
As is usually the case when on a photo trip, a moment doesn’t go by without keeping an eye out for a photo-op. Although the usual focus is on the landscape, there are times when other things wander in front of the camera. Iceland has so many different types of sfrom which to choose. Waterfalls, geothermal areas, fjords, lighthouses, churches, black sand beaches, glaciers, mountains, harbors, birds, old farmhouses, and modern architecture just to include a small sampling. And of course the northern lights in the colder months of the year.
So I did my share of seeing different things to photograph, but the difficulty many times, was finding somewhere to get the car off the road!! It seems that most roads are basically a built-up berm with a road at the top with no shoulder or even a flat, grassy area to pull to the side. So quite often something caught my eye, but I was unable to stop anywhere to photograph it, and I simply drove on a bit frustrated.
It was a simple thing to photograph the window at one of the many orange lighthouses throughout the country, but not so easy to photograph the horse in the rusting metal barn. For the lighthouse window, in an attempt to keep the window parallel without the distortion a wide angle lens would produce looking up to it from the ground, I used the telephoto from a distance.
The barn was more difficult only because of the heavy rain and private property issues. I didn’t want to invade someone’s farm, setting up the tripod and being there quite a while. So I grabbed my son’s backup, and keeping it under my parka, walked in the rain to a tall pole nearby. I clicked off quite a few shots, using the pole to steady myself to keep the image as sharp as possible. In the end, with quite a few takes, I had options to choose which pose of the horse worked best.
On the final full day of the trip, trying to end near the airport, I visited Hallgrímskirkja, the famous cathedral in downtown Reykjavik. There were quite a few tourists inside during the short tourist visiting hours that day, and I was jostled by one particular gentleman who seemed to think he was the only one taking photographs. One other consideration in this beautifully simplistic interior, was the color temperature. Because there was so much blue light streaming in through the large side windows on this cloudless day, along with incandescent lighting throughout the interior, I had to experiment with differing white balances to try to get the image to match what I saw. Changing it to 3850K seemed to work best.
The white church at Reynisfjara is kind of famous and during the rain, I used the same method as in the barn, keeping the backup camera under my parka until I found the right position, lining up the gate and church as best I could before taking it out and shooting hand-held.
For the horses below, I thought I would test the stabilization of the new lens by handholding and shooting away. I found it to be amazing, keeping things sharp even though I generally am not very adept at keeping things sharp while taking hand-held shots. It also illustrates things I will take the time to photograph when prospects for good light are minimal.
Lupine was pretty prevalent throughout Iceland, but most of it had yet to flower while I was there during the last two weeks of May. But this small meadow on the Reykjanes Peninsula came out of nowhere, and with the sunlit crosses of the cemetery beyond, reminding me so much of Ansel Adams’ Moonrise over Hernandez, NM, I had to find a spot to get the car off the road and walk back to take the photograph. If I could have pulled the car off the road right there, the tips of all the flowers would have still been sunlit as a few are on the bottom, and in the small patch on the top right. But I was still happy and was to discover a few more photos as I drove further along this stretch of coastline.
A few weeks later in the year, I imagine that the huge fields of lupine that seemed to stretch for miles east of Vik would have all been in bloom, as well as other large areas I saw which would have provided many hours of photographic opportunities. I imagine that Iceland has much to offer in any season. The difficulty lies in choosing when to visit.
I don’t often take photos that include animals, but in the new found fondness for columnar basalt, the resulting rock of lava that’s cooled, birds could usually be found among the cliffs of these intriguing rock formations. During the cooling process of a thick lava flow, the molten rock contracts, and how rapidly it cools, is the determining factor for the size of the columns. Slow cooling is likely to produce the long, mostly hexagonal columns we might recognize in the field. But there were other types of basalt and rock throughout Iceland that were great photo subjects. It’s interesting how the rock seems to pick up some coloration depending on it being in shade or sunlit. On a clear blue sky day when the photo above was taken, areas in shade will take on that sky blue color while warmer tones come out when the rock is hit by sunlight. The photo below illustrates how, if both shade and sunlit areas are included in an image, there is a greater possibility that there will be more implied depth due to the color differences. Cool colors generally recede while warmer tones move forward in this two dimensional media, and helps invoke a three dimensionality to the image.
In the photo below, you can see the result of two separate lava flows. The columns in the center, along with the tops of other eroded columns along the river near Aldeyarfoss, are topped by a second more recent layer that was probably hotter and more fluid than the thicker layer underneath.
Some of the researched locations along the intended trip route were on the list of places to visit simply because columnar basalt was there, and at Kalsharmasvik, there was an added bonus of a lighthouse. It was hoped that there would be good late afternoon light there, which there was, but with clouds behind the lighthouse. Barely a single cloud was there to break up the sky and take on some color. However, I did find a singular column top with some green algae that lit up nicely in the steady sunshine just before it went completely into shade.
One of the major stops on the southern coast was at Reynisdranger Beach, where there are hundreds of feet of basalt columns, caves and a few sharply tipped sea stacks. Searching along the cliffs for columns that seemed to connect with one another, took up several hours on a dreary day with scattered rain. From raw file to final image included quite a bit of artistic license, but did not include moving or replacing any of the columns. There were several separate groupings, singular rocks or patterns that were extracted from these huge cliffs (and the marauding tourists photographing one another), with the intent to create multiple images similar in tone and style to the one below. All have the almost Black & White look, but there is quite a bit of color which hopefully shows on your screen. Converting them to B+W lost quite a bit of warmth and subtlety, and so were kept as color images.
An obviously unforeseen photo shoot was going on when I first scouted the black sand Reynisdranger Beach, and since I had my son’s backup camera, I decided to just stand there and click away as things unfolded. I liked the scene, but from my perspective of knowing almost nothing about portrait posing, I didn’t care too much for how the photographer posed the two folks in the photos. He sometimes had the gentleman looking out toward the ocean revealing much of the whites of his eyes, which seemed unattractive. In this image, he seems uninterested, without any physical connection. It was almost like he was being embraced by his crusty, great-great aunt on his father’s side who he had never met. I’m sure there are great photos from that shoot, but I was there until the end, and the two never seemed to have a connection, even though my belief is that they were engagement photos. But who knows. It does illustrate how a unique landscape can make for a very compelling photograph no matter how it is approached. But the star of the shoot was that raspberry dress against the dark gray stone.
There was actually another photo shoot going on a bit later, with video and stills. I ended up being part of it afterward when they wanted a group (very large group) photo and I was enlisted to take it. I felt a bit self-conscious to ask them to change their positions and the angle I shot from to take it so I was not shooting into the bright sky. But after a few tries, everyone was happy with the result since I was able to get them all jumping in the air at the same time. And all this happened without our understanding the other’s language.
In Iceland’s past, there were few trees due to volcanic eruptions and removal for grazing sheep by the earliest settlers. Amazingly, by the 1950’s, only about 1 percent of the land had trees. But the National Forest Service, established in 1908, began a reforestation program that as recently as the 1990’s, saw the planting of 4 million trees each year. But still, generally speaking, there are no trees in Iceland. Vast areas are only volcanic rock and sand; no bushes, no trees, no grasses. The country has only one forest located in East Iceland called, a tongue-twisting Hallormsstadarskogur. It is obvious which trees were planted as they are all identical species and grow evenly spaced along roads and some other areas. But that isn’t to say that they aren’t worthy to be photographed. One group (above) were set along the road opposite Geysir and are silhouetted against the ever present storm clouds. I was able to use the additional reach of the new 70-300mm to narrow down the field of view, while another, thicker stand near the town of Vik is blurred showing the bright greens of spring. I had seen this stand a few times when I drove by and wanted to photograph them. So when there was a short break in the rain, I parked nearby and walked over, taking many frames until I felt the blur and placement of the trunks was what I wanted. I have just recently come to find out that this method of taking a photo while the camera is moving, or moving the camera a split second after the shutter is tripped, is called Intentional Camera Movement (ICM). Prior to finding out this new information, I just called it motion blur. But what do I know?
The Dimmuborgir area on the east side of Lake Myvatn is a maze of wandering paths through the convoluted terrain of lava flows with twisted birch trees growing throughout the area. It was difficult to separate out a single tree or a small group to fit into a frame, but as I wandered around, I found a few that had some pleasingly soft light and beautiful new spring leaves.
A surprising, small “oasis” of evergreens and other trees, was in an area east of Vik in the Eldhraun area. It is a vast terrain of lava flows that are almost totally covered in bright green mosses without any trees. So it was surprising to find this small pocket of trees along the Ring Road. The even light of the overcast was perfect to portray these bright trees against the darker evergreens and among the moss covered volcanic rock. Standing on a small ridge, looking down at this group allowed me to keep the blank, gray sky out of the frame which would have been a bright distraction. The dark path from the lower right into the center of the frame creates a subtle leading line.
Eldhraun goes on for miles on either side of the highway, and you could probably spend quite a bit of time exploring the area. But trampling on this delicate area would damage the delicate mosses and other small plants that inhabit it. So I stayed along one gravel road looking for interesting subjects close by to photograph, and found this singular stone as a subject. I’m sure there are many, many other interesting rocks and formations out there, but it is better to let them continue to exist as they have for centuries without our intrusion and degradation. Since the area was mostly flat, it was difficult to find something at a lower level to eliminate the sky, but here, the ominous clouds were a nice addition to the scene and didn’t detract from the main subject as a brighter sky would have. And no matter how far in the distance I looked, I could not see a solitary tree.
I was sadly mistaken in thinking that, even with the sun setting at 11:30 at night and rising again at 3:30 in the morning, there would actually be some darkness during the overnights of the Iceland trip. It turns out that the sun never fell far enough below the horizon for the light to get darker than a period of dusk or blue hour. But the door that closed on some things to shoot at “night”, possibly lit with a portable light source I packed and never used, opened another door of opportunity. The soft light in these “overnight hours”, when the sky wasn’t socked in with clouds, got me to look at the long views across the ocean for some reflected light, color and hopefully, something going on in the sky.
It was the pastels that drew me in, and with the new 70-300mm lens, I was able to reach across the distances and capture some simple compositions that would have been unattainable with my previous, manual focus, vintage lens that only went to 200mm. These photos wreaked havoc for any normal patterns of sleep, as they usually ran into the sunrise of the next day, making rest a thing that was occasional at best, and usually forced upon me by exhaustion later in the day.
Being out in the wide-open landscape of some of the fjords, allowed some far-reaching views, but also exposed the camera to some ferocious winds which affected the sharpness of some of the images. Supposedly, we are to turn off any lens stabilization or vibration compensation if the camera is mounted on a tripod, but it may actually be helpful in these conditions. However, I tried both methods, and came to no conclusions. Shorter shutter speeds would most likely be the answer for any softness, but I am always reluctant to go above ISO 400 because it introduces a bit of noise, and absolute smoothness in the color gradations is paramount, especially if seen at large magnifications or prints. So it will always be a trade-off in those situations, while the softness, if not too extreme, may actually be a benefit if a watercolor effect to the image is the desired result.
Generally, it was a clean and simple view that worked the best. No clutter, no leading lines, and no foreground item to search for. These images always remind me of some of the paintings by Mark Rothko… areas of bright color broken by small strips of darker color. The breaks were usually the land on the opposite side from where I stood, or as in the third image of the post, it was the thin line of clouds. Only in the image at the top was any “foreground” element included, but only because the house almost “had” to be included. When that scene came into view, its inclusion was a given. But what really intrigued me while I was driving along this particular stretch of coast, was the unusually bright ocean when compared with the sky. Not sure why it was, but generally, when compared to the sky, water is about 2-stops darker, as in the image above, which is why a 2-stop hard edge ND filter is perfect for ocean images that include the sky. But no filter was used in the making of this one because it would have darkened the clouds too much.
One small equipment problem I experienced for these images was focus. With much of the frame blank sky in many of the shots, the lens hunted for something on which to derive a point of focus, and I often had to override to manual.
But, most importantly, each image was taken in complete solitude, something that is also on my list of things to experience when on a photo trip, far from the crowds of other tourists and photographers. It is a moment when there is a noticeable connection with what is before me, and I feel an overall tranquility in both the land and myself. And so I am thankful for the discovery of the midnight dusk.