Jokulsarlon Sunset - Iceland No-1  © jj raia

Jokulsarlon Sunset – Iceland No-1 © jj raia

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.

Grazing under Vindbelgjarfjall — Myvatn, Iceland  © jj raia

Grazing under Vindbelgjarfjall — Myvatn, Iceland © jj raia

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.

Early Light at Gulfoss — Iceland  © jj raia

Early Light at Gulfoss — Iceland © jj raia

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.

Kirkjufjara Lagoon — Iceland  © jj raia

Kirkjufjara Lagoon — Iceland © jj raia

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.

Last Light - Iceland  © jj raia

Last Light – Iceland © jj raia

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…



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