Why landscape photography in Iceland is more challenging than you might think
Shooting in Iceland should be on every landscape photographer’s list
If you’re a fan of landscape photography, or perhaps a photographer your self, you have most likely already seen tons of beautiful images from Iceland. Iceland has become known as a landscape photographer’s paradise for many good and valid reasons. For one, the island is not really that big, about the same size as England or Kentucky, yet it’s literally packed with beautiful and very diverse nature.
I have worked as a driver/guide now for many years (or did, before Covid-19) and one of the type of tours I do are photography tours. Photographers are different kind of travelers from other tourists. Whereas most tourists want to cover as many sites in as little time as possible, the photographer lingers on, sometimes for hours, in one carefully chosen spot before moving on to the next. If you’ve ever dabbled in landscape photography you’ll know that having a nice mountain or a waterfall in front of you isn’t the only ingredient you need for an amazing photo. far from it actually.
Land of extremes
Iceland is the land of many extremes. We’re a nation without a military force formed by viking warriors. Go figure. But although you won’t find many extremes in modern Icelandic society, there’s still plenty of extremes in our nature and weather.
Let’s start with nature
Iceland is often called the land of fire and ice. You’ll understand why the minute you land. The first thing you’ll see while driving from the Keflavík international airport are vast lava fields and small volcanoes as far as the eye can see. You won’t have to drive much more than 2 hours from Reykjavík to have a chance of seeing some glaciers up close and personal. many of Iceland’s biggest glaciers actually lie on top of volcanoes, as the volcanic calderas pretty much serve as ice cream bowls where snow accumulates and compacts into glacial ice over the centuries. Everywhere you look Icelandic nature is shaped by fire and ice and their impact is most dramatic where one met the other. Grand mountains covered in glaciers, outlet glaciers flowing down the valleys, long black sand beaches that stretch along the shoreline, seemingly endlessly, no trees anywhere to limit the view. It’s all marvelous to look at, glorious to take in. But here’s where Iceland presents it’s first challenge for the landscape photographer. This is not at all so obvious at first, what’s there not to like for the landscape photographer in such grandiose nature?
When I take foreign photographers around Iceland I notice they all struggle with the same problem to begin with if they’ve never shot in Iceland before. They all try to take it all in at once. They try to capture the vastness in one shot. As breathtaking as it might be standing there gazing for miles and miles in any and all directions, it’s just really hard to capture that in a photograph. the results are flat, uninteresting photos, with maybe some mountains far away in the background.
Having an interesting foreground is always the key. My advise to them is always the same; sure, start with the wide shots. Use your phone even. Send it to your significant other who went to Bali instead because absolutely nobody that’s not a photographer has the patience to wait for a photographer. But when you’ve done your wide angle and phone photos, take your camera and go closer. And then closer. And closer.
If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enoughRobert Capa
Hungarian-American war-photographer Robert Capa was known for his saying that if your pictures aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough. But then again he ended his life when he stepped on a landmine to get a closer view of an oncoming attack on the French regiment he was following around.
Luckily we’re not dealing with any extremes of that kind in Iceland. But that doesn’t mean the conditions can’t be brutal.
Now here’s Tom with the weather
Not only can the land it self be dangerous (don’t ever venture onto a glacier without a professional guide!) but the weather can be really challenging, to put it mildly.
In the winter of 2019-2020 we had so many hurricane level storms that I literally lost count. Some of them were hurricane level 5, they’re just not technically hurricanes because they don’t spin.
In February 2020 I took my friend and brilliant landscape photographer Bryan Stockton on an 8 day photography excursion of west and north Iceland. Every day we were out before sunrise and every night we stayed out until after sunset. A few nights we also went out to capture the ever elusive northern lights.
Every day was a challenge in the freezing winter winds of Iceland. I’ll give Bryan the word, as he described it perfectly:
As Bryan describes, just holding the camera steady can be a challenge in Iceland. Luckily for us there was no dissipation that day but sometimes it don’t just rain sideways here, it rains upwards and downwards and every direction (im)possible at once. Just Keeping your lens dry for a fraction of a second while you click the shutter release can be a challenge. I can remember many such moments on my first trip with Bryan through the highlands of Iceland in the autumn of 2018.
For me personally, the rain adds a huge layer of difficulty to my shooting because I can’t open the Polaroid peel-apart films in the rain. So I have to be sure that I’ve nailed the shot, without looking. I’ll probably write another post about why exactly that’s not so easy but for now I’ll just mention exposure with a hand held light meter that doesn’t always correspond to the film, difficulty of framing because my camera isn’t slr, and film that is prone to failing.
Iceland is the bootcamp of landscape photography
Landscape photography in Iceland should be on top of every photographer’s list that takes his/her art seriously. Icelandic nature and especially the weather can be some of the toughest teachers you’ll ever encounter out in the field. Just thinking straight can be a challenge while the winds batter you. Mix in snowfall, hale, or even grains of black sand blowing in the wing and you just want to press the shutter and run back to your car. I don’t know how many mistakes I’ve made while shooting in extreme conditions simply because my mind was on keeping my feet to the ground in the crazy wind, or sheltering my face from the onslaught of show, hale and sand. Setting the exposure right? Focusing? Leveling the frame? Ain’t nobody got time for that when the weather seems to be out to murk the life out of you.
But once you got it, once you’ve been through that, all your other shoots will become a walk in the park.