Posted on April 15, 2018
I guess it’s possible to do landscape photography in Iceland and not shoot waterfalls (foss in Icelandic), but it wouldn’t be as much fun. New York art dealer types think images of waterfalls are cliched. But their idea of getting out in nature is a trip to the Hamptons. For a landscape photographer, the waterfall is a lovely compilation of the essential forces of nature, geology, water, erosion, light. For the photog in Iceland, the waterfall is a genre unto itself.
Given all the rain, the glaciers and a volcanic shape, Iceland has thousands of waterfalls. There are 100 or more that are named and worth visiting if you’re in the area. And like Niagara and Iguazu Falls, the more impressive ones in Iceland have personalities.
Godafoss, the God waterfall, is water falling along a curve. It’s also a name with a history, of Icelanders rejecting the old gods in favor of Christianity. Kirkjufellsfoss, the falls next to church-shaped mountain, is almost always shot with the mountain. Like Ben and Jerry, the two gain power by their proximity. Dettifoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Europe.
The Art of It
Proximity is the secret with shooting almost any waterfall because they are by definition about relationship. This creature exists as a total flow. The river reaching the lip of a high plateau, the falling part, the landing place, the lower river, it’s all of a piece. And as visual artists, our job is to choose how much of that complex shape we’ll capture within the frame.
That’s the general problem most photographers have, framing the essence of a falls. Anyone can take an OK pic of a waterfall. Waterfalls have inherent drama and even a bad picture of Gullfoss will impress.
But pointing and shooting aren’t enough for a good image. Instead of just putting the falls into a 2 dimensional frame, I generally try and think of the stages of the waterfall as taking place within three dimensions — like the beast is in real life. I want the eye to go on a journey back to the origin or on towards the downstream goal.
By taking the eye along a journey into the frame, we’re just using the mind’s natural tendency to dive into a reality. So, in the image above, the cliff edge is our foreground. Behind that, the water captures our attention and pulls us towards the mist and the rainbow and the ground below and finally, to the surrounding landscape.
Take a sec to see how this Gullfoss image pulls the eye into the frame. …
First, the left and right river banks are leading lines, as is the little fence and walkway at bottom left. The churning white of the falling water also gets our attention because I set the shutter speed slow enough to cause motion blur in the central section. And of course, the green-blue coloring in the water also captures the eye, especially in a landscape so totally black and white. The eye wants to move upstream before becoming immersed in the details of this 3-level waterfall.
The inherent challenge with photography is that the initial image is essentially flat. The camera can only see in 2-D. Plus the RAW file flattens out color, contrast, sharpness even more. So the composition and the post-production needs to work overtime to give the image the immersive quality of our initial experience.
Posted on April 2, 2018
Like all good projects, this Iceland book started from need. I’m not sure where the need came from, maybe (in vague form) from seeing images on some of the better photo sites (500px, viewbug, etc). But over several years, I tracked Iceland as a place worth exploring. So by the time my sis said she was taking her crew there, I already knew the land of ice needed to be high on the photo journey list.
My first week there (and there) last March was what trigged the real need. The vastness of the landscapes, the raw color palette, made me want to stretch myself creatively. But with a couple of books on Utah photography and my travel blogging, I wanted to do more than just work the camera. I thought, why not write a book with several moving parts, sure, coffee table images, but also a personal travel account, a How To for creative exploration, a photographic road trip.
Iceland’s become one of the ultimate destinations for photo enthusiasts. Obviously. Everyone who goes there seems like they’re in photo overdrive. Tourists on the day tours from Reykjavik, the photo enthusiasts (both local and international), the folks doing the Ring Road; they’re all shooting.
That doesn’t mean Iceland is overexposed (sorry). After all, this is a small country with fantastic visual elements. The land is plain in many ways, it’s a cold, volcanic stone in the North Atlantic. But it’s immensely evocative, Nordic myth evocative, Ansel Adams without having to go black and white.
That trip last March, that intense, cold week, gave me glimpses of its possibilities. And I decided that I needed to do an entire portfolio, using Iceland’s Ring Road as a guiding principle for this photographic road trip.
Now, doing a Ring Road book is not a new concept. Look on Amazon, look at Pinterest. But what I have in mind isn’t a Ring Road itinerary book.
The idea is simple, to do a road trip along the Ring Road, photograph as you go, blog the experience — from the germ of the idea to the planning, the photo shoots, people, life leading to a final portfolio and who knows, a gallery show. Capture something fundamental about the place in word as well as image.
And who will care
Shooting Iceland is one of the big ones. Lots of us have done photo tours in Monument Valley, Zion, Yosemite, etc. I love those kind of tours. And you can do a comparable level of photography on Iceland’s South Coast, Golden Circle or Snaefellsnes Peninsula. But why just do a day or two? Iceland’s a whole country with enormous creative challenges — and touring the Ring Road without the tour guide can take one’s work to the next level.
So my idea is to share my shot location research at every step. And, as with my Utah photo / travel books, to get into travel logistic, lighting, composition issues, personal insights. So someone who visits Iceland for a day or a week can use my location research during their stay.
The one thing I don’t want is to write a guidebook. There are plenty of those already. So little or no coverage of hotels or places to eat. Just my thoughts on stuff that will interest enthusiasts and savvy travelers.
Generally photographers avoid giving much detail about their favorite locations or how they work. (As if there are any secret left in a world where 7 billion people have a camera.) It’s better to err on the side of openness. So I talk with enthusiasts a lot, I read the blogs, I look at stuff on social media. The international photo community is a vast resource and fellow enthusiasts are a core element in my creative process.
I also see this project as fulfilling a need. Sure, plenty of folks do Iceland trips and blog about it, or post to Facebook, or tweet or Instagram or Pinterest. Much of it is like: Yeah, we did the trip to the Godafoss waterfall, took this exit off the Ring Road, wandered over from the parking lot, here’s some shots. [Instagram/Facebook/Other] The images can be good but the writing isn’t usually that helpful or that entertaining.
A picture is worth a thousand words… but good writing can evoke a hundred cultural nuances; it can be a good read. That means going beyond the guidebook level writing, sharing useful insights, personal moments. What I’m after is something in the style of Steinecks’ Travels with Charley, or maybe Thoreau on a road trip. (Hey, if I can’t dream big, what’s the point.)
I’m also trying to dream big when it comes to the photography. Most Iceland photos you see on Google or Instagram aren’t great. (I’m being gentle now.) Yes, you’ll see some good shots at a marquee location like Godafoss or Longranger. But take a look at the other Iceland stuff that photog shot. See if they were able to capture the little moment by the side of the road or the vibrancy of the little fishing villages in the early morning. That’s the hard part. That’s where the craft is.
You will see excellent work from Iceland photo pros. The guys (usually) who do $1000 a day tours to the South Coast or Snaefellsnes Peninsula are worth a close look, just do an (Iceland tours) search.
But us tourists shouldn’t expect that level of perfect. As any photo enthusiast knows, when you live in a place, go to those locations week in and week out, you’ll get images a visitor can’t touch.
The first time visitor can’t play that game. And why should they try? If you’re in Iceland for the first time, and you’re there 24×7, you don’t have the ideal conditions you get on a fancy photo tour – where the guide drives you to the marquee location at the perfect time of day and plants you on the sweet spot.
If you’ve been on one of these tours, you know that a good enthusiast can come away with some great portfolio shots, some of them better than what the guide took that day. Hey, even the not-so-good photographer can capture a great image if they’re coached.
On the other hand, if I need handholding, I’m not going to learn as much as I will by doing all the creative groundwork from scratch. Going to a photo location, breathing the place in, following the light, seeing the image as pure composition. … And doing that process day in and day out whether I’m at Glacier Lagoon or some pull-off.
That’s how you take your work to the next level. That’s how an Ansel Adams did it when he wasn’t at Yosemite. Not that I’m Ansel. I’m more interested in developing my own vision anyway.
But that was all the backstory for this Ring Road trip, to develop a portfolio out of my 2 weeks in country and to write about it with the tools that a few decades of professional writing has given me.
God knows, there are Icelandic photographers that could (probably have) put together coffee table books that evoke this pristine country beautifully. But they aren’t professional writers. Their coffee table book generally have artsy text that, let’s be honest, no one reads. I’m after something else entirely.
What I want to do is take the enthusiast on the creative journey I’m going on from initial concept to final portfolio. I want the writing to give the enthusiast photographer all the logistical info, cool shot locations, plus lighting and composition ideas that they’d get on a fancy (i.e. $$$) photo tour.
And at the end I want the photog to see what I made of all that while sharing the tools they need to develop their own take on things. That’s the plan.