Posted on July 1, 2018
The section of the Ring Road from Egilsstadir to Lake Myvatn was my least favorite drive. You leave the east coast, head past lush farm lands and drive through fields of black lava for much of the two hours it takes to get to Lake Myvatn.
There is one important photo location along this section of Ring Road, the Dettifoss waterfall. Dettifoss is about 85 miles east of Eglisstadir, 25 miles from Lake Myvatn, and the most powerful waterfall in Iceland. Plus, it’s adjacent to Selfoss, a waterfall of equal beauty.
Logistical issues. Dettifoss and Selfoss are something of a rarity in Iceland, they can be approached easily from either side. Rt. 862, the western approach, is shorter and paved. It gets the lion’s share of tourists. This western viewpoint doesn’t give much glimpse of the gorge below.
From the east side, you can walk right up to the cliff edge and aren’t as hampered by the managed overlooks. Unfortunately, Rt 864 is a longer drive down a dirt road. The route is also less accessible. This section of the Ring Road is at a higher altitude so there are snow issues for most of the year. I had planned to shoot Dettifoss from both sides. But when I came in early May, 864 was closed; the sign saying (in nicer words) if you get stuck on this road, you’ll need a second mortgage to pay the towing fees. So I went with the flow.
Best light. On the other hand, I discovered that Dettifoss’ western view is the better choice in the afternoon. The river, Jokulsa a Fjollum, flows south to north so you’re shooting with the sun behind you. The eastern view will get better light in the morning and a better view upstream. Of course this being Iceland, you’re likely to be shooting on an overcast day.
Layout. An easy walk from the parking lot takes you to a couple of fenced off overlooks. The first overlook is just above the falls. The downstream overlook gives a cleaner composition. It’s easier to get the entire falls into frame.
This framing gave me some nice leading lines into the image. And since there was a perfect rainbow, I used it. I did play around with shutter speeds at this spot. This waterfall is a powerhouse and I wanted a (somewhat) slower shutter speed to suggest movement in the water without sacrificing definition. So for me, anything slower than 1/20 second gave too much smoothing to the falls for my taste.
One note: The swirling black and white along the cliff edge (center) are patterns in the snow. I’m not sure how they got created but I like the effect. Also, notice that the rainbow stops in midair.
As far as post, I mostly just lightened up the shadows in the lower third of the image.
Another nice thing about this shot location is that it’s a twofer. The Selfoss waterfall is just a ten minute walk upstream. (You’ll see the path off to the left as you head back towards the parking lot.)
Selfoss has just as much water flow as Dettifoss (duh) but the layout allows you to shoot from the cliff edge. Plus, Selfoss has a number of smaller falls leading the eye up to the central area of it. So there are any number of ways you can compose the image successfully.
At 1/500 sec., the foreground waterfall becomes lattice-like and the turbulence in the river is nicely detailed. So this approach seemed to capture what made Selfoss so unique at that moment.
Between the two waterfalls, the gorge narrows and the river moves fast. So I spent longer working this location, seeing how a longer exposure would impact the motion of water. Here’s an example of that.
For me, the slower shutter speed was too weird. I don’t mind the fall’s blur on the right side. But that 1/10th sec exaggerates the river motion. It’s a powerful photographic choice. But I get almost sea sick looking at it and I can’t imaging anyone having this image on their wall. I could have gone for a much longer exposure, 1-5 minutes. But then I lose all the detailing in the river. And those powerhouse rapids are what captured my attention that afternoon.
None of this is meant to say how these two waterfalls “ought” to be photographed. These perceptions are what moved me on that afternoon. With different lighting, different water levels, I would have gone with another approach. The point is to engage with a place, let it “speak” to you, then use your tools to capture the feeling.
Post. For the two Selfoss images, my core adjustments were to equalize the effects of the light differences. The cliffs getting direct sun were a bit harsh and blown out, the cliffs and water in shadow were too dark. That’s a common challenge for us.
While shooting, I was talking with a young couple about the challenges of photographing a scene like this. They were enjoying the moment, I was thinking out loud. I probably mentioned how dark the shadows were getting. It was 6:30 by now but the two ladies could still see every detail in the rocks (on the right side) with no trouble. The camera was registering all that as black since I didn’t want the sky getting blown out. People often think you should just “photograph what’s there.” But what the eye sees isn’t what the camera can deliver. That’s the point of post production, the point of shooting in RAW.
After shooting Selfoss, I headed down into a final black plain towards Lake Myvatn, my stop for the night. The deep blue lake is a relief after the lava flats. As I noticed early on, in Iceland you don’t have to drive far before the landscape transforms.
Hafraigilsfoss waterfall. If you have more time, Hafraigilsfoss waterfall is just a couple of miles downstream from Dettifoss. At this point you’re within Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon which goes on for miles to the north. It’s a popular hiking area. The two roads to Dettifoss, 862 and 864, parallel the canyon. But after Dettifoss, Rt. 862 becomes a dirt road as well.
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.