The actual experience of photographing in Iceland presents unique challenges as well, and it's helpful to recognize some of the various situations that will be found and the quite different thought processes and camera techniques that can best capture the photographic opportunities.
My upcoming Iceland photographic tours will be winter in February 2017, so I'll tell you about the winter challenges I experienced on my last winter trip and how I dealt with them.
Some of the best photographic highlights of winter trips to Iceland are by no means just ice and snow. The potential opportunities include seascapes, both intimate and grand, the aurora borealis, ice caves, waterfalls, glaciers, mountain landscapes, black sand beaches with icebergs tumbling in waves and washed up on the beach, and icebergs floating in a lagoon. Quite a list indeed, and on my last winter trip, we saw and photographed everything on the list. Of course, weather and other conditions always dictate whether subjects are available at any specific time.
I don’t have to say much about camera equipment as most everyone now uses some version of a digital camera and they're perfectly suited to all the potential images we may encounter. My first trip to Iceland years ago was with a large format view camera, and while I got wonderful images, that camera wouldn't have allowed me to capture more than a small fraction of the imagery I obtained on my most recent trip. It wasn’t suitable for fast-moving subjects that needed split-second decision making or subjects like the aurora where high ISO are so critical. So camera types do count.
Much more important than a camera type, however, is a mental mindset that is able to recognize what's most important in the scene and how to successfully deal with the camera in a way that may be totally different than what was needed just minutes before. Decisions like the proper lens for a given situation, an effective aperture and shutter speed for the intended effect, how to give an optimal exposure for a specific intent—all these come only after the mental decisions have arrived that determine what exactly a photograph should be about and how it should look and, even more importantly, feel, to a viewer. This decision-making process is usually very fluid and is a reaction to the emotional impact that the scene has on you. This reaction to a personal emotional impact is why everyone has different images even though several people may be exploring the same subject at the same time.
In order to keep this from becoming a long essay, it may be more helpful to show some examples from my last winter trip to Iceland and explain some of the specific thought processes that went into these images.
The tide was coming in along with a stiff wind that was rolling these refrigerator-sized bergs around in a big breaking surf, so things were happening fast and very chaotically. My natural preference is to be quite contemplative while working, but in these conditions that was a nonstarter, so I had to quickly adapt to what was there. I tried a slow shutter speed, which totally lost the feel I was after, so I took my camera off the tripod and set it to aperture preferred priority and auto focus. I pushed up the ISO until I could use at least 1/750 sec. at ƒ/16 at about 200mm to freeze the action and, while composing through the viewfinder, kept shooting whenever I'd see a breaking wave and the bergs in hopefully a pleasing pattern.
The critical lesson in these conditions was to set the camera correctly, keep shooting and review later. There was no time to be contemplative in the moment, although I basically knew what I wanted. After reviewing about a dozen shots of this scene later, this is the one that best carried out my intent.
The same beach on a calmer day allowed me to be more contemplative, and I wandered up and down the beach until I saw this little 18-inch high ice form and knew this mini iceberg would be the star of this little show. The camera was now on a tripod in manual mode and I was on my knees watching the waves ebb and flow around this ice form.
Reviewing a few shots taken at different shutter speeds showed me that 1/2 second at ƒ/16 at around 100mm gave me the feel I wanted. I still took quite a few shots of this because every wave gave me a different feeling background and different patterns of receding waves. I'd have continued except a larger wave came along and away went my little berg. A few processing decisions here had me slightly darkening everything but the little berg, which I also lightened a little more just to give it a bit of a spotlight effect as befitting the star of the show.
This was an awesome day at Reynisfjara Beach on the south coast with the wildest surf I've ever seen. To try to capture the feel of the huge continuously breaking waves in the extreme wind was a challenge. The waves were breaking out as far as I could see until they were lost in the sea fog and black clouds of the next snow squall that would hit every 10 minutes or so. My camera was on a tripod with my 70-300mm lens full out at 300mm, ISO 800 and 1/500 sec. at ƒ/16 for as much depth of field I thought was needed. Again, the wave patterns were constantly changing, so I shot quite a few knowing one would be the one I was looking for. There's no other way to get an optimal wave example other than to shoot several because things are happening just too fast to compose the best one on the fly.
These mountains on the southeast coast are my favorite mountains in Iceland. I've been there quite a few times and never fail to come away with an image that's very meaningful to me. On this winter trip last March, I saw these clouds and immediately knew my image was going to celebrate clouds. Everything else, the dunes, the mountains and the seashore are positioned to enhance my appreciation of incredible clouds. These clouds remained in this same general position on the mountains for the entire windless afternoon until sunset so I had the luxury of being very deliberate and contemplative as I composed many images always with clouds as the star of the show. Here, I moved the tripod right and left, forward and back and slightly adjusted the zoom, all with the goal of placing the landscape elements in the exact places I felt would best serve my ideas. My main photographic output is geared to large prints of 24x30 so my camera work has to be as precise as I can manage because I demand tack sharp prints. I'm very careful about critical focusing and routinely use focus slice or focus bracketing techniques as I did here. I was quite sure this image would end up as a black-and-white print, but that decision was finalized back at my computer.
One of the chief goals of any winter trip to Iceland is to photograph the stunning aurora shows that often occur here. A big challenge is to know how to set your camera focus accurately to infinity in the dark and what shutter speed to use to best capture aurora streamers that may be moving fast. I recommend checking infinity focus during the day to know for sure where the precise infinity focus point is and mark the lens. Another important piece of equipment that I carry is a small red flashlight to allow me to set camera controls in the dark without destroying my night vision. In my experience in Iceland, when photographing the aurora, I want exposure times between 6-12 seconds and I adjust the ISO to get me in that range. I don’t worry about depth of field too much as I'm often using a 14mm lens and typically not including close foreground elements, so I normally use one or at most two stops down from wide open.
It’s very helpful to have thought about these decisions before things happen because when the aurora starts, the adrenaline shoots up and things happen fast. The proper place to focus attention is on what's happening in the sky, not fussing with equipment. On this night, we were on a ridge above the Jokulsarlon lagoon and I was looking east for this image. I used a 14mm Rokinon lens, f4, 8 seconds at ISO 1600.
Daniel Anderson Photographic Bio Info
I began photographing seriously in the 1970s and have been fortunate to study along the way with numerous wonderful photographers, including Ansel Adams, who have all left their influences on how I approach and think about photographic imagery. I began teaching workshops in the 1980s, first in Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula where I live, then adding workshops in Michigan’s UP and in the American Southwest. I also have been teaching darkroom printing workshops since 1985 and eventually transitioned into digital printing workshops emphasizing advanced Photoshop techniques after I transitioned from an 8x10 view camera to digital camera equipment. I still teach these today. I began leading photo tours outside of the United States in the 1990s and I have led tours exclusively for Strabo Photo Tours every year since they have been in business. So far, I've led tours for Strabo to Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Patagonia and Iceland.