The 7 step guide to photography in Iceland by Peter Hammer
Iceland is a wonderful country for landscape photography. There are waterfalls ranging from huge, like Gullfoss and Godafoss, down to hundreds of smaller ones often falling large distances. Then there are colourful mountains, glaciers and icebergs and if you are lucky an aurora. In many ways landscape photography in Iceland is much the same as in many other countries but there are some differences because of the Icelandic climate. This article isn't about how to take good landscape images, although the usual things like trying to get the best light are applicable here as elsewhere. What I want to cover are some of the issues you won't find in good weather photography in other parts of the world and a few other topics which are often ignored. It is based on my travels covering around 6500km in 5 weeks in Iceland 2013. I drove almost all of the ring road and the Western Fjords and ventured down a lot of smaller roads as well. The weather ranged from a gale through sunny weather.
Iceland is a cold country and that brings up a few challenges. For a start your camera lens will fog up if you take it from a cold environment to a warm environment. That is only a real problem if you jump in and out of a warm car too often. You either put up with this or use a soft cloth to absorb the moisture. Keeping the camera in a camera bag often solves issue as the bag keeps out warm, moist air. The other issue with cold is that your camera will get very cold and will be uncomfortable to hold. Gloves as a rule are useless as thick gloves don't allow you to operate the camera controls. I found that a thin pair of glove liners worn under fingerless gloves worn under a thick wrist protector works about as well as anything. A wrist protector is as much like a glove for your hand as a fingerless glove is for your fingers.
2. Cleaning cloths
Normal lens cleaning cloths for glasses etc are pretty useless and are usually plain microfiber. What works best is a split microfiber towel. The first and probably most important test to determine the quality of a microfiber towel is touch. How does the towel feel to the touch? It should feel soft and it should “grab” the imperfections on your skin when you run the microfiber towel over the palm of your hand. This means it is made from split microfiber. The open spaces in the microfiber created by the splitting process allow the microfiber cleaning cloth to pick up and hold dirt as well as absorbing liquid. Another test you can use to determine the quality of microfiber is an absorbency test. Pour a little water on a flat, smooth surface, take a folded microfiber towel and slowly slide the towel towards the puddle. Carefully observe as the towel contacts the water. Does it suck the water up like a vacuum? Does it push the water away? Is it somewhere in between? Does the water quickly wick through the towel? You want a towel that sucks the water up like a vacuum and you want the water to wick throughout the towel, these are characteristics of high quality, absorbent microfiber towels.
The weather in Iceland can be rain or drizzle in one spot but sunny 10km down the road. The problem with rain and drizzle is that the water drops hit your lens and that causes distortion on the image. Rain can also damage your camera. What you have to do is protect both the camera body and the lens from getting wet. A towel thrown over the camera does a pretty good job in protecting the camera and is much less fiddly than using a waterproof cover. Waterproof bags for cameras can be bought on eBay for under $10. Neither of these actually protects the lens though. A lens hood can help provided you aren't having the rain blown in, an issue in Iceland with strong winds. I found that rubber lens hoods work pretty well as they extend a fair way out from the lens but fold back on themselves so that you can push them briefly out of the way when you want to take a photo without getting part of the image cut off in the corners.
Photographing moving water introduces the notion of how to capture the flow. A fast shutter speed will freeze the water and make it rather lifeless. Too long an exposure takes all the motion out and replaces it with a silky look. You have to choose a shutter speed to convey what you want.
Fast shutter speeds aren't hard to get under most lighting conditions but if you want to have a long exposure then you need to use a filter. Typically in bright sunlight you need a filter which decreases the light by around a factor of 1000. These are known as ND400 type filters and are made by companies like Hoya, Marumi, B+W and others. These filters are so dark that you can't see much through them. On a DSLR if you switch to Live View you can usually frame the image otherwise you have to frame the image and then attach the filter without moving anything! You can't easily attach these filters to compact cameras which don't have a screw thread on the lens. For long exposures a tripod is a must to avoid camera movement.
Getting the right shutter speed for what you want is often a bit of trial and error. When the water is moving slowly a shutter speed of around 1 to 2 seconds is usually a good starting point. In the above image of Skogafoss where the water is falling a long distance a shutter speed around 0.5 sec will suffice. Getting the right exposure time, aperture and ISO is a matter of trial and error. Start with say ISO200, f11 and 1 second in bright sunlight and use the histogram to see what needs to change. In dimmer light you might need to increase the ISO.
Tripods come in all sizes and weights. By and large cheap tripods are a total waste of money. They aren't adequately stable. You are far better off spending more and getting something decent otherwise you will end up spending lots more money for what you should have bought in the first place. Especially in Iceland where you get strong winds, any flimsy tripod will blow all over the place and be useless. I would recommend a good carbon fibre tripod as they are lighter and stronger than ones made of aluminum. The tripod also needs to be fairly tall so that you can get above obstacles or stand above it on sloping ground. There are a few good ones around at reasonable prices (around the $300 to $400 mark). Those made by Benro (Induro in some parts of the world) and Sirui are very good and sensibly priced. I use a Sirui N2204X with a K20X ballhead and it worked fine in roaring gales in Iceland. More expensive brands (but costing a lot more for similar performance) include Gitzo and Manfrotto. A weight hung off the central column will provide a lot more stability and is probably required in high winds.
6. The Aurora
In general, auroras are fairly dim and you can see stars through them. As our eyes don't see colour at such low light levels the aurora looks white to us unless it is very bright. The camera will however see the colour. Photographing the aurora, especially when not bright, isn't easy as the stars move across the sky with the rotation of the earth. This limits the longest exposure you can make without converting stars from pinpoints into streaks. The longest exposure time depends on the focal length of the lens but typically you will be using a fairly short focal length to get enough of the sky in. That means the exposure time should be no longer than about 20 to 30 seconds. With the low light a fast lens is required otherwise you need to increase the ISO setting to high levels which will introduce a lot of noise into the image. As an example both of these images used the following settings: Nikon D7000 with a Samyang 16mm f2 prime lens 25 seconds @ f2.0 ISO1600.
If you used a lens with a maximum aperture of f2.8 you would have had to use an ISO of 3200. If your lens was only f4 then you would have had to use an ISO of 6400. A slow lens just isn't going to give you the best results. Of course if you strike a really bright aurora then a slower lens will work just fine.
7. Closing comments
Iceland offers a wonderful photographic experience and one which you will enjoy. Don't be upset if the weather isn't good as bad weather can make for fabulous images if the sun breaks through the clouds. It is often better than plain blue skies as the lighting becomes dramatic even if the photographer is freezing.