Behind the Image: Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland

Cold, wet, windy, and miserable, welcome to Iceland! You know all those images by other photographers of perfectly clear skies or amazingly colorful sunsets in the Icelandic landscape? I've yet to experience that. I've been to Iceland twice now and have only seen the clouds part for minutes at a time, typically only on the final day of my trip. To be fair, both of my trips were during the most extreme seasons of weather conditions: Spring and Fall. Just like here in the Blue Ridge where I live, Iceland's transitional seasons have the most unpredictable and uncomfortable weather, with summer being the most pleasant. I'm about to return for a third time this coming March. It'll be late winter going on spring, so I'll probably experience the same wet and frigid weather I've come to consider the norm for Iceland. I'm definitely expecting to. Let's hope the sky clears enough to see northern lights next time. Despite the conditions, being battered by wind and constantly wet and cold, I came home from my October 2016 trip with a few images I'm proud of. I sure had to work hard for them. The image below of famous Kirkjufellsfoss is one of my favorites.

Cloudy Skies at Kirkjufellsfoss, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland. (Nikon D600, 18-35G, Sirui T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod w/ C-10 Ball Head, 26mm, f14, 1/4 sec, ISO 80)

Cloudy Skies at Kirkjufellsfoss, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland. (Nikon D600, 18-35G, Sirui T-025x Carbon Fiber Tripod w/ C-10 Ball Head, 26mm, f14, 1/4 sec, ISO 80)

Good travel photographers always make a shot list. If it's not written down, it's at least a mental list. I always have a few shots and locations in mind that I really want to capture. Many of the things on my list were on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and Kirkjufellsfoss was at the top of it. This famous waterfall near the base of Kirkjufell mountain is popular among photographers. Actually, that's an big understatement. Kirkjufellsfoss has become one of those iconic, signature symbols of Iceland. It's everybody's "trophy shot." I don't mind photographing things that have been "shot to death" as long as I can put my own spin on it. Having seen thousands of similar photos of this waterfall/mountain combination, I knew I would have to work hard to create an image that was a little bit different.

Normally, creating a unique image of a heavily photographed subject means shooting it at a different time of year, or under different lighting or weather conditions, than most other photographers. I hoped a unique sunrise would be the answer. I'd just let the weather do the work of creating atmosphere and color and I would compose and shoot. Every sunrise is different, right? I arrived just before sunrise (after a two hour drive from Reykjavik in rain and darkness) to find only dense and ominous clouds. There would be no colorful sunrise that morning. There were four other photographers there already, all set up with cameras on big tripods tricked out with ND filters and polarizers. They were all in a line side-by-side above the falls and shooting at eye-level standing. Essentially, they were all going for the same shot. I assumed they were part of a workshop, but they all dispersed later in different vehicles after only a few minutes of shooting. I gave the scene a wide birth on my way up to the top of the waterfall so I wouldn't be in their shots. Walking behind them, I could see on their LCD's that they were all, in fact, going for the same composition: a wide shot of the waterfall in the foreground, Kirkjufell in the back, and the ocean out on the horizon. It's the typical shot of Kirkjufellsfoss from above. One guy hiked down below the waterfall for the second most typical composition. I waited a moment to see what everybody was doing; I didn't want to plant myself in another photographer's foot steps for the same image. I wanted something at least a little different: my take on the Kirkjufellsfoss experience. 

It wasn't raining at the moment, which was miraculous, and the light wasn't going to change with all the dark overcast clouds as far the eye could see, so I took my time thinking through my compositions. I shot several images, never from the same spots the other guys shot from. I didn't use any filters, not even a polarizer. Though it wasn't raining yet, spray from the waterfall was coating my lens. I had to wipe between each exposure. Filters would have just added more glass to clean, and I didn't think they were necessary for this low contrast scene in the early morning twilight. It was tricky getting unique compositions. I often found myself on very narrow ledges only a few inches wide right on the cliffside. The ground was slippery and soggy, and my tripod legs kept sinking in the black mud. In the beginning, I was going for shots that included small plants and their colorful leaves carpeting the ground surrounding the falls. They were in peak Autumn color and added visual interest to the foreground. Then, I decided to get closer to the waterfall itself. I carefully walked a narrow ledge with my tripod/camera in one hand and the other clinging to the cliffside. I was eye-level with the top of the waterfall with a 20 foot drop only inches in front of my toes. It was precarious, and I was also trying hard not to disturb the moss and plant life bordering my path. Thanks to the small foot print of my travel tripod, I was able to set up on the narrow ledge. There was no room for me to get behind my camera, so I had to use live view and compose my shot while looking from the side at an angle. I made a few exposures, wiping the lens between each frame. The rain came after a few shots and water started to flow over my little ledge making it all the more soggy. As my weight caused the diminishing muddy ledge to begin to give way, I scrambled back up to level and solid ground. The very last frame I shot is the image above. It's simple, close, and compressed; almost as if it were shot using a telephoto lens. 

This shot really simplifies the scene into a few key elements. You can't see them in the image, but I've craftily hidden some man-made objects that littered the scene. First, there was some large excavation equipment (plows and backhoes) at the top of the falls. At first I grumbled about it, then decided to embrace the challenge of removing it using compositional skills instead of photoshop. Second, at the base of Kirkjufell, were rows and rows of hay bales covered in white plastic to keep them dry. They looked like marshmallows. Very distracting. I used the rock ledge, and the hill between the waterfall and mountain, to hide them. The third distraction was the road between Kirkjufell and the waterfall, which you can barely see in the image. There were cars and buses (mostly tourists like me) driving by constantly. By getting low and close, instead of shooting wide from above, I was able to hide the road and the other distractions, limiting my compositions to include the most important elements. All in all, I think this is one of my more successful shots of the trip. To read more about my experience, click here. As always, thanks for reading!

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it."
— Ansel Adams


(c) Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.