It’s All About the Light – An Icelandic Road Trip – Part 1

The endless dusk in Iceland makes for an amazing photographic journey.

It strikes you the moment you step off the plane at Keflavik Airport.   The remarkable quality of Iceland’s light.  Even down south near Reykjavik, there is a milky-soft ambiance in the shadows that make it a favourite for cinematographers and landscape photographers alike. In this photographic tour of Iceland, I quickly realized it was all about the light.


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I arrived in Reykjavik on a chilly March afternoon to meet with an old friend and fellow photographer Ross Buswell. Over the course of next 10 days, we’d be driving a 4×4 around the perimeter of the frosty and remote island, from its majestic Westfjords through to its eerie eastern shorelines.  We would be spending hours braced against the bitterly cold winds and intermittent swells of frozen rain while photographing the region’s varied and often untouched landscapes.  We’d clamber along the edges of giant volcanic craters and watch ice flows drift and luminesce under a laconic sun that never strayed far from the comfort of the horizon.  All the while the delicate soft light would repeatedly take my breath away.

Icelandic Light – © Mike Best

The drive to Hólmavík

A 4x4 car parked in a vast field in front of a snow covered mountain in Iceland
On the road to Hólmavík – © Mike Best

While there is plenty to see around Reykjavik and the south, our journey began by heading up to one of the country’s remoter regions.  After arranging our car (it’s recommended to book in advance for the best deals) we hit the road for the first leg of our trip, a long drive up to the small town of Hólmavík, in the west.  It sits at the base of the Westfjords, at the edge of the arctic circle.  Along the way, we hit some of the more challenging driving and shooting conditions we encountered on the tour.

At that time of year, it is not a drive to be taken lightly.  The road conditions are extremely variable, and whiteout conditions can rise up within minutes.  Its advisable to check the road reports frequently and assume things can quickly change. The temperature also varied wildly, and I often found myself putting on and then stripping off jumpers within a few minutes.  It wasn’t uncommon to set up a shot by the side of the road in the relative warmth of the clear sky, only for swells of snow and ice to blow in, swirling around us to the point it was difficult to see a few feet ahead.

A photographer stands in silhouette on a road in Iceland against white out conditions.
White out conditions in Iceland –  © Mike Best

March in Iceland is still inside winter, but late enough in the season for us to able to access some more remote stretches of North-Western roads that would otherwise be locked in by snow drifts – despite the ongoing efforts of ubiquitous snowplows forever scraping away sheaths of ice from the roads connecting its western and northern towns.

Tip:  An all-wheel-drive vehicle is essential for traveling on the northern roads. The weather in Iceland is notoriously changeable and it’s not uncommon for people to become stranded in their vehicles, even in the south, from being caught off-guard on back roads.  Our vehicle thankfully had studded snow tires and chains at the ready.

As challenging as the conditions were to shoot in, the snow drifts created some dramatic and foreboding scenes, particularly when caught in the sunlight.

Snowdrifts on the road to Holmik – © Mike Best

There was little evidence of habitation once we started heading north.  We were soon surrounded by wide-open landscapes populated by nothing but the occasional radio tower or Icelandic horse – a famously hearty animal that seemed completely untroubled by the frigid conditions.

The trickiest part of the drive was route 61, a small strip which cuts across the base of the Westfjords.  We gained altitude quickly and found ourselves in high terrain and terrible visibility.  Ross’s driving skills were put to the test a few times, as drivers, apparently either more familiar with the roads or with the ability to see through snow have a tendency to drive fast.

Near miss on road in Iceland

The drive was definitely worth it, however, as soon we found ourselves approaching the base of the fjords, taking in some truly stunning coastal landscape.

Shooting in the snow

The Westfjords near Hólmavík – © Mike Best

Shooting snowy vistas can present a few technical issues.  Firstly it is not uncommon for cameras to underexpose scenes with a lot of snow or ice, particularly when shooting into the sun (which I love doing).  Camera light meters are calibrated to what is known as ‘18% grey’ – a kind of average luminance that accounts for most scenes.  While most modern cameras are programmed to recognize and compensate for snowy scenes, it’s still a good idea to overexpose anywhere from 1/3 to a full stop depending on how bright/white you want the snow to appear.

That said, there is an aesthetic choice to be made in terms of how much white to leave in the snow. Sometimes exposing it too bright would completely blow out all the subtle tones and shades that might be helping tell the visual story.

When shooting in Iceland, it’s all about the light.  It’s northern latitude and climate make for lighting which most studio photographers work hard to create – a mixture of both highly directional sunlight that provides good definition, and lovely soft shadows filled with natural blue and magenta tones.

Another common issue with shooting snowy scenes is white balance.  This basically has to do with what the camera is going to decide represents white in your scene (our perception of the color white is actually more subjective and relative than you may realise).  Cameras almost always have a particular bias, even when shooting with auto white balance turned on.  My camera, for example, tends to lean towards a slightly yellow cast, which can be fine in the relatively greyer light of London, but something I wound up having to adjust for in Lightroom in a number of my Iceland shots.

Tip:  You get a lot more control over your final images by shooting in RAW format, and then using a program like Adobe Lightroom Classic to adjust the white balance, exposure and other settings.

Again, there is a degree of subjectivity with white balance. In my case, I wanted to go for fairly neutral white tones and preserve the blues and magentas in the ambient shadows.  I could, however, have chosen to try to make the shadows neutral and have a blue cast in the clouds.  It’s really what feels natural and what you are trying to say.

Tip: There is a good article over here on the B&H website with a few more tips for shooting snow: 7 Tips for Taking Photographs in the Snow

Another ‘gotcha’ for shooting snowy landscapes: Make sure your camera sensors are clean! (I have to confess I was guilty of this one myself on this trip).

If you shoot with a DSLR, over time the sensor plate inside your camera can get a bit grubby with small flecks of dust.  In normal shooting situations these are often scarcely noticeable, but when shooting large swathes of white, such as snowy landscapes, they can show up in your picture as small grey blobs.  To avoid this ensure you occasionally have your camera cleaned.

Pro-tip:  To see if your camera needs cleaning shoot a picture of a large white sheet of paper in the bright sunlight, so the white fills the frame completely.  When you open up the image if you see any small grey dots you may want to think about having your camera cleaned.

Important Note: Never attempt to clean your camera’s sensor yourself, it is extremely delicate and you will likely damage it. Take it to a professional to do it properly.

Hólmavík

After several hours of amazing and occasionally hair-raising driving we made it up to the small town of Hólmavík in the early evening, with just enough time for a surprisingly good bowl of clam chowder at the only open restaurant – which also apparently houses the (regrettably not open) Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft.  Oh well, something for next time!   We had a bit of a wander around town, and then it was an early night to set off for the next leg of our trip exploring the beautiful Westfjords.

Shot from above of a series of colorful snow covered houses in Holmvik in Icelands Westfjords
Colorful houses in Hólmavík – © Mike Best
The sun slowly going down in Hólmavík – © Mike Best

Part 2 – The Westfjords and Ísafjörður

Please look out for the next installment of this post where we explore the breathtaking Westfjords and all the way to the northernmost town of Ísafjörður

#luminousiceland


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