Iceland Post #1/16: Wildlife Warning Plate and Mountains
[1300 Words – 6.5 minutes]
Landscape photography needs time. It is rare that you take your best pictures the first time you visit a place. Sometimes it happens that you get the best light conditions in your first visit and you are not able to repeat your best images afterwards, but usually some visits are needed to a spot so that you can see it under different meteorological circumstances to get the best of it.
Last Spring I took a photographic road trip to Iceland. The landscapes of this impressive Island were a pending subject for me. The pictures of the volcanic scenery I had seen before my trip were impressive, so I rented a car and spent nine days moving through the Southern part of the ring-road that goes around the Island. I could also have visited the North part of the country, but I have learnt that, when photographing landscapes, it is preferable to be able to go back to the most impressive locations you find during the first days of your trip, looking for more suitable light.
In fact, when I was planning this trip at home, I left my last five days open (I did not book any hotel room or make any plan in advance); the final days had to be decided once I had visited all the locations and knew which ones had more potential for landscape photography.
I travelled there in spring. I had some reasons to choose this season: the number of visitors is not as high as in the Summer (which allows you to leave the last part of our trip open; during the Icelandic Summer you have to book well in advance) and the days are long enough to give you many hours of light to shoot landscapes. Winter is the season to photograph Auroras and ice caves, but not much more, due to the absence of day-light, and the most important reason: WEATHER IS BAD ENOUGH (yes BAD ENOUGH!), which is not the best for the photographer and the photo gear (mine suffered a lot: volcanic sand, hail, snow, rain…), but the combination of outstanding empty spaces and passing clouds is the best to shoot beautiful landscapes.
Now let us talk about this image, the first of my Icelandic series, which represents a Wildlife Warning Plate against a background of blurred (out of focus) mountains. I “saw” it while I was driving.
The composition is based in the CONTRAST of:
- SHAPES: hard and linear, non-organic shapes of the plate and the organic jagged shapes of the mountains.
- COLORS: oversaturated, impossible colors in nature present in the sign, and pastel blues, grays and whites of the mountain range in the background.
This image is easy to take. The only technical aspect to care about is focus: I shot at f4 (f2.8 would have given me better bokeh on the mountains, but lenses are sharper when shot stopped down), so my personal preference is to shoot at f4 if possible.
I set my ISO to 100 and Shutter Speed fell at 1/3200” which is very fast (so fast!) It seems that days are luminous indeed in Iceland Spring!
It took some time for me to set the tripod at the correct location so that I was able to get the composition I wanted, with the mountains under the plate, and I had to wait for a moment when the plate was lighted by the sun to saturate the colors and mark its shapes even more. In addition, this circumstance accentuated the contrast between the road sign and the background.
In these situations a tripod is not absolutely needed, but absolutely recommendable. Composing with a tele (where the minimum movement of the camera produces a huge movement of the frame) can exasperate the most patient photographer. In addition you have to wait for the clouds that are covering the sun to pass away and allow the sun to illuminate the warning sign. When you camera-lens combo you have decided to use weights more than 2kg, chances are that your arms get tired of holding the weight before everything (clouds, sun position, maybe a passing car…) is in place.
I used a big Gitzo Head G1372M in this trip to support the weight of the huge Nikon 80-200 2.8 (1.3kg!), one of those bulky teles that need a collar to screw the camera in, otherwise the center of gravity of the set camera + lens is moved forwards creating an unbalanced situation that a normal size head is not able to stand. The legs are my standard Manfrotto 055 Pro, also big and heavy. I was very happy to carry this big combination to Iceland, as I shot under very windy circumstances that moved all the photo gear and created vibrations. This combo was sturdy enough to allow me to work in the difficult circumstances of the harsh spring in Iceland.
I have chosen this image to open this series because, at least in my honest opinion, is more creative (I am sure I have not been the first to try this idea, but at least it is not an over-photographed cliché of this island) and because on the symbolic level, this image represents the essence of my trip: road and nature. The impressive Icelandic nature barely touched by humans. What took my attention when I was editing all the images back at home in front of the computer screen, is the iconic nature of the image: its idea is easy to get digested by the brain.
There are few other places on Earth you can take a road trip surrounded by the outstanding vastness of nature, an Iceland is maybe the easiest to reach. Another location that meets these conditions, but is more remote and difficult to reach is ‘Tierra de Fuego’, the uninhabited Southern part of Argentina and Chile.
SAFETY WARNING: Don’t drive and shoot at the same time!
I would like to make a safety warning about photographing while driving. I have to say I am addicted to landscape photography. Whenever I am driving in open spaces my eyes move (themselves) to look for landscapes. They turn to any unusual shape in the clouds, a dark storm that approaches on the horizon, any rock formation near the road… and this is a huge problem if you are driving a car in a scenic location as is Iceland.
I have read that some photographers shoot while driving. They are able to shoot a DSLR with one hand while driving. I am sure they are skilled drivers and that they have everything under control, but have to admit that I am not a skilled driver, so it is something I personally would not try. No landscape, no matter how impressive it is, no matter how unrepeatable is the light you have in front of you, is worth a car accident, not to say a head-on collision.
So I have learnt to throw fast looks to the sky above me or to the horizon and always go back to check the road. I ALWAYS STOP THE CAR if it is possible at a proper position. In rural zones of Iceland the traffic is light and, every few kilometers, there are rest zones or places you can park the road outside the road platform. Hence, if I have seen something that is really worth a second look, I stop, turn the car around and go back to the spot I want to take the picture on.
Resuming: I NEVER EVER SHOOT WHILE DRIVING.
Camera Model: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 80-200 AF used at 155mm
Settings: Aperture: f4 | Shutter Speed 1/3200 | ISO 100
LIST OF USED GEAR
Tripod: [Legs: Manfrotto 055 Pro] & [Head: Gitzo 1372M Magnesium Alloy]
Backpack: LowePro with rain cover (absolutely needed in Iceland)
Filter: B+W 77mm Graduated 0.6 Neutral Density Filter 2 points, soft transition
Memory Card: Sandisk SD Extreme 64Gb
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This image is available as an Open Edition Fine Art Print. Click here to visit the shop.