Photographer James Martin on Photographing Iceland
James Martin (www.jamesbmartin.com) has worked as a professional photographer, writer, and guide for more than two decades. In that time he’s produced twenty books, including Planet Ice, Digital Photography Outdoors, Masters of Disguise: A Natural History of Chameleons (with Art Wolfe), North Cascades Crest, and Extreme Alpinism (with Mark Twight). He leads phototours around the world with Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, the Phase One Digital Artists Series, PhotoQuest Adventures, and with Canon Explorer of Light Jennifer Wu, including their photo tours of Iceland in August of 2012 and 2013. (http://www.jenniferwu.com/workshops)
James Martin: “Seafloor spreading pulls tectonic plates apart along the mid-Atlantic Ridge like a giant prying open elevator doors. Iceland is the one place in the world where an oceanic ridge reaches the surface. The island is in the process of creation as seen in the volcanoes and steam fissures, vast fields of lava and cliffs of columnar basalt, and the detritus of catastrophic lahars, floods of mud and boulders that race down the slopes.
“In the midst of this austere scene, dozens of waterfalls leap off the plateaus, ice fields blanket the highlands, their glaciers calving icebergs into lakes and lagoons. Impossibly vivid green grasses, fields of blue lupine, and polychrome pastel hills daub color against the black lava and an arctic blue sky. Iceland is a landscape photographer’s paradise. While you could spend a week or ten days driving the Ring Road that encircles the island, you can sample the best of Iceland in a day’s drive along the southern coast from the capitol city of Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon, but given the variety of landscapes, that would be folly. The south deserves a week in itself. Here are the highlights, including a side trip to the interior.
“The rhyolite hills of Landmannalauger comprise one of Iceland’s signature landscapes, an accessible peek into the island’s interior. Softly tinted hills overlook black lava covered with electric green mosses. Breezes stir clouds emerging from hissing steam vents and small turquoise ponds are tucked into narrow valleys. You could shoot blindfolded and still capture some of the best landscape images of your life. Landmannalauger is at the end of a good gravel road, but an unbridged stream crossing requires a high clearance vehicle. Seljalandfoss is a graceful waterfall arcing far from the cliff face. The best time to photograph it is just before sunset which bathes the scene in glowing, warm light. If you go in mid-summer, the tourist buses are usually gone since sunset comes close to midnight. Blue sky sunsets are not that common, but the dancing water makes a good subject in most conditions.”
“I photographed this puffin in late afternoon light. I had decided to limit myself to shooting with a rangefinder, a Leica M9, which meant I had to get near the subject, but fortunately these birds were rather tame. This particular group was not in danger of ending up on the dinner table, the norm in some parts of Iceland. Instead of approaching the bird directly, I crawled toward the edge of the cliff where the birds had landed earlier. This fellow stopped a few feet in front of me and posed like a supermodel. I was at pains to keep the separation between the bird and the cliff in the background.
“Jokulsarlon, the ice lagoon, is probably the most famous site in Iceland. Great glaciers pour down from Europe’s largest ice sheet into the lagoon, discharging hundreds of icebergs. Over time, wind and current transport the icebergs to the outlet and the sea. We hoped to catch some color in the sky and were rewarded by a brilliant sunset enhanced by the dust of a recent volcanic eruption. I crouched near water level, again using the M9, to gather as much reflected color in the foreground as I could.
“These are just a few of the highlights. Look for icebergs stranded on black sand beaches, sturdy and beautiful Icelandic horses grazing, a roadside view of the powerful Skogarfoss waterfall, miles of moss covered pillow lava, the high snow-clad mountains of Skaftafell National Park, and braided rivers cutting through glacial till. In early summer, sunsets smoothly transitions into sunrises, but near the autumnal solstice, you could shoot the stars over an icy lake.”