Join Seán Duggan for an in-depth discussion in this video The Icelandic hotspot, part of Landscape Photography: Iceland.
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- In geologic terms, Iceland is one of the youngest areas on the planet, and also one of the most volcanically active. The mountain in the background of this image is Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano that last erupted in 2010, and caused a lot of disruption to air travel between Europe and the U.S. On average, there's a volcanic eruption in Iceland approximately every three years. The island sits atop a region of the Earth's mantle known as the Icelandic Hotspot, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is the seam between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.
In addition to volcanic eruptions, these factors also produce constant geothermal activity in many places throughout the country. Iceland has taken advantage of its unique location on the planet, and is a pioneer in harnessing geothermal energy for heating and electricity generation. In addition to providing a natural and renewable source of energy, the geothermal locations are also very cool subjects for photographers, providing a strange and sometimes otherworldly landscape with many possibilities for creating interesting images.
The first thing to be aware of when you're exploring a geothermal area, is that you have to be very careful where you step. If you get too close to an active fumarole, or a mudpot, you could break through, which might lead to a nasty scalding. The element of steam rising from the boiling pools of mud can create really interesting conditions for photographs. It works especially well if you try to get into a position where the steam and other features of the landscape are backlit. In an area where there are billowing steam plumes, shooting directly into the sun can also create fascinating compositions; both with video, as we see here in a 240 frames per second slow motion clip from an iPhone 6, as well as with still images.
This type of composition works particularly well if you use a very small aperture to cause the sun to render as a star point. The aperture for this shot was f/20 and you can see that the high contrast conditions of this type of shot are also very well-suited for a black and white interpretation. If the conditions are safe, you can also get fairly close to some steam plumes. In this case, a strong wind was blowing the steam in one direction, offering a good opportunity for a closer view of the steam issuing forth from the rocky vent.
Getting close to the boiling mudpots can also provide some interesting image opportunities. A zoom lens is really useful for this type of photography so you can stay back at a safe distance. Use a fast shutter speed to capture the bubbles of boiling mud in mid-burst to create images of these strange formations that only exist for a fraction of a second. This is one of the really cool things about photography that only photography can let us see. Those situations and occurrences that occur so fast that only a camera, using a very fast shutter speed, can reveal them to us.
Although the often stark conditions and high contrast present at geothermal areas work very well in black and white, in many locations, they can be quite colorful places that offer great opportunities for color photography, particularly on sunny days. In wintertime, the extreme cold and windy conditions can create fascinating patterns and textures in the ice that coats the ground. These are great subjects for exploring close-up, with billowing steam plumes in the background. And they can also be quite effective as black and white abstract images too.
And don't forget to look for shots where you can include people in the frame. This can be particularly effective in winter when people are bundled up in parkas and hoods. They create interesting silhouettes and appear more like planetary explorers than photographers and tourists. For example, this image was shot with my iPhone through the scratched window of the bus as my workshop group arrived at a location. The presence of the dome structures, the stark landscape, and the backlit figure made it seem like a scene from an exploratory outpost in a distant land, or on a distant planet.
The infrastructure that is associated with many geothermal areas can be quite interesting to photograph as well. This is a geothermal power plant, not far outside of Reykjavik, and the pipes that carry the water just kind of create these great leading lines that draw you into the scene. And I also like how the pipes in this one, forming that kind of right turn, create a stark contrast with the dark black lava rock around them, and then the sky, which is looking very dramatic. This is a geothermal power plant in the North of Iceland, up in the Myvatn Lake Region, and the winter conditions, the light snow, the overcast sky, and the huge plumes of steam coming from the power plant make a great contrast with the darker tones of the pipes and the power plant structure itself, and this just works very very well in black and white.
But, there was also interesting possibilities for color images at this location as well. These red support structures create an interesting color juxtaposition with the blue sky in the background. And always look close for the details. Zoom in close and isolate your subject and it becomes something more. In many geothermal locations, you'll see these geodesic dome structures and what these are is these are structures that cover the caps of the wells that they drill down to access the boiling water deep underground.
They provide really interesting possibilities for architectural type photography. I just love the round dome window there, and how it's reflecting the sky. They look very cool in winter as well. And this also kind of calls forth associations of an outpost on a distant planet, or perhaps some distant arctic environment. I love this one here, just this bright red color in the middle of this stark, snowy landscape with the blue sky above.
In terms of color, another fascinating aspect of some geothermal sites in Iceland, is the blue water that you see in ponds and overflow pools. The color of the water is so striking that it's a bit like candy for a photographer, very hard to resist. And this, combined with the stark Icelandic landscape, provides numerous opportunities for color photography, and finding interesting compositions for your images. If you travel to Iceland, definitely take the time to explore some of the many geothermal areas there.
They're excellent locations for making photographs. Just be careful where you step.
- Planning when to go and what to bring
- Photographing Iceland's open roads
- Photographing water
- Photographing the Glacial Lagoon
- Photographing the landscape at night