Iceland is a bit of a misnomer.
The country’s frigid name was a bit of a knee-jerk response by the old Norse explorer Flóki Vilgerðarson, who, after suffering a calamitous winter in the West Fjords, climbed a mountain in hope for some hopeful sight and instead encountered a bay that was filled with icebergs (most probably drift ice from Greenland).
Sullen and depressed, he named the place Ísland (“Ice Land”).
In fact, much of Iceland is verdant green or a desert of black volcanic sand; ice only covers eleven percent of the country, the largest chunk of which is Vatnajökull. The size of Puerto Rico, “water glacier” is the largest glacier in Europe and the third largest in the world (after Antarctica and Greenland). It is one of the oldest pieces of ice on Earth, dating back to the original ice cap, and in some places, the ice is over 3,000 feet thick.
As our circumnavigation around Iceland rounds off, National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths and I visited Iceland’s largest glacier, as well as Jökulsárlon, the glacier lagoon where chunks of calving glacial ice become beautiful blue icebergs, floating towards the sea.
We spent the day photographing these amazing ice forms and when we returned to our ship (the National Geographic Explorer), I asked her for instructions on how to take better pictures of the ice we encountered.
She answered, with amazing detail and consideration, and so I give you Annie, unedited, on ice.
Andrew: Of all the things we saw today, what was your favorite?
Annie Griffiths: In terms of shooting, my favorite thing were the icebergs and the lakes. There’s a spiritual experience when you see floating islands that are disappearing right before your eyes. It’s like they’ve already left the mother ship and now there they’re in water—you know that two thirds of them are underwater but what’s above water is so interesting. And yet it’s melting before your eyes—so there’s almost a privilege that you feel in witnessing that particular kind of being in time . . . and tomorrow it will be different. And a month from now it will be different and eventually it will be gone forever. It’s almost like watching a sand castle being blown away bit by bit, so it’s enchanting.
Andrew: When you arrive at a place like Jökulsárlon, how do you begin? What do you look for?
Annie: Today I was looking for a way to show the beauty of the individual sculptures. Wind, and sun and sand and water has sculpted all these unique shapes, so you want to stack them against one another to give a sense of their majesty.
Andrew: And how do you show that?
Annie: Well, you have to pay attention to what the sky is doing—is it your friend or enemy? Is it going to make your image more interesting or draw beauty away from your eyes? Whatever the case, you never want to put your horizon in the middle of the shot.
Andrew: So it comes back to composition?
Annie: No matter what you are shooting, composition is the only thing you can control. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the beauty of a place that we tend to shoot, shoot, shoot, without considering the composition. The difference between a memory and a composition is what you bring to that photograph—so what you leave outside of the frame is every bit important as what you leave inside the frame.
Andrew: Such as?
Annie: Well, if we’re looking at these beautiful icebergs—one hanging power line can ruin the strength of that image away—it is, in fact, a major distraction. Even though you were thinking about that iceberg, right over the shoulder is a power line or a truck. It affects your compositional choices, so keep it out of the frame. What you don’t include matters as much as what you include. Of all the stuff in photography, that’s the one thing you have control over—composition.
Andrew: Well, what about exposure? We had some very bright light up on the glacier. In a case like this, how do you compensate for exposure?
Annie: Yes, up on Vatnajökull, the light was extremely bright—our Transitions lenses transitioned to their darkest. The challenge of shooting something all white is to really consider your exposure, because within white, there are gradations of white, and those gradations are important. Whether it’s somebody’s undershirt or a giant glacier, you want to see the subtle white-on-white patterns and moreover, you really want to use your sky wisely. We had such an interesting sky today—it was lovely!
If you remember, there were a few rock outcrops that were casting a shadow on the glacier—using all those subtle elements as well as the powerful elements of the horizon to make compositional decisions—that’s what it’s all about: exposure and composition.
You’re really aiming for detail, ideally in the highlights and the shadows. You have to decide where the detail is more important. In a world of white, you want to gain the most possible from the different gradations of white. This is when you really want to look at your histogram, to see if the white is going off the right side—which means no detail whatsoever—or whether you can underexpose to a point so that you can get some gradation. What you really want is to see the shadows or a trail or interesting detail in the clouds above the glacier. It’s very challenging, but there’s kind of an edge where you lose or gain it.
Andrew: When the light is so bright, how do you find that edge?
Annie: When you encounter that brightness, your camera will say “Woah! It’s really bright up here,” and then it tends to underexpose. With white that’s ok, because you want that detail—part of the drama of the composition is when your white has a bit of meat to it. With dark subjects, though, it’s the just the opposite. When a camera sees a dark green forest, the camera tends to really overexpose and then you’ll get this sort of murky shadow areas. That’s when you have to decide what’s most important. A lot of time when people are shooting aerials, animals, or forests—they always overexpose, because the camera just thinks it’s too dark. So you have to tell the camera to underexpose. I want the green to be a deep, rich green—not greenish. It’s that saturation you’re going after.
With white, you have more leeway to underexpose. Because white is SO powerful and so intense, the meter will certainly tell you to underexpose, but that underexposure with white gives you more to play with. It’s easier.
Andrew: And if it goes darker?
Annie: With dark subjects, that’s where you can really get dreary and lose a lot of punch because the camera meter is trying to make everything medium. You have to compensate with your camera in order not to overexpose.
Andrew: So of all the ice we photographed today, which was your favorite?
Annie: What struck me today were those floating icebergs with their extraordinary color variation—some were pristine glacial blue and some were black and white and kind of everything in between. When we lifted that one piece out of the water, it was all clear—just ice. I was drawn in by those pieces that were creamy blue—because it’s just such a unique color to things. That color in ice, it just screams “glacier”—I guess I have a romantic feeling about it. But my favorite to photograph today was the black and white one, because it just undulated—I loved that piece.
You go to what attracts you in real life. The beauty of ice is that it’s pristine clarity. So you can have fun putting stuff behind it but if you want to feel it, you want a background that doesn’t distract from the beauty of the ice itself.
Andrew: What about Vatnajökull? What struck you about the ice up there?
Annie: I was grateful for the grandeur of the glaciers. Whether or not the ice actually remains, this country of Iceland was carved by fire and ice, so to see a living breathing glacier of that magnitude is something. When we drove up to the glacier and we saw these plummeting canyons that used to be full of ice. I just find that stuff so humbling. It makes you consider the fact that something this enormous is moving, melting and carving the land. It’s hard to remember that when you are looking out over an all-white field that this is all actually very dynamic.
I kept thinking about the people who built that road to the glacier. It’s very humbling.
Andrew: There’s a human side to glaciers . . .
Annie: Yes. You really begin to recognize how big they are. They are enormous pieces of ice. Even the ones that were little were big. In the water it looked like an ice cube but on the boat it looked like a chunk of ice.
Andrew: Can you think of any National Geographic assignments where you had to shoot ice?
Annie: Oh, yes. Working in Yellowstone reminds me of Iceland a lot. Being there in winter and being there in summer and recognizing those hydrothermal worlds are so mysterious. It gives you a sense that things can just explode.
I covered Mt. St. Helens when it blew. I was covering all these natural disasters—I was one of the first photographers there when Mt. St. Helens erupted. When you are able to see the power of nature on a level that you have heard about but never witnessed, it’s hard to get your head around.
I remember years ago I remember walking on the Columbia ice field near Banff and I remember just flying low over this endless ice field. It was ever-changing and endless—these are the things that carve this planet! If you are lucky enough to get this view, it’s very helpful because you see ice on a whole new scale and what it actually does. That’s why people are blown away when they see what a hurricane or volcanic eruption does. It’s staggering.
The only disaster I have never seen (but want to) is a tsunami. I can’t even imagine a wall of water descending on a place. I can’t imagine that. I have such respect for natural disasters, and want to see that . . .
. . . but there’s not many places you can safely shoot a tsunami.
Andrew: Very true.