The Tuesday Composition: Live from Iceland!

Godafoss Detail
Godafoss Detail

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

I’m about five days into a trip through parts of Iceland (yes, in January and February), and thought I would share couple of short thoughts that have come up this week as I’ve been working, along with a few unfinished images from the trip.

First, yes, it is in fact cold here. Most of the areas I’ve been working in are relatively coastal (save for the Myvatn area), and so temperatures aren’t quite as cold as you might think: The coldest temperatures I’ve worked in this trip have been about -13C (or 9 degrees F). I’ve worked at lower temperatures in Mono Lake. Still, it is noticeably brisk. One thing that’s been on my mind, as a result, is thinking about how to communicate the sense of that cold in an image.

In most of my images on this trip, communicating “cold” has come down to one of two ideas (or both)–color, and the presence of ice or snow.

Icelandic Horse Example
Icelandic Horse Example

I tried to add a few Icelandic horse portraits to my collection today, and I wanted to include a little “sense of winter” in the image as well. Many of the first sets of horses I came across weren’t very well placed. Late in the day, I came across a small set of horses on a ridge along the highway. There, I was able to find an angle where I could put a snow-covered set of mountains in the background of my horse shot. And, while the example here is not a great image, it does manage to convey (through the mountains, and to a lesser extent the blowing mane) a sense of cold a little better than many of my previous images from the day did.

Cool colors are also an important tool. A gentle and non-dogmatic hand on the white balance sliders (or warming filters, for those of you still working with film) is critical for best effect. I’ve shot winter scenery often with the white balance adjusted to show snow as perfectly white. That can work great, but images balanced that way don’t always send such a clear signal of “cold” as those that leave a little “cool” in the image.

Hraunfossar Detail
Hraunfossar Detail While the crazy blue glacial water certainly contributes some sense of cold, the blue highlights in the waterfall and the sapped cool light on the grasses on top are what really help our eyes read this as cold and shaded. The light here was very blue (this was corrected with a 7500K WB setting, but retained this much blue even at that white balance.)

A slightly cooler than “correct” (whatever that means) white balance can take on very different feelings. In Hraunfossar Detail, an under-corrected shade white balance leaves the image kinda dark and gothic. In contrast, Godafoss Detail is a much more cheerful winter image, with bright new snow and a poppy blue glacial river. But both images share one thing… a detectable cool cast to the color rendering.

Speaking of the cold, I was reminded of something I said at the end of my article about “rules” a couple weeks back. In that post, I said that rules have an important place in the photographic learning process, not because they are necessarily something you intellectually work with when you’re shooting, but because learning about them (as well as doing a lot of shooting on your own) are things that help you build your photographic intuition, your eye. It’s ¬†that intuition that enables you to create stronger images.

What’d I’d add to that discussion is this: Good intuition is particularly important when you’re working in a hurry. Whether it’s because you’re working with wildlife, or with quickly changing light, or even if it’s just because it’s very, very cold outside the car, being able to work quickly and intuitively to a situtation can make the difference between a successful hurried image and an unsuccessful one. I don’t like to work “in a hurry”, and I usually don’t, but it’s nice to know that when I do, my habits and intuition are geared towards giving me a better shot at a good image than I’d have if I worked more analytically.

Now, off for hot chocolate.  Have a great week!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Joe,

    This is awesome! It’s cool to be there with you, and I think this offers a great insight into what’s happening inside the mind of a photographer in the field. One thing you didn’t talk about much that I expected is the CHALLENGE of working in very uncomfortable conditions (ie, cold). Reading your article, all I keep thinking is that I wish I was trudging around Iceland with you. But I also know it takes a lot of effort and determination to continually be in the best locations at the best times, and that it must be particularly difficult when it’s so cold all day.

    Great job – I’d love to see you post a quick few photos from the trip when you get back!


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