The Travel Series: Iceland and the Journey of Seeing

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I think that travel can be an important part of the creative experience for photographers. The idea of the open road and the images you’ll find there is a powerful draw. Seeing new sights and exploring new visual territory can be very invigorating and it helps to kindle the creative spark. You see things in a new way because the primary purpose of the journey is to see, to view the world with new eyes, and create something from that vision.

An iceberg grounded just offshore

Some landscapes, some places, just get inside your head and inside your heart. You see them in your dreams, in meandering thoughts during the day, and in memories, even if those memories are only wishful thinking. You picture the pictures you might make there, and if you’ve been, remember the photographs you have made there, and then set the wheels in motion to plan for a return visit. Iceland is like that for me. I’ve traveled there in summer and winter, both very different seasons with different photographic opportunities, but both were visually rich and rewarding. I’m looking forward to returning in October of 2014, to teach my Autumn & Aurora Discoveries workshop.

The coastal road with the Vatnajökull glacier in the distance

Iceland is a top destination for photographers, and for good reason. The landscape palette in this small and welcoming country includes rugged coasts, beautiful waterfalls, intricate textures and patterns, majestic snowy peaks, volcanic highlands, surreal moss-covered lava fields that go on for miles and miles, the largest ice cap in Europe, and glacial lakes filled with sculptural icebergs that float to sea to then wash back up on a black sand beach.

A skull-shaped ice fragment on the black sand beach near Jokulsárlón

In summertime the sun sets near midnight, ushering in a brief twilight period that is followed by a sunrise only a few hours later. The sweet light at the beginning and end of the day lasts for hours, ensuring plenty of time to enjoy the magic illumination at these times. And in certain seasons there is the possibility of experiencing and photographing the fantastical apparitions of the aurora borealis dancing in the night sky.

Looking straight overhead at auroras dancing in the night sky

A highlight of any visit to Iceland is the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón. Ice breaks off from the Vatnajökull glacier to form icebergs in the deep tidal lake. Here they drift slowly, sometimes rolling over and breaking apart, to gradually move toward the channel that leads to the sea. The fascinating thing about this place is that it is always different. Sometimes there are huge icebergs in the lagoon, while at other times the ice may be smaller and bunched together to form a rough and jumbled version of pack ice. In winter, seals loll about on the ice shelf and, at all times of the year, birds call and dart about the sky. Although wide-angle lenses help to capture the vastness of the lagoon and the icebergs floating there in relation to the snowcapped mountains and the immense glacier in the background, this is a place where a long telephoto lens will serve you well, bringing you closer to the icebergs and compressing the distance between the ice and the mountains.

An iceberg in the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón echoes the shape of the mountain in the background

Ice and water are one of the main natural forces here, very fitting, since the name of the country is Iceland. They shape the landscape and provide intriguing and beautiful scenes to photograph. The ever-changing ice draws you back over and over. Whether in the form of floating icebergs in the glacial lagoon, washed ashore as delicate ice sculptures on the black sand beach near Jökulsárlón, or as a vast and luminous ice cave reaching under the huge glacier, ice is an ever-present visual theme to explore.

Inside an ice cave that extended 300 meters beneath the Vatnajökull glacier

Some of the landscapes in Iceland have a raw and primal quality, as if you had traveled back in time to when the world was just being formed. The earth-sculpting powers of wind, sea, rivers, glaciers, and volcanoes are always close at hand. These forces shape the land on a vast and impressive scale, but also create delicate textures and small details that pull you in close and that are just as enchanting as the grander, more epic scenery.

Black volcanic soil and delicate patterns of green in the highlands

One of the most fascinating places in Iceland was also one of the most challenging to photograph; a lava field from an eruption in the late 1700s that stretches for miles and miles as you drive along the southern coast. The sharp, jagged lava rocks are covered in a blanket of thick, springy moss, creating the appearance of a liquid landscape recently poured into place that visually references the once-molten state of the lava that flowed there. The scene is visually very busy, yet there is also a sameness to it wherever you look. Images of the long view of the landscape tend to fall flat and don’t convey the depth and nuanced detail of the place. Finding patterns and textures and working with strong foreground-to-background compositions work well to portray both the sculpted details as well as convey some sense of the scale of the location. 

A moss-covered lava field from an eruption in the late 1700s

The natural landscapes get the lion’s share of attention in Iceland, simply because they are so majestic and awe-inspiring, but there are also plenty of things to photograph in Reykjavik and in many of the smaller towns that you pass through on the way to those grand natural vistas. The human landscape is sometimes just as interesting as the natural one.

A geothermal power plant south of Reykjavik

The other aspect of the Icelandic landscape that speaks to me is the idea of the landscape as a stage, a setting where other stories are told. With this in mind, on all of my trips there I’ve spent time working on a long-running landscape/still-life project called “Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin.” These photographs are made using a wooden pinhole camera and medium format black-and-white film. The image-making process is much different from shooting with my digital cameras; slower, more meditative, and the results are less certain, but it is those differences and challenges that make it so appealing to me.

The Barometer, pinhole photograph from the “Artifacts of an Uncertain Origin” series

Some of the times that I’ve felt the most alive and excited as a photographer are when I’ve traveled to a place I’ve always wanted to go to, for the sole purpose of seeing, exploring, and making images. By stepping outside your normal routine and traveling to those “bucket list” places so you can immerse yourself in your photography, your creative awareness is heightened and enhanced. You’re energized by the experience and that energy and creative inspiration infuses your photography.

In the highlands of Iceland is a volcanic core named Einhyrningur, or "the Unicorn." In the background is
Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano which last erupted in the spring of 2010.


About Seán Duggan

Seán Duggan is a fine art photographer, author, and educator with extensive experience in both the traditional and digital darkroom. He is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and leads workshops and seminars across the country. He is the co-author of Photoshop Masking & Compositing (2nd Edition, 2012), Real World Digital Photography (3rd Edition, 2010), and The Creative Digital Darkroom (2008), and he has courses on Photoshop and digital photography on lynda.com. He is an Adobe Certified Photoshop Expert, and an Adobe Community Professional, and his Lightroom Tips & Tricks column can be seen regularly in Photoshop User magazine. He also offers personalized online consulting and training.

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Thank you for this article, I happen to love photograph and am lucky to be a native of Iceland. After 43 years its beauty and raw power still amazes me. I hope to achieve someday that my photographs of my country will someday look half as good as yours. I dont know if you cover this in your workshops but I feel that to do justice to the light and the landscape you often have to either use ND grads or bracket your shots and then you really need to know how to process the files in eithe lightroom or photoshop to get what you "remember " the scene looked like. Maybe it is just me and my lack of skill in using my gear :)

Hope you return for many years to come, maybe I can afford the price one day :)

www.500px.com/sumos

Inspiring video with extraordinary pictures.  Trip looks irresistible!

AMAZING images Sean, and a wonderful video!!! Thank you for the 'tease'! Definitely a must do trip for me-if not this year, next!

Iceland is, and probably always will be, my favorite trip ever.  The people, the scenery, the food and such incredible landscapes for photography.   The views from Halgrimskirka alone were worth the (very short) plane ride from Washington, D.C.

Please do keep us on your list for future trips.

I am off to shoot Iceland August 11 for two weeks plan to do ring road with side trips using 4x4 any other hints ?

I am off to shoot Iceland August 11 for two weeks plan to do ring road with side trips using 4x4 any other hints ?

Hoping to go to Iceland this Fall. Thanks for the added inspiration!

Nice shots! thanks BH for sharing this link.

Love your HDR images; breath taking!

Hope to see these kind of shots when we go in June

Very nice drama and contrast in such a special place. I hope you will include me in your email list or on announcements for classes. 

Iceland seems to translate quite well to black and white. I especially like the last image.

Was there last year and visted some of your photo sites.Please e-mail me on your next photo trips for 2015.Thank you,

Best, Rick LaPiana

You hit the nail right on the headwith Iceland.  Just visited Iceland for the first time in July and as you said, we had our return visit already planned before our vacation was over.  This was the most facinating trip we've taken in all of our travels around the world.  If you have a bucket list, you must go see Iceland.

The tonal richness of the Geothermal Power Plant is awe-inspiring.  It reminds me of Ansel Adams' work.

From the accompanying text I have not understood whether this particular photo was captured on film or with a digital camera.

Can you share your workflow with us?

We just came back and saw some of this...........but the waterfalls, bird life and mountain scenery was spectacular!  Beautiful country (and friendly folks)

Beautiful amazing pictures. Some day I will be able to take your class. Please keep me on your email. Thanks for sharing

Do you lead any trips there?