Seeing and Thinking: Shooting geothermals by the light of the silvery moon…


Blue Oasis by Moonlight…

Iceland has some of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever seen…right up there on par with New Zealand, except a lot closer. The scenery along the remote Kjolur Route through the country’s Interior Highlands is my favorite. And, as often the case, the most difficult to access. The Kjolur Route is only open 2-3 months a year, and even then, a 4WD is highly recommended to cross streams or volcanic sands. Groups that truck through this region do so on a 9 hour journey from Reykjavik to Akureyri city during a single day, as there are no hotels anywhere along this route.

However, if you travel independently, or with a very small group, you can arrange to stay at a mountain hut, roughly halfway up. Which is what we did so that participants on our photo tour would have easy access to this region at night during the full moon. 

The geothermal field at Hveravellir is an intriguing hot spot. A boardwalk winds through a fairly small assortment of features–gurgling mud, mineral pools and fumeroles–that takes maybe 20 minutes to see. But to photograph? Plan to linger. Overnight if you can, preferably during the full moon…

This is what the Blue Oasis looked like in the day time:

Diffuse light from light cloud cover added to the soft effect. But when I returned to the boardwalk around 9:30pm, after a scrumptious feast of lamb and BBQ chicken, the moon was up in the otherwise dark sky. I quickly set up my tripod and scoped out compositions.

I liked the way the moonlight was illuminating the silica around the mineral pool, so chose a composition that would include the moon and its reflection. But when I spot metered on the right side of the frame, the foreground and silica were far too dark. So out came my flash, 5-in-1 reflector, and trusty Pocket Wizards…. I attached one pocket wizard to my camera and one to my off-camera flash. I then set the self-timer on my camera to 10 seconds and ran over to the right, just outside the frame, and bounced my flash at 1/4 power into the white side of my reflector which I aimed at the foreground. This was just enough supplemental light to balance the foreground on both the right and left side of the image and bring out a little more color in the vivid mineral pool.

Here’s another geothermal feature at Hveravellir, a fumerole called Oskurholshver. Almost looks like an erupting volcano, but it’s tiny. The eggy hissing steam changes course with the slightest breeze so you have to be careful not to be downwind. What I didn’t like about photographing it during the day was that there seemed to be too many distractions in the frame, from the shapes and colors of the clouds to elements on ground. Even shot wide open, the subject got lost.

But at night, those distractions went away. Again, I composed the scene to include the moon in the shot, set the camera on my tripod, activated the 10 second self-timer, and bounced a flash into a reflector from the right side of the frame. I knew that side lighting would accentuate the textures to the fullest. But actually most of the textures were on the base of the fumerole on the left side of the frame. So I bounced my flash into a reflector from the left side, but didn’t like the resulting image because now the white foreground went completely dark. So I went back to the right side and bounced the flash into a reflector, experimenting with the angle of the reflector and the manual power of the flash to properly expose both the steam and foreground. 

The textures really popped on this hotspot below when I used side lighting (bouncing my off-camera flash into my reflector aimed at the subject from the side). Since using a reflector broadens the light source, it allowed me to illuminate more of the scene evenly. See how the little ridges are all glowing evenly? Aiming a direct flash beam at them from the side would’ve  created a hot spot–like the moon or sun–and left some of those ridges in the dark.

On this final image, I was again bouncing my flash into a reflector just outside the frame on the right side, and experimenting with the angle and height of the reflector… when along came Ted. Perfect.  Just waited till he walked across the upper third of the frame…and click. Loved the way he added another dimension to this shot. This was definitely the keeper in that bunch. I always prefer people in my pics, don’t you? 

This coming August we’ll take another small group here during the full moon. If you’d like to join us, check out the itinerary and give us a call…

  • david waker - Kim,
    This series is absolutely awesome. I read it at work today and was blown away. I knew I should’ve gone out and embraced the moon with you rather than retire to bed!

    I curse myself for not joining you when I look at the other-worldy images. These are my favorite photos of Iceland. Can’t wait to go back on our next tour!

    Your Husband,

  • karolina - I love your header photo of the monk at the ruin. It looks very much like something from Angkor Wat park, is it?

    If so, I would love to know which Wat it is. I’m going there in a few days, and would love to see it!

  • david waker - Karolina – Kim’s photograhing in Yellowstone right now. I’ll email her for specifics. — Dave

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