Mount Kirkjufell on the Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland
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Anatomy of an image (Iceland)

Some images are captured, while others are created.  That is, for some scenes, nature does the heavy lifting with the lighting and what is required of the photographer is to have the technical know-how to capture the moment.

Other times, digging deeper into the photographic bag of tricks may be necessary to “build” an image up, step by step.

On a beautiful sunny afternoon on the Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland a few years ago, I had to work through my fund of photographic knowledge to optimize the limited time we had there.

Mount Kirkjufell is a well-known and often photographed landmark on the peninsula, which is sometimes called “Iceland in Miniature.”  There is a series of waterfalls in front.  Googling Mount Kirkjufell, my favorite images were those featuring aurora borealis swirling in the skies over the formation.  As it was July and afternoon when we there, that was not going to happen. So how could I capture something a little different?

My initial efforts (the feature image above) were effectively a photographic “warm-up.”  To smooth out the water, I needed a slow shutter speed.  Today, I would employ a neutral density filter.  But at the time, I didn’t own one.  Using the minimum ISO (200) and smallest aperture (f/22) available to me then on my Fujifilm XT-1, the slowest shutter speed I could achieve was 1/8 second.

But I prefer the velvety look of running water achievable only with an even longer shutter speed. What else could I do? I did have a polarizing filter. Polarizing filters decrease the amount of light entering a lens, generally equivalent to two stops.

After scrambling around for a while, I found a vantage point that I liked, visually nearly under a waterfall.  There was a big difference in exposure between the moss-covered, velvety dark rocks in the foreground and the brightly illuminated mount and sky in the background. My histogram looked acceptable, so this was workable.  The contrasting exposures between foreground and background could be evened out more in post-processing.

A work in progress: Mount Kirkjufell on the Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland. To slow the water into smooth rivulets, I used the smallest aperture (f/22) and the lowest ISO of 200, allowing me to achieve a shutter speed of 1/2 second. A polarizing filter has deepened the blue of my sky. There is a big difference in exposure between the mossy rocks in the foreground and the bright mount and sky in the background, but my histogram (below) looks workable.

Histogram of an Iceland landscape

But, I did have another tool in my bag, a split neutral density filter.  These are available in two and three stop versions, with soft and hard edges.  The clear half is positioned over the darker portion of the scene (in this case, the foreground) and the darker half is positioned over the bright sky to tone it down.  Using a circular polarizer, I couldn’t use a holder to position my split ND filter, so I had to hand hold it in front.

Et voila, a better-balanced scene.  Parameters on my final version were an aperture of f/22, shutter speed of 1/4 second and ISO of 200. The final element was to wait until other tourists moving in and out of the scene moved into a pleasing position. Although I took versions without people, I think the scale added by this couple dressed in non-distracting colors is a plus.

The final version, achieved with an angled, handheld split neutral density filter (soft, 2 stop), with the shadows and bright hill and sky adjusted up and down respectively using the Graduated Filter tools in Lightroom.
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