Kirkjufell – Challenges of Shooting An Iconic Landmark

By YPBlog
HDR Kirkjufellfoss Iceland

HDR image stylized with light bleed and light painting

Have seen images of Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall) or Kirkjufell (the mountain) before?

Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking, but there’s a good chance you have already seen it while browsing the internet. It’s one of the iconic landmarks in Iceland.

Speaking of Iceland, it used to be a place with very few visitors. There was hardly any car on route 1 out of Reykjavik (the main road that circles the island) when I was there quite a few years ago.

Things are different now, Iceland is full of tourists most of the time. Visitors travel from all over the world to experience it's extraordinary nature and alien landscape. I visited Iceland again almost a year ago during a family trip and had planned to visit some of the photo spots along route 1.

Iceland shares some common features of an island. The weather is volatile even on the sunniest day. I was there for 10 days and only had three days of sun!

The rest? Rain...

Now, I’m not talking about drizzling. I’m talking about heavy rain, sometimes gale where it’s extremely challenging to stay outdoor (or keeping my camera dry!).

Towards the middle of my trip, I arrived at Grundarfjörður (I have no idea how to pronounce that), a small town overlooking Kirkjufell - also known as Church Mountain. I don’t know if it’s an extinct volcano but it certainly looks like one from an aerial photograph on a postcard. Before I got there, I’ve already seen it in just about every travel guide on Iceland. Still, I couldn’t help but mesmerized by the grandeur of the landscape.

I created the long exposure effect in Photoshop using 55 images. All taken one after another using continuous mode.

The weather was not in my favor that day, it was down pouring on and off. My hope to shoot at sunset had long gone down the drain. Rather than mourning about it, I took several shots anyway and experimented some techniques I've always wanted to try.

No doubt, I was really disappointed because I haven't taken a good image up to this point of the trip because of the weather. However, at the same time, I also knew that poor weather condition doesn't mean I should take any photos. As long as the rain wasn't too heavy to cause water damage to my gear.

The result?

The moody image you can see above. It looked like there was smoke coming out from the mountain as if the volcano was about to erupt! I spent about an hour there before dining in at a local seafood restaurant with my family (also, to cheer myself up!).

I got up before sunrise the next morning to check on the weather. It was still dark and I couldn’t tell if it was going rain again. Since I was up, I thought I might as well try my luck. The photo location was only five minutes drive from my hotel. So I drove out the town while everyone else was snuggled in bed.

As the light breaks through the horizon, the sky started to clear and I could see  some blue skies. I knew it was going to be a great sunrise. When I got there, I was surprised to see there were already a dozen of photographers lined up at the top of the waterfall waiting for the light to appear.

I quickly picked a spot, setup my camera and my Lee Big Stopper for standby. The composition I had was the classic view for Kirkjufellsfoss you see everywhere on the internet. Even though I knew I should explore the location for a different perspective, I somehow still wanted that particular shot anyway (maybe it’s a photographer’s thing?).

Kirkjufellfoss unedited

Straight out of camera

Learn more: How to create balanced landscape images with exposure blending.

The sun was rising on my right over some mountains in the distance. There were clouds scattered in the sky reflecting the golden glow from the sun. The color started to transformed from pink to yellow and to orange. The first light of the day finally bathed the east face of Kirkjufell. It was remarkably gorgeous.

I wanted to smooth out the water, so I used a 10-stop ND filter for the foreground (long exposure). Then, I bracketed the exposure for the mountain and the sky (all three were blended together in post-processing). The weather was pretty calm that morning and the clouds weren’t moving much. I couldn’t get the long exposure effect for the sky to work even with a 16-stop ND filter (the clouds were not moving at all), which would have been awesome combining that with the smooth water flow in the foreground.

I did think about creating the long exposure effect for the clouds in post-processing. It could have been done easily but I wasn't sure if I would like it. In my opinion, long exposure effect for the clouds created with high grade ND filter and in post-processing are never the same (the former is much better, obviously!).

Learn more: How to create long exposure HDR images.

Once I was happy with the result, I moved away in search for a different location. I walked up the hill and away from the crowd. While everyone else was paying full attention to the mountain and the waterfall, there was a small lake literally just next to it with a mirror reflection of Kirkjufell.

By now, the sky had turned brighter and more colorful. I arrived at the lake and was blown away by how amazing the view was. It reminded me of the time when I trekked up Lac Blanc in the Alps with the mirror reflection of Mont Blanc.

Kirkjufell sunrise panorama

Panoramic view of Kirkjufell at dawn

I took a few shots of Kirkjufell with its reflection and a few other shots of the sunrise to create a panorama in post-processing. Route 1 runs just in front of the mountain and I thought it would make an interesting composition to include a passing by vehicle. But after waiting for 20 minutes, my stomach started to make noise and the sky was getting much brighter. All the gentle hues were slowly fading away.

That's when I decided to go back to the hotel for breakfast. I packed my gear and drove back as a happy photographer 🙂

Afterthought

The main challenge of photographing an iconic landmark is trying to not repeat what everyone else has done it already. But sometimes this is difficult particularly when you're dealing with a landscape that is truly unique and remarkable. You get sucked into the moment and compelled to shoot the same composition because it is just so breathtaking!

Of course, trying to come up with something unique for a place that has been photographed like a million times is even more challenging. I took a few shots of the mirror image of the mountain and panorama but I'm guessing that has been done before too, maybe not as often as the one with the waterfall.

I wished I had more time to explore the location. Maybe spend a few more days scouting around for a different perspective.

In the image with Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), I wanted to show the emotion at that moment of my encounter with the scene. There is nothing like being towered by a giant volcano (an extinct one) while standing next to a beautiful waterfall waiting for the sun to rise. It was exhilarating and tranquil at the same time.

To reflect the dramatic nature of the landscape, I darkened the composition and accentuated the light with light painting. Light bleed was applied later on to emphasize how the sunlight had changed the mood of the scene as it rises from the horizon.

For those who are more inclined to a representational rather than impressionistic image, I've included the image before I applied any stylization so you can compare the difference.