How To Make Great Avian Photos At Latrabjarg Cliffs In Iceland

 

A razorbill, perched high on the Látrabjarg cliffs in Iceland, enjoying the warm light of sunset.

 

The Látrabjarg Cliffs in Iceland are a wild, windy and stunningly beautiful place. Towering up to 440 meters high and extending for 14 kilometers, the cliffs mark the westernmost point of Iceland and, by extension, Europe.

Home to literally millions of birds including puffins, northern gannets, guillemots and razorbills the opportunities for great avian photography during the long summer days is incredible.

How To Get To The Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs

Iceland is a long way from anywhere but, once there, it’s also quite a track to get to the Látrabjarg Cliffs and back. My tip is to do what I did: include Látrabjarg in your itinerary as you circumnavigate the island along Highway One.

The remains of an old stone dwelling by a fjord, with a mountain towering above and the nation's Highway One in the foreground, showcase the history and geography awaiting the intrepid visitor to Iceland.

Driving Around Iceland On The Delightful Highway One

While it's possible to drive around Iceland in around one week, my recommendation is that you'll take your time and spend two to three weeks to better appreciate and photograph so much of what's on offer as you traverse this most spectacular and isolated country.

That longer timeframe can be critical as it's unlikely you won't experience your share of wet weather days. The last thing you'd want to be doing is pushing ahead through heavy rain storms or driving past phenomenal locations due to inclement weather.

Highway One is a good road that’s sealed in most places. However, it’s a narrow road and, on the first day of our journey, I often found myself moving the camper van over to the side of the road to leave enough room for trucks and other vans to get past on the other side.

A tiny hamlet, set against stunning mountain scenery, by the coast in Northern Iceland.

I’ve done quite a lot of driving on country roads, many of them unsealed and rutted, in Australia where this practice is both safe and good manners. Let’s just say that on this particular journey the act was not reciprocated, as I feel it should have been, by those coming the other way. The good news was that, as there was so little traffic after the first day, this minor inconvenience simply stopped occurring.

However, not all points of interest are along Highway One. Some sites may require that you travel quite a ways, usually inland and up into the interior, to get to. Látrabjarg was an adventure, but nothing arduous or risky. As long as you’re traveling during daylight hours, and are prepared for some dirt road driving, you should be fine.

An Atlantic puffin rests high up on the Látrabjarg Cliffs in Iceland.

Getting Up Nice And Close To A Razorbill

The above photo features a razorbill. By far the most common bird on the Látrabjarg Cliffs are Atlantic puffins, which are beautiful to behold and fascinating to study up close. Perhaps that was why I was surprised to see this razorbill resting high up on the windswept cliffs. To be able to move in so close without upsetting the birds at this site is, perhaps, the most incredible gift a photographer can be given at such a location. And, while not cute or humorous like the Atlantic puffin, the razorbill is, nonetheless, quite a stately bird.

The white pipping that runs from their eyes down to their beaks really stands out against the deep blackness of their head. Fortunately this particular bird was brightly lit by the sun, not long before sunset, which helped penetrate the otherwise dense blackness of the bird’s darker plumage. Nonetheless I still had to employ Lightroom do dig out as much detail as possible in the darker shadow areas.

A Mantra from the Guru

High contrast can be defined as a big difference in brightness between important dark and light areas within a subject or scene. And such situations are, more often than not, the death of photography. This is why it’s so hard to make decent photos of black and white birds; of light birds against much darker backgrounds; or dark birds against much brighter backgrounds.

The brighter the light, the darker the shadows will photograph.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

More often than not that would result in this bird’s light colored feathers burning out, and rendering with little texture, and their darker plumage recording jet black.

Managing High Contrast, in Camera

A little flash can help by illuminating the shadows and, thereby, reducing the difference in brightness between the darker shadows and brighter highlights. Likewise, photographing with the sun behind you, or under overcast conditions, also reduces the contrast within the scene.

Photography Is All About How You Respond To Light

In this case I waited until the bird turned so that it was the darker side of their body that was lit by the sun and, as a consequence, pushed most of the light colored feathers into the shade. This simple technique allowed me to dramatically reduce the inherent contrast within the bird and enabled me to produce an image with significant amounts of detail.

Please remember that photography is, first of all, about light. Cameras are tools. You can buy a $500 hammer, but that alone won't make you a builder, let alone an architect.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru