Photographing a Razorbill, Latrabarg Cliffs, Iceland

A Razorbill bathed in warm, end of day light on the Látrabjarg Cliffs, in far western Iceland.

The Látrabjarg Cliffs in Iceland are a wild, windy and stunningly beautiful place for bird photograph. 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 wildlife photography during the long summer days are incredible.

Getting There

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.

Iceland’s Highway One

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.

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 be, 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.

A Stately Bird

The above photo features a razorbill. By far the most common bird on the Látrabjarg Cliffs are puffins, which are beautiful to behold and fascinating to study up close. I was quite 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 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 head and back. This was a huge help, yet 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. (Try saying that three times when you're pickled).

The brighter the light, the darker the shadows will photograph. More often than not that would result in this bird’s light colored feathers burning out, and rendering with little texture, and their darker features 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 About 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.

Painting With Light

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