How to Photograph History in Iceland

This historic church in southern Iceland is depicted against a dramatic sky foretelling a coming storm.

To be a successful photographer, on a consistent basis, it’s important to be able to combine good technique with strong composition, a good eye and a willingness to experiment.

Photography is great fun, particularly when you take a creative approach to the photos you make.

Here's how I went about photographing an historic church, cemetery and buildings on a farm in rural Iceland.

Photography In Iceland During The Summer

There I was in the middle of an Icelandic summer.

Sitting just a little under the arctic circle, summer in Iceland means long days with loads of time for extended photography sessions at sunset and sunrise.

There's plenty of time for travel in Iceland during summer, either around the island via Route One or, with an appropriate 4WD, up into the wilder and more remote Highlands.

This series of photos shows one of the stops I made on a long day of driving and adventure in the south of Iceland.

Iceland - A Story in Pictures

The above photo was made at a historic church and traditional settlement bordering a working farm in the south of Iceland.

Just to the right of the church I made what was probably my favorite image from the trip featuring a sheep shelter on lush pasture surrounded by a lovely winding creek.

On the other side of the church was a tiny cemetery which I also photographed.

In a classic photo essay the above photo could be referred to as an opening image.

It’s a photo that introduces viewers to the location and provides enough information for them to want to go in closer and explore the environment, and those who inhabit it, in more detail.

Church on Hilltop, Vik, Iceland

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Iceland - Beyond the Obvious

Can you imagine being there? The photo at the top of this post was made after approaching the site directly from the carpark.

But it's only natural that I'd want to wander around and explore the site further. And the same is true for the viewer.

The story remains largely untold with a simple opening image.

All the more reason to make the effort, with legs and with camera, and have some fun telling the story in a more comprehensive and, possibly, more meaningful way.

The point is that, whether on assignment or holiday, it's important to move beyond the obvious. That's not to say you don't make obvious photos.

You should as they help place you and the viewer of your work in a particular place and time.

 

However, once you've made those rather obvious photos, continue to explore the environment in a way that produces visually dynamic images.

Let’s explore a few ways you might go about doing just that.

 

A graveyard, in lush fields, behind a church in rural Iceland.

Change Perspective To Make More Interesting Photos

  • Explore a worm's eye point of view by getting down low to the ground and photographing upwards.

  • Alternatively, photographing from above can isolate the subject from its surroundings and allow you to explore notions of vulnerability remoteness and isolation.

I made the image of the church cemetery in rural Iceland by getting down low and close to those two gravestones in the front of the photo.

I also made use of a wide-angle focal length to exaggerate their size in the frame and the space between those front gravestones and other objects of interest within the image.

A series of well preserved, grass topped traditional farm buidlings in southern Iceland.

Utilize Your Full Range Of Lens Focal Lengths

  • Use wide-angle focal lengths to emphasize space and depth.

  • Try a telephoto focal length to explore texture and to visually separate the subject from its surroundings.

The photo of the historic farm buildings was made with a wide-angle lens to emphasize space and depth in the image.

As you can see the use of a diagonal line, from left to right, further emphasizes space and depth.

A sheep, keeping an eye out, rests in a shelter in rural Iceland.

Conversely, this image of a sheep peering through the door of a sheep shelter was made with a telephoto focal length.

That choice not only allows us to see the distant sheep but, by minimizing space and depth, it also allows us to explore the compositional elements of color, shape and texture within this photo.

A dramatic mountain backdrop dwarfs a tiny hamlet, set amidst lush pastures, in rural Iceland.

Iceland - Tell The Story Through Scale

By placing people or objects within much larger surroundings the relative power between the subject of your photo and their environment can be explored.

It’s quite clear just how massive the surrounding mountain landscape is when it dwarfs the farm buildings in this hamlet in rural Iceland.

That’s the power of scale in a photograph.

Make Use Of The Direction of The Light

Here’s a really useful guide for how to use the direction of the light in your photography.

  • To reveal the color and identity of the subject or scene photograph with the sun behind you.

  • To produce a more dramatic image photograph side on to the light and allow shadows to help shape your subject and enhance mood.

  • For iconic images consider photographing into the light to place your subject into silhouette.

    It's helpful if the dominant lines within your subject (e.g., dead tree in the landscape, pregnant mother) form a graphic shape.

    In this case the image becomes less about a gum tree or the particular mother depicted and more about notions of drought or motherhood.

These simple photography techniques can help elevate your photos from simple documentation towards something far more evocative.

It’s from this place that message and meaning can be explored by introducing symbolism and metaphor into your image making.

A distant sheep shelter in an extremely lush, well watered pasture in rural Iceland.

Iceland Black And White Photography

This more distant view of the sheep shelter was made from the same place as the previous one, but this time I utilized a wide-angle focal length to make the image.

The strong shape of the landscape, enhanced by the line of the creek, and the textural quality of the grasses made it a strong candidate for rendering into black and white.

It's become far more evocative than how it appeared in the original color version.

Having taken on that timeless quality that we so often associate with black and white photos is perhaps this pictures greatest strength.

Your Photos Showcase Your Own Creative Life

Technique is about far more than sharpness and exposure. It helps determine the look and feel of your images and can help you better tell a story, explore a concept or express an opinion.

And remember that your images are about far more than what's in front of the lens. They're also about what's behind the lens.

Great photos tell the world as much about the photographer as they do about the scene or subject depicted.

And that’s yet another reason why a simple side trip to photograph historic buildings and a church on a farm in rural Iceland is important.

Not only have I created and published an important historical document showcasing this fantastic location in Iceland, I’ve also added another page into the visual diary that showcases my own creative life.

I think it’s good to have something to say through the photos you make. But I also think it’s important not to take yourself too seriously. By making the process of photography creative you’ll be keeping it fun.

At the end of the day that makes all the trials and tribulations along the way well and truly worth the effort.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru