Iceland is a land of astonishing natural wonders that captivate the hearts and minds of visitors from around the world. These wonders of nature provide an ethereal, otherworldly canvas for adventurous photographers, which was why Nathan was so eager to capture Iceland’s diverse and breathtaking landscapes. Though the aurora borealis was what originally inspired his northward trip, he ended up just as enamored by the icy Diamond Beach, the vibrant waterfall canyons, glacier ice caves, and even the Icelandic horses.
Photography is an art form with a technological aspect—the optics, the sensors, and so forth. Nathan finds that understanding the technology of photography and then designing his own homemade equipment can help him capture high-resolution and high-quality images. He was especially eager to capture wide panoramic images of the landscapes. But using a single very wide angle lens would introduce distortion and limit resolution, which limits optical quality. So he decided to get creative and innovate a fix for this problem.
Behind Nathan’s Panorama Technology
Before leaving for Iceland, Nathan designed and built several different camera array rigs with either two, three, or four cameras mounted to an aluminum frame. The frames, which were built in our lab machine shop, hold the cameras at very precise angles so that their images can be perfectly stitched together to make a larger picture.
For horizontal landscape panoramas involving still subject matter (such as mountains and other static landscapes), Nathan uses a robotic camera setup consisting of one camera with a normal or slight telephoto lens and a programmable motor. This motor then moves the camera to different positions and takes a picture, or in this case, multiple pictures from different positions. After this, the photos are stitched together to create a panorama. The overall process can take 10 seconds or longer. Each individual picture from the camera has 45 megapixels. When 10 images are put together, the final result will include around 400 megapixels, creating a photo about 10×45 because of some image overlap.
While the robotic setup is great when it comes to photographing a static landscape, like a mountain, it doesn’t work if the subject, like the aurora or ocean, is moving. This is where Nathan’s multi-camera rig comes in handy. Instead of a singular moving camera, this rig is set up with three to four identical cameras and lenses that are correctly angled with the use of metal brackets. Nathan also developed electronics to make sure that all the camera frames are taken at precisely the same moment, allowing a fast shutter speed from multiple positions. Afterward, the photos are stitched together to create a spectacular panoramic. On top of all that, Nathan and his team created carrying cases to transport their specialized equipment.
Capturing the essence of Iceland’s rugged landscape required a distinct approach to innovation and creativity. Browse through our Iceland collection below to see the results for yourself.
After extensive research on where to find the best views of the northern lights, Nathan stumbled upon the perfect vantage of the neon waves of the aurora while driving between locations. Vantage point wasn’t the only factor he had to contend with. Photographing the aurora is difficult. Weather, light pollution, and luck are major contributors.
One night, Nathan had gone to sleep after a long day photographing on location, knowing that the forecast was supposed to be cloudy. When he got up in the middle of the night, he looked outside to see that it was miraculously clear. Nathan sprung into action and managed to get several photos that night.
These shoots include a mixture of automation and human control. In order to get the best photos, he sets up the computers and keeps taking pictures late into the night—which can get very cold. This process involves taking several photos for several minutes with long exposure times. Once the aurora shifts, he recomposes the pictures and starts again.
When photographing the aurora borealis, there are things you can control and things you can’t, like the light from the moon and how bright it is. Usually, moonlight makes it difficult to capture the northern lights, but in this rare instance, the aurora was brighter than the moon. Taken in southeastern Iceland, near Kálfafellsstaður, it created a beautiful blend of illuminated white landscapes below and lime-green ribbons above.
Rayed Bands over Kálfafellsstaður
Diamond Beach is named for the gemlike pieces of ice that wash ashore from the icebergs that fill the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Diamond Beach is not the white sandy beach you may be accustomed to. It has dark black sand, made up of finely chipped and eroded pieces of volcanic material such as lava, basalt, and other dark rocks.
The North Atlantic Ocean is not generally a calm ocean; you must contend with waves that are constantly moving, churning, and crashing. To create a panoramic photo with this moving landscape, Nathan used the super panorama robot mentioned at the beginning of this article. He strategically chose to visit Iceland in the late winter when there are extended “golden” and “blue” hours that create the perfect lighting conditions for capturing the rugged landscape at dusk.
While Iceland may not have the largest population of humans, it does have a staggering number of horses. When Nathan saw these horses on the horizon, he originally planned to take a distant silhouette photo. His plans were thwarted when these friendly Icelandic horses approached on their own, demanding attention, and hoping for snacks. The Icelandic horse is known for its spirited and friendly temperament, ideal for both beginners and more advanced riders.
These horses trace their roots to ponies that came to Iceland alongside Norse Viking settlers over a thousand years ago. Both natural selection and selective breeding have made them what they are today: strong, hearty, and able to survive the elements. About the size of a large pony, the Icelandic horse was bred specifically to traverse the many climates and conditions of this vastly rural country. While traditional horses have only four gaits in which they can walk or run, the Icelandic horse has six. It’s considered one of the purest breeds of horses in the world. Iceland has strict laws governing horse importation and exportation: horses cannot be imported into the country, even Icelandic horses that were exported abroad.
When you think of an ice cave, the word “frigid” probably comes to mind, but this cave was anything but. Nathan was pleasantly surprised at how warm it was, which is due to how light and heat are reflected in the small space. The rippled, polished appearance of the ice comes from the gentle erosion it undergoes as water from the glacier melts and washes over it in the spring and summer.
Although Nathan used a simple single camera on a tripod to capture this image, he still applied an unconventional approach to making the picture. Here, he used a technique called HDR (high dynamic range) photography, which is useful for photos with a very large range from light to dark in the scene. You can see the results in Skylight, which has an opening up to the sky. The difference between the darkest and brightest parts of the photo is enormous—so enormous that if he exposed the camera to the sky, the details of the cave would be black. If he exposed to the cave, the sky would be pure white instead of blue. Our eyes and brain have an amazing ability to cope for a wide dynamic range, so it’s not something you’d naturally notice if you were simply standing in the ice cave.
Cameras also have a fixed-focus distance, with a range of distances around that focal point called depth of field. Everything within the depth of field appears sharp while everything outside is fuzzy. Nathan uses a technique called focus-stacking to combat this problem. It involves taking multiple pictures that are then combined in software to make a single image in focus. Interestingly enough, your brain naturally focus-stacks what you’re seeing for most scenes.
Skylight (featured below) is composed of 100 photos stacked into a single image. These photos were taken at different exposure values to cope with this high dynamic range and at different focal spots in order to focus-stack. The combination creates an image similar to what Nathan actually saw while standing within the ice cave.
THE BLACK CHURCH OF BUDIR
If you travel to the southern coast of Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula, you’ll find a hotel, a church, and endless stunning views. The church, originally built in 1703, sits inside the Búðahraun lava field, and was closed in 1819 by orders of the Danish king Christian VIII. Nathan stayed at the Hótel Búðir, which is across the street, and was dazzled by the stunning scenery. After a particularly beautiful sunset, he was moved to capture the Church at Búðir in its solitary splendor.
In the early spring, the glaciers in Iceland start to melt, creating streams and waterfalls like this one in Kolugljúfur canyon. The intensely teal color of the water is caused by very fine particles of rock ground by the glacier, which are suspended in the water from melting glacial ice. The dreamy color is a beautiful contrast to the arctic landscape it cuts through. The best part of this waterfall? Nathan thought he would have to stand in freezing cold water to get the perfect shot, but this one very conveniently had a bridge he could photograph from, keeping him nice and dry.
The Stokksnes peninsula in Iceland is home to the beautiful, craggy Vestrahorn, but it also has a more subtle rounded landscape of black sand dunes on the shore, as can be seen in this first image called Arctic Sand Dunes.
Vestrahorn is one of the tallest mountains in Iceland, standing roughly at 1,490 feet. While the country’s other mountains are basalt and lava rock, Vestrahorn is made of gabbro and granophyre rock, which create very jagged and uneven surfaces, making this mountain exceptionally beautiful yet difficult to climb. Black sandy beaches line the base, which create mirrorlike reflections when the tide comes in.
You can see these amazing photographs in person at Modernist Cuisine Gallery by Nathan Myhrvold in New Orleans, La Jola, and Seattle.