While talking with our friends and coworkers about our upcoming trip to Patagonia, we realized most people don’t know just how much planning goes into getting ourselves into the right position to create the artwork you see on this site, and that’s something we would like to share with you.
The first thing we do is look for great photographs that make us want to take our own version of it. So as we browse sites that people showcase their own landscape photography and find there are some landscapes that capture our attention. Sometimes they are in places that are relatively accessible, like the California Coast, and others seem downright impossible to get to. (I’m thinking of some stunning photos we have seen of the fjords in Greenland) And so there were a couple shots we had seen that really captured our attention, and noted that they were all taken in Patagonia, yet these sites had not been flooded with images from there (yet) thus hopefully getting us on the cusp of a potentially huge trend in landscape photography.
Once a location like Patagonia has captured our attention, a simple Google Images search of “Patagonia” can result in a couple weeks of planning, checking airfare, and finally exercising the limits of our credit card by booking our airfare, hotel, and rental car. With the bare bon
es of our trip planned, we know that we’ll have say 5 days in this location and 6 days in another. So at this point we have a pretty good idea of where the interesting locations are, and we start working on the more detailed plans on how to get there.
Not trying to be too pretentious, but the thing that really separates the “pros” from the “amateurs” is not equipment, experience, or even whether or not you actually make money from photography; it’s in the planning. Doing your due diligence well ahead of time allows you (assuming the weather cooperates, and much more on this later) to get into the location you want with the perfect light, taking terrain, sun position, and sometimes even the tidal schedule into account.
We want to give a good example of this process, and we figured that Mount Fitz Roy, just outside of El Chaltén Argentina, would be prefect. This is a very popular destination in Patagonia and is a hikers Mecca, so we had plenty of photos to look at to really allow us to do “pre-scouting” from almost 7,000 miles away.
The first thing we wanted to look at was the snow cover. Some photos we saw showed a beautiful, blue lake at the base of the mountains, while others showed a snowy wasteland. We wanted to make sure that we would have that blue lake if we were going to hike all the way up to the base of those jagged peaks. So that’s where we begin our journey with Google Earth.
Thanks to satellite imagery, we are able to take a look at areal images of the area from different times of the year to give us an idea of what might be covered in snow and what might be accessible. The first photo is from what we saw on the initial imagery and made the location we wanted to get to look rather inaccessible. But looking at the date of the image, this was taken in September, where the snow is just starting to melt as they are just entering spring in the Southern Hemisphere. Obviously this wasn’t going to be telling us much.
Scrolling through Google’s imagery database, we found one image from early January 2007, which would be more representative of when we would be there. You can clearly see that the lake has thawed and the trail that goes up to the lake (down the ridge to the right of the lake) looks much more passable. Not only is the lake thawed, but to get up there we don’t have to lug crampons to the ridge in addition to the rest of our camera gear and slog through a slushy, rocky, slippery mess. So this is now officially a viable shooting location. (Though it still could be covered with snow when we get there based on seasonal conditions, at which point we ad-lib.)
The next step for us is to figure out how we are going to get to that location. For that, we have a subscription to alltrails.com which has many trails throughout the world superimposed on topographical maps that you can use to plan your hikes. It’s so nice to have a site like this where you have a one-stop-shop for hiking trails, because trying to plan hikes without this tool is a difficult proposition we have dealt with in the past. Some parks have decent maps, while others just give you a cartoonish squiggle that sort of matches the actual trail. Then gathering all that information and finding the best source is just downright exhausting. With this site they let you click through the trails and it tells you the distances and elevation gain on a detailed topo map. You’re not even restricted to following a standard itinerary and can create, and even print out, your own custom maps. As you can see from our “Fitz Roy” map, it’s a pretty decent out and back hike that will have us logging a little more than a half-marathon (13.1 miles) and we are going to gain over 4,000 feet. Based on previous experience on similar terrain. (See the Besseggan ridge hike from our trip in Norway) that will probably take us about 5 hours or so fully loaded with camera gear.
The final step is for us to figure out then when exactly we want to be at that spot. For that we use suncalc.net to give us a rough idea where the sun will be throughout the day and what its angle will be. From the sun chart (as we call it) we can see that sunrise would be the ideal time to take the picture as that would mean that the sun would be hitting the mountains from behind us, giving them that alpenglow that make for stunning photographs. This is a great tool to have for photography, as the traditional “Sun rises in the East, sets in the West” truism is sorta accurate, but as you can see, it can really rise in the Southeast in summer, and then in the winter it will shift all the way to the Northeast. That could mean the angle of the lighting can shift up to 90 degrees depending on your latitude between summer and winter. (This is also useful for planning things like a baseball game in a new city in making sure you won’t be looking into the sun for half the game)
But for scenes that involve mountains, the simple sun chart just doesn’t have enough horsepower for our needs, as the other mountains can create strange shadows that would otherwise ruin the photo. This is something we learned the hard way in Yosemite, where we figured the sun would light up certain granite faces at sunrise or sunset, only to have a mountain across the valley cast a weird shadow on it. To solve this problem, Google Earth again comes to the rescue. It has a feature that allows us to see (with a rather sophisticated ray tracing algorithm) what areas of a mountain would be lit by the sun at any given time, and where the shadows would be. It even does a good job of showing the reddish/golden light created when the sun is near the horizon showing a digital alpenglow!
And so now we know that when we are there, we have our hike all planned out and should take us 5 hours one way, the lake is likely unfrozen, and the sun will light up the mountain at 5:50am, with no weird mountains casting funky shadows across the scene. This means that in order to get the best light for the photo, we know we need to start out on our hike around midnight! (We better have our headlamps charged for this one)
But despite all this planning, as we have found out time and time again, if the weather doesn’t cooperate, we are just going to have to ad-lib. Many times we have gotten up in the middle of the night, hiked up thousands of feet, only to stare into a pea-soup thick fog when we got to the top. There is nothing guaranteed in photography, and when you travel half-way around the world to a location you will probably never get a second chance to shoot, you just have to make the best of what Mother Nature hands you. (See our adventures in Big Sur for a great example of this at work)
Hopefully the weather cooperates and we are able to post later on our own images from this site. But until then, we've got a flight to catch.
After sleeping in for the first time the whole trip, we woke rested and ready for the day. We took an easy in the morning and afternoon, getting in a little sightseeing and eating actual food.
Soon the fun and games was over and we began our drive towards our site for the evening, Háifoss. The road up to the waterfall validated our choice to get a 4x4 vehicle, as it was a steep, rutted, dirt and rock road that challenged our mighty Duster, but after a couple interesting moments where we thought our vehicle wouldn’t be able to pass, we made it. The best part was that the parking lot only had two other cars in it, so we had once again found a solitary haven in Iceland’s tourist Mecca.
The waterfall itself was over 120m tall (or about 400ft) and poured into a beautiful canyon. It was already July but near the base of the falls, there was still a pile of snow and ice that had yet to melt, creating stunning contrast between the water and greenery of the slopes. Kelly took a couple shots from the top before we decided to hike down into the canyon to see if we could get another perspective.
Going down, the trail was nothing more than a hard packed dirt footpath traversing a steep slope. At a couple points we had to tread very carefully, even sitting down to scoot our way down the as loose rocks on the hard, steep dirt made things incredibly hazardous, not to mention the swarms of flies that constantly buzzed about our heads. We had to resist the urge to swat lest we lose our footing and tumble into the canyon.
Then once we passed the steep part, we had to navigate through a rockslide that was frighteningly unstable and each step was carefully planned. This made for very slow going but we kept making progress, with each step by careful step.
Once in the valley the view was worth it. Down in the river, even in July, there was still some icepack we could see under the water, indicating just how cold the water must have been. And as we got close to the waterfall, the gusts of wind generated by the crashing water kept away the flies and gave us a moments reprieve, although it did get us pretty wet, but at that point we really didn’t care.
After getting some food, refilling our water, and enjoying the aesthetic beauty, Kelly found the place she was looking for. As luck (or Toloff) would have it, the sky transitioned from flat overcast to something with a little more texture and even a couple holes where blue sky peeked through. Kelly worked with her tripod, trying to find a stable location to set up amongst the loose rocks. Once it was up and adjusted just right, we had to be sure we walked very carefully as a single wrong step could shift the ground and ruin the shot.
Along with dealing with the ground below our feet, we also had to worry about the ground above us, as on more than a couple occasions grapefruit sized rocks would break loose somewhere near the top of the rockslide we were at the bottom of and come way too close for comfort. This and of course the flies. Always the flies.
But Kelly kept at it in these challenging conditions for almost a full hour to make sure that she got things just right, and I think the results justify our time and effort.
After Kirkjufell, we made our way south to what is referred to as Iceland's "Golden Circle", and is shown in blue on the map. (I also showed where we were for days 1 and 2-3 for reference. I'll include this map going forward) It's called the Golden Circle because there you can get a taste of the variety of landscapes Iceland has to offer. It has geysers (including the town where the word for geyser come from, called...Geyser) glaciers, waterfalls, the European/North American continental rift, geothermal springs, and volcanic craters.
While far more touristy than where we had just come from, it was nice to be able to find a restaurant or just stop off at the side of the road to watch a geyser erupt. But, the reason we had come to this spot was for the waterfalls, so we set off the first evening in search of them.
The first one we attempted to find is called Bruarfoss, and it was very much a hidden treasure. To get there, we had to drive into a summer cabin development and hook up with an unmarked trail. Thankfully our directions were pretty accurate and after only a short hike we arrived. It was a lot smaller than we had originally thought, based on the pictures; but what was especially strange about this waterfall (and no real picture can capture) was how all the water essentially "disappears."
The water all flows into a deep narrow gully that creates beautiful turquoise blue colors, but once it reaches a point not too far from the waterfall, it all seems to disappear underground. There is essentially a natural land bridge over the river, and only a small amount of the water spills over, a pittance compared to amount of water flowing over the falls. The rest of the water actually travels through natural underground tunnels and back into the river further downstream. This makes for a truly eerie and spectacular site.
Originally this stop was just going to be a scouting visit, but thankfully we brought the camera because the sky was creating some stunning background when the clouds started moving over the mountains. Kelly setup her camera and began working. Only a couple people came by during the roughly 2-3 hours we spent there shooting, which we found amazing given the beauty of this site and the fact that we were in the tourist hot spot of Iceland.
Once we finished with Bruarfoss, we went to scout another waterfall, the ever popular Gullfoss. Gullfoss can be described as Iceland's Niagara Falls. It's not quite the biggest in terms of height or volume, but it is by far the most popular. We arrived around 11pm so all the bus parking spots were empty and there were only about 50 cars in the massive parking lot. We made our way down to the falls and found that the vast majority of visitors were other photographers.
Like most places that attract a lot of photographers, everybody is very considerate and friendly and we got to share some good stories and tips on other places we had seen and photographed. Again we were treated to the wonder that is the Icelandic sunset, which gave us lots of time to setup from multiple spots and really work the scene (again, so much for scouting, these were great conditions for actually taking the photos).
After another long day we were excited to head back to our cabin and fall asleep without setting an alarm clock, a rarity on this trip, as we had another day and night in the Golden Circle.
We finally made it to Iceland! Once we landed we picked up our rental jeep (Dacia Duster) and started off towards the northern coast and the Arctic Ocean. What we found out right away was that the terrain in Iceland changes about every 20-30km. You can go from barren lava fields, to lush green canyons, to grasslands, to mountains in no time. After about 3 hours of driving we made it to our hotel. The last 10km was on a dirt road and it had just rained, so our pretty white Duster was already covered in mud...Excellent!
Right away we went to scout out the sea stacks that we had come all this way to photograph, and thankfully they were only a short 10min drive away. It was pretty crowded despite how remote it was, which surprised us, but it wasn't crazy. The other good thing was that we got to scout it out at low tide, which is when we planned on shooting come around 2am when the sun was starting to rise.
We spent a fair amount of time figuring out how exactly we were going to hike down the muddy slopes to the shore, as well as the best vantage points to shoot from. But more importanty, we took some time to just enjoy the scene. All too often we forget to just take in the beauty ourselves and worry too much about how we are going to "get the shot."
Once we finished up, we went back to the hotel to get some much needed sleep before we went back out. We were able to take a 4 hour "nap" before it was time to head out to the site. The tide was low as we had expected, but the lighting wasn't quite where we wanted it yet. So we made camp sheltered by the cliffs to help block the winds and waited, and waited, and waited. Very quickly we learned that the sun in Iceland is VERY slow to move.
Michael went romping around and found a family of sheep hanging out on the beach and got in a quick jog along the Arctic Ocean (Yes, we were officially on the Arctic Ocean!) while Kelly kept warm and killed some time on Facebook. (Mobile hotspots that you can rent in foreign countires are amazing.)
Eventually, sometime after 3am the lighting got to where we wanted and Kelly ventured out with her tripod onto the wet sand and started shooting. We stayed out for another 30min or so to make sure nothing spectacular was going to happen with the light, then decided to call it a night. Thankfully the tide was going to be high for sunrise so we didn't think we needed to be out, which meant we got to get somewhat decent sleep!
Here are some more photos from this spot, both at low and high tide from the observation deck on the cliff above it. (We wanted to see it at high tide the next day). This just really goes to show that if you are planning on doing some coastal photo shoots, be sure to pay attention to the tidal schedules.
If the rest of the trip is as good as today, then we're in for a good one!