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 on the Látrabjarg Cliffs during the long summer days is incredible.

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.

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.

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

The Death Of Photography

High Contrast, also referred to as High Dynamic Range, 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.

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.

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

How Best To Manage 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 the light was coming from behind and to the side of the Razorbill, placing much of it into dark shadow.

I waited until the bird turned towards me so that the darker side of their body 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.

It’s not a brilliant photo but, given the circumstances, it’s not a bad result either.

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

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.

How To Get To The Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs

Iceland is a long way from almost anywhere but, once there, it’s also quite a journey 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 Iceland’s ring road, know as Route One.

Driving Around Iceland On The Delightful Route One

While it's possible to drive around Iceland in around a week, my recommendation, for those that have the time and money to do so, is to take your time and extend your adventure to two or three weeks.

This more leisurely approach will allow you to better appreciate so much of what's on offer as you traverse this most spectacular and isolated country.

With more opportunities for great photos you’ll produce a larger and more varied portfolio of photographs from your journey around Iceland.

Make Sure You Plan For Poor Weather

Let’s not forget that weather in Iceland can be fickle. The more days you have in the country the better as it's likely you’ll 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.

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

Enjoy The Drive And Please Be Polite

Highway One is a good road that’s sealed in most places.

However, it’s a narrow road and, on the first day of my journey, I often found myself moving the camper van over to the side of the road to leave enough room for trucks and other camper 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 considered both safe and good manners.

Let’s just say that on this particular journey the act was not reciprocated, as it usually is back home, by those coming the other way.

At the very least it would be nice to get a wave from the driver coming the other way. But cultural practices do vary around our world and, when it came to the camper vans driving towards me, I figured that they must do things differently on the continent.

The good news was that, as there was so little traffic after the first day, this minor inconvenience simply stopped occurring and I was able to enjoy the drive and the incredible scenery Iceland has to offer.

Iceland’s Route One | How Much Of An Adventure Do You Want?

However, not all points of interest are along Route One. Visiting some will require a detour off the ring road, sometimes inland and up into the Highlands.

Látrabjarg required a considerable detour. And it 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.

I’d certainly recommend a great map if you plan to explore the country by heading off the ring road.

Just in case you experience issues with your electronic device/s you might consider covering you’re bases by purchasing a large and highly detailed physical map before you leave the capital, Reykjavik.

I’ve had the good fortune to have traveled to Iceland on two occasions. Despite the significant increase in tourism that’s occurred since my first trip back in 2011, I still recommend the country to anyone with a love for landscape.

I’m very much looking forward to my next Iceland adventure.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru