“Landscape photography is all about light and you get the most dramatic and strangest light when the weather has power” says Icelandic photographer Páll Stefánsson. Over the years Páll has embraced Iceland’s ever-changing weather, perhaps more so than the thousands of photographers who travel to his homeland each year.
You know it is interesting when the weather is bad you can go to the most photographed places in Iceland and not see another photographer, yet when the midday light is at its highest you see hundreds of photographers, all lining up to take the same shot in the same light. I want to say to them ‘please, please, come back tomorrow - the weather forecast is bad’, but they would think I was crazy.
The weather and light can change very quickly in Iceland, but rather than seeing this as an obstacle, it is something that excites Páll. The changing weather and light provides him with constantly changing views of the landscapes in front of him, which he can then take inspiration from: “I never plan the shot I am going to take because landscape images just come to me. Landscape photography has to be free as the light is the most important factor. I am constantly moving, walking, hiking, driving and I am always alert – I have to stop if there is an interesting scene.”
Páll also finds that the length of the days in Iceland have a huge impact on his shots: “Days out shooting in the summer can be really long as there is always something to see and interesting light. However, by December there are just 3 hours of daylight. It’s a real challenge if I have to travel 500km and only have a very limited time to take my images.”
Although he uses a Sony α7R III for his landscape photography, much of the way Páll uses it stems from 30 years of shooting on film, mainly with medium format cameras.
I almost never look back on the camera, I still shoot almost like I am using film - I’m never bracketing to make HDR images. I also don’t take a lot of images – the first image in my recent book was the first and only one I took. I knew I had the image I was looking for, so why would I compose it differently?
All of the images in Páll’s recent book of Icelandic landscapes were taken over a two-year period, an approach he adopts to keep his work current: “I don’t like looking back because I think it’s important for photographers to make and see new, different things. I like to look forward and I still think I am improving as a photographer.”
I have never used a zoom lens in my life. I shoot 95% of my images with just three focal lengths: 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. I think when you strip down your equipment to just a few lenses it sharpens your eye and you just know which of the lenses to use and how to approach the scene.
He explains that all three of the lenses he uses make the most of his camera’s full frame sensor, and how they allow him to use minimal equipment whilst still being able to achieve a variety of different shots: “The lenses have a quality and bokeh that I was used to from my medium format camera and lenses – and they are so good because you can use them for landscape and for portraits. I can shoot portraits at f/1.4 and get wonderful background broken and pin sharp eyes, or I can shoot landscapes at f/8 and have everything in focus from the foreground to background. It is the same lens, but the images have a very different look and feel – it is like having two lenses in one.”
Another tool in Páll’s camera bag is the Sony RX1R II compact camera, which he feels adds a new dynamic to his photography. “I love the square images from my days shooting with medium format cameras, so when I saw the camera had a square image mode I said ‘wow’. I love composing images in the square format – it’s a challenge, but when you get it right it is great.”
Tips for unique landscapes
"My photography, a little bit like the wind, depends on which direction it’s blowing. Most of all, I like challenges, even small ones"