When you type Iceland in Google photo search, the first result will be the one published in the National Geographic magazine. This photo also became the cover of the NatGeo site about Iceland and one of the most published photos in the world. It shows waterfalls in the foreground with a very unusual mountain in the form of a pyramid or the top of a spear in the background.
A waterfall called Kirkjufellsfoss is listed in the World Waterfall Database as a modest 16-meter high waterfall, with its largest drop being just 9 meters. In a country with giants such as Gullfoss, Dettifoss and Godafoss, this waterfall hardly deserves more than a name. The mountain called Kirkjufell is also very modest. It is 463 meters high and its size hardly stands out from the surrounding landscape. The shape is very unusual and the name arrowhead mountain, which she received in the series Game of Thrones, is perhaps the best description of it.
Kirkjufell in Icelandic actually means ‘Church Mountain’. It is named for its obvious resemblance to a church steeple. Danish sailors originally referred to Kirkjufell as Sukkertoppen, or ‘The Sugar Top’.
How did one plain waterfall and one modest mountain become a symbol of Iceland and one of the 10 most photographed scenes in the world? The answer is difficult to give even when you are on the spot. The scene is just … fascinating. The composition is something you do not expect while approaching the waterfall, but – bang – it is there to stun you in its beauty. It is impossible to be certain that the creator of the NatGeo photo, Raul Tourzon, is also the first one who photographed this amazing duo. What is certain is that there are hardly any photographers who have visited Iceland without including this site in their portfolio.
Take the damn photo
Photographing started with a dilemma – is the narrow frame satisfactory or will I have to take a panorama. Or I should walk down the scene and use a telephoto for some scene compressing… Since I did not like any of the compositions made with narrower framing, and my leg was in hellish pain, I decided to create several wide panoramas and to select the correct composition later in post-processing.
In total, I shot three panos from different points, or better to put it – different heights beside the waterfall. The location that I liked the most was in the middle, roughly in line with the upper water level. This panorama consisted of eight portrait-oriented photos. Unlike the previous How it is Made, where I created a hand-held panorama that required significant processing, this panorama was taken by all the rules: from the leveled tripod, considering parallax, etc. Therefore, a preview of this panorama is almost an ideal square with very few white parts at the edges. As usual, I used a cylindrical projection. This time I took advantage of one new feature of Lightroom – to automatically fill in the blank edges of the created photo. This option has been available since the Lightroom Classic 9.0 version released in November 2019. As you can see, this option works quite well even in situations where it has to deal with relatively complex objects. On the left, the process completed a slightly curved rope that entered my frame. On the right, it did an even better job of generating off-focus ropes and in-focus grass and rocks. If I needed this in the final shot, I would be more than happy.
In the beginning - there was a Crop
Usually, at the very beginning, I choose the crop. In this image, the choice is very simple: by using one-third rule, the Kirkjufell Mountain can be placed exactly on one vertical line, a waterfall on the other and the waterfall horizon on the upper horizontal line. Perfect! Except… I don’t like it.
The rule of thirds is a guideline which applies to the process of composing. The guideline proposes that an image should be divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. Important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. The rule of thirds is applied by aligning a subject with the guidelines and their intersection points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section.
With this kind of crop, the whole scene loses its beauty and depth. Some very important details are removed. You can not see the flow of the river that passes into the sea in an elegant curve. Nor the sea itself. Or the mountains in the distance… So I decided to edit the scene at full size and leave the crop for the end.
There is nothing special about the basic settings that I consider important. I picked the landscape color profile, and as usual, I reduced highlights and opened the shadows as much as possible. White and Black point are adjusted based on the histogram. I gave the photo a slight S curve to highlight the contrast and I adjusted the hue saturation and luminance to please the eye. For the sky, I added a graduated filter, limited with a luminance range mask. And that’s whole light & color editing this photo needs. Pretty simple.
Retouching, Retouching, Retouching
As you probably thought to yourself, none of these ropes add to the scene. Since I didn’t want to crop the scene, I had to do something about them. Also, you may notice a few spots in the sky caused by a dirty camera sensor.
I removed the stains using the Spot Removal Tool. I used the same tool to remove a couple of people from the scene – my good friend and my beloved wife. They are very dear to me, but they did not contribute to the scene. However, I hope they read this in good mood.
The same tool very effectively removed the rope from the left corner of the shot and even some parts of the rope from the right corner. Nevertheless, the Kirkjufellsfoss scene has one major flaw. It is a bridge that crosses over a waterfall. It is filled with metal bars, deformed poles, ropes, and curved pipes. One of the ugliest bridges I’ve ever seen. Maybe details like this are not too important, but to me they are eye-catching. When you see them, you cannot unseen them. In many cases, details like this have been the reason for the long sleepless nights spent next to a computer. The ugly bridge must go!
I didn’t even try to get rid of it using the Spot Removal tool. That tool is very inadequate for so complex transformations. Instead, full of optimism, I jumped into Photoshop, highlighted a selection I didn’t like and chose content fill. As I mentioned many times – content fill sometimes does a phenomenal job and sometimes just mess up. This was the second scenario in its finest form…
It would require too much space and time to describe the retouching process that followed. Let’s just say that this process took me a few hours. Finally, I was satisfied. I removed the bridge fence, the ropes on the right side, parked cars, some buildings, a few houses on the horizon, some people on the mountainside… I know, I know – at which point editing becomes unethical? At which point the scene is more computer-generated than real? To me, that limit was not crossed in this edit. If you disagree – let me know. Let’s discuss where is the fine line between photo editing and photo manipulation. For me, all removed elements were actually brought to the scene by the man. I just removed people and everything they did to the environment. As one friend of mine noted – I don’t like the people in the photos. I don’t seem to like their work either 😉
Crop It Again Sam
At the very end, I had to choose the final crop. The rule of thirds still didn’t impress me with the result. The scene definitively loses in-depth and dynamics this way. It’s a bit better with the golden ratio crop but it doesn’t thrill me either. In the end, I decided that this photo was pretty good crop-free. So, in the end, I will include all three versions in the gallery, one for each taste 🙂
The Golden Ratio has been used as a powerful composition tool for centuries. Praised as ‘the perfect number’, the Golden Ratio can be used to create images that have a strong, attractive composition.
The Golden Ratio allows a perfectly balanced composition. The resulting photograph is most pleasing to the human eye. We naturally prefer to look at an image that is harmonized, and the Golden Ratio provides this.
I’m not too fond of repeating someone else’s work. However, replicating someone else’s photos is very good exercise. That practice should be done from time after time. If I hadn’t tried to replicate this scene, I wouldn’t have known how difficult was to find the right angle. I wouldn’t know that the scene hides one of the ugliest bridges in modern human history. I would not know why most of the photos of Kirkjufellsfoss were taken from a slightly higher point than the ideal one. And why most of the photos were tightly cut on the left.
And, after all, size is not everything?!?
In the end, the epic scene of Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell is proof that size and grandiosity are not everything. One small waterfall and modest mountain are worldwide known as the trademark of Iceland and one of the most photographed scenes ever. Iceland is, without any doubt, one of the most beautiful places I ever been to. So, I guess that this small waterfall and modest mountain are the most beautiful place I ever been to?!? Well, I am not so convinced about that, but they are in the top 10, for sure 😉