To capture the geysers in Iceland time and concentration are needed. The whole event can be over in a matter of seconds and some of the most interesting parts of the eruption are before the plume of water reaches the surface. Getting set up and having a practice run is essential. Knowing how high the water will go and the orientation of your camera cannot be planned. You also need to work out the location of the sun and other people to ensure the best chance of capturing the eruption.
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A Quick Summary of Setting Up to Photograph a Geyser in Iceland
- Set up with the sun behind you and with an area opposite you with as few other people as possible
- Stand upwind to the geyser. Downwind will just result in you and your camera getting a soaking
- Place your camera on a tripod if you have one or hold it tight to your body when taking the series of images
- In the settings set to burst mode or continuous shooting
- Focus the shot to the calm pool of the hot spring and then turn focus to manual
- Ensure your ISO is high enough to allow a fast shutter speed. Depending on the light this may need to be at about ISO400
- Select shutter priority mode (S or Tv mode) and set your shutter speed to 1/1500 second or faster
- The water can be bright so you may need to trick your camera and set the exposure compensation to +1.
- A polarising filter can reduce glare, remove reflections and boost the colour but isn’t essential to get a perfect photograph
What is a Geyser and How Do they Erupt?
This a very simplistic version of events!
Below the surface in volcanic regions, cracks in the rocks allow groundwater to flow.
This water comes into contact with the heated bedrock and becomes heated.
This heated water expands and increases the pressure.
This builds below the pool of the hot spring until it is ‘over-pressure’ and then the water within the hot spring is forced into the air releasing the pressure.
Composition for geyser photography
The best way to set up for geysir photography it to shoot in portrait orientation with the hot spring at the bottom of the frame. This will give plenty of space for the eruption to reach the top of the frame.
It is good to have people or other parts of the landscape in the shot to give a scale to the geyser.
Make sure you are not downwind or facing directly into the sun unless you want the very specific effect that this position brings to the fountain of water..
READ MORE: HOW TO COMPOSE A PHOTOGRAPH
Tripods and Getting Set up
Before the eruption make sure you are in a good position and your camera is focussed and set to manual mode.
Once the eruption starts it happens very quickly and your camera will search for the edges of the water and struggle with the steam and spray. This isn’t a problem if you pre-focus.
Continual burst mode will ensure that once you start taking shots the camera will continue until you take your finger off the shutter.
Things will happen very fast so you need to ensure that the shutter speed can capture the plume of water. For this to happen your shutter speed needs to be at least 1/1500 second if not faster. You may need to increase the ISO if the light is low or you are there at night. If the speed isn’t quick enough you will get a blur to the water and won’t capture all stages of the eruption.
A tripod can help, especially at night but for most daytime photographs of a geyser it isn’t essential. It can get in the way of other people and with the very fast shutter speeds it doesn’t make that much difference.
Photographing a Geyser with a Smartphone
It is 100% possible to photograph a geyser with a smartphone or small camera and get amazing results.
You need to make sure that you have the camera focus on the base of the hot spring and have it held tight and close to your body. On an iphone if you touch the yellow square it will lock the focus to whatever is contained in the square. Make sure the flash is off.
Keeping your finger on the spot for a photograph exposure will give you a burst mode. If you keep your finger down from when the eruption starts until the plume is at its maximum you will capture every stage of geyser erupting. There may be lots of similar photographs but you can delete any that are blurred and choose the best.
As smartphones develop burst images may be acquired in different ways. Always check to see how these are acquired on your particular phone before attempting to photograph a geyser.
You can also use live mode and then in the photo gallery swipe up below the image which will give options to slow the mini movie down or add other effects to the photograph. This is addictive and fun!
Knowing when to start photographing a geyser eruption
When you first arrive at the geyser it can be hard to work out when the eruption is going to happen, but after a few eruptions you will know the signs.
The hot spring will start to bubble and gurgle, almost gulping in air to help with the eruption (but it isn’t!) and then the surface of the spring will rise in a tight blue bubble.
This happens just before the eruption and is beautiful in its own way. The blue dome will by pierced by the plume of water as it is ejected from the hot spring.
Best time of day to photograph geysers
As with all photography the golden hour is fantastic for capturing the geysers, especially with a golden sky behind.
In Iceland the northern lights can also add an extra dimension to the moment that the geyser erupts. However, even in the middle of a summer’s day some beautiful colours and moments can be captured.
In the busy summer months visiting the geysers in Iceland is much better at night. It never gets truly dark so shutter speeds are not compromised too much but you may get the location to yourself. Geysir and Strokkur are public spaces and can be accessed at any time of the day or night.
Grey and overcast days are not brilliant as the steam and water will merge into the sky.
Wind is also a problem and you always need to ensure that you are not downwind of the geyser.
Large amounts of steam and spray are ejected during an eruption and you don’t want to be where it is blown to and falls after the eruption.
Geothermal areas are unsafe and are clearly marked. Take notice of where you can and can’t go. Stick to the boardwalks and paths They are there for a reason. Don’t be tempted to check the water temperature of any streams or mud pools.
Getting it Right
Photography of geyser will take more than one eruption to get right.
Watch the geyser for the first eruption to see where it erupts from, the direction of the steam and water, how high the eruption goes and how long it lasts for. This will enable you to get set-up in the right place.
Your first eruption of photography may be a complete disaster but readjust and wait for the next one. It will be along quicker than you expect!
Processing your geyser photographs
When you get the images off your camera you may be disappointed at first. You will probably need to drop the highlights and whites to see the details within the steam and water. At the same time the shadows may need a small boost to bring back some of the details. I also find that a small amount of dehaze enhances the feel.
You may want to remove people from the image, but resist the temptation. People can give a sense of scale which trees may not achieve. They also have fantastic expressions which can add to the story of your image.
Geysers with reliable and large eruptions in Iceland
Iceland is dotted with hot springs and mud pools but there are two main geysers. The first is the large and well known Geysir and adjacent Strokkur in the Haukadalur Valley. Strokkur erupts every 5 to 10 minutes with a 20-30 metre column of steam and water.
The smaller and quieter Hveragarðurinn Geothermal Village is also in southern Iceland. The geyser here erupts every 10 minutes. It isn’t as large as the Strokkur eruption but is still impressive.
Photography Tour to the Geysers in Iceland
Sometimes you need a bit of help with your photography, especially if you are limited on time. This one day tour in Iceland will take you to Strokkur as well as other locations on the Golden Circle. As it is a private tour you won’t be rushed and can either go on your own or as a group of up to 4 friends.
Whenever you book a photography tour make sure you know what is included and excluded. Don’t be afraid to speak to the company and find out the style of workshop you are booking, how much support the group leader can provide and how much time you get at each location.