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A Symphony of Light

February 13, 2013
Boats and Notes, Reykjavik

Spaces are still available this coming July on a small group photo tour in the summer light of amazing Iceland. Markéta Kalvachová and I will team up with a group of 8 participants, and we’re going to see and photograph a lot of great settings during the 19 or so hours of light each day. For night owls, there won’t be much real night; but the twilight conditions will be great! If you’d like to experience some of the most fantastic photography opportunities found anywhere, bring your camera and join our tour. See my tour announcement post for details.

On the events I lead, I do my best to talk about and show some key areas beyond equipment and technique, for people who want to improve their creative photography. Anybody can buy a great camera these days; even relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot digicams are producing amazing results. And anybody can read a book on Photoshop or a blog post on the digital technique du jour. Mastering gear and the digital darkroom will help make images that aren’t bad… but to make images that rise above, huge dividends will coming from intense concentration on these 3 areas: subject, composition and light.

Light is an appropriate thing to think about for the images I’m sharing in this post. Iceland during the summer has a lot of amazing light, and a lot of amazing scenery to see in that light. However there are some photographers, typically hard-core landscape folks, who have told me that they’re at a bit of a loss for what to do outside of the traditional “golden hour” zones around sunrise and sunset. Well, summer in Iceland will challenge the creativity of golden-hour photographers, because sunrise & sunset are very close to each other, and occur at a time of day when most people are asleep! Depending on the exact time of year, sunrise & sunset can be more like variations of twilight instead of the expected colorful events that proceed from, or lead to, the expected blue hour and darkness.

What’s a person to do during most of these long hours of light of day — just be a tourist? Heck, no! Keep ahold of that camera, and remember that there’s no such thing as bad light. All light is usable light, it just takes some complementary subjects and compositions to make use of it. One great idea can be found right in Reykjavik, down at the harbor. It’s the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, a brilliant new public building that houses the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera company.

I call the building “brilliant”, in several senses. Architecturally, it’s a beautiful space, showing not only a lot of clean, Nordic lines but also the influence of hexagonal basalt columns found all over Iceland. Indeed, the hall is one of 5 finalists for the prestigious 2013 Mies Van der Rohe architecture award. The winner will be announced in May; nothing against the other finalists, but personally I’m pulling for Harpa to take it. 🙂 Though I’ve not heard a concert there yet, I’m sure the concert hall is also acoustically brilliant.

Beyond the acoustics & architecture, the space is more literally brilliant in that it has a special relationship with light. Wrapped around top to bottom with glass panels that filter, shape and reflect light, the building has a faceted, gem-like appearance on the outside. And on the interior, it can be a bit like being inside a kaleidoscope… or perhaps some version of The Matrix. Honeycomb-like lattices provide an intricately patterned structure, while the glass panels react with light and shadow in a dazzling display that constantly evolves during the day as the sun moves around the hall. Depending on the weather and time of day, it’s possible to work elements of the structure predominantly lit or in shadow, to make use of different tones of light that are warmer or cooler, and to apply the different qualities of front, side and back lighting. Working these aspects of light with a compelling subject like Harpa is a bit like being a composer creating a symphonic score — it’s the photographer’s job to craft a composition that brings everything together.

If you think it’s difficult to find something to photograph in Reykjavik during the full light of day, all I can say is go to the Harpa concert hall with your camera and several hours of time. I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed!

We’ll certainly be visiting this amazing building with our Iceland tour group. Got some free time this July? Come along with us… 🙂

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2013 02:04

    Thanks for this report and the brilliant photos.

  2. Kayla Stevenson permalink
    February 20, 2013 22:39

    Hi Royce,

    I have signed both my husband and me up for this tour on Marketa’s website. I hope there is still room for us. I have been on two photo tours with Jim Zuckerman – Namibia and Vermont and am a photography enthusiast. Here is a link to my website:

    Thanks, Kayla Stevenson

    Sent from my iPad

  3. February 22, 2013 07:46

    Thanks, Kayla — glad to have you both aboard! 🙂 I’ll follow up by email…

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