Behind the Shot – Icelandic Horse

It was few days after midsummer and day 3 of my 4 day trip to Iceland. My eyes, my heart and my memory cards were rapidly filling up with all the Icelandic beauty on offer.

After a day in Reykjavik, and a day driving around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, I had arrived at Ranga on the south coast of the island and really only felt like submerging myself in a hot tub and drinking wine for the rest of the day. But… it’s not every day you find yourself in Iceland, and I had a wish list of sights to see that luckily outweighed the longing for hot tub/wine.

Icelandic horses had been firmly at the top of my shot wish list for years, and I’d started to see lots near the roadside as I drove out of Reykjavik towards the south. However the sunshine had been very bright and I really wasn’t getting what I wanted.

There aren’t many disadvantages to almost 24 hours of daylight, but a cloudless sky and a sun that stayed high in the sky for almost all the waking hours meant that a lot of the time I was battling with harsh light and strong contrasts.

I headed out after an early dinner and made my way down the coast visiting waterfalls, beaches and churches along the way. The sun hung low in the sky all evening, brushing the horizon for hours yet not quite sinking down to bed.

I’d never experienced the midnight sun before. I had to put aside everything I thought I knew about sunsets because each phase literally lasted for hours rather than minutes. Similarly at the equator the sunrise was like no other I’d known. The sun had shot up into the sky and the golden hour was over before I knew it.

Finally the sun sank into the sea at around midnight as I stood on the perishably cold and windy black beach at Reynisfjara. I was expecting the light to go too, but the cool twilight lingered on and on, as the sun just briefly rested below the horizon.

This period of twilight was when Iceland really brought the magic for me. I drove slowly back towards my hotel, stopping regularly in awe at the mists swirling in the valleys and at times creeping across the road.

Suddenly I spotted a group of horses. They were stood up grazing on one the the surprisingly flat and lush plains that stretched before the seemingly sheer face of the mountains behind. It was 1am and although the light clung to the horizon over the sea, it was pretty dark by the road and I could only just decipher the horses. It was very cold, and very quiet. I got out of the car and could hear the horses munching on the long, dewy grass.

Icelandic horse at midnight sun

It was a while before I spotted this guy, but as soon as I saw him I knew he was the one. I got into position, crouching lower and lower until I was almost lying on the floor so that the foreground was clean and the mountains rose up dramatically behind him. Then I tried to get his attention by whistling and clicking, and thankfully he looked my way but only for a few moments. Then he dropped his head again, the lush grass far more interesting than his modelling assignment.

It was one of those moments that makes me carry on taking photos. When everything aligns, and you know it’s worked. I looked back through my catalogue recently and thought it was interesting to see the order of the shots I took of him. Through trial and error I perfected the angle of the shot, and managed to lean in far enough to place him perfectly against a misty peak in the background.

He was stood with the light on the horizon just behind and to my left of him, meaning that what little light was available highlighted him beautifully.

This is all the shots I took of him in the order I took them, and you can see how I’ve improved the composition and from shot 2 to 3 how I crouched lower to give a cleaner foreground.

Camera settings and editing

I used my trusty Nikon D850, and for this shot I used my Nikon 70-200 2.8. It’s a good job it was worth lugging it all the way to Iceland!

  • ISO 3200
  • aperture f 2.8
  • focal length 135mm
  • shutter speed 1/160 sec

As always I shot in RAW and edited in Lightroom. I didn’t have much time to think about my settings, but looking at them now, I think they are ok! The shutter speed was perhaps risky, but he was stood very still for those brief moments and luckily my freezing cold hands weren’t shaking. I can’t stand having a shot ruined by blur, so I would err on the side of caution and bump the ISO even higher rather than risk it if the subject was moving.

Here is the unedited shot. I only increased the exposure a tiny bit, and I wanted to preserve that atmosphere of chilly but incredibly still twilight. I didn’t want to to look like golden hour, or like daylight. The process is completely different from how I would edit a standard photo, increasingly both the highlights and the shadows. Here are my steps.

  • exposure +0.25
  • contrast +38
  • highlights +69
  • shadows +44
  • whites +48
  • clarity +23
  • blue saturation -35
  • green hue +14 saturation -45
  • shadows hue 15 saturation 18 (this step makes a hue difference!)
  • sharpening +70
  • noise reduction +50
  • I also used the adjustment brush to pick out the details on his nose and increased the highlights a little more here

So that’s the story of my Icelandic horse “moment”. I feel like he needs name to be honest, any thoughts? Norse the horse? Tony the Pony? This image is also available to buy as a print here, if you should fancy 🙂

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  • Reply Four Days in Iceland - Hannah Argyle Photography November 28, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    […] pretty dark and very chilly. The drive home was an amazing experience in itself. You can read more here about my experience with the horses and the midnight sun, but it was a pretty special […]

  • Reply Fan July 22, 2021 at 3:40 am

    Love this blog. Thank you Hannah! Hope you could write more like this one.

    I have one question – with ISO at 3200, were you not concerned about how grainy the capture might be even after applying the noise reduction in LR? Was it because the horse may move that you decided not to use slower shutter speed?

    • Reply Hannah Argyle July 28, 2021 at 11:11 am

      Thank you so much Fan! I really need to write some more soon!
      I wasn’t really concerned because I’ve had to shoot at this ISO before, and I know my camera can handle it. I even shot a wedding ceremony at this ISO in a very dark room, and flash wasn’t allowed!
      Exactly – I think because I knew this ISO would be ok, I’d rather have not taken any chances with motion blur. I was using my 70-200 which is incredibly big and heavy and my arms were very tired! So a faster shutter speed, higher ISO and correctly exposing the shot were the best ways to ensure it was sharp

      • Reply Fan September 3, 2021 at 12:59 am

        Many thanks, Hannah. I am reading your blog again during my 2nd trip to Iceland. There is never enough time to explore this amazing country so I will come back again to follow your path – such a beautifully experience told by your camera!

        • Reply Hannah Argyle September 3, 2021 at 11:13 am

          Thank you so much Fan! I hope you have an amazing time, I can’t wait to go back one day <3

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