There is a rock below Goðafoss waterfall in Skjálfandafljót river. I first photographed this particular rock about twenty years ago. Back then I was starting my career as a nature photographer and I was quite aware of what landscapes in Iceland had been photographed before and in what way. I studied what had been published and visualized new ways and approaches to photograph well know landmarks such as Goðafoss. All of the images I had seen of the waterfall were taken from the top of the canyon at the northern side of the river. This was the obvious thing to do as this is where the car park is and the classical view of the waterfall is what first greets visitors to the site. It’s a stunning view of a magnificent waterfall. And you can walk right up to where the river tumbles into the canyon. As great as this classical view is I wanted to do something different as I was not inclined to copy what had been done before. That was not my approach to photography. So I wondered if there was a way to get down into the canyon and noticed that it could possibly be done on the opposite side of the river.
I drove around to the southern side, parked on the shoulder of the gravel road into Bárðardalur valley and walked up river. The drop from the edge of the canyon was steep and vertical, except in one particular place where fallen rocks sitting on top of each other had made a possible path down to the river. I had done a fair amount of rock climbing so I was skilled and comfortable scrambling between boulders and jumping from one rock to another, which in the end led me to the bottom of the canyon. I walked towards the waterfall. Now and then the wind picked up spray and I felt the cold droplets on my face. This was in September and I imagined that this could be a very wet location during the summer, when the water volume was much higher due to the melt of the glacier that fed the river.
This was before the digital revolution and the explosion in the interest of landscape photography. Relatively few tourists came to Iceland and not many serious photographers. Needless to say much has changed around Goðafoss waterfall in those two decades. There is now a paved path on the southern side of the river, leading to an observation deck. And a fairly easy path going down to the river, where I had scrambled before. The rock down there has become the iconic foreground subject for the waterfall. It seems that nearly all photographers that visits Goðafoss need to make an image of this rock. Everyone wants to capture their own version of this classical image and in doing so repeat what has now been done thousands of times before. While I understand the drive to repeat the iconic photographs I still find it slightly frustrating.
That being said there are not that many ways to photograph this particular waterfall. And that is the case with most of the big waterfalls. Usually there are just a few possible compositions if the photographer wants to include the whole waterfall in the image. And that bloody rock at the bottom of Goðafoss is as obvious as foregrounds subjects come. It is certainly the path of least resistance to obtaining a “wow” image of Goðafoss. And often I’ve seen photographers show up before sunrise and walk with clear purpose to the bottom of the river and set up by the rock without looking at any other perspectives. They are like warriors on a mission that must not be disturbed my trivial things such as looking for alternative views. They are there to capture “the image”.
During my photography workshops I explain to participants the different iconic ways that certain locations have been photographed. At Goðafoss I talk about the famous rock and how to get to it. And if people feel they need to get the image of the rock out of their system, I encourage them to do so. But I also encourage them to walk around and discover their own way of photographing this location. It may not always be or needs to be the whole scene. Most of these iconic locations offer endless possibilities in studying the finer and more subtle aspects of their nature. It may be a more intimate study than the grand view; it may include part of the waterfall – the different ways to photograph a subject are only limited by our own imagination.
Since I originally photographed this particular rock I’ve repeated it a few times. But the bulk of my free time at Goðafoss has been spent looking for a different way to photograph there. Sometimes I’ve come away with nothing. Sometimes I’ve made the classical compositions as there has been some spectacular light and clouds. And now I’ve even got to know another rock in this river.
I had noticed this new rock many years ago. It sits in the river at the top of the waterfall. I had gone down there to take a look but had not felt it would work in a photograph as there are a lot of tree branches; birch and willow, growing at the edge of the river and hanging over the water, partly covering the rock. It is also a steep and slippery descend to get down there. A misstep means you are in the river and the strong current would quickly grab you, carry you over the waterfall and into the canyon. I don’t think that could be survived and I don’t want to find out.
Last year I decided to photograph this new rock and I knew I would need some tricks and tools to do so. I have a tripod that extends quite far and it has long metal spikes that can be buried deep into the ground to stabilize it. I placed one of the tripod legs in the river and pushed the other two firmly down, until the spikes had sunk into the soil. Then I had to get the branches out of the way and this would of course have to be done without damage. No cutting allowed so I used a rope and carabiners to tie some of them around the tripod, while I was able to use on of my legs to sweep others out of the way while lying flat on the ground. This required a cable release to trigger the camera shutter as I could not reach it by hand. An assistant would have been valuable but what’s the fun in that? It was a calculated risk, which resulted in a nice composition, but I would not recommend that anyone repeat this. As you know, there is another rock down below and it’s so much safer and easier.
I photographed the upper river rock twice last summer in different conditions. Both images are below and it would be interesting to find out which one you prefer and why. You can click on them for a larger version.