Skip to main content

photo & video

Maximizing the Potential of Remote Locations: Arctic to Antarctic

Lesson 2 of 4

Photographing Iceland: Abstraction, Line, and Pattern

Art Wolfe

Maximizing the Potential of Remote Locations: Arctic to Antarctic

Art Wolfe

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2000+ more >

Lesson Info

2. Photographing Iceland: Abstraction, Line, and Pattern

Lesson Info

Photographing Iceland: Abstraction, Line, and Pattern

I'm going to take you now to iceland and iceland is as people have been there it should be named greenland and greenland should be named iceland but iceland is called and there are times I this was just shot last november last december I went up there in the winter and I knew that there would be short hours of daylight I wasn't white mentally or emotionally prepared for light that gets up eleven thirty a m the sun approaches the horizon around twelve and it's down below the horizon that too that means most of the day is just twilight or dark there's a reason I think icelanders drink a lot of alcohol just to get through those long winter days but it has this charm is you'll see so yeah just like fall barred we start off with, you know kind of the cityscapes you know walking through the streets conveying a sense of place of what iceland is so people have never been there never will go there they have a sense of what it's like so I abstract the buildings I'm looking for design balance, sy...

mmetry and architectural buildings this is ah lighthouse along the coast that I saw beauty in those triangular shapes of snow then I'm in aa place having ah sandwich it's snowing outside and I'm doing the interior abstract then a completely abstract shot this is the twilight sun reflecting on a window at old house and it became apparent to me the scratches the beautiful lines are dogs clause so that dog has gotten up there on his back and the witness and warmth of his nose has melted the snow and you see the scratch but it becomes a complete abstract so I never saw the dog but that's pretty evident what happened then there's the again the urban scapes I'm trying to convey in a different way so you know long shot of a highway a bus coming my way honking I'm getting those last shots before uh passes I get within a waterfall iceland's known for a water fault you know it's rain so much on the interior island is like bleeding water out to the seas and so the waterfalls are great subjects not just a typical shot from a distance I'm trying to get in and abstract the waterfall I have no interest and shooting a water follow that somebody says oh yeah I know what one that one is I'd rather just play with elements because again and again and again it's about texture, pattern and shape so the texture of the water is when I'm playing with I'm getting under the waterfall playing with the way the light falls on it then that lingering miss that rises from the water paul is really the basis of this image with wet glass of grass and just tendrils of water floating in the air yeah, I got wet during this shot but it's unusual view of moisture on grass backlit so I am occasionally taking workshops up their teaching composition I've got an assistant so we love playing in the myriad of waterfalls and rivers that laced through iceland so foreground elements background water leading lines this is all part of the dialogue and the way we see things so in this particular case leading line would be that crack in the rock it's pointing you right up to the waterfall in the distance in this particular case the crack in the rock is leading you to the person beyond so we're playing and having fun with compositions in this particular case the waterfalls leeching out from under a lava field and lava and volcanic history is a big part of the story of iceland it was foreign by various volcanic eruptions so you have these really strange waterfalls coming out of a lot of field surrounded by moss but this is a little more interesting to get six feet beyond finding, you know a myriad of flowers that bloom during the month of july that becomes an interesting foreground. The waterfall becomes secondary to the flowers and then the fact that this is a cold, moist environment means that there's a lot of moss a lot of uh lycans a luxuriant environment from a ground vegetation point of view and so that becomes the subject you know, this is a completely different environment than what you'd find in the american southwest or the northwest forest by this justus val is just is interesting. The reddish rock in the distance is part of the volcanic history. Oxidized iron, the yellow green of the, uh moss stands nice against the red rock complementary colors of red and green work together, and then the foreground rocks air just laden with these really thick carpets. Amoss so this is an environment worthy of shooting than I even go deeper. And with the seven to two hundred extension tube's shooting my mac rose of just the moss in the lycans, and then maybe the elements of grass, linear quality of the grass punctuated by a buttercup so simple, clean uh, abstracts are great for the mind and then put on the wide angle and shoot the bigger stories. The coastline is dramatic again it's, a volcanic island that's being added to constantly with love of flows so that vertical nature of a very new land, you know, the older mountains become rounded hills. But if it's brand new it is made within the last hundred years or so there's very little erosion. So you've got the's no vertical mountains right at the water's edge this was noted earlier is an eye you see the eye and it's amazing and I thought all right everybody knows about this I so I went to the nearby village and I said tell me about the eye and they go what are you drinking I said there's a nigh on the mountain and they said we've never seen it and probably true just a small layer of fresh snow was just enough to highlight what looks like an eye and if there's no snow you don't see if there's too much so you don't see it but it was definitely there on that morning and there was two wolper swan's that we're on the edge of lake I walked over to photograph him and they took off and as they flew under the a mountain I got the shot so I love the symmetry of this the eye adds to it the reflection adds to the two white birds as a point of scale add to it but nobody in the village about a one mile away have any idea what I was talking about okay one of the mohr interesting areas of iceland is on the south coast it's a very large lagoon freshwater late fed by three very large glaciers and these glaciers are capping icebergs so you have the element of a lake with icebergs have mountain backdrop and then you're within a half a mile of the ocean this is a recipe for drama and for really great subjects I've been there many times no two days are alike is constantly changing if you're there at high tide it's slack tight so isis just floating with beautiful reflections and then a zeiss ahs the water drops again influenced by the proximity of the ocean I starts moving so you've got this changing elements elements of ice changing in the landscape so these two icebergs you can see our beautiful color it's a foreground element and then as I stay with them later in the day, they really provide a different color and a the atmospheric conditions as the sun is getting low and eventually after sunset there's still that warm glow in the air and that warm yellow is a nice contrast to the blue deep ice again in this image I shot with a panoramic camera playing to the strength rarely am I putting a horizon down the middle unless there's a cemetery in the landscape before me so that's where I would put the rising down trying to overstate the fact that you have these beautiful lines of ice reflected almost perfectly in the water at slack tide after you do the lake after you do the icebergs, you go down to the ocean and at high tide the ice is floating around, but as the tide goes out, it often brings transport icebergs down to the oceans that so now you've got the element of movement of the ocean surf playing against the subject and this is a great subject to play with and again, as with those abstraction of lines of snow coming down the dark slopes and small bart, I'm trying to attain the same thing. I'm tryingto find foreground elements and balance them against the background, so the intent is to use these elements but fill the frame. It's, exactly what I'm doing with animals is exactly what I'm doing with the greater landscape and it's true here, the's elements of ice play against the elements in the back, so different exposures, length of shutter speeds. All of this is part and parcel to it, then I'm putting, putting on a wide angle, going to shoot a longer exposure, and now the element of movement contrast against the sharp, focused ice, so that contrast a movement and sharp focus, it adds depth. We talked about depth, movement of the eye and drama, and then this is the ice that was talking about earlier. The oldest eyes is the lowest layer of a glacier it gets compressed, its ancient it could be a thousand years ago that fell as snow on the glacier ten miles up the slope and now is being deposited on the ice on the shore, it will quickly melt and returned to the water cycle and fall again as snow but his beautiful subjects so it's often those subjects that I'll prop up or I'll shoot a large one like that that one is about twelve feet high to give you a sense of scale so it's a fairly large iceberg though they get much bigger but the little ones that can manage and here's I'm teaching this technique we kind of prop up some of the ice with other eyes and we looked through it and so when the light fractures reflects through an iceberg it creates beautiful artwork late light early morning light through clear ice is a great way of seeing this environment it becomes less predictable it's certainly out of the ordinary and it's a memorable image and that's part of what I'm trying to do and I cover the entirety of a subject like iceland the ocean and the rocks of the volcanic all is black and so that start black rock against the movement of the wave becomes a subject and this these were photographed last december so working with very low light long exposures you get the rhythm of the sea I'm going to do a detailed the pattern of the rocks and then play those rocks again against the movement of the sea intentionally taking exposures that maybe one two or three or four seconds long so I'm not again even concerned at this level of photographing anything that says iceland I'm trying to turn this into art and patterns and textures abstraction as you will so I could see something like this if it was well printed on a wall in office building or a modern house just washes of color and detail. So one of the things I love is taking those exaggeratedly long exposures because there's, you have a sense of what you're going to get, but you can't nail it psychologically exactly what you're going to get, so it brings an element of surprise, and that is fun you don't think about it. If everything turned out identical to what you expected, it would become more of our routine but using length of souther speed, photographing a lion moving across the plain or bird flying across the sky. Yeah, there are disappointments, but sometimes when they worked there really delightful surprises, so I'm all about that as well, so we're going inland now we're on a workshop and what happens with volcanic landscapes is there's the slope because more gentle because it's at promise doesn't isn't rigid, so it creates the's almost sinuous lines of snow. Unlike what you saw in small barred, which were much more graphically defined, these rounded farms of snow become more like a painting to me, so around it form takes on a different emotional field, so I love challenging my classes to see the landscape and mine it for its abstract potentials so we're getting down you know, if you if you shoot everything from three feet above everything looks pretty much the same but if you get low or high and shoot under and look down you are starting to come up with different ways of seeing the landscape and so in this particular case it was just everything's really in a linear way you know, to the land above would have been clouds inner interspersing with the mountains and it becomes less defined, so holding your eye to a panoramic might be the best choice here and again with these volcanic landscapes they're so soft that the frequent rains would come down the slope and those depressions than liking grow so yeah, yellow green lines within a mountain landscape is something I wouldn't find here in the northwest, but in iceland it becomes part of the landscape, so I love the fact that we're not interrupting land with trees very few trees live in iceland, so you're looking at the raw elements of color and line and pattern that's what I think of when I go to iceland and inland that volcanic landscape becomes justice uh clyde a scope of color and light it looks very much like a lord of the rings type of landscape that was filmed in new zealand there's a love similarities between iceland and new zealand when it comes to this kind of barren landscape much of ah game of thrones is photographed here in this beautiful astaire landscape, so aerial shots occasionally I'll hire a plane or a helicopter and I'll shoot the shots. This was actually from the land and I think this image as I've made into a panoramic really epitomizes what iceland can be to me this looks like a watercolor painting because the orange of the the volcanic soil contrasts against the blue of the snow in the blue comes with distance when you see white snow and fortunately there was a lava uh there was an eruption and so ash black ash falls on snow layers the snow and with distance it appears blue to our eye and so blue and orange are complementary colors. The sinuous slopes of the snow becomes truly like a watercolor painting to me. So yeah, iceland is also as I keep mentioning and a volcanic made landscape and it's very active to this day. So you you have all these funerals and guys er's and mineral springs and using the steam from the guys or missed is an element I work with there's water that's hugely mineral influence so you get this jade green ah blue color that's fun to play with you put on the macro lens, you work through these mineral areas, these guys air basins and you pull out the abstracts of minerals and dried play so again the more abstract I pull out of the landscape, the happier I am. I go home with the bigs scopes, but also have these amazing details that can play with this is an aerial over the landscape. I'll be up there in one week's time, photographing from a helicopter, and I love shooting aerials over iceland because it's such a strange landscape when you have that much of volcanic activity on all those minerals leaching into the water, you have these pallets of color, unlike any place I've been so is made to order for an artist with a camera. So you have the textures of color and braided streams and the mixture of glaciers still in the rivers up on mount rainier, if you go up there in the summer, you see a lot of rivers coming out of the glaciers, uh, color jade with the mixture of silt with the water. Often it goes this color, the whole river over an olympics are the same way. So from an aerial perspective, if it becomes this giant campus to work with, and certainly with their cameras today, we're able to exact a lot more detail than in the age of film. And so the detail really plays into this is a shot over a river estuary during december, where everything's frozen so it almost looked like, you know, microscope, somebody put a camera on a tiny camera and went into your body. This has that sense that you're looking at fiber or muscle or tendons, but it's in fact, just these aerial landscapes of iceland. So when I think of iceland, I'm not going there again. I'm mining it for its beautiful abstract art as opposed to a landscape almost on any level, from the aerial over a lake with iceberg to just upon frozen over in the winter months it yields the's beautiful details and there's something nice about shooting these abstract because if you go to the grand canyon, you go to mount rainier, you goto any of these famous parks or locations, you often are coming away with something very similar to what somebody else just shot, but when you are shooting details on this level, you know you have something different it's yours, it's short composition is something you saw that most people would walk by, and that is in fact, what I try to impart my students with is a sense of design and whether they like this or not, once they learn to shoot it, they see even the bigger landscapes in a new light, they are shooting more sophisticatedly, they're using lines, textures and patterns and their their visual vocabulary is expanded so I'm often looking for those lines, you know, the way snow drifts up on these tufts of grass becomes a pattern that's unique, then there's the animals of iceland, you know, the puffins are great animal because they've got such comical looking faces is hard to take a bad shot of a puffin and the puffins really rule the day in iceland, you know, on the sea cliffs that surround the island, beautiful birds and harlequin ducks, my backgrounds painting and design, but I also learned a lot about natural history. When I was a kid, I had a little bird book, mammal book, I knew everything in the forest, and to this day I have a really a profound sense of biology and natural history, which pays dividends when I'm traveling. The icelandic ponies are amazing animals, they don't want to be called ponies their actual horses, but they're noted for their very long ah hair on their heads, and they're extremely curious they'll come straight up to you, you never have icelandic pony that won't approach you. So these guys are great subjects, a nice diversion from shooting the glaciers and the, uh, ice and here I once took our film crew up there, and one of our photographers have the long bangs, and so we made his hair looked just like the horse and then I put on the seventy two, two hundred I'm pulling in details just like with landscapes often it's about the details the way the wind is blowing through the horse's face I might turn into black and white and last december when I was up there we have a lot of snow so the snow adds an element it turns everything into more of a memorable painting if you will and a shot like this could easily be something that I would put on a wall because it's not really about horses is about open winter landscape horses have very recognizable form yeah being a horse being icelandic horse in iceland in the winter would not be a picnic and that's why they have that long for so here's a play of elements just like the ice that I showed you playing for ground eyes with background ice I'm doing that with the elements of the horses each form adds to a balance and then I chose to make it make it into a panoramic one year I got under an iceberg virtually crawl them well actually those two years ago so it would have been sixty two sixty three I crawled on my hands and knees under a glacier I meant to say following that river's course under and when I was two hundred feet below the ice there was just enough light in a five three minute exposure minute exposure to illuminate the scene and then later that night I was up there in the month of october to photograph the northern lights but also the milky way on that very clear night so on one night I got both the northern lights the milky way the ice in the lake so magic happens they have to put yourself in the situation where that can happen I had come home from ice on article last december and in twenty four hours I turned around repacked and went iceland in december the uh northern lights were really going off now if you don't see this with the name your naked eye when you're photographing northern lights you would not see the red they're red comes when the exposure is rendered in the back of your camera and when you download so the color red the wavelengths are so short we don't perceive it in the twilight of a night but it's there and when and you can confirm it when you see this the shot but dancing like amazing why I went up there to photograph iceland in december and why only getting myself a day to turn around from antarctica was there was a volcanic eruption happening which has now since ceased and so I went up there I a friend of mine flew in from new york he funded the trip and we went up in a helicopter for four hours and it was twelve the low zero and so you leave at eleven thirty a m just as the sun is rising, you have five hours of twilight and then it's dark, so you have to get in, do it and get out in five hours. And it is an hour and a half flight from record vic out to where the book candle was happening, but as you see, it will be well worth it. And the fact that it was twilight most of the day meant that lingering light, the low ambient light or the natural daylight contrast perfectly with the warm glow of the lava coming out there. Now I've been up on mount etna when has been erupting? I've been on the big island of hawaii, stepping over our flows of lava, but never seeing anything quite like this. This was a river about the size of the skagit river, which is a fairly significant river here of the northwest coming out of the earth and just flowing down the slope. So the tumultuous, primordial vision of this lava and I'm in the open helicopter were freezing at twelve below zero fahrenheit, and then suddenly the wind lifts and we're at sixty five degrees from the heat of their we lingered there because we were warming her bodies, and below us was this amazing amount of lava leaking out of the earth. And the twilight blue of the sky is blue against orange and blue in orange are complementary colors, so that worked on that level. So just to see that river of lava coming out in twilight is like, you know, everything tells you you're in the dead of winter, but that warm glow was his bright as the sun and it's got these patterns and textures and islands, and eventually it just flowed into this vast delta just like a river enters to see there's, a huge delta. Well, that would be true here and that I just we went in closer and closer and just pulled out the details, the textures, and then on the far edge of the delta, it would be these tendrils of smoke coming up and then got low and put this twilight son behind. So in a span of about an hour and half covering around in this helicopter, got a variety of different shots, and again, it just echoes the way I shoot in any of these locations. You know, you shoot large intimate landscapes, abstracts, details, wildlife culture, and you come away with kind of ah, a pretty strong sense of a place, which is exactly what I'm after.

Class Description

For four decades Art Wolfe has journeyed to the edges of the earth, capturing extraordinary moments. In Maximizing the Potential of Remote Locations: Arctic to Antarctic, he’ll take you on a photographic tour of some of his most incredible adventures. 

Art’s approach to photography is not simply about going to a location with the intent of photographing it, it is about revealing a location on a grand scale and then teasing out the wildlife, intimate views, and abstracts. 

In this 90-minute presentation, he will lead you on a photographic tour through Svalbard, Iceland, South Georgia Island, and Antarctica. You’ll get to learn about his mental and artistic workflow and the transformations he’s undergone throughout his career. 

You will come away with a better idea of what it takes to photograph without prejudice and develop a new passion for photography and the world around you!

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes



Art always does a great job of presenting the challenges involved in shooting in out of the way places. That combined with Creative Live's excellent production make this a great course for anyone interested in photography.

JOy CAdy

Amazing class! Art is a wonderful story teller, captivating his audience. This class has inspired me to look at a composition in a much different way.

Teresa Piccioni

This class is full of inspiration.... great pictures