Look the Other Way: Kirkjufell, Iceland

Seeing more at Iceland’s Kirkjufell

Kirkjufell, the “Arrow Mountain” on Iceland’s Snaefellsness Peninsula, is one of the most photographed sites on this North Atlantic island country. The quintessential view you see everywhere usually shows this conical mountain behind the nearby waterfalls of Kirkjufellfoss.

Here, for example, are the top results on Instagram for Kirkjufell.

Kirkjufell on Instagram

The name, Kirkjufell, by the way, has nothing to do with Star Trek’s original captain. It means “Church Mountain” since its shape, from certain angles, resembles a typical box-and-steeple church. Throw in “foss” after it and you have “Church Mountain Falls,” as well as the entire extent of my knowledge of Icelandic.

There’s no question that Kirkjufell is beautiful, particularly when backed by a sunset or even better, a display of the Northern Lights.

But the mountain isn’t the whole story.

Look the other way from Kirkjufell

If you look the other way by turning around, away from the mountain of Kirkjufell, you’ll discover a world you never see on most travel sites or in photos of the iconic scene.

Look the other way from KirkjufellAs we explored before in Look the Other Way: Budir Black Church, sometimes you discover the best parts of your trip when you not only look the other way, but physically turn the other way.

Turning the other way requires movement. And even a small change of location can result in a very different perspective, of a scene or of your world.

Use your feet

There’s a saying among photographers that the best zoom function of a camera is your own two feet. Meaning, if you want to get a close-up shot, move. Get closer physically rather than relying on your lens to zoom in. Same thing with looking the other way. Sometimes you have to turn the other way and move your feet.

The irony with Kirkjufell is that you have to do that turning and moving just to see the mountain behind the falls.

If you drive toward Kirkjufell, you can see the mountain from the road. But — full confession here — I didn’t realize there was anything special about the mountain when driving by it. It’s a greenish yellow conical peak. Do you know how many of those there are in Iceland? Me neither, but I’m guessing their number exceeds that of cheap dining solutions on the island by a significant margin. Thus, unless you know what you’re looking for, you may arrive at the parking lot with a curious sense of, “What’s the big deal here?”

Kirkjufellsfoss from parking lot

View from parking lot toward the falls (Kirkjufellsfoss). Where’s that conical mountain I’ve come to photograph?

Seeing it from above—or not

I’d show you an overview of the area via a drone shot, but I wasn’t able to fly my drone there for two reasons. The first was this sign:

Kirkjufellsfoss sign

The second was the wind. Not just a breeze, but a blow so hard Mary Poppins and her umbrella would have hit Mach 1 speeds. On the flight to Iceland, the fun facts that Iceland Air displays on the in-flight screen include this gem: “Iceland is the third windiest place in the world. But what’s remarkable is that the first two are both uninhabitable.” How that little factoid entices travelers  to visit Iceland is beyond me.

Anyway, once you arrive at the parking lot for Killjufellfoss, you have to follow the trail up to the waterfalls, cross a bridge over the river above the falls, circle back on the other side and then, voila, there’s your famous shot. Or at least the place where you can take it.

That’s the usual process. You get your shot that looks like this.

Look the other way: Kirkjufell

Of if you proceed several more meters downstream, you’ll find the lower falls which, to me, are even more interesting in person, but you may have to look back and forth between the two photos to tell much of a difference.

Kirkjufellsfoss lower falls

Shooting during the day

Full disclosure on why my photos here of Kirkjufell are rather snapshotty compared to most of the sunset or Northern Lights images out there. We arrived at midday (which is a rather long stretch of time when the day in June lasts for 22.5 hours). That meant many other people scurrying around and most of all, very harsh overhead light. I think the advanced technical term in photographic circles for such a situation is, “Blech!”

Also, we’d been on the road since early morning, so I was rather tired and thought this would just be a quick stop because I could tell the light was too bright, even from the parking lot. I just grabbed my camera with no other lenses, tripod or filters and hurried up to the falls. My advice to you is if you have a wide angle lens, use it. Similarly, use a neutral density filter if you arrive on a bright day to darken the scene enough so you can take a longer exposure to blur the water of the falls. I tried to do that somewhat holding the camera by hand, but a filter, tripod and wider angle lens would have likely produced better images, even in that light.

If you want to learn more about how to take travel photos that look better than these, check out my free Beginner’s Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos.

Go beyond what you came to see—and shoot

Which leads us to one of many reasons to look the other way: When the light isn’t what you’d like it to be for the subject you came to photograph, look around for something else to shoot. In my opinion, a less-than-iconic image shot in great light usually beats a famous landmark photographed under sub-optimal conditions. Such was the case here.

Because if you look the other way, constantly turning, moving and letting your curiosity hunt for what the scene can reveal rather than going only to see what you came to see, you will find these (to me) more interesting sights.

Kirkjufellfoss away from the mountain

I do love the images I’ve seen online of Kirkjufell. But as my images here hopefully reveal, there’s so much more here than just that mountain.

Kirkjufellfoss away from the mountain

If you could magically relocate those same waterfalls elsewhere with all the surrounding scenery minus Kirkjufell, it would still be a highly photo-worthy site.

And that’s the problem when you don’t look the other way, when you don’t consider a place based on its own merits instead of some preconceived idea of what you expect to be there. You don’t realize how stunning certain places actually are when they aren’t compared to what they’re “supposed” to be.

Look the other way: Kirkjufellsfoss

Next time you’re anywhere famous, take in the iconic sight. But then turn around. Move. Look the other way.

Then be prepared to be amazed by what you see. Not just because it can be visually rewarding, but because it is your own personal discovery, one you made, even in highly popular locations.

 

Look the other way: Budir Black Church, Iceland

Budir beach from aboveLearn to see more of your trip

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tripper (tourist) sees what he has come to see.” This quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Autobiography takes on new meaning when it comes to travel, photography and Instagram.

Choose any popular spot around the world and it is mind boggling how many people are there to not just see, but photograph a particular landmark or site. All well and good, except they do so in pretty much the same manner. They come mostly to get their own Instagram shot, to claim membership in that club and to check off that experience.

That’s not a bad way to travel.

But it may not be the best way to travel. While you may have the bragging rights of capturing “the” shot, you’re likely missing so much more. In fact, you may be missing out on the best part of the place —or your trip.

Today I begin an ongoing series called, “Look the Other Way.” In it, we’ll explore numerous possibilities to do just that, to look the other way. That may mean looking up, down, from a different viewpoint, behind you or just from a different mental perspective. Today, let’s start with a rather obvious aspect: Look around.

Budir black churchAn example from Iceland’s Budir Black Church

I recently returned from Iceland (and several other Scandinavian countries). One iconic image you see of that windswept isle is of this lone church, black in color (because its wood is coated in tar for weather protection) and usually shot with the coast or nearby mountains as the backdrop. Pretty much like the shot above only, because it was a bright, sunny morning, the black is looking a little faded here.

I did a quick search on Instagram for Budir Black Church and this is the top page of results.
Instagram images of Budir

You see it in all seasons, day and night, with or without people, but with only one exception, it’s a similar shot of just the church itself.

This lemming-like phenomenon isn’t limited to Instagram. On virtually every travel blog or site I went to before visiting Iceland, I saw the same image. Here’s what a search on Google using the Images filter reveals:

Google images of Budir

Lest you think the results are limited because my search term was Budir Black Church, an expanded search to just “Budir Iceland” resulted in pretty much the same results with a few shots of the nearby hotel added.

Using images to plan your trip

I tend to plan trips visually, reading about places that sound interesting first, then doing image searches or using Google Earth to provide a fuller sense of what the place is like. Google Earth works well for understanding what’s around the site but it isn’t the best for capturing the beauty of it. Here’s what I mean with this destination shown in Google Earth:

Google Earth of Budir

Thus, based on the cursory search I did for the Budir Black Church, I assumed there’d be a small isolated church worth maybe a five to ten minute stop since it was on our way.

But look what happens when you look the other way, in this case looking around the area.

There’s always more to see

Budir Black Church and cemetery

First, I realized there’s a cemetery next to the church. I didn’t know that before.

Second, I had no idea there were these beautiful moss-covered tiny hills and valleys around the church that you can explore.

Budir from above

Third, I never realized that right next door to the “isolated” church is a lovely hotel.

Budir hotel and inlet

Fourth, the setting is as impressive as the church. The beaches, the water and the mossy volcanic landscape around the church and beyond the hotel make for a gorgeous environment you can wander. The conical and other mountains in the background make for a nice backdrop as well.

The road into Budir

Fifth, while many of the photos I’ve seen of Iceland show some lovely scenes, photographs cannot capture how beautiful many of the places are. The scenes just don’t translate well because the Icelandic experience is about being out in the vast natural environment there. You can’t capture in an image how the sun (rather rare), wind, scent of the sea, the intricate details of moss and small flowers and the expansive landscape all around you merge.

Why some images show up more often

Budir grass

For example, in the above photo, the scene itself when I was there was brilliant. It was a wonder to just wander amidst the grass, rocks, moss and sea. But honestly, I think it’s a rather boring photo because there’s no real subject, just the expanse.

Compare it to the following:

Budir hotel and church

I love this image because while it captures the rocks, grass and beach, it has a focal point on the hotel and distant church.

This lack of subjects to ground your photos explains in part why most people take the same shots of the same places in Iceland. Iconic subjects are simply fewer and farther between there.

It helped, in my case, to have a drone to get some of these shots from above. That added a level of interest you might not behold at ground level.

Budir water and coastA great photographer, however, can find a worthy subject anywhere, particularly when the right light and weather work together to make even an open expanse of field and distant mountains appear magical. But on a dull rainy day or a bright sunny one with no clouds like what we experienced, most of us need some subject to stand out in our photos. Hence the church or a handful or other iconic shots you see so often.

Don’t settle for what others have seen

Budir Black Church

That may explain why you only see the church in photos of Budir. But hopefully the above images reveal that there is so much more there in Budir than than just the church, both to photograph and most of all, to experience.

In any location, when you look the other way, looking beyond the iconic sight to what lies behind or on the other side of the popular subject, you discover an entire world that may be more wondrous than the one you came to see.