Polar opposites: the challenges and opportunities of shooting landscapes in tough conditions

Two pro photographers, based in Iceland and Kenya, offer tips and techniques for photographing stunning but extreme landscapes.
A figure dressed in red with an orange helmet stands inside an ice cave, which is varying shades of icy blue.

The ice caves of Iceland are beautiful but tricky places to shoot, as adventure photographer Ása Steinars knows from her many visits to these natural wonders. Both of the cameras in her kitbag – the Canon EOS R5 and the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II – are weather sealed, which makes them perfect for exploring such extreme environments. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/80 sec, f/2.8 and ISO4000. © Ása Steinars

Rolling hills kissed with golden sunlight, smooth expanses of water beneath a pink sky, rugged coastlines alive with flourishing foliage: we're all familiar with the typical landscape photography fare, and the conditions that photographers and their sunlight-calculating apps class as ideal for capturing them. But what if you live somewhere where the golden hour is extremely fleeting, with harsh sunlight for most of the day? Or where the skies are overcast and ice is the dominant feature in most scenes?

Kenyan landscape and wildlife photographer Clement Kiragu and Iceland-based landscape and adventure photographer Ása Steinars find that photographing the dramatic scenery of their homelands gives them shots that stand out from the pack. Photographing in sometimes extreme conditions poses challenges, though – just ask Ása, who once got stranded in the Highlands of Iceland on a photo job after a snowstorm grounded her vehicle and cut her off from all escape routes. "Fortunately, an adventure tour leader saw my tracks in the snow and saved my life," she remembers.

For Clement, the dangers come in the form of big cats and other wildlife as he shoots dramatic horizons on the Maasai Mara National Reserve. “After a few days in the bush, lions get used to me and start sleeping in the shade of my car," he reassures.

Both Ása and Canon Ambassador Clement started their careers in different fields – Ása studied engineering, while Clement worked as an art director for an advertising firm – but in finding varied ways to capture their surroundings, they've managed to carve out new careers and work their way to the top of the pack.

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Here, they offer their tips on how to shoot landscapes in extreme conditions, explain how they tackle challenges that come their way with creativity and their capable Canon cameras, and reveal why this type of photography is ultimately worth the effort.

A cluster of animals is seen in the distance, with one single gazelle to the right much nearer the camera. A double rainbow dominates the sky, meeting the ground near the group of animals.

Dramatic changes in weather on Kenya's Maasai Mara make shooting landscapes both a challenge and a dream. Here, Clement uses the rainbow to draw his viewer's attention to the animals in the background, while the solo gazelle in the foreground adds depth. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R (now succeeded by the Canon EOS R5) with a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens at 19mm, 1/400 sec, f/5 and ISO1000. © Clement Kiragu

Green lights cross the sky, against a landscape of snow and mountains.

By using a tripod, a slow exposure setting and by boosting the ISO, Ása increased the intensity of the Northern Lights in this shot, taken in the middle of Icelandic winter. "I always shoot in Manual mode and RAW," she explains. "I like to control all aspects of the image. Most of the time I prefer sunset light or a cloudy day – I try to stay away from bright sun to get the best image." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 46mm, 0.3 sec, f/2.8 and ISO12800. © Ása Steinars

1. Optimise the conditions you have

Clement says: "Local knowledge is very important when shooting wildlife, but in landscapes too. Kenya is such a diverse country – you can be at the beach in the morning and watching the Great Migration in the afternoon. Local knowledge means I know how to prepare for all conditions and the best times of day to shoot. Like all landscape photographers, I wait for the golden hour and shoot in Manual mode, which means I can fine-tune my settings as the light changes."

Ása says: "My photos often look very authentically Icelandic because I show the full range of weather conditions. Other photographers might not choose to shoot in pouring rain or on a super sunny day, but over time I've learnt to deal with conditions that might not seem ideal for photography and that definitely helps me stand out. I don't worry too much about my kit in any weather, because I have enough experience of extreme environments to know I can trust the weather sealing."

A flat-topped mountain is seen in the background, with a few trees silhouetted in the foreground and two small clouds in the top-right sky.

Using a zoom lens for landscapes allows Clement to compose and recompose quickly as the scene changes in front of him. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 95mm, 1/250 sec, f/11 and ISO2000. © Clement Kiragu

A figure walks along a black sand beach, in front of a large, snow-covered rock.

A man walks in front of a black rock stack just off the shore of Reynisfjara black sand beach. Shooting on a telephoto lens means Ása needed to stand further away from her subject to get the required composition, which has the effect of compressing the background and making distant objects appear larger, and closer to the foreground, than they are. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 168mm, 1/640 sec, f/6.3 and ISO800. © Ása Steinars

2. Put your kit to work

Clement says: "I have three cameras – a Canon EOS R5, a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and a Canon EOS 5D Mark III [now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV] – but I shoot landscapes on the EOS R5 because of the higher megapixel count, paired with my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens [via a Canon EOS R mount adapter]. I work a lot in the Maasai Mara and often find myself composing a landscape when an interesting animal enters the frame. This zoom lens lets me recompose easily, and the image stabilisation in both my EOS R5 and the 24-105mm lens means I can stay even more flexible and shoot handheld.

"People think you need tons of gear and I tell them that lenses are like a brush for an artist – it's not about how many of them you have, but about how you use them. I'm predominantly a wildlife photographer, but I love landscapes because they give context to the animals, and this lens gives me options."

Ása says: "I used to take my Canon EOS-1D X Mark II up mountains when searching for landscapes to shoot, but now I have the Canon EOS R5, I know I'm going to get the quality I need but in a more compact package. It's so nice to hike with something lighter that I know is really robust. When it comes to lenses, I pack both my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM – because there is so much amazing scenery to fit in – and my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM – because telephotos give me such a different look. If I'm shooting people or wildlife, or dramatic natural foreground subjects, this 70-200mm compresses the background and brings so much extra drama into the scene."

A huge, flat-topped mountain rises out of the mist.

Early morning light provides a soft, moody feel for this image of Mount Kilimanjaro shot in Amboseli National Park, Kenya at 7am on a winter's morning. As the morning light increased, Clement was able to increase the speed of his shutter. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 321mm, 1/320 sec, f/5.6 and ISO125. © Clement Kiragu

Icy glaciers float in a lagoon. The sky and water are tinted a pink-purple colour by the long sunset.

Iceland experiences around 20 hours of daylight in July, which means the golden hours of shooting around sunrise and sunset last for extended periods of time. This image was shot at 11pm, producing dramatic colours. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/1.6 and ISO320. © Ása Steinars

3. Shoot landscapes in atmospheric low light

Ása says: "I always pack a tripod for self-portraits, but it means I can shoot slow exposures of waterfalls or the Northern Lights, too. I've shot super crisp photos of the Northern Lights handheld when the lights were strong, but the option to slow the shutter speed and let more light in means I can always get a good shot even if the lights are weaker. The low-light performance of the EOS R5 really helps here, meaning I can push the ISO much higher without any grain."

Clement says: "The first thing I do to prepare for sunset shoots is to change the white balance. Shooting in Shade mode makes the colours richer – deeper and more orange. I always keep my ISO at 100, and start with an aperture of f/7 to give me a nice depth of field without being too shallow, so I can still manage to capture all the detail in the environment. I start with a high shutter speed but then reduce it as it gets darker. At sunrise, this flips around so I'll start with a shutter speed of something like 1/200 sec, which I then increase as the sun gets stronger."

A large sail-powered ship passing through an archway in an iceberg on a rocky coastline.

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A dirt road with grass verges stretches out into the distance leading away from the camera, next to an expanse of rippling water.

Clement looks for leading lines to draw a viewer's attention from foreground to background when shooting landscape photos, encouraging an appreciation for the entire scene. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 100mm, 1/40 sec, f/4.5 and ISO160. © Clement Kiragu

A figure is hiking along a mountain ridge, with mist swirling around the base of the mountain.

Ása likes to insert people into her landscapes to make the experience more relatable to her viewers, prompting them to ask themselves: "What would it be like to be there?" Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 140mm, 1/1000 sec, f/6.3 and ISO500. © Ása Steinars

4. Shoot unexpected compositions

Ása says: "Pure landscape photos stand out when there are unique conditions in Iceland, like this winter when it snowed on the black beaches that rarely get snow. I was very focused on capturing those conditions because they were unique and the contrast between black sand and white snow was beautiful. But other than that, I put myself into the landscape to make it more personal. By doing this, it makes it easier for the viewer to imagine that they themselves are standing there."

Clement says: "When I set up for a landscape shot, I'm looking for leading lines that take me from the foreground into the distance. I want my image to have a 3D feel, so I'll find something that I can shoot creatively in the foreground, something epic in the background, and leading lines to tie them both together to create a powerful composition."

5. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Clement says: "Kenyan weather isn't as extreme as Icelandic weather, but it does get very cold in the mornings and quickly gets very hot as the sun rises. I spend so much time inside cars in national parks that become swelteringly hot and get covered with dust no matter whether we've sealed the doors or not.

"Other challenges include fighting flies off the lens and trying to stay calm as they swarm during the Great Migration, and spotting wildlife that camouflages itself in the long grass. Big cats love to be elusive, but the Canon EOS R5 has really helped me to capture them – the Eye Detection AF is out of this world, picking them out of the long grass every time."

Ása says: "I sit in the car trying to pick up the energy to go outside so often, but I know deep down that I really enjoy the conditions. The cold makes me feel alive, and by the end of the day when I've been totally beaten by the weather, I feel like I've accomplished something.

"I trust the EOS R5 no matter what the weather. In Iceland, you can't sit around and wait for sunny days and I really like the dark mood of a storm. So be it rain, wind or snow, I'm out shooting and so far the weather sealing on the EOS R5 has never failed me. It has gotten really wet many times. My best trick for a stormy day when it rains sideways is to shoot with my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM that has a big lens hood. That way the lens stays dry and protected from the rain to avoid raindrops on it."

Matthew Bowen

Ása Steinars and Clement Kiragu's kitbags

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

A Canon EOS R5 camera with a zoom lens attached positioned on a moss-covered rock.


Canon EOS R5

A professional full-frame mirrorless camera offering photographers and filmmakers high resolution stills and 8K video. Ása and Clement both rely on this camera when shooting their landscape photography. "I trust the EOS R5 no matter the weather," says Ása. "It has never failed me."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

Ása and Clement both also use versions of this DSLR – the ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K RAW video. Clement says: "I use this for my wildlife photography. The speed is amazing! I never miss a shot with this."

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The successor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III that Clement uses is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. "The EOS 5D Mark III is my back-up camera," says Clement. "You never know what might happen, and I've never needed a back-up in my career, but I always have it just in case!"


Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

The latest version of the lens that Clement and Ása both favour is fast, flexible and built for any assignment. Ása says: "If I'm shooting people or wildlife, or dramatic natural foreground subjects, this 70-200mm compresses the background and brings so much extra drama into the scene."

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L

With its incredible f/1.2 maximum aperture, the super-fast EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is a consummate low-light performer that Ása and Clement both use. "I mostly use this for portraits," says Clement. "It has the most beautiful bokeh."


Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R

The standard Mount Adapter EF-EOS R allows EF-S and EF lenses to be used on EOS R cameras seamlessly. Photographers who already have a collection of EF-S or EF optics can confidently invest in the EOS R System, knowing their existing lenses will work as expected.

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