LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY

Ása Steinars: looking beyond landscapes to get the perfect shot

Enhance your landscape shots by adding a subject – discover top tips for scenic selfies from Iceland-based adventure photographer and TikTok star Ása Steinars.
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Ása Steinars didn't always find Iceland so impressive. Moving there from Norway aged seven, it felt to her more like a small town than a country. But, returning years later after working abroad, she began to see the land of fire and ice in a wonderful new way.

Today, Ása's photographs and videos of her adventures at home and abroad have earned her a social media following of 700k. Through her mastering of the "scenic selfie", which turns humble selfies into monumental shots of Scandinavian vistas, her Instagram and TikTok accounts are ever-growing tributes to Iceland's otherworldly wonders – from craters, volcanoes and black-sand beaches to fjords, glaciers and waterfalls.

Her landscape photography often incorporates people, usually herself. These aren't simple selfies; they're about inviting the viewer to put themselves in her position – something that seems especially important when posting on social media. "I want to create the feeling in the viewer of imagining himself or herself in the picture, the feeling of wanting to go there and experience the nature, rather than only looking at it from afar," says Ása.

To do this, Steinars' pictures usually engage one or more senses: you can almost feel the warmth from the campfire on a cold day; hear the sound of the waterfall crashing; taste the hot coffee after a long hike. "To me," Steinars says, "photography is about creating this feeling – a feeling of wanderlust, happiness, or simply inspiration to go out and hike up a mountain. Nature photography is always linked with exploration of the outdoors, so I like adding a person to tell the full story behind it."

Here, Ása explains how she does it, sharing tips to take your landscape photography to the next level, so you too can see the natural world in a completely different light.

Enhance composition with bold clothing

A man in a bright orange jacket stands on the edge of a cliff looking out onto a magnificent Norwegian valley.

Ása likes to add a splash of colour to her landscape imagery, usually in the form of bright clothing – as seen in this photograph. "My friend and I went hiking in Senja and I shot this amazing image of him standing on the edge of the cliff," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/1250 sec, f/2.8 and ISO200. © Ása Steinars

Two people enjoy an outdoor coffee next to a small campfire. In the background beyond is a magnificent valley.

In this carefully composed image, Ása and friends enjoy a coffee break during a hike to Trolltunga – a spectacular rock formation in Norway. The person on the left can be seen wearing an Icelandic wool jumper, a recurring motif in Ása's work. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO640. © Ása Steinars

When recreating Ása's scenic selfies, one part of the picture often overlooked by beginner photographers is clothing. Ása uses red, yellow and orange clothing when shooting in overcast conditions or if her subject is far away. Photographing a person in the landscape gives a sense of scale, while bright clothes add a pop of colour to what could otherwise be a flat or monochromatic image.

Ása will even go so far as to choose her locations based on clothing. This is especially important when she works with clothing brands. She makes sure the location complements a brand's product either in terms of composition or in some thematic way, but the same principles apply to her personal work.

"I find a location that works for the clothing style and the colours," she says. "If I don't go for the pop, I try to use local-style clothes to connect more with nature. For example, Icelandic wool sweaters. They are very nice to wear, but also fit well into nature shots, and are great for close-up shots of the subject."

Using clothing like this helps give a sense of location and a local feel to the final image.

Frame your subject with nature

The Kerlingarfjöll mountain range in early summer. A man wearing a backpack can be seen in the far distance.

"Kerlingarfjöll is one of those places that looks more like Mars than planet Earth," says Ása of this image of the famously colourful Icelandic mountain range. "This was shot in early summer when all the snow hadn't yet melted." In this shot, the contrast of the mountains and the snow frame the hiker in the centre. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 70mm, 1/400 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Ása Steinars

An Icelandic sheep in a sloping field looks inquisitively at the camera. In the background is a huge, snow-covered mountain.

"I found this curious sheep in the Westfjords late one autumn before they go inside for winter," says Ása. The Westfjords is a large peninsula in northwestern Iceland with cliffs as high as 441 metres – the perfect location for dramatic landscape photography. The mountains and the sloping hillside help to frame the sheep as the focal point of the image. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV 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 105mm, 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Ása Steinars

Ása often frames her subject using natural elements such as rocks, mountains and bodies of water. Sometimes, she'll make a frame by positioning blurred flowers in the foreground to draw your attention to the subject. However you frame your picture, it's crucial the composition never feels forced.

"To me, it's very important that the image is natural and easy to look at," says Ása. "You shouldn't have to think about an image when you see it, so proportions need to be right and the eye should directly find the subject and not need to search for it."

It's easier to make backgrounds appear more prominent using a zoom or telephoto lens, standing a bit farther back from your subject, then zooming in so your background fills the frame. By moving your subject further away from the lens, you can also take advantage of hyperfocal distance focusing, which allows you to keep your subject and backdrop in acceptable focus, even at wide apertures.

A standard zoom lens such as the Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM has a useful focal range for landscape beginners, or even a wide-angle lens like the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM – the image quality delivered by this prime lens makes it a great choice for anyone shooting landscapes.

Ása says you have to experiment with composition, change your angle and the position of your subject, take lots of test shots and have patience. "It's really about finding that perfect frame and it can sometimes take a little while to get it right," she explains. "I would recommend to not be in a rush and play around, try a few different angles and compare them. Maybe swap lenses to see how the image changes. I can sometimes spend a lot of time on one image, but that's the perfectionist in me taking over. In the end, it's always worth it."

Work with the light you have

A man runs towards a waiting jeep at night in Iceland. The jeep's headlights are on, illuminating a road covered in slushy snow.

To get to grips with natural light, and how it can work to your advantage, Ása recommends shooting in multiple locations, in all types of weather, at all times of day. "I spend a lot of time on the road driving around Iceland," she says. "I love the excitement of leaving town and hitting the road with friends." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 35mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Ása Steinars

Landscape photographer Ása Steinars, dressed in a long white winter coat, stands with her hands in her pockets in a snowy setting.

While landscape photographer Ása Steinars occasionally uses a reflector when shooting portraits, she generally prefers to "capture nature as it is". In this image, the Icelandic influencer is deliberately wearing clothes that match her surroundings to enhance the feeling of a pristine, unspoiled landscape. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) lens at 200mm, 1/1600 sec, f/3.5 and ISO500. © Ása Steinars

When shooting scenic selfies, it's important for Ása to use the light available to enhance the final image, whether it's an overcast day or the sun is shining through the clouds.

"See what happens when you shoot at sunset versus midday," says Ása, who suggests taking your camera out in different conditions to help you understand the contrast between soft and harsh light. That way, you can start to use light to your advantage.

Clouds can be good diffusers too. "Moody and overcast conditions are common in Iceland, and something I've gotten very used to from shooting here a lot. I've also come to like it, especially when shooting landscapes like canyons and waterfalls, where it can be good to not have too much shadow in the picture," explains Ása. "It gives a softer look and it's easier to expose the whole image correctly."

Once you get a feel for natural light, you'll start to notice how it changes with the seasons. "The greens become very vibrant on cloudy days, which makes summer photography look great," she says.

The magic of remote shooting and timers

A man wearing waterproof red clothing, an orange helmet and hiking boots stands inside a cavernous ice cave.

Although Iceland's ice caves make for majestic uploads, Ása reveals that they're a "tricky place" to shoot. "Low light and lots of dripping water from the roof really puts the camera to the test," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/80 sec, f/2.8 and ISO4000. © Ása Steinars

Landscape photographer Ása Steinars, dressed in warm winter clothing, walks inside a huge Icelandic ice cave.

"This is one of my favourite shots of Iceland," says Ása. "On rare occasions the glacier lagoon freezes over and you can walk out on the ice and into the caves of the iceberg." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/800 sec, f/2.8 and ISO320. © Ása Steinars

Ása often has the added challenge of being both photographer and subject. She sets up her camera on a tripod, then triggers it remotely through her phone and the Canon Camera Connect app. She focuses the camera using her phone screen, then sets the timer to either two or 10 seconds to give her time to put away her phone so it doesn't appear in the final image. Essentially, it's a selfie that doesn't look like one.

Other times, she uses the camera's built-in timer, focusing on the ground where she'll be standing or an object in that area, setting the timer and moving into position. This is particularly useful for long exposures.

"I shoot a lot of images of the Northern Lights in Iceland, and the remote trigger or timer is super important," Ása reveals. "Because you work with a long shutter speed, it's important the camera doesn't move and blur the shot. The Canon Camera Connect app trigger is the best, but if you don't have this, then a two-second timer also works so that any vibrations from you clicking the shutter die off before the image is taken."

Refine your style with editing

A green mountain range with a waterfall in the centre.

Shooting waterfalls in low light means there are fewer shadows and the whole image can be more evenly exposed. Once you've selected your final image, you can enhance it in post by using editing software. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 1/125 sec, f/7.1 and ISO250. © Ása Steinars

The dramatic green lights of the aurora borealis above a house with lit windows next to a large body of water.

To add another element to the already stunning spectacle of the aurora borealis, Ása sought a subject in the foreground for this photograph. "I found a house that was lit up and it makes the image much more interesting," she says. When shooting a subject like the aurora borealis it's important to review your final images and pick the best to edit in post. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens at 16mm, 2.5 secs, f/4 and ISO3200. © Ása Steinars

"Editing is a big part of photography these days," says Ása, "and it's also really helpful to properly look at your images afterwards." She advises always shooting in RAW file format, to capture the most data and give yourself more flexibility in post-production. Canon's built-in 'Picture Styles' – which includes settings such as Landscape, Neutral and Faithful – give your pictures a consistent colour palette and mood. But it's by reviewing your photos that you'll get a feel for what you're doing well and what you need to improve.

Ása recommends all beginner landscape photographers invest in photo editing software such as Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) or Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom®. It's useful to find some presets – essentially custom filters to use within the software – but they can't replace a good working knowledge of post-processing.

"Using preset packs can be a good way to start, but, remember, this is not a silver bullet solution for great images," she says. "You still have to do lots of the editing yourself, even with good presets."

Keep experimenting and practising

A humpback whale launching itself out of the water against a dramatic white skyline.

If you can, carry your camera with you everywhere you go, suggests Ása – you never know when the perfect shot might leap out at you. "I was out whale-watching and suddenly heard a big splash behind me. I turned around and just then a humpback launched into the air," she says of this image. "I was very happy I managed to get the whole sequence of the breaching whale." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 150mm, 1/5000 sec, f/3.2 and ISO640. © Ása Steinars

For those new to photography, or with little experience of shooting landscapes, Ása recommends looking at the work of others and learning from it. Find photographers you admire, she suggests, and see how they work with light, compose images and find creative angles.

Her biggest tip is simple. "I carry a camera pretty much everywhere I go, and have for more than 10 years," she says. "The more you practise, the better you'll become. It's that simple. It does take time to master. Nobody is born a natural photographer."
Written by Gary Evans

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