ICELAND DEBRIEF – WHAT WORKED AND WHAT DIDNT

Now that I am back from Iceland and I have had some time to recover from jet lag and reflect on the trip it seems worthwhile to report on exactly ‘what worked’ and ‘what didn’t work’ both from a photographic and travel perspective as well as general debrief on the trip.

Firstly a preamble: I researched this trip extensively long before I booked anything. I had to; Australia is a long way from Iceland and my time there was always going to be limited. I spoke to photographers who had been there before, photographers who live there and work there professionally and photographers who were planning to go there. I read extensively on the subject of photography in Iceland and watched just about every documentary or video segment I could get my hands on. One of the best photographic pieces on Iceland is the video segment Michael Reichmann put together over at the Luminous Landscape in Video Journal Number 8 – mandatory viewing for anyone travelling to Iceland for photography. I wanted to get an understanding of where to go, what to see, when to be there and what to take with me so that I could best take advantage of my time in Iceland. Forewarned is forearmed as they say. As I have written about before, I am not at all interested in anything tourist related. For me, its all about getting to the best possible locations at the right time to get the best possible light.  I also believe there is no substitute for local knowledge from professional photographers who actually live and work there so my decision to hook up with local professional Nature photographer Daniel Bergmann was an easy one. I do not believe I would have been able to get to so many fantastic remote locations at the most suitable time of day without Daniel’s extensive experience. Daniel, thank you so much for making my trip exceptional in every way.

For the first part of the trip I was shooting with a group of international photographers totaling seven plus our guide Daniel. This was a very diverse group with both professional and amateur photographers from Russia, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong, Australia and Iceland. This size group is a good workable number and we were able to move relatively quickly from location to location without difficulty. I never really felt rushed nor did I feel the need to have to jockey for tripod position at any of the locations we visited. If someone wanted to compose a shot from the same location they patiently waited until the other photographer had finished– all very civilized and cordial. With seven photographers and a guide there are always going to be occasions when someone walks into your shot. Thankfully these were brief occurrences and were usually quickly resolved with a friendly wave.

Iceland Team

For the second part of the trip I was shooting alone, mostly in locations I had already visited but wanted to revisit for better light or locations we had not made it too that I wanted to photograph. Working on my own I was able to take more time at each location as well as waiting for the best light; which suited me, as I like to work at a slow methodical contemplative pace. My guide Daniel was very helpful in recommending the best time of day for each of the locations – again, local knowledge is king in this regard.

Vatnajokull Glacier

This was a very successful photographic trip for me and although I have many weeks of sorting, editing and image processing to do I know that I already have some great new portfolio grade images from the trip. If you are considering a photographic expedition to Iceland I can highly recommend contacting Daniel Bergmann – it’s a must.

From the photographic perspective – I used every lens I took with me; which included the 17mm F4L TSE, 24mm F1.4L mKII, 50mm F1.2L, 70-200mm F2.8L IS, 300mm F2.8L IS, 1.4TC MKII and a macro extension tube. By far my most used lens was the 24mm and truth be known on several occasions I wished I had the 35mm with me to fill the gap between the 24mm and 50mm. Even a fish eye lens would have seen some use had I had one with me. I could also have used a 500mm F4 as there is a lot of bird life in Iceland to photograph. The thought of schlepping such a lens all the way from Australia in combination with all my other gear however gives me shivers. Should I find the need for such a lens when overseas in the future I will most definitely take advantage of Borrow Lenses – www.borrowlenses.com

I used all of my LEE split ND filters extensively and also did quite a bit of shooting with the LEE 10 Stop ND “Big Stopper”.  By the end of the trip I had a few of the other photographers ordering “Big Stoppers” after seeing the results with this very handy filter. I could not imagine this trip without split ND filters. Four of the other photographers I was shooting with also extensively used LEE split ND’s. My Gitzo tripod also got a real workout. Gitzo 6x carbon and basalt tripods with Really Right Stuff ball heads seemed the tripod/head of choice amongst the photographers I was shooting with and I have a fun candid shot of all the tripods lined up ready to shoot a waterfall in the North of Iceland.

Iceland's largest Gitzo Collection

It was interesting for me to see the ultra expensive Arca Swiss Cube tripod head in use in the field by one of the other photographers. This was a real eye opener for me as this 2nd mortgage tripod head has had a significant amount of positive online press and praise from some very high profile photographers. It is indeed magnificently designed and engineered; and construction is absolutely first class. What I learned however, is that the ‘cube’ is to slow and cumbersome in the field for my style of shooting. In the time it took to set up for one shot with the cube I had done several different compositions (and I work slowly). There is no doubting the level of precision this head offers; however, in my opinion (and that of some of the other photographers) it is unnecessary for 35mm DSLR’s in the field and significantly slows down and complicates the pace of work. A highly quality ball head like those from Really Right Stuff are a better alternative.

I also carried and used my Canon pocket S90 extensively for snapshots and snippets of video throughout the trip (although I did not do much video). I had no equipment failures during the trip other than a brief one-off error on my 1DSMKIII because of ‘gunk’ on the contact between the camera and lens (my fault). This was easily fixed in the field in a few seconds with a micro fiber cloth. Iceland, although a VERY clean country is extremely dirty and dusty outside of the capital city Reykjavik and I had to clean my sensor, filters and camera gear several times throughout the trip. On several occasions I had my camera and associated gear soaking wet when shooting in rain or waterfall spray and it never missed a beat. Given the conditions I put the equipment through in a very tough environment I am extremely pleased with how it all performed. There were no equipment failures among any of the photographers I was shooting with. However, one Canon 16-35mm lens did develop a peculiar ‘fogging’ about two-thirds into the trip – I am not sure what the net result or final outcome of this was. But it was most likely caused by a faulty seal when the lens was taken from a very cold environment into a warm one. Most of the other photographers were also shooting with Canon EOS 1DS MKIII cameras.

From a car / travel perspective a 4 wheel drive is an absolute must in Iceland – I am very glad I sprang for the extra cost in this regard. Once you get off Highway One; which is the main ring road around the island the majority of the roads are all unmade, washboard, pothole ridden car breaking tracks. I passed two broken down 2-wheel drive rental cars on the road into Hveravellir.  Even a standard 4-wheel drive can be a push on some of the more remote roads such as the road into Askja where there are multiple river crossings. On such roads one of the Icelandic modified ‘super-jeeps’ with 38”+ tires is ideal. Gratefully the only real car trouble we had all trip was a badly damaged windscreen from a flying rock.

Smash

What’s weird is a lot of the cars speedometers are in miles per hour (including my rental 4WD), but all the speed signs are in kilometers per hour – huh?

At the polar opposite of Melbourne I did not see a single police car or police officer the entire time I was in Iceland. I was informed by my guide (Daniel) for the trip that theft is virtually non-existent in Iceland (as is crime in general). It’s a very safe country where the weather is far more likely to catch you out than a potential thief.

Booking an extra seat on the flights to and from London Heathrow and Iceland was worth the added expense and definitely a good idea; especially given the cost was less than the excess baggage charge for all my camera equipment! Being the height of summer and tourist season the plane was completely full on both the way there and back and I was very glad of the extra seat to store my camera gear. The overhead lockers were jammed with tourist bags and the idea of shoehorning my own camera bags in there was not at all appealing. Iceland Air staff was very accommodating in this regard and were quite happy as long as my bags were wearing a seat belt.

It is worth noting that even though it was the height of tourist season being mid summer that the tourist numbers were not at all overbearing outside of Reykjavik. The tourists tend to stick to the capital city and locations just off main Highway One. It’s very easy to avoid the tourist spots – just avoid any location that has a bus. Even at remote locations such as Landmannalaugar or Askja where many tourists go to camp during the summer they are mostly all tucked up in their sleeping bags during the best light and not at all a hindrance to photography. I found the few tourists (mostly Germans) I spoke to friendly and polite. I would be very interested to visit Iceland in winter to see the countryside covered in snow and to see the difference between the seasonal influx of tourists.

Late July / early August is a great time to visit Iceland because the best light lasts from around 8pm in the evening until around midnight and from roughly 2am  until 6am in the morning which is a wonderful amount of time for landscape nature and wilderness photography. To fully take advantage of this light you need to of course be awake during those hours and in the right location. To this end the hours required for a dedicated photographic trip are extensive and nothing less than torturous, as I have already reported on in my Blog. Most days were spent driving to the shooting location (usually a drive anywhere from 3-5 hours), followed by dinner around 6pm then photography all night before a few hours sleep, breakfast and more driving – repeat for two weeks. It’s not for those who crave their sleep and if you are an eight-hour a day person you will seriously struggle with the workload. I am pleased to say I made every single shooting session; although one of them was a really close call. Thankfully that morning was ‘fogged-in’ and I just crashed in the back of the four-wheel drive for a couple of hours.

What didn’t work?

For both international travel and photography in the field my 17” Macbook Pro is to big, heavy and unwieldy. The only time I did not regret carrying the 17” laptop was during my long haul flights from Australia to London where in business class I had plenty of space to work. My next macbook will be either a 13” or 15” variety to better ease travel discomfort. Although its nice to have the 17” screen when reviewing files in the field the reality is I didn’t and don’t do any actual image processing (outside of key-wording) until I get home onto my Mac Pro. A small macbook would have meant I could pack it in one of my camera bags, or a simple neoprene sleeve instead of another dedicated laptop bag. Less luggage and thus less weight to carry is always a boon.

Whilst I am on the topic of travel discomfort (and I have written on this subject before) – having to split my camera gear into multiple bags in order to ensure each bag weighs less than 8 kilograms in order to meet airline carry on restrictions was a real pain. Life would have been a lot easier if I could have carried just one camera bag instead of two (plus the laptop). In future, I will only carry one fully loaded camera bag and if I get pulled up for being too heavy will simply remove a camera and some lens’s and put them in my vest pockets and hang the camera around my neck until I get on board.

It was interesting to see what other bags photographers were using in Iceland. There does appear to be a general consensus that the LowePro CompuTrekker is a reasonably good choice as a trade off between size and storage space for air travel; mostly I think because it is capable of holding a laptop. The Think Tank bags also seem to tick all the boxes; however, they seem a little light on for storage of accessories. The Think Tank bags have a minimalist design that I do find quite appealing and are probably the most airport friendly bags on the market. I am also keen to have a look at the camera bag Andy Biggs has developed – ‘Gura Gear’.

Edit – I have subsequently extensively researched the Gura Gear Kiboko bag and have purchased one online from www.guragear.com.  I am not going to write a full review on it here – there are plenty of both written and video segment reviews out there already if you Google for them. The Kiboko Gura Gear bag is now my number one camera bag of choice when I need to carry a lot of equipment into the field. All I am going to say further on the subject at this stage is I wish I had purchased one before I went to Iceland – enough said.

A few other points and comments of note:

  1. Iceland has its own brand of clothing – “66° North”. Sort of similar to the very popular ‘North Face’ (and priced accordingly), but to my eyes is better made and designed. 66° North started by making professional fishing gear for the arctic fisherman so they understand what sort of conditions their clothing is going to be exposed to. I purchased one of their outer layer jackets for use on the trip and was extremely happy with it. I wish 66° North was available in Australia off the shelf – its great trekking / wilderness gear. Plus I have a penchant for any clothing these days that isn’t made in China. Check out www.66north.com. Thankfully they do have an international mail order service.

    66 Degrees North at Landmannalaugar

  2. As long as you stay away from the American influence of hotdogs and hamburgers the food in Iceland is generally excellent. Local lamb and fish dishes are the order of the day. Some of the fish soups and stews I had were truly delicious. The predominate fish served around the country is Arctic Char – which is similar in appearance to Salmon. The coffee in Iceland is also pretty good most places. Prices are similar to those in Australia although alcohol is significantly more expensive.
  3. The weather in Iceland is fickle. If you don’t like it, either wait five minutes or drive  five kilometres around the next mountain. Iceland’s weather is an amalgam of microclimates that means it’s quite easy to find the ‘edges’ of weather. It’s also quite common to drive from an area of pouring rain to brilliant sunshine in the space of a few kilometers. During my trip I had a little bit of everything weather wise. Overall Iceland was much warmer than I had expected. My last overseas trip was to the South Island of New Zealand in the dead of winter and by comparison Iceland was a warm bath. Other than the few hours I spent at the top of Landmannalaugar exposed to the Arctic winds whilst waiting for sunset I never really needed more than a base layer and a light jacket.
  4. Petrol is expensive – but then it is throughout Europe so this was no surprise.
  5. Compared to Australia, New Zealand, the UK and America customs and immigration in Iceland is a joy and a pleasure. There are no immigration cards to fill out on arrival and as an Australian you can officially stay for up to three months without any special approval required – although my passport stamp says ‘six months’. You can also drive on an Australian drivers license. However you do need to stay alert as they drive on the ‘right’ hand side of the road like the US. Major road signs are in both English and Icelandic but it is well worth spending a few extra dollars to rent a GPS with your four-wheel drive as the miles of dirt tracks can become quite confusing; especially at night and even more so in bad weather. I had 70 miles of criss-crossed dirt tracks to drive at night in thick fog with a visibility of less than 10 meters and would have gotten lost for sure without the GPS.
  6. Although you can drive just about everywhere in Iceland some of the best locations for photography do involve some level of walking/hiking over uneven rough ground to get to. As you will be chasing the light and need to move quickly a good level of fitness will greatly benefit you in this regard.

    Hiking the Lava

  7. If you have a penchant for waterfall photography then you owe it to yourself to pay Iceland a visit. On my first day in Iceland I lost track of the number of waterfalls I passed – a good proportion of them just off the main Highway One ring road. There are waterfalls everywhere in Iceland.

    Working at the edge of Dettifoss

Iceland is a wonderful and spectacular location for Landscape, Nature and Wilderness photography. It is a very young country in geological terms and is very much a work in progress. Its countryside is incredibly diverse and includes: Mountains, Glaciers, Icebergs, Black Sand Beaches, Volcanoes, Lava Fields, Sulphur vents and fumerals, waterfalls, rolling hills, lakes, ponds and just about every other geological feature you can imagine.  Iceland has just about everything you could want for photography including hours of golden light. I cant wait to go back.

Some Trip Statistics:

  • I shot a total of 4686 images during the course of the trip totalling more than 120 gigabytes of data.
  • Six plane rides totaling more than 70 hours of airline travel including around 15 hours in layovers and airport waiting time. I lost track of the number of times I had my bags screened and passport checked.
  • More than 35,000 kilometers of airline travel.
  • More than 2000 Kilometers of driving
  • Average of less than five hours sleep per twenty-four hours
  • More than fifty cups of coffee consumed in two weeks

6 Comments

  1. Posted April 21, 2012 at 3:56 am | Permalink | Reply

    Just found this article. I’m off to Iceland on June 1st, 2012. Thanks for the tips.

    BTW, “truth be known on several occasions I wished I had the 35mm with me to fill the gap between the 24mm and 50mm.” You had that lens with you! The 24mm TS-E will work with the 1.4x. I’m leaving my 45 TS-E at home and are going to use my 1.4x and 2x with the 24 TS-E.

    Cheers, Scott

  2. stallfluoli
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink | Reply

    thank you

  3. PGP
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink | Reply

    nice post. thanks.

  4. MA
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink | Reply

    What a great resource!

  5. pharmacy technician
    Posted August 21, 2010 at 6:29 am | Permalink | Reply

    nice post. thanks.

  6. Posted August 21, 2010 at 1:47 am | Permalink | Reply

    Just wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed reading your series of posts on your Iceland journey. I’m planning a trip there next year, and your information has been invaluable (and your pictures inspiring!)

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