11.06.2018

I had a blast in Iceland. What would I recommend for a photographer traveling there in the Fall/Winter?


It's an unusual contrast to go from warm and sunny Austin, Texas to not so warm and not always as sunny Iceland. Here at home we get many more minutes of daylight in the morning and evening. The sunrise on the day I left Reykjavik was around 9:15 am. The sun is generally gone by 5 pm. 

Since the span of daylight is limited I suggest that you plan the longest parts of your travel to various sites so that your arrival at each site is just before sunrise so you can be in place if the light happens to be good. That might mean getting up a couple hours earlier and traveling in the dark. By the same logic you'll want to make sure you're in a good spot for the last light of the day so if you work your way backwards through your schedule you might be at a location less than an hour's drive from your home base and you'll want to stay and work the scene until all the light vanishes, returning to your hotel in the dark. 

I'm suggesting you work with your guide or driver to determine when the best light is on the scenes you want to photograph. It can be frustrating to arrive at a dramatic mountain only to arrive after the eastern sun has become western sun; if your mountain view means shooting from the east. You'll either end up with a mountain in shadow or the baldest sky imaginable....

We spent so much time talking about winter wear before I left but cold temperatures aren't that big of an issue unless you plan to trek in to somewhere remote, leaving your car or mini-bus far behind. Most of the time basic jackets, long underwear and good hats and gloves will do you just fine but I do suggest that you bring along some rain proof over-pants for getting close to waterfalls and to continue shooting in light spray and rain. My cheap Texas coat and my standard REI gloves and hat were more than enough warmth. I can't imagine being comfortable in a giant, puffy down jacket unless you go deep into the interior and walk for long periods on glaciers. In which case I'd venture to say that the warmth of your feet is more critical. 

I did bring a dress sport coat, tie and button down shirt but I can tell you that I never found a place that required it. Iceland is quintessentially casual. 

Here are some gear recommendations: Lots of places get iced over and while the country's people do a good job of keeping most roads clear some of the walking paths, sidewalks, et al, can be slick as the devil. If you can get a pair of crampons that fit on the bottom of your hiking boots you'll be a lot more stable in a lot more situations. REI has sets for as cheap as $50. You can get better ones for more money... But even the basics beat walking on ice with your Vibram soles, especially on glaciers with dangerous drops on either side of the trails. 

I also strongly recommend another product I routinely buy from REI. They are Buff brand headwear. They are really stretchy microfiber cloth tubes that you can wear as a scarf, or pull up over your mouth and nose to protect your face or even devise a balaclava to augment under a stouter hat. I'll update this entry once I shoot one. I used mine as a scarf, and as a face shield on most days. Small, light, cheap --- it fits the bill for me. I even used it as a camera protector.

Bring two pairs of really good hiking boots. You might think this suggestion is crazy but hear me out.
When I was running every day I used to rotate through three pairs of running shoes so they'd last longer. One day on and two days off give the dense foam padding that constitutes the sole of the shoe to reform after the compression of a long run. It also give the shoes a chance to dry out entirely between use cycles. 

If your hiking boots are water proofed or water resistant and you wear good wool socks you'll find that going from cold glaciers to warm vehicles will cause your feet to sweat. Having two sets of well broken in boots will allow you to change out every other day providing the boots with ample dry time in dry, warm rooms. Change those socks everyday too.

If you are not on a low energy tour you need to be ready to walk. A lot. Uphill and downhill. The last thing you want to lug is a big-ass camera bag filled with every lens and camera you ever bought. The weight will quickly make hiking a hell of a lot less fun and the imbalance of wearing a bag over one shoulder will make trail walking a bit dicier and increase the chance that you might fall. Choose a good, well designed backpack. Or better yet, grab the lens you need and a favorite body before you leave your vehicle and begin your hike. One camera around the neck trumps 20 pounds swinging by your side any time. My usual motif was to clamp a 12-100mm Olympus lens on the front of one of the G9 cameras, dump an extra battery in my pants pocket (to keep it warmer than my coat pocket) and to leave the Think Tank photo backpack in the car. It's just not that practical to change lenses when there's flurries of snow, sleet, or consistent drizzle. Eventually you'll have a change in luck and some (un) lucky drop of water will find your sensor and ruin your day. With a big, comfy jacket on you'll surely have space for the matching neutral density and polarizing filters for your chosen lens, along with a protein bar and a compass....

If you are heading to Iceland specifically to make photographs of the great outdoors you are probably giving some thought to which cameras and lenses you'll be bringing along. I think it would be smart to think about what your final use of such images would be before making any final selections. If my goal was to make wonderful gallery prints I would struggle because I'd want to bring along a stout tripod; something heavy enough to be mostly impervious to all by the most violent winds. If 40 x 60 inch display prints are what you have in mind you're probably thinking full frame cameras and fantastic (heavy) lenses. But slow down and give this some thought. If you are on a tour with other people you'll be limited by the time and energy expending tolerance of the group. If you are in great shape then, Bravo! you can leap from the vehicle and charge to the furthest point in order to set up and start shooting. But you'll usually be time constricted by the tour guide and group. The phrase goes something like this, "Okay, let's spend 45 minutes here and then we need to get moving to our next location if we are going to see everything by sunset." 

I would say that you'll get better and better photographs (as opposed to pure technical superiority) if you consider smaller and smaller cameras. The reason being more efficient access to the right spots, great depth of field and equally good color. 

My target for my images, after much self reflection, was always going to be web based display. I'm not a passionate landscape photographer so my intention all along was to share images with friends and family over the web. I also wanted to use selected images to illustrate various blog posts here. 

Given my usage parameters there were four formats that would have served me better than 35mm style full frame. And that's a personal statement not a blanket one. Either my micro four thirds cameras and lenses or a very good APS-C camera and lens would be very close, in most handhold able light situations, to the quality one would get with a full frame camera but you would get one to two extra stops of handhold ability by dint of greater depth of field and the ability to use faster shutter speeds in either smaller format and get the same depth of focus. In the m4:3 world my choices would be the Panasonic G9 or the equally good Olympus OMD EM-1.2 coupled with the (now legendary) Olympus 12-100mm Pro lens or the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm f2.8-4.0 lens. 

In the APS-C camera I'm guessing my best choices would be the 26 megapixel Fuji XT-3, with its new BSI sensor or the most current Nikon or Sony APS-C cameras with those companies' good lenses on the fronts.

In retrospect, the camera I should have taken (along with a massive collection of fully charged batteries) would have been the one inch sensor, Sony RX10 IV. It would have been the perfect (and most generous) collection of focal lengths, giving me a wide enough 24mm and a super telephoto that reaches out to an equivalent of 600mm!!! In good lighting it's got great image quality. Maybe not in the ball park of a full frame, or even the other two formats, when it comes to making enormous prints but, as I mentioned, my use is on the web. On a screen or on a phone. Because that's how my audiences look at most work. And they are mostly your audiences too. 

I was happy to have brought along Ziploc plastic bags (the big ones) because we were constantly going from 28 degrees (f) outside to an overly warm mini-bus all day long. I thought I might not need to use the bags to prevent condensation at first. It only took one experience of having the filter in front of my 30mm lens frosting over to make a true believer out of me. I'd bag my stuff before re-entering warm environments and keep it there until I ventured out again. Worked like a champ. 

If I were heading to Iceland again to make images of nature I'd make sure to take a graduated neutral density filter that worked on my primary lenses. I know how to get my skies more dramatic and darker in Lightroom but a graduated ND gets you closer to what you'd really like to see and can get you a little better quality overall in the photos. Ditto for a dedicated circular polarizing filter. 

Take more memory cards. I usually just shoot either raw or Jpeg but I wanted to be able to mess around with files during a slow January (perfect excuse for raw files) and at the same time have the files ready for a quick run through SnapSeed and up onto a gallery to share with other participants, day-by-day (perfect excuse for good jpegs). Shooting both filled cards quicker. I also bracketed more than I do in studio or controlled lighting situations because, even though it's assumed you can do a bunch of corrections in post it's even better to get a perfectly balanced exposure in camera. So, remember, digital is free (written with a smirk) except for the amazing amount to time you'll waste dorking around with the work...

I made a bold move. I told all the attendees that it would be a good idea to bring a tripod and they got good use out of them when we tried taking photos of the "northern lights" but I didn't feel like hauling one around, didn't care about the northern lights so much, and decided to forgo the tripod. I figured that with the in camera image stabilization of the G9 I'd be in good shape. And you know what? I was. I even got reasonable 20 second exposures for the Aurora Borealis by steadying my camera and lens on a convenient rock. For stuff in daylight the I.S. of the camera was more than adequate. You decide how much you want to give up...

I do suggest you take along a small but powerful laptop computer so you can back up your daily take of photographs in a second location. If you are really, really careful you could also bring along a big, USB 3 memory stick and put all your work on that as well. I used my laptop to stay in touch with friends, family and clients, to check weather, to do quick research about the places on the next day's itinerary and much more. 

Here's a few things you could leave at home, at least if you are staying at the Canopy by Hilton Hotel in the city center: You don't need to bring plug adapters for any of your chargers that get power from USB plugs. In my room there were two powered USB plugs at the desk and two by my bed. I could power my iPhone from one and my batteries could charge plugged into the other. (Love the Wasabi Power battery chargers that run off USB power. They charge two Panasonic batteries at once!). I did bring and use a plug adapter for the Apple laptop computer but just an blade adapter; no transformer needed. So, if phones, cameras batteries and computers don't need a transformer then you don't need to pack one. 

I'd leave all the flash equipment at home except for, maybe, one small flash that you could use to pop some light into a person's face if they happened to be backlit. Probably overkill for anything other than a quick group shot somewhere. 

You don't need cash, traveler's checks or anything like that. If you've got a popular credit card, like a Visa card, you are ready to go. Everyone everywhere in Iceland used credit cards instead of cash. It was the closest manifestation of a cashless society that I've ever seen. Even folks buying a Snickers candy bar just popped their cards into a reader, signed and walked away. Much more fun that the currency conversions of the past. I spent $ZERO cash for nine days. Kind of nice.

Several people, for whatever reason, were shooting with nothing but their phones. Mostly the latest or just past generation of iPhones. And you could have knocked me out with a cotton ball when I saw the quality of images they were getting. If you want to go on a photo tour with your phone certainly don't let a snotty instructor talk you out of it. You may be getting better images than they are, even though ( or perhaps because ) they have massive amount of professional (last decade) gear. 

Finally, leave you attitude and your politics at home. The tour director and I were on the same page about this. We made it a rule not to discuss home land politics while on tour. The potential discord of a heated discussion could have ruined the trip for people on both sides. Just leave it until you get back home and they you and your uncle Bob can argue to your heart's content over Thanksgiving turkey. 


That's all I've got.  Maybe I'll head out and buy a new camera today. It has crossed my mind.....

7 comments:

  1. At that latitude in winter, add a headlamp and keep your hands free.

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  2. For icy conditions, I suggest Yaktrax Walkers Traction devices that strap on to shoes and boots, starting at $19.95 from REI and Amazon. Pro versions of Yaktrax start at $29.95. I'm a satisfied Yaktrax user.

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  3. To your comment about phone as camera: In 2019 I intend to upgrade my wife's and my Samsung Galaxy S4s to whatever reputable brand currently has a good camera- and GSM for ease of international travel. That, plus my Lumix LX100 are all that I would want to burden myself with. (When I can drive to the destination, it's whatever fits in the trunk, after the luggage is stowed .)

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  4. Such a helpful post Kirk, thank you.

    As a photographer and backpacker I find lots of planning and practice crossover between the two, and overseas travel adds another layer of complexity and craft. There's also a sliver of mental discipline needed, because once you're there you need to fend off all the "if only I'd brought/done..." second thoughts. Be there, in the moment.

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  5. I've seen many people take their large format cameras to Iceland and I was also contemplating to do the same, but I was wondering how the weather might affect such an endeavour. Do you have any thoughts?

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  6. Just to add a few things, I spent over 3 weeks taking photos in Iceland this year. Recommend renting a wifi hotspot that will give you unlimited wifi throughout the country via a 4G cell modem. Works very well and can be shared between a group of people. Don't be afraid to rent a car and do the country on your own, that way you get as much time at sites you want to photograph, and can skip places that are crowded with buses. The roads are good, and you don't need to return to Reykjavik every evening, and can stay at some of the great hotels and B&B's around the country. But plan ahead, hotels can book out weeks ahead. Highly recommend zoom lenses that cover your most used range. I brought 16-35, 24-105, 70-200. Don't think my primes ever saw the light of day. The problem is the incessant wind and dust that makes changing lenses difficult. As you would expect, the least traveled regions of the country are the furthest from Reykjavik. The West Fjords and the Northeast are both interesting areas that see relatively few tourists.

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  7. Thanks Kirk, 1” cameras crossed my mind just as you were leading into it. I have the Nikon AW1 & V2. Would the AW1 be a suitable camera for the climate? Appreciate the All Weather lenses are it’s limited to a 10mm & 11-27 (27mm & 30-75mm equiv.). Could break out into other Nikon 1 options, but not water/dust proof. Also, would a larger sized gorilla pod be a suitable tripod instead of hauling a full sized one? Appreciate it requires something other than the ground to rest on - I have held one firmly against walls, trees etc & not had blur problems.
    Many thanks for your views on this trip.
    Cheers,
    Not THAT Ross Cameron

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