Iceland is an interesting place, but I guess you could say that about anywhere. My perception is that it's wonderful for the people who live here (and it is #3 on the list of the happiest countries in the world and, no, the U.S.A. is not even in the top ten...) because they are a cohesive society that believes in helping each other and maintaining a social support system that allows their people to thrive. The fact that so much of Reykjavik is warmed and powered by geothermic energy works well but much of the success of geothermal electrical self-sufficiency is down to the population numbers. It's easier to provide heat and power to 300,000 people that to say, 380,000,000 people... But it's a direction that's laudable as it's purely "green" and, as long as the population doesn't swell rapidly, is sustainable. Taxes aren't as high as one would think and that's mostly down to the fact that Iceland does NOT have a military. We could certainly learn a thing or two.
From a photographic point of view Iceland is a mixed bag and whether it's a "must go" or a "pass" will depend almost entirely on what kind of photographic work you like to do. If you are a landscape enthusiast I would give the adventures in Iceland a huge thumbs-up. Even in late Fall there is so much to see and experience. On our tour I've seen majestic mountains rising from cold mists, dramatic cliff edges at the sea's edge, black lava beaches, endless waterfalls and powerful cascading rivers (most of which have water clean enough to drink directly with no treatment). After an overnight dusting of snow the opportunities for good landscape photography are everywhere.
An additional benefit of a happy and cohesive social structure is the FACT that there is no litter or garbage around the natural attractions. No empty bottles, no soda cans, no paper trash and no clutter. I've seen no graffiti, good or bad, on any of the monuments, mountains or surrounding public surfaces. If there is occasional graffiti spray painted on the side of a trash can I would strongly suspect that it came from an errant tourist...
If you want to see geysers, pristine and undeveloped mountain ranges, breathtaking fjords, and rushing, clean rivers then you should pack a bag and head here. Everyone else is. Every where we've gone in our little bus we've arrived to find tons of tourists from all over the world and also from Iceland. They are polite but make no mistake, you'll have a hard time finding an unpeopled and uncrowded view of any of the major natural wonders. Even on the mornings when the temperature never got above freezing, or on the cold days mixed with rain, there was never a deficit of people ready to jump from their tour buses and run toward the waterfalls.
So, what if you are a people photographer and the idea of landscape photography is secondary to your appreciation of street photography or people and lifestyle photography? Hmmmm. My advice would probably be to skip Iceland in the cold months altogether. I'm sure that Summer is the better choice if you want to be out on the street, soaking up the native culture and what not but I understand that you'll have to contend with something like a 3:1 ratio of tourist to natives for the privilege.
I've arranged to have today and tomorrow to myself to go out and shoot my way. In a few minutes I'll gather up my camera and one or two lenses and venture out for day of walking and looking. It's cold and the temperature likely won't get above 35 degrees (f) today. I'll bundle up and walk briskly. There are a few museums I'll step into and I'll try to find an off the maps place for lunch as well. But mostly I'm out walking to offset five long days of mostly sitting on a mini-bus being ferried from one mountain range or waterfall to another.
Just thought of one more thing to tell prospective landscape photographer/visitors: The weather at this time of the year is a hindrance to good landscape photography. I understand we have been quite lucky to have a day and a half of mixed clouds and some direct sun. The other days were more normal which meant that rain, wind and overcast were the mainstay. At one location with dramatic lava cliffs next to a tumultuous sea we were freed from the mini-bus into a strong rain and stronger wind and made our way across a wide field to the cliffs. We sheltered the fronts of our lenses as well as we could and shot in between wind gusts. The light was mostly flat and the images needed the magic of Lightroom to come into being....
If my experience is any indication you'll ride on the bus about forty minutes to an hour between areas of attractions. Of course the sun will poke out its head in a dramatic way when you are mid-trip and surrounded by flat, private farmland. On arriving to the parking lot of your next majestic landscape you'll watch the sun disappear behind a gray curtain and the rain begin to kick up. The last light of the day will kiss the high peaks of the mountains you wish to photograph --- while you are on the wrong side.
If you come here to do landscapes in late October I think it's a good idea to get on a tour for a few days and do the whirlwind trek to all the top attractions. When you do this you get a foundational understanding about what's out there, how far away it is and how to prioritize. To do Iceland Landscape in October to the optimum you'll do the tour, learn the lay of the land, and then rent a car and head to your prime choices, planning on being there in optimum light. There are several phone apps that can help you sort out the time of day to be in place for best light and I'd guess, if you were a landscape photographer you'd know about them and use them (please leave your knowledge of said apps in the comments for the edification of fellow readers). I had no control over the schedule so any such apps would have been useless for me.
Where did that leave an urban-loving, street shooting, portrait oriented guy like me? Hmmm. I'll savor my memory of the cool stuff I saw but not because I particularly liked what I ended up with photographically. I consider this my "scouting" trip and if I come back I've got some great ideas of where and how to spend time. But if I come back I'd love to do so with several models, a bucket of cash and lots of time.
I may be uniquely unsuited for landscape photography because I kept trying to add people into my scenes; not trying to take them out.
When I walk through the city today I'll try to use my most gracious smile and invite people to be photographed. I'm taking three lenses, all chosen for speed. The first is the little 15mm f1.7 Pana/Leica lens (which I now officially love), the second is the bulky but lightweight Sigma 30mm f1.4 lens which aligns with my proclivity to use "normal" focal lengths and which is stunningly sharp at f2.0. The third and final lens is the 42.5mm f1.7 Panasonic lens. Too small to be a burden, a wonderful focal length and so sharp just one stop down from wide open. The Panasonic G9 is proving to be an "almost" perfect travel camera. I say "almost" because something like the Sony RX 10-4 with its 24-600mm reach and great features might just be the ultimate (non-assignment) travel camera. A perfect took if you have deep enough pockets (literally and figuratively) to carry around enough batteries.....
I've been shooting Raw+Jpeg and have just about filled up a 128GB V90 SD card. I'm using the Vivid setting with additional contrast for most scenes in flat light and the Natural setting for portraits and when the sun sticks it's head out.
Of all the things I did in preparation for the trip I think I got the wardrobe closest to perfect. Everything I brought fits into one roller bag and I've not regretted bringing a single item nor have I felt that I left anything behind. Three pairs of jeans, which I rotate through the week. Four pairs of long, thermal underwear. Five crew neck, long sleeve, pull overs in black and black. Oh, and one that's black. I brought along a lightweight down jacket that's great when there's no wind and the temperatures get into the upper 30's but I also have waterproof (and warm) coat which protected me in rain and sleet. My assortment of hats has been perfect as well. One skull cap made of polar tech and Lycra is great to use, rubber banded to cover a lens it's perfect for when I come into a warm mini-bus from a super chilly exterior. The hat forms a barrier to ameliorate condensation.
I brought two pair pairs of well broken in leather hiking boots (one pair from Lands End from about 15 years ago and one pair from Timberland about three years ago) which I rotate day by day. That gives the boots time to dry out and for the internal padding to recover its structural integrity. Along with good wool socks I've not had cold toes even after one foray walking about an hour through snow.
My advice for cameras and lenses (especially in cold weather with terse winds) is to consider one lens that can do almost everything without having to change to a different lens. On a traditional, heavy, full frame DSLR I would grab a 24-120mm or similar lens and use it for 95% of the stuff I shot. The second lens I'd pack would be a wider zoom for special effects and the (rare) times when you can't back up. My Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 on the G9 was perfect. I only opted to use primes to challenge or amuse myself. Stay dry, warm and happy. KT
Off the bus for a quick shot.
A steam vent rear lit by the rising sun (a rarity).
The giant sized tour bus. The national "animal" of Iceland?
The pipeline running along the left of the frame is carrying geothermal energy in the form of steam.
Here's where I've been spending most of my waking hours for the past five days. No, not the outdoor scene but in the bus....
Yes, we even when to a green house tomato farm and heard a talk about greenhouse tomato production.
I think the orange stuff is sap. Either that or alien life forms are emerging from logs.
Too bad selfie sticks are not made from wood. The would make great kindling...
A sensible country with sensible rules.
The tours go from stop to stop. At the bigger stops are souvenir shops, food and (treasured) rest rooms. DO NOT PASS UP A W.C. you never know how long it will be to the next one.
at Guilfoss Geyser I had a delicious and affordable apple tart. Whipped creme? Yes please!
Last light through the fog and clouds.
Posted by Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer at 04:39