In the spring of 2015, my wife and I traveled to another planet (at least it seemed that way). Iceland is a dramatic, unforgiving, and intense landscape. The island is born of volcanic activity and has been sculpted by glaciers and wind. It was an unusual choice for a romantic getaway. Temperatures hovered just above freezing and rain often turned to sleet and even hail. Heavy mists from 100 foot tall waterfalls soaked our clothes and cameras. We were in awe and enjoyed every minute of it. We fell under Iceland’s spell.
I've been meaning to write a proper post about my first trip to the land of fire and ice for a while. I posted some of the photos right after the trip to my old blog, but never really put words with the images. It's not easy describing the place. I did my best to capture the mood on film, but I still feel that anything I write may fall short of adequately describing the magic of Iceland. I'll try anyway.
On A Whim
We booked our trip to Iceland on a complete whim. We saw something floating around the internet about Wow Airlines offering $99 flights to Reykjavik from Baltimore-Washington International and assumed it was way too good to be true...there just had to be a catch. Well, it was only sort of that way. The $99 got you to Reykjavik but you still had to buy a ticket back. We were expecting the exorbitant fees that are usually associated with flights to Europe. To our surprise, once adding the flights home, our total cost for two round trip tickets was only $895. We jumped on it and booked an apartment in downtown Reykjavik within seconds of our flight confirmation email. We didn't bother adding a flight from North Carolina to BWI. We, instead, drove the 6 and a half hours which saved at least a few hundred bucks. Four months after booking our tickets, we were on a bright purple airplane (with the most delightful staff, by the way) over the Atlantic.
My choice of camera equipment for such an amazing destination will probably surprise you. I like to travel light. That's rule number one. If I can get by without something, I will. I only took one camera body and two lenses to Iceland. What may surprise you even more is which camera I took. Earlier in 2015 I began shooting a lot of film and hardly any digital at all ( I was also still using Canon equipment. Since June 2015 I have switched to Nikon). In Iceland I continued this trend. I packed my Canon EOS 3 and a few rolls of Ilford HP5+ (my favorite black and white film). My wife had a Canon G15 point and shoot, and that was the only digital camera we took. For glass, I packed a 17-40 f4L and a 70-200 f4. That's it. A small travel tripod, a two stop graduated ND filter, and some extra batteries were the only accessories. Flying with film wasn't a big deal. I simply kept the film in a plastic freezer bag and gave it to security to hand check instead of allowing it to go through the x-ray machines. No big deal. I did get a few giggles and some jokes from folks in line who had apparently not even seen 35mm film for like a decade. But that's fine with me. I'm a film nerd...that's just who I am.
I chose HP5+ for it's gritty grain, high contrast, and broad exposure latitude. I'm glad I went with this film. I think it did a great job of recording the drama and texture in the dark skies and craggy mountains that are characteristic of Iceland. I took some Kodak Ektar also, but I wasn't as happy with those images. Ektar does good things with evenly lit forest landscapes here in the Appalachian Mountains, but in Iceland that film just didn't do it for me.
The Icelandic Landscape
Iceland is both harsh and beautiful. Volcanic mountains dot the landscape, massive glaciers carve the earth, and gigantic waterfalls spill hundreds of feet from jagged cliffs around every bend. Wind is a force to be reckoned with. I don't think there was a single minute outdoors that we weren't holding our hats down with one hand and trying to keep balance with the other. I also can't recall many situations in which we weren't soaking wet. It would rain one minute, then sleet the next, then the sun would come out for a second, then the wind would pick back up and the clouds would drop hail on us! These conditions made photography difficult. It was hard to keep my camera steady even on a tripod. I had to use much faster shutter speeds than I would normally use when shooting waterfalls simply to keep from having a blurry image. Despite the challenges, it was tons of fun! It was an adventure!
Now that I've touched on the harshness of the weather, I feel I need to attempt to describe the beauty that those conditions create. This place is stunning- the whole island. Probably the most difficult thing about shooting in Iceland is that there is so much to shoot. It is easy to get overwhelmed and even lock up. For example, in one direction you'll see a massive and glorious waterfall surrounded by moss covered mountains, then behind you is a snow covered volcano draped in the most amazing evening light you'll swear you've ever seen. The important thing is to go for simplicity. Instead of running around like a crazy photographer trying to capture everything (like I did on the first day), take time to observe the elements of the landscape and select a few good compositions. Instead of rushing around and shooting dozens of scenes in a day, try to come away with one or two awesome shots that you're happy with. Iceland takes patience...actually it demands it. The only way you're going to go home with images that accurately portray your experience is to give in to that. That's the one piece of advice that would give to other photographers for their first trip to Iceland. Take it all in first, then find your picture.
We experienced Iceland's great outdoors by tour bus. I usually don't do group tours, but this method seemed to be most efficient and affordable way to see Iceland outside of Reykjavik. We used Reykjavik Excursions. The buses were comfortable and the drivers were knowledgeable and very polite, but next time we'll be renting a car instead. I felt rushed when taking pictures because we had less than a half hour at each stop. The itineraries were jam-packed. Personally, I would have liked to have stopped fewer places in order to see more of each spot. Next time (we're planning a return trip for Fall of 2016) we're renting a car and taking our time.
Reykjavik and Icelandic Culture
Iceland is an island of just over 300,000 people. Most of these stout and brawny folks live in Reykjavik. The city is very walk-able. Some downtown streets are closed off to traffic for evenings and weekends to allow people to stroll through the streets in a more carefree fashion. I've never been to a major city with such a relaxed and laid back atmosphere. Icelanders are famous for being polite and the country is well-known for being a very safe place to visit. Dress is casual. Most folks wander around from art gallery to restaurant to bar in their outdoor gear and hiking boots. Outdoor culture is big in Iceland. Respect for the land and its resources is part of government policy and Icelanders take it seriously.
Hipsters rejoice! Reykjavik is an indie heaven. There are record stores, tattoo places, book stores, and small quirky bars on seemingly every corner. I even found a photography gallery that displayed generations of vintage cameras.
When I was researching Iceland before our trip, I kept reading that food was very expensive. Actually, I didn't find grocery store or even restaurant prices any steeper than in Boone, NC (the closest town to my home). If you're on a budget, Reykjavik is a great place to be for food. My wife and I only stay in apartments equipped with basic kitchens when we travel. That way we can save a bit by cooking breakfasts and some dinners ourselves. Lunch is the meal we usually go out for, and in Iceland that usually means hot dogs. Hot dogs? In Iceland? Yep. If you've read anything about Icelandic cuisine, you've probably come across some pretty intense fare. You've probably also read about Baejarins Bestu Pilsur- Reykjavik's most popular hot dog stand. These dogs are made with lamb and natural casings and are absolutely delicious. They're also very cheap. Another inexpensive spot for grub is Noodle Station. This was my wife's favorite. This hole in the wall seats a few and only serves one spicy Thai style noodle dish three ways: with chicken, vegetables, or beef. Trust me, after trekking around the Icelandic hills in the soggy cold weather all day this is exactly what you need! The spicier the better (for us at least). If you like seafood (If not, then why the heck would you go to Iceland?) and have a bit more spending money, I'd recommend Icelandic Fish and Chips. This was our only splurge on dining in Reykjavik. They're all about fresh seafood and organic ingredients here. It was also our opportunity to try Iceland's famous unfiltered beers. If you're a brew enthusiast, order an Einstök (or three), you'll appreciate it. The last eating establishment that I'm going to mention (because I'm getting carried away) is Sandholt Bakery. If your plane gets in early you will appreciate that they open around 7am and have some of the best baked goods I've had outside of France...no kidding. They also serve breakfast and lunch and the prices are relatively low. It's another one of those laid back and cozy spots that make it easy to forget about how cold and wet you and your camera gear got while photographing Skogafoss.
Photography in Reykjavik
The vast and untouched landscape is what attracted me to Iceland, but I was surprised to discover how many interesting subjects there are to be photographed in the big city. The famous Hallgimskirkja towers above Reykjavik and provides a stunning focal point for urban shots. Also, the Sun Voyager looks out over the water towards Mount Esja, providing opportunities to create awesome architectural shots that include the natural surroundings. Most of my shots in the city were made using the point and shoot because I simply didn't want the big SLR in my way, but I did take the 35mm along on the last day to burn through the final frames. I'm glad I did, some of my favorite shots were made that day. As fate would have it, that final day in Reykjavik was also the only dry and relatively calm day of the entire week...the sun even came out...go figure.
A Ghostly Calm
I cannot overstate how amazingly beautiful Iceland is. My images barely scratch the surface when it comes to telling its story. The island is rich in history and Nordic culture, yet it is very much in sync with the 21st century. While at an outdoor museum where traditional Icelandic sod houses still stand, I learned that many Icelanders lived in caves as early as the mid 20th century. In a short amount of time, they've come from the dark ages and into the modern world seamlessly while continuing to embrace their agrarian roots. There is something very old there too, something ancient and raw, and an indescribable ghostly calm over the land that I hope my images portray. I can't exactly put my finger on it or pin down the right words...you'll just have to go see it for yourself (and be sure to pack a rain coat and a weather sealed camera).
(c) 2016 Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.