Iceland: Logistical Matters

Lots of people don’t want to bother with planning. They want to book a flight and hotel and then wing it. And in a way, that’s what the savvy traveler does — engage oneself in the moment of a place , the one on one interaction with an environment. Anything rather than the mind-numbing approach of following a rigid list of Must Sees in Paris.

And if you’re just gonna go from hotel to beach and back again, the old don’t-plan-anything approach can pretty much work. (Except for booking hotel, flights, island travel, etc.) But that’s not in the cards if you’re doing an Iceland road trip.

Unless you’re doing tours (where the company does the logistics), a creative/photo oriented road trip requires planning, detailed planning … which allows you to then take a full two hours to engage with a photo location or go on a hike or do a blog post.

You need to build time into a good Ring Road trip — but time in specific spots. If photography is a guiding issue, you’ll want to know which photo locations are where on your road map — otherwise you’ll get your accommodations all wrong.

Now that detailing of a trip isn’t a hassle if you don’t make it one (and if I ever put this little travel book together). All your really doing is knowing what the cool spots are, thus giving yourself the time to explore them.

Logistics are pure karma, part of the creative path. Deal with that part and you (such a savvy traveler), can improvise. You can decide that this historical village is worth it and that waterfall, whose name you can’t pronounce, is one too many. Set aside enough time and you get to have a moment of pure creativity in a place you’ve never seen before… and that’s about as good as it gets.

You plan it before hand based on best knowledge then listen to your instincts when you’re on location.

Where to stop

I need a clear understanding of my itinerary stops before I book a BnB. But what are the best photo opportunities for landscape photographers? The photo tours don’t publicize those details for obvious reasons.

The various guidebooks can give me the general points of interest. But this is a photo tour and guidebooks provide almost no help when it comes to photo points of interest.

The Iceland itinerary companies out there provide a few recommendations for photos, they know where the tour buses go. But they have no idea about the crucial photo issues:

  • What makes a good photo location
  • How much shoot time is this location worth
  • What time of day is best for that shot location

So, since I haven’t written the Iceland book, I need a good idea of potential shot locations (with my internal stack-ranking) and where they’re clustered. That’ll tell me what towns to stay at and for how long.

The Map

To handle this level of logistical planning I took a large map of the island and placed representative photos of the various photography locations where they are on the map. That allowed me to visualize my personal favorites in the context of travel times and lodging.

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Now, think for a second about maps. They’re not just a guy thing unless someone wants to give one of the great tools of life over to the other sex. No, a map is a graphical metaphor for the physical landscape. That makes it important for landscape photogs on every level.

See, when I travel to a place, I want to develop an internal sense of where everything is — the way I have in the place I come from. The closer my internal framework is to life, the easier travel gets.

So when I look at my little scrapbook-like map, I can imagine what each day looks like. I look down at the peninsula at the bottom left of the map, the one with that big  spot of red ink for Reykjavik, and a couple of inches to the left of that, Keflavik International Airport.

Now the map let’s me think the steps through as drive-time and stops: Get into the airport at that god-awful time, get the rental car, head to Route 1, follow it down the South Coast a couple hours, past some waterfalls and then the little BnB. I’ll want to chill there for a few hours after all those hours of traveling. Then some food before doing an evening photo shoot at those two waterfalls (the tour buses will have left) or maybe wander down to Vik and the Black Sand Beach.

A map gives the brain an objective reference point, not a bad thing.

Researching my photo locations

I did plenty of exploring on the Internet before my trip last March. I was particularly interested in spots that are popular on the photo web sites like 500px, Viewbug and Instagram. It’s helpful to check out the work of other photographers. First because you want a sense of what a waterfall or town or historical spot is really like. After all, there are hundreds of waterfalls on the island, some more spectacular (or charming) than others. So you start to see what the “marquee” photo locations are and where they’re located.

I also did searches of Iceland day tours and photo tours. These sites tell you which places the tourist industry thinks of as most enticing and photogenic (but they don’t share any of the logistics).

But it doesn’t take long to realize that these web sites (like the web itself) are biased. The locations that get all the web traffic, the “marquee” locations, are dramatic — and easy day trips from the city. The web pages you see reflect the businesses and people who want to drum up business, not actual need.

These are also sights that get the massive numbers of tour buses. And as a photographer, I want to know that. For instance, two waterfalls in the south, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, are super popular with the tours, even in winter. And most of the Instagram shots feature thousands of tourists. Some of that can be cleared up in Photoshop, but a better solution is to visit that location before 9 AM or after 6, when the buses are heading back to Reykjavik.

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Skogafoss

A marquee shot or a pull-off

If I were a purist, I could avoid the popular spots altogether. After all, what fun is it to shoot a spot that’s been done and overdone by Instagram. Why set up a tripod and risk being hit by selfie sticks and run over by exuberant tourist. Fair question.

Shooting these locations during tourist hours is no fun. So shooting when the buses are gone is one choice. For other marquee locations like Gullfoss (on the Golden Circle), the tourists aren’t such an issue because you and the hordes are shooting from the cliffs above.

It’s true that the marquee locations have been done to death. So I probably won’t have anything unique to say. But what do I care? It’s a cool location, it has its own set of challenges, its an excuse for me to get in the zone… as long as I know when to visit. That’s another reason I’m doing this book research.

And in Iceland, there’s a country full of sights, amazing sights, that just don’t get the traffic. There are no tours to these spots. Some of my fav images from March were places not in the guidebooks, just pull-offs on the Ring Road. Each was a challenge no other photog has ever faced. Each forced me to see value in unexpected places.

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Road pull-off, South Coast

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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House just opposite Seljalandsfoss

The photo landscape of the Ring Road

Once we take Reykjavik out of the equation with 90% of the population, we have a number of photo worthy spots along the Ring Road.

Reykjavik to Vik. The South Coast has none of the fjords you see in the rest of the country and no ports. The area from 8 to 6 on the clock of Iceland is an alluvial plain with farms and black sand beaches. Given it’s closeness to the city, the area is hugely popular for tours (and photographers) with a couple of famous waterfalls and at the bottom tip, the beaches and sea stacks around the tiny town of Vik.

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Reykjavik to Vik, the South Coast

Vik to Hofn. From Vik to Hofn (6 to 4 o’clock), there’s a monster glacier just inland and, of interest to photographers, a national park, more waterfalls, Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach.

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Skaftafell, Diamond Beach, Hofn

Eastern Iceland towns. The eastern side just north of Hofn doesn’t get many tourists. But if you stay along the coast instead of taking Route 1 inland, you’ll find that each of the scenic fjords has a fishing village or two and several have some charm. This is the real country, the way things were before Iceland got discovered by the global economy.

Northeast from Eglisstadir to Akureyri. From 2 up to 12 on the clock, the Ring Road pulls away from the coast and climbs into high country. Not many people up here until you get due north, to the scenic Lake Mavatn and Akureyri. There are a number of amazing waterfalls, more historical sights, low level volcanic activity, lots of empty road. And Akureyri, at 20,000, is the second largest “city” in Iceland, so shops, restaurants, a few little museums, people.

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Northern Iceland: Lake Mavatn, Akureyri, the northwestern fjords

Northwestern Fjords. West of Akureyri you’ll find more little fishing villages along the northwestern fjords, plus scenic islands, whale watching, historical sights. Like Eastern Iceland, these sights are detours off Route 1 along the peninsula roads.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula Detour. After the north, Route 1 heads back towards Reykjavik. But doing a turn off along the way gets us to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It’s another popular day tour from the city. Plus it has several significant landscape locations (Kirkjufellsfoss, Helnar, Budar church, etc.). Plenty of excellent photo adventures, enough to warrant a couple of days.

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Snaefellsnes Peninsula & lower West Fjords

The West Fjord area, north of Snaefellsnes on the map above, is the most unspoiled. It is a phenomenal area but is far off the Ring Road that for many, it won’t be worth the extra travel time. That said, Hornstradir National Park is unique and I’ll go at some point just because.

Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is also off the Ring Road, basically north east of the city. Most folks do this area on one of the tours. But it’s also an easy day trip to do on your own in a rental car. And since the Golden Circle is close to Reykjavik, it needs to be done at the beginning or end of the road trip. There are no easy roads over the center of Iceland. It’s mostly high country and home to several glaciers.

A few logistical data points

Planning for a Ring Road self-guided photo tour is a different beast. Consider:

  • You’re staying at hotels or BnBs across all of Iceland.
  • Accommodations for lodging books up months in advance for many spots — especially for summer travel.
  • The best lodgings (quality, price, etc.) go first.
  • Route 1, the Ring Road, is 828 miles long. Once you drive outside the Reykjavik metro area, Route 1 becomes a 2 lane blacktop with skinny shoulders.
  • If you do the whole thing, you’ll have 2-3 hours of pure drive time on many of the days.

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland Trip: Germ of an Idea

Like all good projects, this Iceland book started from need. I’m not sure where the need came from, maybe (in vague form) from seeing images on some of the better photo sites (500px, viewbug, etc). But over several years, I tracked Iceland as a place worth exploring. So by the time my sis said she was taking her crew there, I already knew the land of ice needed to be high on the photo journey list.

My first week there (and there) last March was what trigged the real need. The vastness of the landscapes, the raw color palette, made me want to stretch myself creatively. But with a couple of books on Utah photography and my travel blogging, I wanted to do more than just work the camera. I thought, why not write a book with several moving parts, sure, coffee table images, but also a personal travel account, a How To for creative exploration, a photographic road trip.

Iceland’s become one of the ultimate destinations for photo enthusiasts. Obviously. Everyone who goes there seems like they’re in photo overdrive. Tourists on the day tours from Reykjavik, the photo enthusiasts (both local and international), the folks doing the Ring Road; they’re all shooting.

That doesn’t mean Iceland is overexposed (sorry). After all, this is a small country  with fantastic visual elements. The land is plain in many ways, it’s a cold, volcanic stone in the North Atlantic. But it’s immensely evocative, Nordic myth evocative, Ansel Adams without having to go black and white.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Dritvik

Taken on a general tour of Snaefellsnes Peninsula

That trip last March, that intense, cold week, gave me glimpses of its possibilities. And I decided that I needed to do an entire portfolio, using Iceland’s Ring Road as a guiding principle for this photographic road trip.

Ring Road

Now, doing a Ring Road book is not a new concept. Look on Amazon, look at Pinterest. But what I have in mind isn’t a Ring Road itinerary book.

The idea is simple, to do a road trip along the Ring Road, photograph as you go, blog the experience — from the germ of the idea to the planning, the photo shoots, people, life leading to a final portfolio and who knows, a gallery show. Capture something fundamental about the place in word as well as image.

And who will care

Shooting Iceland is one of the big ones. Lots of us have done photo tours in Monument Valley, Zion, Yosemite, etc. I love those kind of tours. And you can do a comparable level of photography on Iceland’s South Coast, Golden Circle or Snaefellsnes Peninsula. But why just do a day or two? Iceland’s a whole country with enormous creative challenges — and touring the Ring Road without the tour guide can take one’s work to the next level.

So my idea is to share my shot location research at every step. And, as with my Utah photo / travel books, to get into travel logistic, lighting, composition issues, personal insights. So someone who visits Iceland for a day or a week can use my location research during their stay.

The one thing I don’t want is to write a guidebook. There are plenty of those already. So little or no coverage of hotels or places to eat. Just my thoughts on stuff that will interest enthusiasts and savvy travelers.

Generally photographers avoid giving much detail about their favorite locations or how they work. (As if there are any secret left in a world where 7 billion people have a camera.) It’s better to err on the side of openness. So I talk with enthusiasts a lot, I read the blogs, I look at stuff on social media. The international photo community is a vast resource and fellow enthusiasts are a core element in my creative process.

I also see this project as fulfilling a need. Sure, plenty of folks do Iceland trips and blog about it, or post to Facebook, or tweet or Instagram or Pinterest. Much of it is like: Yeah, we did the trip to the Godafoss waterfall, took this exit off the Ring Road, wandered over from the parking lot, here’s some shots. [Instagram/Facebook/Other] The images can be good but the writing isn’t usually that helpful or that entertaining.

A picture is worth a thousand words… but good writing can evoke a hundred cultural nuances; it can be a good read. That means going beyond the guidebook level writing, sharing useful insights, personal moments. What I’m after is something in the style of Steinecks’ Travels with Charley, or maybe Thoreau on a road trip. (Hey, if I can’t dream big, what’s the point.)

I’m also trying to dream big when it comes to the photography. Most Iceland photos you see on Google or Instagram aren’t great. (I’m being gentle now.) Yes, you’ll see some good shots at a marquee location like Godafoss or Longranger. But take a look at the other Iceland stuff that photog shot. See if they were able to capture the little moment by the side of the road or the vibrancy of the little fishing villages in the early morning. That’s the hard part. That’s where the craft is.

You will see excellent work from Iceland photo pros. The guys (usually) who do $1000 a day tours to the South Coast or Snaefellsnes Peninsula are worth a close look, just do an (Iceland tours) search.

But us tourists shouldn’t expect that level of perfect. As any photo enthusiast knows, when you live in a place, go to those locations week in and week out, you’ll get images a visitor can’t touch.

The first time visitor can’t play that game. And why should they try? If you’re in Iceland for the first time, and you’re there 24×7, you don’t have the ideal conditions you get on a fancy photo tour – where the guide drives you to the marquee location at the perfect time of day and plants you on the sweet spot.

If you’ve been on one of these tours, you know that a good enthusiast can come away with some great portfolio shots, some of them better than what the guide took that day. Hey, even the not-so-good photographer can capture a great image if they’re coached.

On the other hand, if I need handholding, I’m not going to learn as much as I will by doing all the creative groundwork from scratch. Going to a photo location, breathing the place in, following the light, seeing the image as pure composition. … And doing that process day in and day out whether I’m at Glacier Lagoon or some pull-off.

That’s how you take your work to the next level. That’s how an Ansel Adams did it when he wasn’t at Yosemite. Not that I’m Ansel. I’m more interested in developing my own vision anyway.

But that was all the backstory for this Ring Road trip, to develop a portfolio out of my 2 weeks in country and to write about it with the tools that a few decades of professional writing has given me.

God knows, there are Icelandic photographers that could (probably have) put together coffee table books that evoke this pristine country beautifully. But they aren’t professional writers. Their coffee table book generally have artsy text that, let’s be honest, no one reads. I’m after something else entirely.

What I want to do is take the enthusiast on the creative journey I’m going on from initial concept to final portfolio. I want the writing to give the enthusiast photographer all the logistical info, cool shot locations, plus lighting and composition ideas that they’d get on a fancy (i.e. $$$) photo tour.

And at the end I want the photog to see what I made of all that while sharing the tools they need to develop their own take on things. That’s the plan.

Fjaðrárgljúfur, part of Katla Geopark

Fjaðrárgljúfur, just of the Ring Road in southeast Iceland

Death Valley Journal, Part 1

Our Pauls Photo DV adventure was slated to begin at lunch on Thursday, so I arrived a day early. I usually start one of these commercial photo tour by arriving a day or two ahead. I use these things as a quick overview to a park, landscape location scouting being a side benie of the detailed site exploration you get on these photo tours. Then, after it’s over, I explore some of those sites more deeply or reach out to spots that never got covered.

With Death Valley, I decided to take one extra day before and one after, giving me an extra evening and morning shoot to check out the location on my own. So on Wed. at 9AM I found myself heading north on the 110 … to Barstow, Baker and beyond….

Heading Out

From LA, Death Valley is kinda on the way to Vegas. You jump on Interstate 15 up around San Berdo, continue on it past Barstow (stopping at the Starbucks that’s just of the road), drive on till Baker. Then off the freeway heading north/west for another couple hours (without forgetting to stop at the Greek in Baker for a filo-and-honey pastry).

On that Wed., I had lunch at the Mad Greek and got my honey and pistachio to go. The Greek place is just on the other side of the highway exit and underpass — right across from the World’s Tallest Thermometer.

Baker is not a stop I ever make on the Vegas trip, the Mad Greek being the only lure. The place exists because the Death Valley Road starts there. But Baker has a bit of a Route 66 feel to it, like a 50s desert town encased in amber. The facade of the Greek restaurant takes that 50s desert attitude and pumps in a dollop of bad Hellenistic statuary — so it’s great fun and the food’s better than most of these road stops. The Greek founders seem long gone (anyone know) but the Latino staff carries on the ancient tradition with style. In fact, they do the food fairly well, considering the eclectic menu. So it’s a fun stop, better than what you usually get restaurants in the desert.

Going north you get a long and straight shot north on Rt. 127, an hour’s drive if you’re a lead-foot. Once you get to Amargosa (and the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel), you have a slower hour on Rt. 190, the park road, that takes you to Furnace Creek.

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Furnace Creek is a town I guess. It has a post office, two large national park resorts (both being majorly renovated), the NP Visitors Center, a seriously overpriced gas station, a jeep rental and about 20 actual residents.

I looked the town over and stopped in at the Visitors Center to study the possibilities for an early Thurs. shoot spot. The rangers started things off with the National Park fees. I’d mislaid my Lifetime Pass and they don’t have a database of pass members (time to join the 20th Century maybe) so I got to purchase a new park pass. I wandered back up Rt 190 to shoot Zabriskie Point in the late afternoon light.

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That night I got to experience the cuisine available at The Ranch for the first time. It turned out that the usual restaurant choices were in renovation process so Xantera go their sandwiches and burgers made at an unnamed location, rendering my chicken piece cold and tasteless. Luckily Xantera continued to charge NP restaurant prices for their work. I began to wish my motel room had a microwave.

As Mark Comon, long-time leader of the Pauls Photo Death Valley trips points out, you don’t go to DV for the culinary experience.

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The Promise of Death Valley

So why do landscape photographers go to DV? Why is there the particular fondness?

Locations. Certainly the locations are a lot of it. Badwater, Zabriskie, Scottys Castle, Mesquite Wells Sand Dunes, Dantes View, Rhyolite (just off the park), and a bunch of road pull-off shots. It has some great locations.

Mystique. Hottest spot on the continent, mining, Wild West, desert live at it’s most forbidding.

Landscape. Landscape, geology, is the foundation of what we do. And without the annoying vegetation, DV manages to show geology in its barest, most stripped down form.

Color. There’s something abut the colors of the place, the pastel colors you get at Zabriskie, the softest creams in the sand at Mesquite. A far different palette than you find up at Zion or Arches. And that allows your work to get at the subtleties.

Death Valley is unique.

Next, finding the point of Zabriskie

Death Valley Overview

I recently did a photo tour to Death Valley put on by Pauls Photo in Torrance. Some random notes:

Death Valley is the largest National Park outside Alaska at 3.4 million acres. That makes it larger than several states and one and a half times larger than Yellowstone.

Central Death Valley

Where to Photograph. With this much land area, the park is full of locations that are popular with photographers, Dantes View, Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, Badwater, Darwin Falls, Golden Canyon, Scotty’s Castle (currently closed for renovation). There are also lots of neat photo spots that are just pull-offs from the road. The Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Drive, Harmony Borax Works are of less interest for enthusiasts (OK, the park lists them as “must see”) but they’re all close to the center park area if you have time.

Dante's View

Dantes View offers a great view of the Valley but is currently closed. 

There’s also good photo locations just outside the park boundaries. Just east of the park, the Rhyolite Ghost Town has some cool sights. Going northwest, you can stop at the Alabama Hills area (by Lone Pine) and Mt Whitney.

Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite Ghost Town

When to Go. There’s a reason no one in their right mind goes to Death Valley in summer, heat. The temperature’s been clocked at 134 degrees. That’s not healthy for humans or for cars. Quoting the park web site, “Outside activity is not recommended at that time of year.” Aside from being able to fry an egg on the hood of your car, what’s the point? Getting your picture taken with a big thermometer at the Visitors Center?

Photographers should plan to visit in winter or early spring. During winter the nights and early morning can be cold. On our late January trip, the temps were almost freezing on a couple of mornings. And at 4,000+ ft and high winds, Dantes View was painfully cold. So bring your long johns and a warm windproof jacket. But things do get warm in midday so layer.

Where We Stayed. Like all National Parks, Death Valley accommodations and restaurant choices are limited by design. That keeps the locations pristine (and the prices high). The facilities within the park have little motel fridges but no microwave. You can find accommodations at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs — or you can stay outside the park at Beatty, Pahrump, Lone Pine, etc., and drive a very long way.

Furnace Creek is the obvious place to stay at if your a photographer. It’s the closest location for Dantes View, Badwater, Zabriskie Point, and the other stuff in the central valley. Stovepipe Wells is right next to the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

But this year, The Inn at Furnace Creek is closed for remodeling. The Ranch is also at Furnace and is open but it’s also undergoing major remodeling and as a result the restaurant situation in that area is dismal. They didn’t have a fully operational kitchen so the food they did have was mostly salads, burgers and chicken sandwiches — that had been cooked earlier and were served cold. Pizza was the only meal that was edible.

That situation didn’t stop XANTERRA, the parent company, from charging fancy restaurant prices though, ($15 for a chicken sandwich that Macdonalds does better for $4). Things were so bad we drove the half hour to Stovepipe Wells each night to get a decent (but overpriced) meal. So call ahead if you’re planning on staying at Furnace Creek and think about bringing your own food.

That’s it for now.

When the world goes to sleep…

Another cool shot from Dan Jurak, a master of understatement.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

snow, winter, sleep, ethereal, moody, explorealberta, landscape, Alberta, prairie, cold, foggy, misty, farm, rural, hay bales,

I have been having fun posting photos on Instagram and Vero lately. There is a  whole different group of people than I am familiar with.

Is it the algorithms of Instagram that keep showing me brain smashing, bang me in the face with overblown colours or is that what is current? Seeing photos on there is like steadily increasing the amount of sugar or salt in your diet until you realize that you can’t taste the sweetness or saltiness anymore.

In going through hundreds of old images that I have taken and forgotten about over the years I found this little gem that seemed so opposite of how I see Instagram.

It is about quiet and serenity. It seems so different than what I have been seeing for the past few days that I have posted it simply because it is opposite.

If you want to be successful creatively you…

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Real or surreal, the choice is yours

I like how Dan approaches post production, I have the same sense, that the tech tools we have should be used to deepen the impact of the art work. I see my initial image as what it is, RAW material … that can be shaped in subtle ways in post. Like Dan, I’m not going for a final result that looks out there. The final image must always have an intimate connection to your experience of that place and time. But by doing a thoughtful enhancement of the elements, I give myself a larger orchestra to compose for, i.e., I’j just finishing the composition, evoking the underlying elements of the piece through crop, structure, light and dark, tone, light.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

prairie, landscape, winter, Dan Jurak, Alberta, snow, cold, sunset, poplar tree, barbed wire fence,I have spent a great portion of my life in the great outdoors. From my earliest childhood memories visiting Jasper National Park when the Icefields Parkway was a two late gravel road to having a convoy of European supercars pass me on the same highway a few years ago when I was spending a few fine autumn days in the park. BTW, it was really cool to see Ferraris, Lamborghinis, etc. zipping down the same highway that I almost know like the back of my hand.

In all of those years of camping and visiting how many spectacular sunrises or sunsets have I seen? Generously I would say one out of ten is a memorable one.

Simply put, most sunrises and sunsets are not memorable but yet I see photographers with always spectacular colours and tones in their photos.

Do they live on a different planet than I or are…

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Mullaghmore at Dusk – Ireland

Bruno’s seascape is a nicely composed long exposure shot. Taken at Mullaghmore, Sligo, Ireland.

Bruno Biancardi

Mullaghmore at dusk

Dear fellow photographers, finally we were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day here in the north west of Ireland. After weeks of rain and wind, it’s really something, and even less excuses not to take your camera out.

This week image is one of the simplest composition I can think of. There is barely a subject! This can be quite a challenge most of the times, and could put us off from even trying and get an image. Nevertheless It’s always worthy to look for the elements of a possible good composition around us. An interesting sky at dusk and few rocks swept by the waves are just the perfect training ground for any photographer with an interest in seascape.

My tip: when you lack a clear subject, pay even more attention to the basic rules of composition. The rule of thirds for example. Make a decision…

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More LA Harbor Night Studies

I’m trying to put together a gallery show and part of the show would include some long exposure night images of the LA/Long Beach Harbor unloading docks. I’ve decided on most of my faves but there were a few of the old images that are’t as powerful. So last night I was back out in the Nimitz Way section of the Long Beach docks with trusty tripod and my 5DSR.

The harbor area is  a great location for doing long exposure work. The water does nice things, the place is busy night and day — and even on Friday night, LA rush hour there was no one out there to hassle me. That’s amazing for a place that’s only a 10 minute drive.

Plus the artificial light is visually intense. A friend told me that the harbor is one of the most noticeable places on earth on images taken from space. That level of light spill is obviously a huge ecological issue. But it also makes for powerful images.

Given the lighting impact, I didn’t need to do much post work. There is no issue with a “natural” looking image when the lighting is so extreme and you’re doing long exposures. The main trick here aside from composition, is to have a good tripod and the right exposure.

So, three new images.

Hyundai Night

109mm, 15 sec, F11, ISO 100

Maersk Line in Orange and Gray

70mm, 20 sec, F11, ISO 100

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147mm at 10 sec, F5, ISO 100

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The mountains are great… but the prairies will always be my first love

Dan Jurak’s blog is an ongoing pleasure to read. The really good posts, and there are plenty, have him distilling his personal response to photography in a way that’s heartfelt and yet spare. And his images are equally spare and un-cliched.

They’re mostly images from his local area, the Alberta plains. These are the northern plains, not quite Iowa flat, but not marquee locations like Banff (a regular focus of his travel work). And these Alberta landscapes have immense diversity in their quiet way … plus, Dan is good at seeing that rough, northern beauty and composing the land’s shape with a spare hand.

I guess that’s why this image struck me. What a lovely image. And with his comments on shooting locally vs at the well-known travel destinations.

Having just moved down to San Pedro, I’ve been some new local exploration here. I have an ongoing night series I’m working on of LA Harbor and am spending time in and out of the tidal pools along the Palos Verdes Peninsula, doing long exposures in late afternoons.

This quote from Dan about doing local work is just where my head is right now:
“… At home we have the luxury of going out when conditions look great or staying home when they don’t. Away from home you take what you nature presents on that particular day.”
“One of the secrets of doing landscape photography really well is to get out often, as often as you can. … Being able to recognize when the light and the weather is requisite.”

And that’s the great thing I’m noticing as well, that when you living a place, you notice when the weather is about to serve up something nice or when tides are low or just an unusual quality in the light. And that motivates you to get out there.

In practical terms, that means I can go to my current fav locations — or find a new spot, when the weather display and light will give me the most value. And that means my portfolio of good work can continue to expand. No outside photog has the level of opportunity that a local has.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

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A few days ago was my first trip to the mountains in a few months. It was like coming home visiting the rockies. It always takes my breath away. Everything is grand. Everything is spectacular.

But the best thing about going away I have always found is returning home. There is no more comforting feeling that putting my head on my pillow, having our 95 pound Weimaraner laying on my feet so that I am pinned under the blanket and listening to my wife toss and turn all night. I mean it.

I have been toying with the idea of one day moving to Canmore to be closer to the mountains and wonder how different would the photos I take be?

At home we have the luxury of going out when conditions look great or staying home when they don’t. Away from home you take what you nature presents on…

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Photographing Kauai Without a Net

The mountainous center of Kauai is a world unto itself, cliffs that drop into the mist below, endless waterfalls, pinnacles of weathered lava cloaked in green.  This hidden landscape can only be photographed from a helicopter or some modern Lewis and Clark.

… And our intrepid enthusiast was there, with knees jammed against the seat in front to give a false sense of security. 

I’ve done an occasional helicopter and small plane tour and the experience is always powerful. Human perception is trained from birth to see the world bottom up. And seeing a place from a height can evoke moments of wonder.

That said, most copter rides will disappoint the photo enthusiast artistically …  if not done right. Usually on these tours, you’re shooting through a small window. That means only a foot of latitude when it comes to pointing the camera and worse, too much window glare for a usable image.

So I hadn’t considered a helicopter on our upcoming Kauai trip until I read that  a couple of companies do “doors-off” tours on the island. Now that got me thinking.

Doors-off means no window glare, no tiny window to shoot through. Yes, you’re still totally strapped in, these tour folks are scrupulous in their safety procedures. But from a creative perspective, doors-off offers some serious benefits. No doors means your range of motion with the camera is excellent — as good as you’ll get while seated and strapped in.

I had an intuition about all this by the time we got to the Bali Hai Resort. And I asked the tour desk folks about the tours. The Wyndham folks ran down the two companies that offer “doors-off” (and yes, they also do doors on). So I booked the tour (and got the Wyndham discount) with Jack Harter Helicopters (808-245-3774), working out of Lihui.

Pre-Flight Prep

In their confirmation email, the company suggested a warm jacket, it gets cool at 5,000 feet, even on Kauai. They also said to show up ahead of time for all the pre-tour stuff you’d expect.

That afternoon, we went through all that and got our instructions. The Jack Harter offices are about a mile from the Lihue Airport, (there’s a van to carry folks to the helicopter pad). The participants included several photo enthusiasts, plus newlyweds and even a Special Forces guy stationed on Oahu and his wife. We chatted till the van got there.

As an Army brat, talking with the Special Forces guy was like catnip. My new friend had done more copter rides than he could count. He was stoked about cruising this vacation spot doors-off — and sharing the experience with his wife. Like most participants she was a first timer but being an Army wife, she was totally game.

The pre-tour overview helped but there were some jitters out there on the tarmac. I spent the time getting my gear ready and checking my settings. They only allow one camera and lens per person, no other loose items at all. … Imagine loose gear in the open cockpit of a helicopter traveling at 100 mph.

While waiting, enthusiasts had the lens discussion. With what you’re paying for your photo shoot, choosing a lens is important. There’s something to be said for having a lens with some range, 24-105mm, 24-70mm, etc. That range is perfect for the times you’re moving through the distinctive Kauai ecosystems. You can capture most vistas or lock in on a waterfall at the far end of a valley.

But on this kind of trip, a wide angle zoom rules. The shoot locations are such unique landscapes, wide valleys, huge swaths of uninhabited coast, cliffs half a mile deep. And when the copter nudges you into those expansive parts of the Lost World, a 16-35mm or 17-40mm has to be your tool of choice. Otherwise you’re leaving out important parts of the composition.

Area of High Velocity Falls, looking out. Sure, I could have gotten (most of) this shot at 24mm. But the sheer weight of that left foreground element  would have been missing and the cliff edge on the right side wouldn’t feel like it stretched out to forever.

Going wide angle zoom was my take on the perfect lens discussion. At that point the van took us down to the airport. Each of the copters was a 5-seater. So each passenger (except the one in the middle front seat) is open to the elements.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Our ride and Ian, our pilot

Once Ian, our pilot had everyone communicating through the headphones, the engines geared up and the copter eased up light as a dragonfly.

I was a bit queasy by now. Seeing the ground disappear, feeling how freeform a copter navigates through space, it all made me wonder if I’d be making a deposit into the little brown bag. But as we rose, that sense of fearful height became an abstraction, like it is on an airline. And by the time the views expanded, the creative juices kicked in. Showtime.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Heading west from the airport — Using the helicopter’s step as foreground element and the Huali’i river as leading line.

Composition as a Vertical

On this trip I had to adjust how I see landscape. Most landscape shots are in flat landscape mode (duh). But in the copter, your frame of reference has to include the fact that your vertical axis is in constant flux.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Waipo’o Falls

You also notice that with no door, you’re open to the world. The pilot banks and you find yourself staring straight down. And if you move the camera out into that space, you feel the 100 mph winds blasting. So use the camera strap.

It’s an invigorating feeling. But if there’s any moisture in the air (and you are in the clouds); your gear may need drying. This became an issue when we headed into the highlands. In that mist, poking the camera into position was enough to dampen the lens.

Shooting through the clouds around Waialeale Crater

Compositional as Visual Improv

At these speeds, composition moves fast. Landscape photographers tend to revel in a new shoot location; we like to breathe the place in, notice the foreground elements and such. That’s the magic of shooting a sacred spot.

But when you’re getting swung through these vast canyons, there’s zero time to breathe in a location. The pilot banks and you’re looking 2,000 feet down and holding on for the ride. Composition has to be instantaneous: see it, shoot it, see the next shot location. Because the angle you liked so much is gone in 3… 2…

On top of that, the copter is never level for long. So you either make an instant adjustment to level the image or all your shots will be tilting. (Tip: It helps to not frame the composition as tightly as usual — that way you’ve got a bit of leeway for leveling the image in post.)

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Pohakuau ( along the Napali, near red hill) looking in to Kalalau valley. This one was in classic landscape mode, but part of the magic of this shot “location” is that the eye knows we’re half a mile up.

This is camera improv for the landscape enthusiast and if you didn’t get 300 shots at bare minimum, you must’ve been too sick to look through the viewfinder. A copter shoot is the ultimate photo improv, real time — at 100 mph.

Plus you’re only able to shoot from your seat in the copter. That meant there were shots that the photog to my left got served up and a different set that came my way.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

You see the other guy’s shot but …  Waialae looking toward Waimea canyon

One challenge with these tours is that pilots aren’t allowed to just hover there next to one of those 2000 foot cliffs. FAA rules have been clearly defined for Kauai’s unique challenges, how high you can go under various flight conditions, how close you can get to a cliff face, etc.

As photographers, we want (and need) a level of control. Our image will be better if we can tell a pilot: “OK, little to the left … now let’s try the same shot from 300 feet higher.” When you’re hiking or doing a four-wheel photo tour, you control how you engage the environment. So this tour is a roller coaster that can’t stop on the tracks.

The Itinerary

This video game world has a specific plot structure: airport to back country to Waimea. Then over to NaPali and up the misty mountains and the return along the lowlands.

Waialae looking up stream

NaPali Coast looking east

Honopuu arch, NaPali Coast

So imagine a Richard Avadon style photographer, shooting image after image, capturing one amazing sight after another. But the feeling comes with the clear realization that you’ve missed as much as you got.

Strategies

The typical landscape photog will often look for a foreground object to play off of the rest of the vista. But unless you’re using the copter itself as a foreground element (and that gets boring), you find that the whole scene is out there in the middle and far distance. However, a cliff face that’s only a hundred yards away can become a powerful foreground choice if it lines up just right. Plus wide angle lenses have a wonderful way of exaggerating the scale of whatever’s closest.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Honopuu valley, Along NaPali Coast

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Entering Kalalau Valley along the West side from NaPali. Here the shot is anchored by the base of the pinnacle and the eye follows that up till it becomes a razorback.

Once you get further back from the NaPali Coast, you’re in landscapes that seem created for giants. The ancient volcanic cores of Kauai have been scooped into near-vertical cliffs. And since the copter covers this section from above, that becomes how the eye sees the image, cliff top to valley.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Nualolo Aina

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Hanakoa Falls, Classic Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines

Tech Talk

Shutter speed. I didn’t want to hassle with shutter speed or the other settings while we were up there. But being in a moving helicopter means you want shutter speed to be a bit higher than usual for a wide angle. In addition, a tour like this will have moments of bright sun, overcast and even some deep misty conditions. So I shot in Aperture mode and didn’t ride the shutter speed at all. Instead I set ISO and f-stop so as to give myself the most leeway.

ISO. I set ISO higher than usual, 800 and up to 1200 in spots with thick mist. That wasn’t an issue since I had a full frame.

F-stop. With my lens choice, the Canon 16-35mm, and with foregrounds fairly far away, I could shoot as low as f4-f5.6 and still get everything in focus.

Hindsight. There were a few spots where my shutter speed went as low as 1/20 sec. and those images are OK but not crystal sharp. And in retrospect, I could have upped my ISO. But my biggest takeaway was wishing I had taken a towel or worn something to clear up the moisture on the lens. That was really my biggest issue.

My choice of gear was tand my (full frame) Canon 5Dsr. If I’d brought a second lens, it would have been a 24-105mm. Obviously adjust your lens choice for a crop camera. So if I had chosen my Fuji X-T2 (with a 1.5 crop), I would have gone with their 10-24mm.

Composition. There are plenty of ways to work composition for this kind of a situation.

Foreground/background compositions can work but in a helicopter that usually translates as mid-ground/background. The only true foreground is what’s in the helicopter.

Leading lines are everywhere (waterfalls, cliff ridges). Rule of 3rds, juxtaposition, etc.

Even when moving this fast you want the eye to make sense of these mythic shapes. It’s easy to just shoot nonstop for a hour without seeing the composition, like the 1,000 monkeys typing Shakespeare. And that’s a waste of good silicon. So see what compositional ideas come and work fast.

And most of all, just have fun. I found that the hour I spent up in the clouds challenged me in all kinds of ways. I wished I could have afforded a private tour or gone back the next day and sat on the other side of the copter. Because there are amazing opportunities on a doors-off tour and a range of challenges we rarely face.

And don’t get bothered if you didn’t get as many keepers as usual. These nosebleed inducing images are unique, as abstract as sculptures by Henry Moore but vastly larger. If you get 5 good ones out of the mix, you’re better than most. And each image has a story behind it.

 

Inside the Waialeale crater looking out (north)

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