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

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