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Trip to Iceland Recap

In June of 2014 my wife and I went to Iceland for the sole purpose of taking photographs. I had become interested in Iceland while staggering around the Internet looking for time lapse videos.  I was lucky enough to find an outstanding video on Vimeo that just floored me.  I was amazed at the scenery and the diversity of the land.  There was ice, snow, fire, hot springs, waterfalls and the midnight sun – which was particularly appealing to me.  For as long as I can remember I’ve had a reoccurring dream where I find myself outside in the middle of the night and it is light out.  I remember always feeling excited about that possibility and how cool it would be.  All of that combined set me on my way to planning the trip.   Here I’ll outline some of the details of the planning and the trip in general.

Research

The good news is that there are lots of photos of Iceland on the net so finding inspiration is easy. The bad news is that the actual location of the subject may not be easy to determine.

There are tour groups and workshops that you can find, and many will be perfect for some people.  For me I wanted to do the trip on a tight budget, bring my non-photographer wife along, and have a very flexible schedule. As it turned out a structured workshop was not for me.  I decided to go it alone.

When I first started researching my trip to Iceland I looked around for photography workshops under the assumption that they would be the easiest to plan and would provide me all the locations and guidance necessary — and that’s probably very true.  What I quickly found out was that the prices were all over the place, and the schedules did not necessarily meet my needs.  I also discovered that if I wanted to bring my wife along there would be additional charges, which were in most cases reasonable — but it seemed like the operators were not very keen on having a non-participating tag-along.  That makes sense I suppose as a tag-along may slow the group down and perhaps there would not be room in the shared vehicles.  After all the operator has to make a profit and filling up a workshop with full-rate participants is the best way to maximize profit.

WHEN TO GO AND HOW TO PAY

Deciding when to go was easy for me.  I wanted to go when there was going to be the longest period of daylight. That turned out to around June 15th to June 21st according to the material I was referring to at the time.  That worked out well seeing as it was late January and I had plenty of time to plan, get a reasonable airfare, schedule the time off from work and pull together my mad money.  My goal was to not take money from savings or cash-flow and not finance by putting it on a credit card — at least not carry the balance on a credit card. I had tons of stuff to sell on eBay so that was the source of the mad-money.

ACCOMMODATION CHALLENGE

After a couple of weeks of hunting around various photo websites, forums and workshop sites for the locations of the iconic Iceland shots, I started to map them out on a map of Iceland.  I estimated distances and travel times using Google Maps and Mapquest.  I also guessed the time I would need at a given location and best time of day to shoot.  Once I did all of that I searched for lodging that would align well with the routes and timing.  What I found was that trying to align hotels with my shooting schedule and the distances between locations was the real challenge.  I struggled for weeks trying different combinations of locations, routes and hotels while taking into consideration what the most interesting sights would be.  I couldn’t decide if I would do the northern or southern part of the country. It was exhausting and frustrating, but I did learn a lot.

The number one problem was that the hotels are typically located in the major areas and there are not many major areas in Iceland.  What this means is that a shooting location could be hours away from the hotel.  Shuffling back and forth between the hotel and shooting locations could be a waste of time.  And what if weather was not cooperating and I wanted to stay in a location for an extra night? That may be an issue as it is busy season and there may not be a room available, and worse yet I may miss check-in at the next hotel and have nowhere to stay.  Too much stress for me.

Another significant challenge and concern is that shooting would generally be taking place between 10PM and 4AM so staying is smaller Inns and B&B could be disruptive to other guests. (Just because its light out doesn’t mean people don’t want to sleep at those hours.)  Further, Inns and B&Bs tend to be expensive as they are offering more than just a place to sleep.  The ambiance of the Inns, Hotels and B&Bs would be lost on a trip like this.

SO WHAT IS THE ANSWER TO ACCOMMODATIONS

The answer for us was to rent a camper.  Here is what lead me to that conclusion:

  • In Iceland there are plenty of campgrounds around the Ring Road
  • You can camp anywhere in Iceland as long as you are not on private property
  • You need to rent some type of vehicle to get around anyway, why not a camper
  • No need to pay for a hotel and rental car – the camper serves both needs
  • No risk of no vacancies, no missed check-ins and no check-out times
  • Hugely flexible schedule; you can stay at a location longer, explore more and further
  • Overall cost is going to be lower than combined hotel and car rental
  • You can bring and cook your own food to avoid costly restaurants
  • Happy Campers of Iceland is a great deal (2 to 6 Person Campers)

WHAT ABOUT FOOD?

Food in Iceland can be expensive. Restaurants are expensive.  Food from super markets and grocery stores can be reasonable depending on location. The problem is super markets are few and far between.  I’m not a fan of Walmart and that doesn’t matter because there are none in Iceland.

So what to do? You have a couple of choices; You can stock up on food at one of the large super markets and then deal with keeping things refrigerated, etc. Or you can bring your own camping food from a place like Mountain House foods. That’s what we did and it worked out fine.  It cost us less than $350 for food over the 6 days and that included two restaurant meals that totaled about $125.  We could have avoided that spend if we really wanted to. Overall $225 for 6 days is not a bad food budget while on vacation — especially for two people.

Oh, and by the way,  if you do go out to a restaurant in Iceland there is no need to tip.  They don’t even have a place on the slip to write in a tip. As far as I can tell they won’t take a tip even if you offer it.  Turns out they pay their waitstaff enough.  I actually saw signs that said just that.

What about showers and cleaning clothes?

You’re camping! There are at least dozens if not hundreds of camp grounds around the Ring Road in Iceland.  Most are less than $30 per night. For a few dollars in quarters you can get access to showers and laundry.

What about Internet Access?

Most camp grounds  have some type of pay for WiFi Internet Access. Most offered it for less than $5 per day.  Some even offered it for no charge. There are also Internet kiosk at the main buildings at some of the National Parks.

What about phones?

You’ll need a GSM Unlocked Phone for best results.  When we arrived we got a pay-as-you-go SIM Card from Vodaphone and got an Iceland telephone number for the time we were there.  It gave us some data usage, text and phone calls.  Total cost was about $25 per phone for the 6 days we were there.  That was for two phones.  The representatives at the Vodaphone stores were extremely helpful and knowledgeable. It seemed like handing SIM cards and getting the phone up and running was something they do dozens of times a day. The customer service was nothing like I have seen in any store here in the US. Verizon and AT&T should take lessons from Vodaphone Iceland Agents.

IMPORTANT: If you plan on using your tablet or Phone for GPS and mapping, think again. Data Rates will likely be very expensive and even if you have an off-line map you may find it difficult to use as I did (and I’m an IT guy that knows a bit about these things).  Either bring a GPS or rent one from the car/camper rental provider.  In fact I strongly recommend the later as a renting one local will ensure you have current local maps.

What about toilets?

You are camping!  When in the wild you may have to do as the wild do, but in general a gas station is not too far away.

What about water?

Get a load of this.  Water is free in Iceland! And its the best water you will every have. You can buy bottled water if you like, but its the same water you get from the tap. Its glacial water.

What about the camper?

We rented from Happy Campers http://www.happycampers.is/

The unit we got was the Ford Transit Connect.  It was a diesel with manual transmission.  It came equipped with a fold down bed that was the perfect size for the two of us.  I am about 6” and Ellen is about 5’5” and we were comfortable.   The unit had everything we needed: dishes, utensils, stove, water, heat, cooler, blankets, and pillows.

All the Answers

Here’s my big secret about planning this trip.  It would have been very difficult to plan this trip if it were not for one lucky find I made. As it turns out someone else already did all the research, packaged it up nicely in to a 96 page e-book all for less than $20.  In the book you get maps, shooting locations with spot on GPS coordinates, camera setting recommendations,  seasonal recommendations, and tons more.  If you are planning a trip to Iceland you will want this e-book. It will be the best $20 you spend on this trip. Please contact me for the link to the provider of this outstanding document.  The eBook Forever Light, The Landscape Photographers Guide to Iceland by Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa.  I contacted Sarah and let her know I would be placing a link here to the ebook.  Please consider purchasing it if you are planning a trip to Iceland. http://www.naturephotoguides.com/e-books/iceland

The Plan

The idea of this trip was primarily exploratory in an anticipation of planning a more elaborate and longer trip.  We had only 5 days to spend in country and we decided that touring the Southern route would be the most efficient and practical for that amount of time.  We started in Reykjavik and followed the Ring Road east to Hofn.  We stayed pretty much on the Ring Road which is a bit inland but does get along the coast a fair amount.  We did get a bonus day due to an airline maintenance worker strike.

Total Cost $3684 US

Includes: Round Trip Airfare from Boston to Reykjavik for 2, Airport Transfers & Parking, Camper Rental, Meals, 6 Full Days, 5 Nights

Description
Notes
Cost
Airfare
2x Round-Trip BOS-KEF
$1387
Happy Camper Rental
6 Days
$1465
Diesel
About 800 miles @ $8/gal
$ 195
Campground Fees
4 Nights
$  95
Public Land Camping
1 Night
$ 0
Camp Food
15 Meals for 2
$ 145
Store Food
Grocery/Convenience
$  81
Restaurants
2x
$ 129
Internet
3x
$  15
Phones
2x
$  52
Entertainment
Blue Lagoon
$ 120
    
Total
$3684

 

The Gear

I was well equipped for this trip and I used pretty much everything that I brought.  I may have been able to do way with the 16-35 or 24-105 but having both of them was useful. I think I used the 16-35 more than the 24-105.  The 24-105 was nice for walking around as a tourist as it gives the most options without having to carry my backpack. The 24-105 is a good travel lens in general.

  • Bodies: Canon 1DX & Canon 7D
  • Lenses:  Canon 16-35mm, Canon 24-70mm,  Canon 24-105mm, Canon 70-200mm
  • Filters: Tiffen 1,2,3 & 4 Stop and Lee 10-Stop Big Stopper
  • Tripod: Induro CT314 Tripod w/Really Right Stuff BH-55 Head
  • Support: Remote Shutter Release, Lens Cleaners, Batteries, and the usual

 

Getting Started Summary

We left Boston’s Logan Airport at about 8PM.  It was still light out and it was a clear day.  The flight took about 5 hours.  We only saw darkness for about 2 hours of the trip and then, because we were flying towards the east we saw the sun coming up.  We landed in Reykjavik at about 6:30AM and a driver provided by the camper rental company arrived within about 45 minutes to drive us to the pickup location less than an hour away.

Once at the rental station we spent about 45 minutes being briefed about the camper, doing the paper work and getting some general instructions, advice and directions to the Vodaphone store to get our phones settled.    After attempting to use my iPads GPS and downloaded map, it proved to be too difficult and hokie — it was back in to the station to rent a GPS.  That was a smart move that I highly recommend.   We had the camper and phones settled by about 10-11AM and we were on our way to explore.

The Photos

As I mentioned, I am not thrilled about these photos and they don’t do the country justice – sorry!  Some of them are OK for this being my first year as a landscape photographer.  I’m just going to offer some teasers and hope to post better versions from my second visit in 2015.

Day 1 – Reykjavik

So, there is a iconic church in the middle of town.  Of course I didn’t get a shot of that! But here is a shot from the top of the church looking down on the town.  The colorful roofs give a nice touch to an otherwise dreary day.

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Here’s another with a miniaturization effect, and a little more view of the horizon to show the mountains.

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Day 2 – Thingvellir

Thingvellir is a National Park along the Golden Circle.  The location is notable because it is one of the only locations where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is exposed on land.  The fissure is where the North American Plate is pulling away from the Eurasian Plate. Most of the Md-Atlantic plate is under the ocean.

These shots where taken around 11:30PM. EM2Q6011

 

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Day 3 – Seljalandsfoss

This first shot is an uncomfortable shot to say the least.   Its an easy shot to get but there is a great deal of wind, spray, slippery rocks and on the day we were there it was cold.

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This shot is obviously a lot easier to get, but you’ll have to be patient as there are tons of photographers and tourist roaming about. I’ve probably cloned a few out in this shot.

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Day 4 – Skogafoss

This first shot was take from in the water — and it was cold.  This is probably one of the only shots I was truly not prepared to get. There are small rocks on the bottom of this waterway and although they are smooth they are still wildly uncomfortable on very cold feet.  The water is so cold that the pain is amplified even though you feel numb.   If I were planning to get this shot again I would, at the very least, put on some water shoes for some protection.  A better idea would be waders for sure.EM2Q6619


 

This shot is taken from the shore and is the easiest shot to get. Again, patience as you wait for the tourist to clear out. I probably should have included some more foreground.

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You may notice in the first shot towards the upper right hand side on the side of the hill there are people walking. There is a set of stairs and walkways to get to the top of the falls.  From there you can follow the river that feeds the falls. It goes on for miles through these lush green hills.  The only thing you hear is the water and your own footsteps — barely.

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Day 4 – Vik

Vik is a tiny village right along the coast. The Ring Road goes right through it.  It has about 300 residents.  What is notable here is the church and a black sand beach.  There are some decent shots off of the coast but the weather at the time I was there was not cooperating.  These shots of the church were actually on the way back from Hofn, and we were pressed for time.

This first shot was just a straight on regular exposure. Its pretty basic.

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The shot below is actually a composite made up of two separate shots.   The wind was blowing so the Lupine flowers in the foreground were moving quite a bit.   You will notice that the clouds are shown to have motion which means the shutter speed was fairly slow, in fact it was about 60 seconds at f/16 – accomplished that with the bulb exposure and the Big Stopper.  I had to correct the white balance as that Big Stopper brings in a blue hue something fierce.  The other shot was taken with a fairly fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of the flowers.  In post I brought both shots into Photoshop and then blended the layers.

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 Day 5 – Gullfoss

There are a ton of different locations to shoot this from. The tourist activity is very high so getting a shot without people in it is rare.

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Here’s a nice close up in black and white.

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 Day 6 – Reach Hofn & Return to Reykjavik

We followed the Ring Road from Reykjavik to Hofn.  Here are some random shots that we took on the way to and the return.

 

Fjadrargljufur Canyon

This looks like it could be in Thingvellir National Park, but its 100s of miles away from there.  The day was very overcast and I just could not get the exposure right to do the scene justice – at least not when including the sky.  This black & white does show the rugged terrain.

To get to this location we had to drive in on an F-Road at least a couple of miles to get this vantage point.  An F-Road is generally considered a secondary road and is not paved and may have other hazards requiring a 4 wheel drive vehicle with a high clearance. No many tourist hit these roads as the rental vehicle agreements general prohibit driving on F-roads. (I broke the rule unknowingly)

This area was one of the most surreal we encountered.  It was late at night, but of course still light out.  There was no other people around, no cars, no buildings, no airplane sounds.  There was complete silence except for the water if you were close enough to hear it. There was very little wind.  What you could hear was the bah-bah of the sheep in the distance. It was remarkably peaceful and quite.  For as far as you could see there was nothing man-made except for the vehicle we were driving.  Complete isolation and no civilization. For me it was incongruous in that you could see so far and so much but there was very little sound.  So big space yet so small sound.

 


Shooting down into the canyon. So much texture.

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This is the same canyon but at the lower part where there is a parking lot accessible with any vehicle — not an F-road.  This was taken a day or two after the other shots and the sky still had not improved. If you walked in to the canyon about a mile or so you would eventually get to the area that is shown in the previous two shots.

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Glacial Lagoon and Black Sand Beach

In the spring and summer huge pieces of the glaciers break off and float down river landing in lagoons.  Those that don’t melt completely make their way further down the river heading towards the Atlantic.  When they finally get there they get caught in the constant ebb & flow of the tide which eventually shrinks them down to smaller and smaller chunks of crystal clear ice.  They eventually get washed up on to the black sand beach where they will eventually melt away.  This piece is probably about 12in long.  The sand is volcanic ash which has been pushed down the river and also carried by the glaciers themselves.  The crystal clear ice and black sand against the relatively clear blue water makes for a very dramatic contrasting shot.

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Dragging the shutter shows some of the subtle action of the waves.

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ICELANDIC HORSES

As you drive around the Ring Road you will see sheep and horses roaming about in the fields and on the hillsides.  They are often in the road. Although the sheep will generally run from you, the horses are quite friendly and will come right up to you.  They are very photogenic and seem willing to pose for you.  These two are probably wondering why Ellen was offering them M&Ms.

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MORE STOPS AROUND THE RING ROAD

This is a typical scene while driving the Ring Road.  There’s no traffic here.  Interestingly when we were in one of the campgrounds a huge truck pulled in to spend the night.  It was a highway line painting truck.  I suspect there is only one company that does the Ring Road painting — after all the Ring Road is only about 830 Miles long.  We saw about 300 miles of it.

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This shot was taken in broad day light using the Lee 10 Stop Big Stopper. Notice the blue hue that the Big Stopper causes.  I have a lot of it out but its still there.

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We visited in June which is the time of 24 hours of day light. This is taken at 11PM around 100 miles outside of Reykjavik on our way back from Hofn –  ya know, heading west.

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This shot is taken at about 1:30AM and the sun has just dropped below the horizon.  This is about as dark as it gets this time of year (June) as the sunrise is at 3AM.

 

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Here’s a general map of the route just to illustrate the section of the country we were in.  The distance between the two locations is about 285 miles.  We did a total of about 800 miles which included some exploring off of the Ring Road, some back tracking and of course it was a round trip.

icelandmap

 

WHAT”S NEXT?

I will be planning another trip in 2015.  This trip will be a workshop and will have two instructors. It will be designed to address the types of concerns that I had with the workshops that I encountered when doing the research.

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