ICELAND My photographic adventure

On August 1st I started my 20th Anniversary Sabbatical from Adobe. I knew I would be off work from the 1st till the middle of September 2016, but I really didn't plan any major trips. A weekend here and there, but nothing exciting. I was perfectly fine doing a staycation as I had just recently moved into my new house and there's plenty to do at home. Around the middle of August I get a call from my good friend Scott Kelby and he said, "Hey do you want to go to Iceland to shoot?" My response was "when do we leave?" Scott needed to shoot some new pictures for his upcoming book and I'm always looking for a chance to shoot in amazing locations, especially those locations that I haven't traveled to before. We picked dates that worked for both of us and I booked my tickets! Let's do this...

Since this trip would be non-stop photography I started planning out which gear I would take. I wanted to not only take my Nikon D810 DSLR, but also I wanted to take this opportunity to try out some mobile photography with the latest and greatest accessories as well as the DXO one connected to my iPhone 6s Plus. See my complete gear list at the bottom of my blog post here. Leaving on Monday, August 29th this flight was a short 5 hours 45 minutes from JFK.

Day 1 - Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

We pretty much hit the ground running. For me it was only a little sleep too as I don't/can't sleep on planes. We landed at 7AM local time (4 hours ahead of my usual ET) and that translates to about 3AM according to my body. Since this was once in a lifetime trip (probably 1st in a lifetime is more appropriate) I wasn't going to whine about being sleepy. We jumped in the rental car and started our 4 hour drive to Vik.
Although the drive to Vik is only supposed to take about 3-4 hours, I guarantee that it will take longer. There are many many opportunities along the way to stop, get out and start shooting. This was the 1st waterfall we wanted to shoot in route. Here in the US a waterfall like this would be a major tourist attraction, but in Iceland waterfalls are literally EVERYWHERE. By the middle of our trip we would pass a waterfall and say very sacarstically "look another waterfall, should we stop?" Then we'd laugh and keep driving. Here at Seljalandsfoss there were four waterfalls in a row. When you pull into the parking lot there's usually a tour bus or two and people scattered about shooting each one. Sigh, people a.k.a. "tourists". With all the people it's practically impossible to get a shot without people in it. Chances are if you want your shot without people you'd either have to get there very early in the morning (not a bad idea) or be prepared to Photoshop them out. This particular waterfall also has access behind it which makes for a very dramatic sunset shot. However, the weather wasn't cooperating for us to shoot it at sunset.
We almost missed a great opportunity! I was ready to leave this area and continue our drive, but Scott decided to walk down and shoot the smaller falls. I stayed at the car. A bit later he called me and asked if I could meet him by the last one with the car? By the time I got there, he was texting again saying BRING YOUR CAMERA and the DRONE! I was thinking why, but I trusted his judgement. Buried inside this opening was the best waterfall of the four! Keep in mind that the only way to get to it was a treacherous climb/walk on wet rocks and mud. We debated it for a minute and I said "we flew over 2,500 miles, we're not going to leave wishing we had gotten this shot!" He agreed and we went in.
Once we got in we asked a guy if his daughter (who had already been up on the rock) could go one more time and raise her hands looking up at the sky. The only reason I'm showing you this shot is to show you that things don't always work out as you planned. As you can see my camera and lens got very wet. Yes we should have had rain gear for the cameras and while Scott did remind me of this before we left, I realized that either I didn't have one or couldn't find it. Yes, I had my lens cloth and I was constantly cleaning the water off, but the problem was that I didn't know it was this wet for this shot. Missed opportunity as we couldn't expect her to stand there forever. I think Scott might have gotten a good one of her, but I definitely didn't.
I was lucky enough to get this one though...
Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.

It was DEFINITELY worth the risk of going in there with my tripod and gear. Luckily I didn't fall, nor drop anything.

As we started our way into the cave towards the falls, there was a guy behind me that said "you look familiar." Then he asked "do you do Photoshop tutorials?" I said yes, and he told me that he had just started using Photoshop and he was watching my videos. Then he looked and said "and are you Scott Kelby?" I said yes to that too. Just kidding, but it was nice to be recognized all the way in Iceland. Why is he holding a chair? Long story short his tripod was in his checked luggage which didn't arrive on time. He wasn't going to let that ruin his trip, so he used this folding chair to steady his camera to get the shot!
Do whatever it takes!
There are miles and miles of open space here. It's unlike anything I've ever seen. So vast, so beautiful.
On to another waterfall, Skogafoss Waterfall. This one was bigger and better, complete with a giant rainbow and yes more people. Scott and I took two different approaches on this one. I was frustrated that there were so many people and really didn't feel like shooting it because I wouldn't get the shot I really wanted. However, Scott made the trek all the way to the front (the wet part) and waited. His waiting paid off. He got a good shot without any people. My approach was to shoot over their heads...
Not exactly the shot I wanted, but I'll take it!

This shot was challenging because it was just so bright outside. It required me to use a Neutral Density (ND) filter over my lens, but even then I wasn't getting what I wanted. Therefore I cheated. I took the regular picture that was nice and bright, but the water wasn't silky and then I composited my silky water from the ND shot on top using Photoshop CC. Shhh, don't tell anyone... ;-)

We finally made it to the "Volcano Hotel" near Vik. I know what most of you are thinking, that doesn't look like a hotel and I'm right there with you. Most of the hotels outside of Reykjavik look similar to this.
We went to Suður-Vík Restaurant based on the recommendation of the hotel clerk. There was about a 30 minute wait. It was worth it.

You would think after a long night of flying and driving and shooting all day that after dinner we'd hit the sack. Nope, we stayed up til 1AM working on post processing the pictures from the day in Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC. I also flew my DJI Phantom 2 Vision + at the 1st waterfall. This was my first time traveling with it on a plane and the first time that I flew it over anything resembling water. I edited this quick video and posted it to social media.

Day 2 - Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

Sunrise atReynisfjara Beach

Up and on location before the sun rose at 6:10 am. This means being up and out of the hotel around 5 am. By the way, this is the single biggest reason that I'm not a landscape photographer. I hate getting up early! However, you don't want to miss these shots.

On the way back to the hotel for breakfast, more post processing and possibly a nap, there was plenty to shoot:

The water was so calm that we got these beautiful reflections.
Also there is virtually no traffic on these roads. You can stand in the middle of the road to get your shot for several minutes before ever seeing another car.

On the road again...

It was time to drive from Vik to Höfn and yep along the way there were plenty of reasons to stop and shoot.

Shot with DXO ONE Camera connected to my iPhone 6s Plus

One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was to not just rely on my DSLR camera. I wanted to also push the envelope of mobile photography. I took plenty of behind the scenes shots with my iPhone 6s Plus as well as 360° shots with my Richo Theta 360. However, I wanted to use the DXO One to capture this panorama. I took 3 frames and stitched them together using Lightroom CC. I would put it up against any of my other shots. I was very happy with the results.

This is a refurbished sheep house. They used a cave inside the cliff with safe building material and to keep the hay for the sheep inside. It had nearly fallen apart a couple of years ago, but is now being rebuilt. By the way, using an old traditional method that should make it last. If I am right they used flat thin stones, like stone shells between wooden supports and then put the turf on top of the stone shells. This keeps the wooden support from rotting by the turf, as it stays dry, sheltered by the stone shells. The walls are made of stones and specially cut and laid down turf.
Yes, another waterfall. Although I was over shooting waterfalls, I wanted to stop at this one because it was an interesting landcape with no people in front of it!
We made it to the Fosshotel in time for dinner and to hopefully do a sunset shoot.
I gained 10 pounds on this trip.

Looking out the window it wasn't looking good for a sunset shoot. The sky around the hotel was grey and it was raining. However, I noticed off in the distance that it was clearing up. Scott saw that it was the same direction that we came from and we had passed the Glacier Lagoon. We figured what did we have to lose by driving back to it?

Glacier Lagoon

Although this isn't a portfolio worthy shot I just like looking at the ice.

You only have a few minutes of golden hour to shoot, you have to be there and ready.

You just can't appreciate the color of a glacier until you see it in person

More random ice that I like looking at.

Loving how surprisingly calm the water was. Occasionally a seal would screw up the shot by causing ripples in the water, but hey that's where they live. Deal with it!

Once again taking the risk of driving out there was worth it. It cleared up perfectly in time for sunset. These are some of my favorite shots from the whole trip that would have otherwise not been captured.

Day 3 - Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Today is the last day of the trip to shoot. We were schedule to head home the next morning. Since it was the last day we wanted to make the best of it with a sunrise shoot at the Ice Lagoon before driving to Gullfoss.

These large chunks of ice wash up on the black sand beach just waiting to be photographed.

They are about 2-5 feet in size.

Some are clear (no air trapped inside) and others aren't.

Although it sounds like it should be cold here, the temp was above freezing anywhere from 37-46 degrees Fahrenheit

Although we both brought brand new boots to go over our shoes for some reason we didn't wear them and the first big wave caught Scott off guard and his feet were drenched.

They look like big diamonds.

After shooting the ice we realized that we probably should have checked out of the hotel and brought the rest of our stuff with us as we now had to go back 45 minutes in the opposite direction of Gullfoss.

We stopped again at the Glacier Lagoon on the way to Gullfoss and it just wasn't as good as the sunset light.

The 4 1/2 hour drive to Gullfoss took us back through Vik.

This abandoned house drew me in and the horse off to the side made it more interesting.
By the way, there are sheep EVERYWHERE. Apparently Iceland exports a lot of wool.
This church begs to be photographed
We stopped at the Halldorskaffi restaurant next to the gift store in Vik for lunch. He's not posing, he's just cool like that.
Scott spotted this lone building and made a quick u-turn to capture it.
I finally got to meet long time fan and supporter Einar Erlendsson. Einar is an Adobe Partner/Reseller as well as a photographer, guide and workshop instructor. He knows Iceland inside and out and quite frankly we should have given Einar a heads-up that we were coming and he would have made sure that we saw all the places that aren't well known. However, we did make contact for this last day and he and his close friend (an AMAZING photographer and droneographer) Ragnar Og Ásdís drove over to the Gullfoss Hotel to meet us. We went to the Gullfoss Falls.
Gullfoss Falls at sunset

I put together this compilation video of the shots and locations up to this point.

I love fresh salmon

We had a nice dinner and Einar and Ragnar gave us a lot of great info and tips on possibly getting a good shot of the Northern Lights a.k.a. Aurora Borealis. The problem was that at around 10PM when we finished dinner the lights were no where to be seen. According to their calculations we wouldn't have a clear shot of seeing them til around 3-4 AM. There was no way I could stay awake that long so I told Scott that we should just crash now and set an alarm to wake up and go outside.

Day 4 - Friday, September 2nd, 2016

We got out there about 30 minutes later than we should have. The sun was already starting to come up around 4 AM and it was making it difficult to capture this beauty. This is about the only decent shot that I got. Shooting the Northern Lights is not as easy as it sounds. First you need a fast wide angle lens. I used my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Actually Ragnar said that this was the BEST lens to shoot the lights with. That made my day as it was the only wide angle lens I had with me. LOL. Next you need a cable release and of course a tripod. You need to auto focus on a light (such as a farm light or street light at least 300m away. Then immediately switch to manual focus and even put gaffers tape around your focus ring so that you don't accidentally move it. Dim your LCD to its lowest setting. Set your aperture to be wide open (in my case f/2.8) and your shutter speed should be no more than 15 seconds (yes this will be a long exposure). As far as ISO goes you'll have to experiment. I was going from everything from 400 to 1600 ISO. Scott brought a couple of helmet lights which had a "red" mode so that we could at least see our cameras and settings without screwing up our night vision. All my shots except this one are either too dark or too light. This was the only one that came out decent. I'm happy!
The best shots happen outside your comfort zone!
It was time to gas up and head back to the airport. This little gas station wasn't far from the hotel and was completely unattended. Just pay with a card and pump your gas. Are there any completely unattended stations in the US? I've never seen one before.

We stopped at the Hilton Reykjavik just to capture this spiral staircase.

Scott simply Googled "Reykjavik spiral staircase"

Lessons Learned

First of all you only live once. Don't pass up opportunities. Life is about adventure and stepping outside your comfort zone. I'll be the first to admit that I don't like cold weather and anything with the word "ice" in it is something I'd normally avoid, but I didn't hesitate to take this trip because I knew I'd come away with some shots I could use for tutorials, update my portfolio, hang on my wall and sell on Adobe Stock.

Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will...

Some of the lessons I learned from this trip: In addition to bringing the right gear, don't forget things that you'll need for the weather which could change. I brought a hat, but I didn't bring my gloves. My hands were freezing early in the morning and late at night. If you're going to a place you haven't been before, chances are there is someone in your social network that has been there and can give you some pointers. Einar was extremely helpful and we/I should have contacted him sooner. The other thing I wish I had done more of was put my DSLR down and shoot some more with my 360° camera and my DXO One. I also wished I had taken 10 minutes here and there to live stream from the sites. I was too worried about shooting that I couldn't focus on sharing. I also wish I had captured more of the people of Iceland.

Photo by Einar Erlendsson

Lastly I was very happy that I brought my DJI Phantom (drone). I've been way too protective of it and not wanting to risk it over water, etc. What's the point of having equipment if you're too afraid to use it? That's what insurance is for. I plan to upgrade to the Phantom 4 (or 5) before my next photo adventure. By the way speaking of the drone, I was wondering would I have any problems going through airports with it. No one cared. I carried it on and there wasn't a single question about it from airport security in any of the airports. Everywhere I flew it in Iceland there was at least one other person flying.

Thanks for reading my story and special thanks to Scott Kelby for the invite to go on this trip!

Be sure to follow me on Instagram for my daily #picoftheday @terryleewhite

Don't forget to bring home some of their currency!

Created By
Terry White
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