"There are many wonders in a cow's head."
And I suspect there are many wonders in a Puffin's head too...This was the quote on the billboard as we were waiting for customs to open up before our return flight home from Iceland. Somehow, that was exactly what our heads would have looked like if you could have taken a picture in that moment: full of wonder and not much else! Iceland is impossible to describe and its rugged beauty and scene after overwhelming scene are just too difficult to process. Iceland has a way of working its way into your soul and won't let you go. I had been really keen to get back there after a brief trip in 2005. So all it took was a great friend looking for some adventure up north and I was all in!
Since all we could squeeze out of the calendar was about 8 days, we decided early on to save backpacking for another time and to take in several of the more interesting locations that we knew of. Once that decision was made we soon decided to really go for it and circumnavigate the island and include the West Fjords and the famous Kjolur route in the interior. That meant budget wise at least, that we would be renting a 4x4 and be spending a bit for gas. But since we were camping and brought along our own food we minimized those expenses. Taking a trip like this presents some difficult choices. Exploring more areas means less time with each location. Photographically speaking it's much better to slow down, visit fewer places and explore more deeply rather than broadly. Two weeks would be ideal but we planned for what we had and made the most of it, and slept very little along the way....save that for home!
How you plan a photographic trip to Iceland depends on your personality and your photographic workflow (and budget!). Of course, if you're traveling with a partner or group you'll need to agree on the game plan. Some would prefer to land and just jump on the ring road and either go clockwise or counterclockwise. My style is a bit different so I like to do a lot of research, form a plan and hopefully be flexible and adaptable to changing conditions. That style suits me but your style may be different.
Here are a few thoughts and tips that may be helpful when you plan your trip to Iceland. And if you haven't done so, put it on the top of your list...!!!
1. Think global, photograph local. I like to check out the images of nature photographers that live in or very close to the area I'm traveling to. This helps to at least form some initial ideas for the locations you'd like to prioritize. Daniel Bergmann is a fantastic nature photographer so his site would be a great starting point. He also leads photographic tours so if that's your style, then definitely check out his web site:
2. Get some maps! Ok, I'll admit it, I'm a bit of a map freak, I have way too many...But, If you're planning to do any hiking or any driving across or through the interior of Iceland, I would recommend that you invest in some quality maps. Even though we had a GPS in the 4x4 it seemed like we had our maps out 24-7. The Island Vegaatlas by Ferdakort is 1:200,00 and it's spiral bound pages fold perfectly for driving. We used that map every day. For hiking we used maps 1-5 of the Ferdakort series which covers the four quadrants and the interior very well. And definitely check out the 1:50,000 scale maps by Mal Og Menning. No way we could have managed the trip without the maps!
3. Become a gear head. I'm definitely on the David duChemin bandwagon and totally agree that "Gear is good but Vision is better." We'll save the gear list for another post but read just a little about the Icelandic weather extremes and you quickly learn that you need to bring the gear that will allow you to be safe and achieve your photographic goals in a challenging environment. We spent a lot of time thinking through the gear list for camping, hiking and photography. Having the clothes and camping gear to stay warm and dry make a huge difference in your comfort level and safety. Hard to be creative when you're so focused on your physical discomfort right? Think merino wool and layers of waterproof and breathable cloths with a nice warm sleeping bag/pad and 3 season tent. I like taking just a couple of lenses. Too many choices in the field can lead to paralysis by analysis...Much more in a separate gear post but here are some links to the favorites:
4. Get physically and mentally prepared. Depends on how much of a physical component your adventure contains but be sure that fitness is a non factor. We had modest day hikes with fairly light packs so our training was not too intense. Given the ground we would cover in the time we had though, there would be long windows without a whole lot of sleep. Only way to prepare for that is to be well rested before you leave! We were there from June 26 to July 4 and the best light by far was from 10pm to about 4 am. So you have to be able to change your sleep patterns and take some naps during the day. And of course be extra forgiving of your sleep deprived travel partner...
5. Manage your expectations. This is a difficult one, especially for me. There is no doubt a point of diminishing returns if you try to do too much in a short span of time. Build in some down time into your plan. You need to process and reflect on what's going and rest up for the next leg of the adventure. Plus you need to be open to all of the photographic opportunities that present themselves along the way that you could not possibly anticipate. No way to do that unless you're flexible and go into the trip with many of your expectations in check. Easy to say, hard to do....
All in all we had an amazing trip that far exceeded our expectations. Easily the most extraordinary scenery either of us had ever witnessed. In reflecting on the trip and what made it successful for us was doing the research, having the right gear, and having a detailed but flexible game plan. A little luck doesn't hurt either, less than a week after our return a glacial flood wiped out the bridge on the ring road. Would have been one incredible detour but maybe that's what life's all about anyway, making the most of the detours...