Sunday, April 22, 2018

We'll Drive Our Ships to New Lands

Londragnar seastacks near Hellnar

            Traveling internationally can have its moments.  You never really know how it is all going to go down, when it going to go down, and how badly.  You try to anticipate everything and inevitably, you get snagged.  That’s what we all fear.  And then we do our best to deal with the issues.  The good news: we didn’t have anything major happen to us!  The bad news: everything wasn’t perfect.  This is not to be critical, just real.  We had an amazing journey with some twists and turns.  It is however the journey that is important and that defines us.  Here is our journey and our first day.

            Anyone who has traveled through Seatac airport knows that the airport is too small, there is not enough security, and there is no parking.  The airport was big enough for this area about 20 years ago.  Expansion projects are ongoing, and will eventually be completed just in time for them to be inadequate again.  Our first snag, not surprisingly, happened at TSA security.  The background of course is that due to our travels, we participate in the Global Entry program as a family.  If you don’t know about it, check it out!  One of the other perks about it is that it gets you TSA precheck most of the time.  So security is generally not an issue for us.  No laptops out.  Shoes on.  Light jackets on.  Aha!  Icelandair does not participate in precheck (d’oh!).  So here we are, traveling with 5 (FIVE) bags of camera equipment and electronics.  And we have to go through security…here’s the transcript with the security officer:

Agent: “If you have any electronics larger than a cell phone, please take it out of your bags.”
Me: “You mean, computers, or iPads too?”
Agent: “Yes, iPads too.  And any cameras.”
Me: “Wait, cameras too?
Agent: “Yeah, like those big DSLR cameras.”
Me: “What? This is going to take about six weeks!”

            So we did it.  In the security line, we disassembled 5 bags.  All 3 DLSRs went into trays.  We had 2 laptops, 3 iPads, everyone’s shoes, everyone’s jackets, everyone’s phones.  Fortunately we didn’t have to take out the lenses separately.  I didn’t count, but I estimate we needed something like 15 of those trays to get through.  Maybe more.  The good news is that on the other side, we had to put Humpty back together again…

            Interestingly, not only were we looking to go to Iceland for all its virtues, and for the photography adventure, but to escape the Seattle spring.  Each year, during Cherry Blossom season, Sunita loses all control of her nasopharynx.  Sneezing, coughing, crying, puffy eyes, runny nose.  It’s kind of a mess at home.  It’s getting warmer, and all the boys want to open the windows, get in some fresh air, and say goodbye to Winter…but NO!  If we did that, we’re not sure what would happen to her.  So we were looking forward to a pollen-free week (we hoped).

            A few comments on the journey itself.  It is no secret that Business Class on Icelandair is not like other Business class seats on international flights.  The seats do not fully recline.  There are not real leg rests.  Sounds a lot like domestic First Class.  (Yes, yes, yes, this is a First World problem, but see, it’s my blog). Seats are wider, but that is about all.  My assessment is that this is pretty accurate, and perhaps exaggerated.  I think domestic First Class on Alaska Airlines, or Delta Airlines is actually far superior to the experience in Icelandair Business Class.  Honestly, I’m not upset about it – we still had a fine experience, the flight attendants were nice, and the food was pretty good.  But we all make comparisons.  Along the way, we did fly over the poles, and saw a pretty sunset and saw the mountains over northern Canada.  By the time we flew over Greenland, it was just getting light out again.  I could see the glaciers and fjords, but it wasn’t bright enough to capture holding a camera up to a plane window with all the glare that goes with it.

            LANDED!  Just after dawn.  There were broken clouds, and the morning sun was streaming through the windows into the international arrivals area.  We collected our baggage and emerged, waiting for Thor to pick us up.  We were treated to our first experience of “Icelandic Cost of Living” when we bought a bottle of water, a couple of yogurts, and coffee from the airport store for 45 (!).  We load up into Thor’s van, and have plenty of room – the van can seat a total of 9 people, so that back row held most of the gear and we all sat up front.  As the trip evolved, the equipment came further and further to the front, and the back row started to hold extra clothing, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

            A few words on photo credits.  It should be blatantly obvious that if we had 3 camera bodies with us, it is not possible that I took every picture with every camera, right?  My boys each had a camera with them, and many of the pictures you will see in this blog, and on my website, were not taken by me.  Further, we had more camera bags than people, and therefore we were also reliant on the carrying-power of our 4th team member, my wife Sunita.  A family enterprise.  I processed all the pictures, some with various family members looking over my shoulder.  I have tried to indicate when one picture was taken by one of them – they took some good ones!  They may have a future hobby on hand.  And I believe rightfully so, they are all under the copyright of cutyerheartout Photography.  Hope that settles that.

            I have a confession to make.  I can’t speak Icelandic. (lol) Thor tried to get me to say a few words here and there, and I may have even succeeded at getting a syllable right now and again.  My promise to you – I will spell the places.  No promises on pronunciation.  Deal?

            We left the airport and turned right.  Headed past the old US Airbase to the western coast of the Reykjanes Peninsula.  Thor had some seascapes and a lighthouse in mind to get us warmed up.  Sounds like a plan.  On the way there, we see the volcanic landscape.  We see some mountains emerge through low clouds.  We see the ocean.  Thor started to tell me how we would be taking lots of seascape photos this week.  Since I’m being honest, this thought did go through my head: “Lots of seascapes?” I then kept that thought in my head…we were mainly on a South Coast tour of Iceland.  How could there not be lots of seascapes?  Funny is the mind, is it not?
Interestingly, everyone in Iceland drives in the middle of the road, straddling the dividing line.  That’s because there are no cars on the road.  On the entire island, there are just over 300,000 inhabitants, and most of them like in Reykjavik.  So when not the city, you may not see a car for miles.  Lanes are only used when another car is on the road…

“This is what I see every day.”

            Thor said this a number of times, especially when I was jaw-dropped and saying “wow look at that don’t we want to stop and take a picture of that wow look over there oh my good that’s so cool.”  First stop, Valahnúkamöl.  Remember, I can’t pronounce any of this.  It’s a bit matter-of-fact for Thor – another day at the office.  We are of course blown away by the natural beauty of everything we have experienced in the first 30 minutes.  These sea stacks reminded us all of the Oregon coast (August 2014) a little, but were certainly distinguished by the color of the water and an “otherworldly” feel.   This was also clearly a “getting to know you” phase of the trip.  We had never been on a photography tour before.  He had never met us before.  We had never met him before.  We needed to understand each other’s style, needs, abilities.  Expectations.  Such a big word!
            Lesson #1.  How to handle your equipment and tripod with the wind in Iceland.  The wind is persistent! He then regaled us with stories of broken equipment on his tours.  It was an effective technique!  Although we had insured the equipment for its value, if we didn’t have equipment, then no pictures!!  I’d like to say “I knew that already and it was really for the kids,” but then I would be lying.  Thor’s approach was digestible by all of us, with different experience and understanding.  Nota bene: the more extended the tripod legs (use all the segments), the more stable – the base becomes wider (duh!).  Lesson #1 was awesome.  We used it all week!

Check out the family at work!

Everyone's view was a little different

Look closely at the wrist strap on the camera.  It was windy!

            After this first stop, our itinerary called for travel from Reykjanes Peninsula to Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It would be a several hour drive, first through Reykjavik, and then along the coastline. We made a very early stop for a small, but important tourist trap. The Continental Divide. Miðlína, or Leif the Lucky Bridge, bridges the separating techtonic plates of Eurasia and North America. We stopped, walked up to the bridge, crossed it, and came back to the van. Funny story here – I asked the family to go to the bridge and reach for the sky – you know, like this was a fun thing, or a cool thing. I think they thought they were under arrest!!

When I said put your hands up, I didn't mean they were under arrest!

         I took my camera out of the bag and kept it around my neck. I sat in the front seat, and Thor and I talked a lot over the course of the week. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge, and all that touristy, witty stuff we could have gotten on a bus tour, or walking tour, we got one-on-one. It was casual, unrehearsed, sincere. I also apologized in advance if I asked him to stop the car to frequently. I offered this up front:

“It’s a good thing you are driving, and I’m just a passenger, because if I was driving, I would stop the van every 50 feet to take another picture.”


          It’s true! There was so much to see, photograph, appreciate! And that’s why we had Thor. Because he knew what was coming around the bend. And however good this looked, if we were patient (ok just a little patient), something better was coming next. So I snapped off a few, and got a couple of keepers. And so much for the Jet Lag Mitigation protocol...LOL!

I used Active VR on my Nikon 24-70 with a fast shutter.
So much for staying awake

In the tunnel below the fjord

          The mystery of intrigue of Iceland remains, but the “unknown” spots continue to dwindle. Several years back, Hraunfossar was featured in a magazine as a great “unknown” spot to see a beautiful waterfall. Well that ended that…now this spot is very squarely on the tourist path. That being said, it is spectacular. Get this – there is no river above. These are subterranean glacial melt streams that emerge from between layers of lava, and then flow down into the Hvita River. How cool is that? In this next series of photos, you will also see the beauty of having 3 camera bodies, all with different reach lenses, performing together. (Remember the plan?) We got the close-in, intimate landscape. We got the wider angle panoramic view. We got the storytelling, the action, the concentration, the experience.

Kethan's Work!

The perspective of Kiran

          The remainder of the drive was relatively uneventful. By uneventful, I mean we drove into a blizzard. The clouds got sequentially lower, the wind howled, and the snow accumulated. No problem! This “van” we were in had these 3 foot diameter wheels. Well at least 30 inches…we just pushed through. No real slowdown. Only downside was that we couldn’t really see the landscapes as much as we wanted. But the road wound along the ocean, and it was still beautiful. The snow had died down over here, and like in most places in Iceland, there weren’t many people lurking around. As we wound around the peninsula, we came across this tiny little town, Búðir. And in this small town lies the Black Church, Búðakirkja. It’s kind of wild. There’s nothing else around. There is a cliff down to the ocean a few hundred meters away. And it’s black. Since there was so much snow on the ground, we weren’t able to really see the black lava field it was sitting on, and so photography had to take on a different flavor: minimalist. Or as Thor liked to say, “minimalist shit.” 

          Lesson #2. You are not always going to get the picture you imagined from the magazine. And I imagined quite a lot. Mundane stuff mostly. Like winning a Nat Geo contest or other humble things like that 😀…So minimalist, huh? How to make one thing interesting in a relatively monochromatic landscape? Is there color at all? How to find it? Does it matter or should I just go for black and white (a whole other topic!!)? This was new for me too, and the technique became incorporated into a number of pictures I made in the remainder of the week. Lesson #2 was also awesome. I think this was also reinforced in this stark landscape: pictures are not taken, they are made.


          I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but this is still day number one. We landed this morning in Keflavik. Got this whole day of incredible experience under our belts. We checked into our hotel FossHotel. Great location in Hellnar (pronounced something like Het-nar – double L makes a T apparently), on the cliff face. Small but clean rooms. Really, really good food. All windows in the dining room. All windows showing us the blizzard outside. We ate our dinner, and we were all dragging a little bit.

“If you don’t go, you don’t know.”


          Sunset in 1 hour!! I think Sunita and I had the same face when Thor told us that. The boys may have groaned. Our rooms looked warm and cozy. We just had a glass of wine. You know the feeling right? He was looking at his phone, checking forecasts, doppler radar, cloud cover, like he’s a meteorologist or something. I’m looking outside through the windows, where there’s a blizzard going on. And he says it. “If you don’t go, you don’t know.” So here it dawns on me (again, not sure why it didn’t dawn on me before). He is motivated so that when I go home, I have these great pictures, and great stories, to remember and share, much like I’m doing now. He is motivated to show me how to make that next picture. Taking risks that I’m not used to (and yes, those risks were coming soon!). This is EXACTLY what I was looking for! Someone to say, let’s go out in a blizzard because there’s a 1% chance, based on my meteorological degree, that the sun will emerge just before sunset, light up the sky, and get us that epic landscape that we hope to get. So naturally, everybody grabs their rally monkey, suits up, and hauls out for sunset pictures.

          Feeling skeptical yet? Yeah. We couldn’t see more than about 25 feet. We were driving slow as molasses. We make a turn, couldn’t have been more than a kilometer from the hotel, towards the ocean. And it clears up. Not bluebell or anything silly like that. The ceiling rises. We see some sun. We get to the vista, and are greeted by this:

Kiran finding the light!

          The rest of this is not easy to describe in blog. I can’t point to what was about to happen, so please follow along. Again, good thing we had 3 camera bodies, otherwise we could not have possibly captured this!

          Here’s the viewing platform, facing away from the sunset. Light is flat, clouds are low. Nothing to see there…You can see Sunita and I at the top of the platform getting some gear ready. You can see Kethan on the main viewing platform with a tripod and the 70-200mm lens to capture the intimate landscape. And you can see Thor on the edge of the cliff. And he expects me to go with him…which is why I’ve naturally retreated back up. I’m not going out there. Are you kidding me? It’s windy. There’s rocks. There’s snow everywhere. Lesson #3. If you want the shot, you need to get the angle. If you want the angle, prepare to go get it! (Deep breath.) My family is watching me, I know Sunita is hoping I refuse. I think the kids wanted me to refuse too…but hey. We are in Iceland. We came here to get the shots.

          I changed to the ultra-wide angle back in the safety of land, attached my filter system, popped in a soft GND, and took my filter bag with me out into this insanity. I’ll admit, I was not expecting this, and was not entirely comfortable with it. But I watched him walk out there. The snow was crunchy, not slick. The rocks were secure. He had already set footprints for me to follow. So I go. My fears on this first day in Iceland: 1) my camera is going to fall off the edge and land in the drink. 2) my family is going to get to watch me plummet into the North Atlantic and die. Huh. Sunita told me later that she wanted some antacid…

          The first pic, a great one by Kethan, shows the low rocks in the ocean with an infinite number of waterfalls. Intimate Landscape! Boom. Taken from the safety of the viewing platform. The next is me out on the edge of the cliff. Unfortunately too zoomed in to get the full effect. Next is the slow-mo video from the edge of the cliff. Those seastacks in the background – Londrangar. There were thousands of screaming seagulls circling in this space. The water below, beautiful and churning. Finally, the money shot. Ultrawide angle (14mm) lens. Great color. Glad I did it. But I was so nervous that I never moved. I took only this view. I got braver as the week went on. More on that to come.

Intimate Landscape, by Kethan

Really, I'm standing on a cliff here.

Epic Landscape

On we sweep, with threshing oar...