Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Hammer of the Gods

We come from the land of the ice and snow

From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow

-Led Zeppelin, The Immigrant Song

Gatklettur, a seastack near Arnastapi, in Snæfellsness Peninsula

I have not been able to get this song out of my head since we started talking about a trip to Iceland.  As I recall, the conversation about this trip began in the early fall, pretty soon after returning from the Great American Solar Eclipse (Click Here).  We have talked about Iceland so many times over the years.  My sister-in-law went there with her husband for their 5 year wedding anniversary.  A number of our friends have gone there and extolled the virtues of the beautiful landscape.  We have considered taking advantage of the Icelandair stopover policy, much as we did in Dubai on the way to India several years back.  It has been firmly on our Bucket List for some time.  As many of you know, over the last year or so, my interest in photography has really blossomed, and went from a casual photography amateur to another level – to one that plans, dreams, and strategizes about angles and light.  You probably already know about my website cutyerheartout Photography, and my Instagram and Facebook presence @cutyerheartout.  And so this could be a Match Made in Heaven.   
This year, my wife and I celebrate our 20th Wedding Anniversary (another Match Made in Heaven to be sure!). That’s a milestone, right?  On top of that, our twins turned 15 years old.  (Thank you for all the comments on how 'young' we looked then, and how 'manly' the boys look now 😂) So we got to thinking, how about a trip to celebrate?  We could accomplish so many things – not only celebration, but also bucket list item, photographer’s paradise, family vacation and more!  And so the planning began.  

But first, I need to digress: 

We have been fortunate to be able to travel a bit.  We are by no means the biggest travelers of our circle (you know who you are), but we have gotten to some nice locations over the years.  Even have a "Cities of the World" section on my website! Our travel strategy is not mysterious – upgrade our flights if we can, stay in nice hotels, do the touristy thing by seeing the sights and taking the witty walking tours, and returning home exhausted.  Sounds boilerplate, but it does take some planning and organization on the front end.  Somehow, despite the fact that we’ve had great trips, itineraries, and overall experiences, I have consistently come home just a little frustrated.  Why?  Photography.  The tour guides didn’t care about it.  They wanted to tell us their stories.  Walk the streets.  Show us where so-and-so was born, lived, died.  Recall the history of the place.  Make us laugh.  All noble goals. And yet lacking…My day job also involves a fair bit of travel.  I've been known to lug at least a camera, and more recently a lot of gear, whenever I travel, work or play. And while on work travel, I've also on occasion taken a witty walking tour of a city, and been disappointed.

Back to the story:

One of my vices while at airports is to buy photography magazines (Get your mind out of the gutter! Not that kind of 'photography!').  Tips, tricks, new equipment, and the like.  You know the kind.  And they are mainly driven by advertising. I have seen, over the years, an endless stream of “professional” photography tours of Iceland.  There are innumerable outfits offering multi-day tours, instruction, transportation in super-trucks, and a lifetime of memorable images.  I bet you are starting to get the picture (Muhahaha!  Muuuuhahahahaha!).  So how to plan? How to choose a tour? Wait a minute, are all 4 of us going on a photography tour?  Am I crazy? (Don’t answer that – we already established this fact in my last blog). Well let’s go back to what I’ve already said.  We like to see new places, hear about their history, experience their culture, and travel.  How can we do this with a photography emphasis?  
Travel agents are funny.  And by funny, I mean they don't really listen.  I talked to a couple of them.  I painstaking explained my vision for this trip.  And every one of them came up with a typical travel agent itinerary.  See this place.  Go on a snowmobile for a day.  Spend a day at the spa.  Eat at all the best restaurants.  That is the “old” template for us.  That will work fine for 95% of people.  And I would come home a little disappointed.  
So these photography tour companies then right?  This got really easy and really hard quickly.  Spring Break for the kids – the first week of April – was not negotiable.  That was when we were going to go.  And during this week, there were no pre-arranged tours of Iceland.  Apparently, it’s off-season.  Time between winter conditions and summer conditions.  Time when all the tour guides get a break.  So now we’re talking about a custom tour...I solicited, via email, 4 or 5 tour companies to provide an itinerary for the week we would be there.  They were surprisingly similar in price.  Some itineraries were more ambitious than others (I had the idea to complete the Ring Road in the week- that’s crazy by the way – not enough time for that), but all understood that we were there for photography.  The websites for these outfits are really quite impressive.  Impossible to choose on this basis.  All the best shots, best light, best angles.  Salivation kind of stuff for a photographer of any level!  And then the differences emerged.  Many of these companies were headed by award winning photographers, who had published in National Geographic and the like.  The websites were crawling with these accolades.  And when I asked who the tour guide would be for our custom, private tour (code for more expensive than the pre-arranged tour), the answer was almost always the same – “we will find you an excellent and capable guide.” WAY WRONG ANSWER! 
One of the most important aspects of any service-based industry is just that - service.  There is no better measure of value in my opinion.  Myself, and others like me, can value good service more than money can measure.  It makes all the difference in any number of transactions.  It is the reason people go back.  And that is what did it for us here too.  We ended up choosing ThorPhotography.  The owner, Thorainn Jonsson, was our only point of contact.  The owner, Thorainn Jonsson, would be our tour guide for the week.  The owner, Thorainn Jonsson, was invested in our experience.  Incidentally, when I told the boys that we were spending the week with Thor, they weren't the least bit upset 😄!!  I think you will see this investment (and service) play out in the remainder of the story.
We did book on Icelandair.  Direct flight from Seattle.  I used points to upgrade us to Business Class.  Yes, that's a personal preference.  You can make your own choices.  There was only one flight a day - a redeye.  Got in at 7am.  That means we were going to hit the ground running...more on the travel experience later.

So more digression:

Simultaneous to this exploration of a trip to Iceland was the release of the new Nikon D850 full-frame DSLR.  Known as The Beast, this 46 megapixel monster was the latest and greatest offering from Nikon.  There were so many things that attracted me (and just about every other Nikon shooter) to this.  Yeah there were all those megapixels – nearly Medium Format! It had 4K timelapse built in.  It could shoot 9 frames-per-second with the battery grip.  It had the new EXPEED 5 processing chip.  It had a backlit sensor.  Yeah.  I’m a gear-head.  A nerd.  I’m comfortable with that.  And I needed this camera.  It doesn’t matter that I had just bought the Nikon D500 several months earlier.  In fact, this was another motivator – the button layout on these 2 bodies was identical!  But beasts don’t arrive alone.  They bring friends.  Lenses, bags, filters, accessories.  You get it.  While we are on the subject of accessories, there are so many tips to consider.  Here are a few: get a good tripod and tripod head.  Spend the same amount of money you would spend on your camera body and best lens.  Yesssss.  Do the math.  This thing is holding up your baby.  It needs to be sturdy. No wind, or clumsy companion, or friggin idiot (including yourself), should be able to easily bowl this over.  I went with a Gitzo Traveler 2, and there are many other choices.  This is not the place to be cheap!  Camera filters are also essential for landscape photography.  Best off with the slide in filters rather than the screw in.  Probably a topic for another blog honestly.  I have the NiSi S5 (150mm) and V5 (100mm) with the majority of my filters from Breakthrough Photography.  Makes for a big kit (see below).  You also need to have comfortable, sturdy, and roomy camera bag(s).  Over the last year, I think I bought some 20 camera bags online and returned them.  Seriously.  Here's some advice - take your equipment with you to a local brick and mortar store, and pack it into a bag.  Try it on and walk around with it for 10 minutes in the store.  You will learn a lot about yourself, and as importantly, the bag.  Seems that I like LowePro for most things.  I also bought a rolling camera bag to offload weight off my back in the airport.  Super trick here - go small.  Eighteen inches, so that if you travel in a puddle jumper or in Europe, you can still carry it on board.  The Tenba Roadie Roller 18 was my choice for just this reason.  It works on the little regional jets and on the European commuter jets.  But it doesn't fit a DSLR with a battery grip...

A few other words on essentials of travel, photography, or both.  Clothing.  It matters a lot.  And it changes depending on where you are traveling.  But you need to have the right clothing for the environment.  Sometimes that's a wetsuit, but not in Iceland. You probably need 2 sets of everything (not 3, there's no room in luggage for that, except underwear).     You probably also need layers for whatever the climate has to throw at you.  There's also no substitute for staying dry, wherever you are.  Weather.  Gotta know that too!  Too hot or too cold holding a 25lb camera bag and tripod gets old very quickly! This is even more important if you have hikes planned where you can't carry your entire suitcase.   Insurance.  I insured everything before we left the USA.  I won't do the math for you - you can do it yourself.  All it was going to take was for one bag to drop out of a car onto the pavement, or a tripod to blow over onto a rock, or for something to go for a drink in the ocean.  Or for it to get stolen...I had a $100 deductible on the whole kit and kaboodle.  I slept very well the whole trip.  Laptop.  This is another essential, and as I found out, more important than I originally thought.  It served many purposes, such as nightly backup, image processing with the assistance of a pro, the opportunity to do image processing during down time (what is that?), or during travel.  I use a high power desktop at home, and will buy a high power laptop before my next trip (the MacBook Air was just not up to the task). Jet Lag. There is a very simple solution to Jet Lag.  It doesn't take 3 or 4 days to get over it.  It does take discipline.  Here's the deal: stay awake.  Sounds simple, right?  Well at the heart (pun) of the matter, it is.  Whenever I (we) travel to a significant change in timezone, it is imperative that you sleep in your own timezone during travel, and on the first night in the new timezone, sleep in that timezone.  Coming from the West Coast, that means we sleep on the plane for however long we can sleep, then stay awake after we arrive until normal sleep time, or at least close to it.  And whatever you do, if you wake up at 3am, don't pick up your phone and check email, or watch TV.  If you do that, you've got 3 or 4 days of Jet Lag in front of you.  Starting to see the problem?  We travel all night, sleep a few hours on the plane, get in at 630am, then have to stay awake till 9pm in Iceland.  Discipline indeed.

And back to the story:

We packed 5 bags of photographic equipment, plus 2 tripods. Thor was nice enough to provide us with a packing list, which was nice, since it gave me an opportunity to buy more camera gear. 😈  Certainly, B&H Photo, Adorama, and Bedford Camera benefitted from this exercise! There was so much equipment that fit 'perfectly' - I needed to make a map so I didn’t lose track of everything…

      Seems like a lot of equipment for one person doesn't it?  Remember when you thought I was crazy to take my family on a photography trip?  This may surprise you - I had a plan!!  That's right.  

"Russians don't take a dump without a plan. And senior captains don't start something this dangerous without having thought the matter through."
-       Admiral Painter, The Hunt For Red October

     My plan was simple. Elegant. Expressive. You can see from above that we have 3 camera bodies and a whole host of lenses. The boys are familiar with cameras, and learning more every day. Kethan in fact took a photography elective last year, and even learned how to develop film. We spent some time in the weeks leading up to the trip to review exposure, camera settings, focus. They knew how to change lenses, clean filters, set up a tripod. What better place than Iceland to learn photography? And with a pro photographer as our guide and coach? Seems simple enough!

     May seem obvious, but I get the Nikon D850. Yes, The Beast is for me. I wanted to capture the epic landscapes in 46 megapixel glory. And therefore the best lenses (Holy Trinity) prioritized to the biggest baddest body. Good thing though - the lenses are interchangeable! So when not in use, they are fair game. The Nikon D500 - a formidable camera in its own right - we primarily paired it with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 ART lens. Makes for a nifty-fifty on this body, and a great lens for someone to learn composition. The Nikon D7000 we mainly kept with the old, somewhat mediocre walk around lens, the Nikon 18-200VRII. This body had a different purpose - storytelling. I wanted to make sure that we saw ourselves in Iceland, not just the panoramic views. What it looked like when we were out there in the cold taking the photos. The boys were going to trade off the D500 and the D7000 day by day, so that they got experience with both styles of photography. We also put the Trinity lenses on these bodies from time to time to mix it up.. They would get coached by Thor just like I was getting coached by Thor. 
     Wait a minute. Three bodies. Three boys. What about Sunita? What the hell was she going to do while we were in a shooting frenzy? Remember. I had a plan. Our goal was photography right? What do you do when you are photographing? You look for the best sites, in the best light, from the best angle, with the coolest foreground and sky. With a tour guide who is a local. We were going to see Iceland like no one else on a bus tour. Sunita was going to see this in real life, with her family. 

"We've never been on an adventure like this before..."


What could possibly go wrong?

Let the adventure begin!!

On we sweep, with threshing oar.  


  1. Post your equipment list please including extreme weather protection

    1. Presumably you mean cold/rain weather gear right? We basically packed like we were going skiing - thermals, warm layers, ski outerwear. we all had waterproof hiking boots, hats and gloves. Waterproof jackets and pants. The LowePro camera bags have built in rain covers. We also had the plastic pullover rain covers (Op-tech, Ruggard) for the cameras. Nothing extreme - the cameras and lenses are all weather sealed - to a limit of course. Hope this helps!

  2. Thor is best. Love your blog been traveling with Thor for 5 years I too am a surgeon. Too much stuff i buy everytime i see Thor. I did turn him onto breakthrough photography filters. Just got back from norway an excellent trip with thor

    1. Post your pictures! Look forward to seeing them!