Iceland 2012 Workshop Debrief

This expedition report is different from the norm in that I need to preface it with the fact that I was not just visiting Iceland on this trip. Before departing for Iceland I spent three weeks touring France and Italy with my wife. During this time we spent a week immersing ourselves in the wonderful café culture of Paris before driving through provincial France where we spent time in Champagne, Burgundy, Amboise, Beaune, and the mountaineering Mecca of Chamonix, before heading for Milan and the canals of Venice. I therefore packed lenses such as the 85mm F1.2L MKII for my time in Europe. I would not have normally taken this lens to Iceland. I will endeavor to write up a separate report on what worked and what didn’t during my time in France and Italy, as these locations are worlds apart from the pristine Iceland wilderness and require a totally different approach (not necessarily different equipment) to make the most of the photographic opportunities.  I did not pack a flash for this trip, a deliberate decision as I wanted to see what the Canon 1DX was capable of at high ISO in real world shooting. More to come on this in future blog posts. Suffice to say for now that I foresee my flash gun gathering significant dust over the coming months, or more likely making its way to eBay.

This expedition workshop to Iceland included several locations that I had not visited on previous trips (as well as some favorite locations) and really ticked the remaining boxes for me in terms of Iceland’s major landmarks. Location highlights included the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Landmannalaguar, Hveravellir, Jokulsarlon and Veiðivötn, to name just a few. In order to ensure we maximized our time in the field when the light was good, we camped or stayed in hotels, depending on the location. This combination of accommodation worked very well and is a departure from the usual hotel-only trips. I may well run future workshops that include a mixture of both hotel accommodation and camping. Not only does it help with being in the right place at the right time but it also reduces costs – Iceland in summer can be very expensive.As was to be expected, Iceland served up a mixed bag of weather and light on this trip. With fickle and constantly changing arctic weather, Iceland’s climate is never stagnant or boring. We encountered the best light of the trip one early morning (2:00am) in Veiðivötn (the crater lake area) where a fog was hanging over the black volcanic tephra craters. For a period of around 30 minutes the light was magical as the rising sun slowly burned off the fog, revealing a wonderful play of light (those photographs will come later). We also had beautifully soft light on the Snaefaelsness Peninsula late in the evening, around midnight, and a fiery sunrise at the geothermal Hveravellir. This was a nice contrast for me because my last visit to Hveravellir was under overcast skies in windy conditions.Although I packed both the Canon 1DX and 1DS MK3 on this trip, I shot exclusively with the 1DX throughout my travels in Europe and Iceland. The 1DS MK3 never made it out of the bag. I am ecstatic with the quality of the files from the 1DX and it has surpassed my expectations as a camera in all respects. The auto focus is blisteringly fast and accurate and the metering is as good as anything I have previously encountered. Technologically, the Canon 1DX is a tour de force game-changing camera that not only allows for shooting handheld in virtual darkness with near noiseless files, but also produces superb results for landscape and wildlife at more moderate ISO ranges. I was skeptical when Canon announced the 1DX as a direct replacement for both the 1DMKIV and 1DSMK3 but will happily eat my fill of humble pie, because the results speak for themselves. After shooting with the 1DX in Europe and Iceland, my 1DS MK3 has now been relegated to a back-up only body and may well be replaced with another 1DX in the future. When I get time I will update my equipment page as I have added a number of different lenses since the last update.

In terms of lenses, I used almost everything I bought with me (which was considerable). The exception was the 90mm TSE, which was a last minute inclusion and, in the end, not needed. My most utilized lenses were the 24mm F1.4L MKII and the Canon 35mm F1.4L, closely followed by the 70-200mm F2.8L IS. I also shot quite a lot of frames with the 17mm F4L TSE and the 300mm F2.8L IS. Other participants shot with the Zeiss 21mm, Canon 24mm TSE MKII, 70-200mm F4L IS and other similar focal length lenses on their Canon 5D MKIII’s, 1DsMKII’s and 1DMKIV’s.  After hauling my 70-200 F2.8L IS all over Europe, I am now considering selling it and replacing it with the much lighter F4L IS version. Since I rarely shoot this lens wide open it makes little sense to carry the extra weight. In terms of image quality the two lenses are virtually identical when they are stopped down to F5.6, so the decision is purely a matter of weight.

The inclusion of a Leica M9 and Nikon D800E by one participant proved quite interesting. The Nikon seemed to require fairly regular battery drops to reset it after what can only be described as ‘irregular activity’. At one point the camera displayed a ‘rainbow’ across its LCD screen when switched off. Fortunately, none of these glitches proved fatal and all were easily rectified by dropping the battery. These hiccups did not fill me with confidence in the camera and hopefully Nikon can resolve them with future firmware updates. It was interesting to compare the LCD screens of the Canon 5DMKIII and 1DX against the Nikon D800E. There is no question that the Nikon is decidedly green in tinge and not in the same league as the Canon screens. This really made a big difference when using ‘live view’ to compose and frame. The Leica is now a generation or two old and its LCD screen is the worst of the bunch, good for little more than histogram exposure confirmation.On the trip through Europe I travelled with both the Gura Gear Kiboko and Chobe camera bags and never had any issues with carry-on luggage on any of my long haul or short hop flights. In total, I took eight international flights, using carriers such as Cathay Pacific, Qantas, British Airways, and Iceland Air. My thanks to both British Airways and Iceland Air for the upgrades to Business Class – very much appreciated!

Considering my Kiboko fully loaded with camera gear weighed in at nearly 24 kilograms and my Chobe at just under 8 kilograms, I consider this a significant achievement and a testament to Kiboko’s ability to hold copious amounts of equipment in a compact, unobtrusive size. I did quite a bit of hiking at Landmannalaugar and the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon with the fully loaded Kiboko and never found the bag uncomfortable. Most hikes averaged around 5-6 kilometers over rough, uneven and steep terrain. It is worth remembering that the Kiboko is first and foremost a bag designed for travel and not hiking and therefore its harness system (although excellent) is perhaps not as good as those found in dedicated mountaineering and hiking packs. Nevertheless, it is a testament to the quality and design of the bag that it can be worn and carried as a backpack full of gear on long hikes without discomfort. I am confident that this bag would serve just fine for all but multi-day hikes.I shot over 4000 frames on this trip and hope to start editing and processing over the coming weeks. I am currently putting the finishing touches on a very exciting expedition to Antarctica in November 2013 and will be formally announcing the trip very shortly. This has been a trip more than eight months in the planning and includes some really unique features about which I am very excited.

In previous reports I have neglected to mention that the quality of food in Iceland is outstanding. Having been fortunate to spend time in many parts of the world, I have found that Iceland consistently serves up the best quality fresh foods I have experienced anywhere. Whether it’s lobster bisque, hamburger, or the local delicacies of smoked puffin or Minke whale (if that floats your boat), it is always excellent. The only other country I know of that can match Iceland for consistency and quality of food is my home city of Melbourne.

As is typical for me, I required copious amounts of coffee plus my favorite energy drink Magic (its probably just as well this isn’t available in Australia) to keep me pepped and focused during the long shooting hours. I would estimate we averaged a total of 3-4 hours sleep per day, which was squeezed in between photography, grabbing a meal, and driving to different locations. The hours of a photographic workshop expedition to Iceland are punishing, but the rewards are well worth the effort under the spectacular midnight sun.

Overall, this was a wonderfully successful trip to both Europe and Iceland. As always, special mention to my good friend and guide Daniel Bergmann for his guidance and local knowledge during the expedition. With Iceland 2012 now complete, my attention is turning to March next year when I am leading two Winter workshops to Iceland for frozen waterfalls, ice covered geothermal areas, the Aurora northern lights and with a little luck (OK, a lot of luck) perhaps even an erupting volcano. For anyone who is interested there are only two remaining positions on the 2nd Winter trip that kicks off on the 22nd of March until the 31st of March with Andy Biggs and myself. [Edit - Both trips are sold out]

I also wish to make special mention of those friends and colleagues who took the time to meet with me in Reykjavik before the expedition including Dagur from my favorite outdoor clothing label 66 North and A’sgeir from press photo www.pressphotos.biz.

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