Iceland – A First Timer’s Photo Tour

Iceland - Coastal Relief

Anne and I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Iceland. It’s been on Anne’s bucket list for a long time and even though I had been there before, I welcomed the opportunity to return. What made this trip special for us were two things.

First, we signed up for a photography tour. We’re both pretty experienced travelers and we’ve both done a bunch of photography in our independent travels. The opportunity to engage in a photo tour offered a couple opportunities for us that we wanted to explore. Primarily, it freed us from thinking about an itinerary. The tour leader would know the best spots to visit and would be able to help with the “cultural” aspects we might encounter. It also promised to take our flexibility away, which was an intriguing new leaning opportunity for me. When Anne and I travel alone, we’re free to come and go as we please. On a tour, we might be forced to “get creative” when we’re not feeling the creative photo bug.

Second, the tour offered a relatively unparalleled opportunity to view the aurora borealis. Our tour coincided with both the 11 year solar cycle as well as the yearly cycle. March 2013 was *THE* time to be in a high northern latitude.

Since the photo tour thing was new to us, I wanted to document some learning’s about the trip for anyone else considering a photo tour to Iceland or some other destination.

Logistics

As surmised, the ability to leave logistics up to a guide lowered significantly the overall amount of effort required in planning the trip. Neither Anne nor I wanted to be completely logistically unaware, so we did get a rough itinerary ahead of time to ensure we were going to go to places we generally wanted to go. Clearly, you should look for trips that will be touring to the spots that you want to go and have accommodations that are appropriate for your desired level of comfort. For example, Anne and I both knew that travel in Iceland involved stays at guest houses, some of which only had shared bathrooms. It was hardly a hardship. The point is, ask up front so you’re not surprised when you get on site.

As surmised, the daily logistics were also set by the group, and not by us as individuals. This meant that sometimes we would spend more time in a location that I might normally. Personally, I enjoyed the challenge of knowing that I was going to be somewhere for a while and that I would need to make the best of it photographically. Most of the time I felt like I didn’t have enough time to accomplish what I wanted to because I’d been able to get over the “creative hump.” Only a couple times was I really at a loss for what to do photographically and I was able to stop taking pictures and enjoy the incredible place that I was in.

Transport

Our trip included transportation, which in our case was a “9” passenger van. It worked, but it was pretty tight and could have very easily been insufficient with slightly more luggage. Fortunately, our trip leader had advised us in advance so we could pack accordingly.

Hyundai H1 Van

As photographers, we travel a little heavy by design. We’re often carrying a lot of gear that we *MIGHT* need but is often in excess of what we really need on a day to day basis. For my part, I fit my luggage into a Medium North Face Base Camp Duffel and all my photo and video gear into a Gura Gear 30L Kiboko pack. Anne and I also shared a computer bag containing two computers, power cords, and magazines for reading. This was a pretty “small” travel setup and was probably at about the max each person could have brought and fit into the van comfortably.

Certainly inquire of your trip leader about the travel accommodations, including the type of vehicle you’re traveling in (if transportation is included), how many others will be sharing with you, and if there will be any space constraints so you can plan accordingly.

Trip Style

Anne and I intentionally chose a photo tour as opposed to a “workshop.” We weren’t really after a lot of instruction but rather wanted the “freedom” that came from leaving logistics up to others. The photo tour promised to take us to the sights we wanted to see, and to arrange to see some places that we might not have otherwise seen, like ice caves. The tour also provided some local expertise that enabled us to do things that I might not have done had I been there alone. The photo tour also allowed the opportunity for some creative instruction, but that wasn’t the explicit point.

Iceland - Ice Cave

Photo tours may not be for all, especially those looking for a more hands on approach where a workshop style may be more appropriate. If you’re looking to specifically advance your photography, a workshop may be more appropriate. So certainly be aware of the type of trip you’re looking into and ask questions to make sure the style is appropriate for what you want to get out of it.

Shooting

As part of an organized trip, you get to see a lot of beautiful places. You also get the pleasure of doing that with the rest of your group. In this respect, both group size and common courtesy are critical. Obviously, the more people you have in a location, the higher the chance that you’re just going to get in each others way. You’ll need to pay special attention to try and work as a group, starting at the same place and working the subject in roughly the same way. If you move forward you may very well be on someone else’s frame. So ask and look regularly.

Our photo tour group shooting a vacation home on the way to Thingvallir.

Our photo tour group shooting a vacation home on the way to Thingvallir.

Even so, you may feel like you’re part of a herd. My introverted personality hates this sort of thing so I’d often try to find a new vantage point or subject away and in the opposite direction from others. Sometimes it’s just unavoidable that you’ll get in everyone’s way so do your best to be polite, courteous, and wait your turn.  For both of us, a group of 6 would be the largest we would consider if we ever chose to go on another photo tour.

Summary

Lest it sound like Anne and I didn’t have a good time, much the opposite. We had a great time seeing some incredible sights in a wonderful place. We met wonderful photographers who were a joy to be around.  The companionship was actually a great highlight of the experience.  And we came away with great photos, some of which we’d never have gotten had we not been on this tour.