Journal

Five things I learned in Iceland

Before making my first trip to Iceland in the summer of 2018 I read a ton of blog posts, wikipedia pages, and solicited the advice of friends. I wanted to learn as much as possible to avoid unnecessary surprises and ensure I was packing everything I'd need (without overpacking). Most of the things I learned turned out to be true, but there were a few things which could only be experienced on the ground. To help others who may be planning their own trip, here are five things I learned as a first time visitor.

1) It's expensive - Plenty of people told me Iceland was expensive, but I didn't truly appreciate how expensive it was until I was there spending money. The conversion of Icelandic Krona to United States Dollar can be punishing. Coffee, groceries, clothes - you name it - everything is higher.

Here are a few tips for spending less.

One, buy food from local grocery stores instead of eating out. You'll still pay more than a grocery store back home, but the cost won't be as bad as eating in a restaurant. I heard a story about someone who flew to Iceland with an extra suitcase full of groceries to save even more. Sounds crazy I know, but if you can check an extra bag for free, it might be worth the effort.

Two, buy beer, wine and liquor from the Reykjavik airport when you land. You'll be tired and not thinking about booze, but if you plan on drinking anything during your stay, load up at the airport. If you're staying with an Airbnb host, ask if you can bring them something. They'll thank you.

Three, avoid purchasing anything you could just as easily get at home or order online. You'll be tempted by all kinds of colorful outdoor gear (I came this close to buying a bright yellow rain jacket and some Fjallraven pants), hand-knitted Icelandic wool sweaters and blankets, but seriously, you'll cringe at your credit card statement a month later.

Four, if you do break down and purchase something of value, there's a counter at the Reykjavik airport where you can receive tax refunds for items purchased in Iceland. You can't deduct accommodations, food, or anything like that, but if you picked up a 66 North jacket with a fur-lined collar, keep the receipt, then head to the Tax Refunds counter at Keflavik Airport before you fly home to get some of your hard earned money back.

2) Everyone speaks perfect English - Seriously, it's weird. I'm accustomed to at least some difficulty communicating with locals in foreign countries, but in Iceland, I felt at times like I hadn't left home. No matter where we went, communication was easy. Too easy. Don't get me wrong, not having a language barrier certainly made getting around convenient, but it also detracted somewhat from the feeling of being elsewhere.

3) Avoid the tour, get a car - When I first started researching Iceland, I perused a number of different tour companies offering "day trips from Reykjavik" to touristy areas around "The Golden Circle" and along the southern coastline. I'm sure many of these companies provide a great service, but unless you have a specific reason to use one, you probably don't need it. Instead, rent a car from the airport and drive yourself to all the same places, and then some. With your own car you're free to explore and enjoy the scenic landscapes on your own time. I especially liked this Google Map.

4) Move beyond Reykjavik - Reykjavik is worth seeing and exploring for a day or two, and is a good "home base" when driving around the Golden Circle and the southern coastline, but consider spending the night in other parts of the country. That way you're not spending hours in the car driving back and forth from Reykjavik and you'll experience more of Iceland along the way. There are plenty of locally-operated hotels and Airbnbs all around the island.

5) Prepare for the weather - As they say in Iceland, "if you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes." Rain, wind, sun -- you name it -- the weather in Iceland is famously unpredictable. Even in summer when temperatures are at their most mild, you'll still experience cold breezes and plenty of rain and mist. Bring an actual rain jacket that repels water -- not a poncho -- unless you always want to look like you're wearing a trash bag. Waterproof boots are very handy as well, if you've got them. Overall, bring what you'd typically wear to go camping and leave your nicer threads at home. You'll fit right in. If you're really serious about the weather, bookmark the Icelandic Meteorogical Office website for up-to-the-minute updates.

That's it! Hope this information was helpful to anyone considering their first trip to the land of fire and ice.

 

Todd Domineyiceland
Photos from Iceland

Earlier this month I traveled to Iceland for nearly two weeks. My family was with me for the first few days to explore southwestern Iceland, including waterfalls, geysirs, geothermal pools and beaches along the Golden Circle, as well as the small city of Reykjavik. They then moved on to Europe while I stayed behind to meet-up with a crew of six photographers from around the world for a photography expedition in the Highlands -- Iceland's central region of volcanic deserts, glaciers and mountains.

Iceland may be small (it's roughly the size of Kentucky with a population of ~350k) but it's overflowing with enough natural wonders to fill an entire continent. Even more remarkable, three-quarters of Iceland is raw, uninhabitable and inhospitable to life -- humans especially. You can drive all the way around the country using Route 1 (which takes roughly two days), but getting into Iceland's mountainous center requires 4x4s or monster trucks outfitted with massive, car-crushing tires.

For our adventure we explored the southern Highlands using a classic Land Rover Defender. We'd sleep during the day in simple, rustic hotels, then venture out at night to capture the landscape at its most ethereal and beautiful. I lived the life of a vampire, sleeping for a few hours each afternoon, then staying up all night exploring and photographing while the rest of the world slept.

Standing out here in the middle of this remote landscape in the middle of the night was unlike anything I'd seen or felt before. It was dark, cold, wet, and unnervingly quiet. Outside of the crunch of my boots and the occasional blast of arctic wind, the environment was literally silent. We very rarely saw another human being. I felt at times like an astronaut in a sci-fi film, exploring a newfound world in search of resources. That, or I had been banished to a form of purgatory where time and life - including my own - had ceased to exist. That may sound harrowing and a bit strange, but it wasn't hard to let your imagination run wild. Holding a camera and tripod, I found, to be a grounding effect to keep me focused on the task at hand -- capturing photos.

View of Stórasúla mountain in the Suðurland region of Iceland's Highlands

It was ridiculously hard whittling down the hundreds of photos I brought home, but in addition to the image above I've picked a few of my favorites and posted them here. These include the full range of landscapes we experienced, from moody deserts of black sand to the wondrous color kaleidoscope of Landmannalaugar.

Aerial view of the southern highlands. Note the gigantic glacier at upper-left.

In addition to seeing the Highlands on the ground, I also shot the region from above. Not with a drone, but from a low-flying Cessna aircraft. This required cranking up the shutter speed (~1/2000), a wide-open aperture and a healthy amount of ISO to help stabilize my camera as it bounced around in the strong wind. I'm normally terrified of heights and flying in general, but the adrenaline rush of capturing these photos kept me focused and distracted. The diversity of texture, color, shape, and line were mindboggling. I'm thrilled with how these turned out.

Overall, I experienced a lot in Iceland, but I've barely scratched the surface. Future trips will include going beyond the south-western side of the country, not to mention experiencing the entirely different season of winter. I can't wait.

PS - To see more photos, follow me on Instagram. I'll be sharing more images from the trip which didn't make the portfolio cut.

Todd Dominey
What's in my bag - Iceland
 So...much...stuff

So...much...stuff

Tomorrow I'm leaving for a week-and-a-half-long trip to Iceland (yes!). I'll be exploring Reykjavik and the "Golden Circle", but the majority of my time will be spent in Iceland's mountainous Highlands region. This area is in the interior of the country, and can only be accessed during the warmer summer months. I expect plenty of hiking, exploring and shooting.

Before hitting the road, I thought it might be fun to share the gear I'm bringing. Trips like these don't come along every day, so I'm packing plenty of equipment to get the widest possible range of images.

Lowepro ProTactic 450 AW - Earlier this year I needed something larger than my medium-sized Case Logic camera backpack, so I picked up the Lowepro ProTactic. It can hold a lot of stuff, fits in an overhead bin as a carry-on, and is configurable internally to hold everything snug. Also comes with some nice attachable pockets for the outside of the case to carry a tripod, water bottle, etc. Shoulder straps are comfortable enough to hike with, and the belt strap is a welcome addition to help distribute weight. I doubt I'll ever need another bag.

What's going in the bag...

Canon 5D Mark IV - I've been using Canon DSLRs for years, so their interface is pretty much second nature to me at this point. Solid camera, built like a tank, great full-frame images.

Canon 50mm f1.2 L - (Attached to the 5D in the photo) Picked up recently used on eBay. A phenomenal lens with a gigantic f1.2 aperture. Works well for a wide variety of compositions - especially low-light indoor settings. The temptation with a lens like this is to set it to f1.2 for the most beautiful blown-out backgrounds possible, but at that aperture the depth-of-field is razor thin and the sharpness is just okay. The lens is noticeably sharper at f4, so I typically try to stay there and not open it up all the way unless I really need to. I don't anticipate using this all that much, but I'm bringing it just in case.

Canon 16-35mm f4 L - I've used this lens more than any other. Fantastic wide-angle perfectly suited for architecture, streets, and cityscapes. There are cheaper wide angles out there (I used to own one), but the color, clarity, and sharpness of this Canon version can't be beaten.

Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II - This was one of the first lenses I purchased eight years ago, and it has earned the distinction of being my least used overall. Not because it's a poor lens - far from it - but because it's a such a commitment to carry around and travel with. Lately, however, I've been making an effort to use it more, for it really is an ideal lens for landscape photography. You might think a 16-35mm would be better, but if you're shooting subjects at a distance a wide angle lens will make them too small. You may get more of the overall scene, but that latitude comes at the expense of depth. A telephoto zoom like this 70-200mm not only brings subjects closer, but compresses the overall scene for increased clarity throughout your field of view. I plan on using this lens a lot in Iceland.

Canon 24-70mm f2.8 L - Ask any Canon shooter which lens they'd own if they could only have one, and most would answer the 24-70mm. It's an all-around lens capable of shooting everything from wide angles (at 24mm) to zoomed images at 70mm and everything in between. Can't go wrong.

Lee Filters - This is really a category unto itself. Included here is the Foundation Kit and Filter Holder, the Lee 77mm adapter ring, the Lee Polariser Adaptor Ring 105mm and the Lee Graduated ND Filter Twin Pack. This is a bunch of stuff which attaches together to the front of nearly every lens I own. The kit allows you to apply filters (in this case graduated NDs) to a variety of lenses using rectangular plates instead of the circular versions you typically find. Because the ND filters are held in front of the lens, you can freely move them up and down to apply however much (or little) darkening your scene needs. You could do something like this in Photoshop or Lightroom of course, but doing this "in camera" means you can push exposures without blowing out highlights in the sky to create more balanced images. Plus there's just something fussy and fun about using them.

Breakthrough Photography 105mm Circular Polarizer - This attaches to the aforementioned 105mm Adaptor Ring from Lee and is mounted on the very front of the filter kit. What's it for? Polarizers help subdue light reflections on surfaces, most notably water. You can live without ND filters, but polarizers do something magical which can't be replicated using software. 

Fujifilm X100F - I fell in love with the (older) X100T a few years ago, so when the X100F was released I didn't hesitate to buy one. Fuji has done remarkable work with these cameras, for they produce wonderful images with that Fuji "look" and have a physical design which feels like old analog cameras. It may be weird, but I set mine to manual focus with the rangefinder-style viewfinder (requiring you to line-up two images) to give it an even more retro feel.

MeFOTO Roadtrip Travel Tripod - Ruggid, lightweight tripod which folds up nicely. I typically pack this in checked luggage, then attach it to the outside of the backpack. The included ball head is adequate, and the legs extend and collapse very easily. Good choice for travel.

Leofoto Mini Tripod - Impressive little tripod which can hold a ton of weight - even the 5D with the 70-200mm attached! Great for when you can't use a tripod or just don't feel like setting it up.

Sunwayfoto Quick Release Plate - This "L" bracket fits perfectly on the Canon 5D Mark IV and makes switching from landscape to portrait orientation on a tripod super easy and quick. You simply unlock the plate and then re-attach the camera on its bottom of left side without messing around with your tripod's ball head mount. I often times just leave this attached to the camera even when I'm not using a tripod.

Breakthrough Photography Arca Swiss Quick Release Plate - When I'm not using the aforementioned "L" bracket I like to use this quick release plate from Breakthrough Photography. Very well built and can be mounted by hand without additional tools.

RAVPower Charger and Batteries - This is such a fantastic accessory for any Canon DSLR user. Unlike Canon's default battery charger which can only be plugged into a wall, this charger plugs in via USB -- allowing you to charge batteries off pretty much anything (I almost always use my MacBook). It also comes with two extra batteries so you never run out of juice.

Silicon Power 1TB Rugged External Hard Drive - I once lost an entire set of photos from Cannes, France because of bad SD card. Never again. I use this drive to copy photos from SD cards while traveling to ensure I have at least one backup of what I've shot. If wifi is strong, I also try to transfer images to Google Drive for yet another backup just in case everything gets lost. 

Petzl Tikkina Headlamp - Perhaps I'm just getting old, but I've used this headlamp over and over again for all kinds of projects and things. Will almost certainly be needing this later at night.

There are other small accessories and things, but these are the most important bits. Off we go!

 

Todd Dominey
California with my kids

Recently I traveled to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park for a week-long adventure with my kids Drake and Sophia. This trip was unique, for the three of us had never traveled together for this long without my wife Heather (she couldn't take the time off from work, unfortunately), so for all intents and purposes it was a "dad trip". For a couple of days we hit up all the touristy spots around the Wharf, toured Alcatraz, ate plenty of sourdough, then ventured three hours east to Yosemite for five days of hiking, exploring, and soaking in the beautiful summer weather. Fantastic experience all around.

Todd Dominey