Photo Tours - They Are Only Good If You Are On One

20130304_GK_Iceland_MG_4126.jpg

Are there any more secrets in landscape photography? Certainly not any locations that have the bad luck of finding themselves lying right on the side of a main national highway in a place as iconic as Iceland. Sadly, even exotic, remote travel destinations like Iceland are no exception to this unfortunate phenomenon. Last week, my wife and I made a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Iceland to celebrate our fifth anniversary. I had been dreaming of photograhing this beautiful country for years, and one of the most incredible natural scenes in Iceland would have to be the glacial ice from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier lying on the black volcanic sand just seaward of the Jökulsarlón on the Breiðamerkursandur coast.

Jökulsarlón, Breiðamerkursandur, Iceland

I was lucky enough to get a few chances to shoot this magnificient natural scene; however my experience at this location ended up being a bittersweet one for me.

As I said before, I have been photographing the blue glacial ice in this black sand beach for years in my imagination. When we finally actually got there, I was giddy with excitement to see no one else there. We drove past at noon under stormy skies, and I was able to shoot the ice all by myself for about an hour and a half. I was delighted - but the mid-day light was lacking in contrast, so I looked forward to returning at sunset for another go in better light. The beach at the Jökulsarlón was one of the more challenging scenes I have photographed, shooting on sand at the ocean's edge is always trying and requires that full attention be paid to the sea. Crashing waves of freezing salt water are not a good compliment to thousands of dollars of camera gear.

20130304_GK_Iceland_MG_3639-Edit

We drove on, had lunch in Höfn, and came back at around 6pm. Again, we were the only vehicle there, and I happily trudged out to the ice, which was now being bathed by the lapping waves due to the tide having risen.

About five minutes after I started capturing images, I started hearing voices behind me, and sure enough I looked back to the parking spot to see two white Mercedes Sprinter Vans disgorging about 30 photographers.

They quickly overtook the limited real estate of the beach, and I grew more and more frustrated by the minute. It turned out that it was my bad luck that a Squiver photo tour led by Marcel van Oosten and his wife had picked that random Monday evening in March to visit the Jökulsarlón. It literally became impossible to try to compose photogrpahs without people, tripods, and worst of all, footprints in my viewfinder. Some of the photographers even moved pieces of ice, stacking them on top of other pieces to photograph them. Add to that a 25 knot wind and temps in the Fahrenheit teens, and it was a struggle.

Three photographers to my left, and 27 to my right

I prefer to photograph in solitude in nature, always being respectful of my surroundings so that I can create an emotional connection with the scene. That way, I can attempt to visually depict that connection through my photogrpahs. It's impossible to do this when a place is crawling with other photographers, especially when some of them are altering the scene.

Dejected, I gave up after gathering a few frames, and after a conference with my wife, decided to sleep in the parking lot in hope sof clear skies for aurora over ice. Sadly, the first clouds from what would become a raging four-day storm began pilinhg up in the sky, and the winds picked up to about 40-60 knots. Needless to say we didn't get much sleep that night.

Pocketed Ice

I awoke befroe dawn, to a howling wind and cloudy skies. I readied my gear for the brutal weather, and drove our mobile tent-on-wheels across the road from the main parking lot to the beach. Sure enough, guess who was already there? The same two white vans. I couldn't believe it. The nearest accomodation is about an hour's drive away - and this was a photo tour! Who gets up before sunrise on a photo tour?

When I spoke with several of the clients the preceeding day, they told me they were heading along down the coast. It turns out that the horrible weather, whcih was closing down on us all that very morning, left a hole over the Breiðamerkursandur cost, leaving it one of the only places suitable for outdoor photography in any weather other than a blizzard/hurricane. I almost gave up and left....but I stuck it out and I'm glad I did. I was able to make some interesting photographs despite dealing with the hordes of photographers.

Resistance is futile

What lesson can be learned from this experience? To be sure, if you are the type of photographer who likes everything to be worked out for you, then a photo tour can be a Godsend. Me, I like not knowing where I am going. I like sleeping in the dirt, freezing at sunrise, seeing waht's around the next corner, and being flexible. I don't want someone to drive me around in a bus and take me to exotic, iconic locations with 29 other photographers. Bottom line? No more iconic locations for me for a while.