Any photography trip may be challenging on its own. It requires a long preparation and a strong knowledge of the place and right time to visit. Photography in Iceland is not any easier, with ice and snow often covering most of the roads. We had a talk with local photographer Tony Prower which gave us lots of tips and 5 amazing locations not to be missed.
Everyone has the own travel bucket list. The Manchester stadium is a must visit for a football enthusiast, the Ferrari museum is a must-see for cars addicted and the love for archaeology may take you to Angkor Wat or Tikal.
If photography is your passion then Iceland has to be in the bucket list. And it’s not just about photography, it is about a visual experience, a gigantic open air museum with a daily show presented by mother nature that alternates magnificent colours to unique landscapes, all in front of you.
I saw Tony’s work for the first time on Twitter. I investigated a bit further on his website and I was amazed by the beauty of his photos. I discovered that Tony runs also photography tours through Iceland. In not time I was in contact with him to understand a bit more about this beautiful land which I will have to visit next time in Europe!!
Tony, it is so nice to to talk to you. Iceland is definitely on top of my photography bucket list and I was open mouth when I saw your photos posted on Twitter. First of all, could you tell us a bit more about you and your work
Hi Stef, thank you so much for asking me to guide your readers through Iceland.
I have no formal training in photography or art. I used to play around with a film SLR when I was a kid and I was only interested in creating long exposures or double exposures for special effect. Then I didn’t even own a camera for many years until I moved to Iceland.
The landscape here inspired me to pick up a camera and tripod and I naturally turned my hand to Landscapes, especially scenes with water i.e. waterfalls and seascapes. As the auroras started, I was drawn to very long exposure night photography.
I loved the way photography was showing a different reality compared to my eyes and I like the way I am forced to think about a scene in terms of movement.
After some years of shooting landscapes I pioneered the Magic ClothTechnique which is the same as the black card technique in the old dark room to dodge and burn, but here it is applied to a DSLR to dodge and burn the sensor as the shot is being taken (long exposure). I now use this method for 95% of my landscape work. All my images in this interview are taken with the Magic Cloth Technique.
I understand your background is in Psychology and teaching. How was you transition to photography
There was no career transition directly from psychology to photography, I couldn’t teach psychology in Iceland because of the language and lack of opportunities, so I became an English teacher (EFL) for about 6 years.
I quit EFL teaching to run tours and this led naturally to instructing photography and eventually running workshops.
I spend many years going out as a weekend photographer, learning and writing about Iceland as I did.
People were contacting me through my blog to meet up for a shoot in Iceland, the tour business was a natural progression.
I needed a jeep to get to remote parts and the only way I could afford to run a jeep was with paying customers.
Because of my blog and activity on photo sites, I already had a list of people who wanted to come and get the same pictures as me.
Having a teaching background definitely helped me to cope with the wide range of needs from my workshop customers and the psychology has helped me understand photography.
Do you see a connection between psychology and photography?
My interests in Psychology are Cognition, Behavioural Neuroscience and Neuro-anatomy.
Cognition relates to mental actions such as memory and vision, so this relates directly to a camera. Our everyday visual process is very similar to the process in photography from the lens to printer.
The behavioural neuroscience considers how an organism can interact with the external world with an interaction of brain, sensory organs (mostly visual) and muscles, for example, how we co-ordinate eye-hand to catch a ball.
All this special knowledge gives me insight to how people react to visual scenes and which part of their brain has been tickled.
We are very visual creatures with huge parts of the brain connecting to the visual cortex, we are designed to interact with our environment.
So presenting strong visual foreground elements in a natural scene will actually fire parts of the brain that would allow you to interact with that object as if you are really there. But important depth cues must be present for this to be effective. When an image is presented well it will invite the view to actually interact with the scene and this is how visual art conveys feeling.
Best time to visit Iceland for photography
Your website has some fantastic photos of Iceland. Could you tell us something more about photography in this part of the world?
Thank you, Iceland is an incredible place, but it is not all incredible all of the time (as us photographers will have you believe).
Because of the extreme seasons the same location will have about 7 different disguises and the angles of sunrise/ sunset are always different from week to week so this keeps you on your toes. This really is a place where you could go out every day and get something different, you can be a real full-time photographer if you know what you are doing.
The weather can be from Hell and driving can be very interesting in the Winter.
Planning a day is usually in reverse, I put us at a great location for the sunset and then plan the day backwards.
But as I have explained, this needs a different strategy for different times of the year, in the Summer, the tour could be through the night returning after sunrise. In the Winter the timing can be critical with such short days. A Winter day always starts with a thorough check of the weather and road conditions.
There is no bad time to visit, but Mid-Summer has puffins and mid-night sun. Winter has Ice – caves and Auroras and the sweetest light ever.
It rains every other day!
How is photography different in the four seasons?
Winter is the time to come for serious Iceland photography. The light is dramatic, the weather is dramatic and what landscape isn’t improved with a bit of snow? Mid-Winter the daylight is about 4-5 hours, but the light and colours are so sweet. Then you can go out at night and shoot it all again with Auroras or Milky Way.
Mid-Summer is great to come and shoot all night and take advantage of about 6 – 8 hours of good light. In the Summer the highland roads open giving you access to wonderful parks such as Landmannalaugar. The flowers are colourful and the bird-life is incredible.
The changing seasons are colourful, both Spring and Autumn have Autumn colours, days are long and travel is easy.
We don’t really have very low temperatures, sometimes it gets down to – 13 c, but the usual Winter temperature is about -2. This is easy to deal with if you have good clothes.
No problem with cameras as long as you protect them going back in the warm. Batteries will have a reduced life, easy to take a spare and keep it in a warm pocket.
For me the biggest challenge is driving on ice, I don’t like it but we have to do it sometimes for several hours.
Top photography locations
Your website includes a map with lots of fantastic locations. What are the top 5 sites you would suggest to any photographer?
Jökulsarlon – glacier lagoon and ice beach. No contest really, this place not only gives you amazing shots time after time, but it teaches you compositional skills. 5 hours drive from Reykjavik and easily accessible.
Goðafoss Waterfall – the waterfall of the Gods fails to disappoint both Summer and Winter it works beautifully. 6 hours drive from Reykjavik, roads in the North can become blocked so you need to be flexible.
Vestrahorn – this incredible mountain with a huge range of foreground and conditions pumps out competition winners on a regular basis. There is a troll who collects a small fee, access year round. 6 hours from Reykjavik.
Landmannalaugar – this geothermal park in the South Central highlands has amazing colours and shapes. Great for hiking. Access only from late June – September by 4×4.
Hornstrandir – the most remote nature reserve in Iceland in the North of the Westfjords. Here you will be approached by Arctic Foxes as you hike the pollution free beaches. Very difficult to access because no roads. Regular boat or small plane from Ísafjörður.
Tips for a photography trip
What are your best tips for anybody planning to travel to Iceland for a Travel Photography experience?
Iceland is very expensive and the weather can be awful, for the best chance of seeing the awesome Iceland, plan for a long as you can afford.
Summer is very different to Winter, you wont get the drama but you can travel around the island easily over a week. If you rent a 4×4 you can get to some central areas (accessible from both North and South Iceland).
If you don’t mind camping and some discomfort, aim to shoot through the night. Winter is amazing, but I see tourists with no ice/snow experience in bad situations all the time. Tourists blocking Winter roads is starting to affect industry here. I would highly recommend taking a tour with an experienced Iceland driver, just for the safety aspect.
In any season, touring with a photo guide gives you much better timing for locations we work in a streamlined way compared to an average tourist. Even the most experienced landscape photographer can use a bit of guidance in a new landscape and hopefully you might learn something from us.
What kind of gear do you use?
I use a Canon 5D3 with Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 mark 2, Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 planar, Canon EF 135mm f/2. I use a 6 stop ND filter for day time and no filter for night. I use a Medium weight Gitzo tripod with a heavy Manfrotto ball head.
Do you have a favourite lens?
My 24mm is my workhorse and covers about 90% of my shots, I couldn’t do without it. For me it represents my wide vision. I can really master a foreground without losing details in the background and without un-natural distortion.
I have used 24mm primes since my first camera. I also love playing around with the 135mm it has taught me lots about composition.
Is there any piece of gear you bought but almost never used ?
I have a macro slider – it is big and heavy and I ordered it off ebay. Weirdly I was going to use it as a pano head (not a chance!) not one of my cleverest orders.
More about Tony Prower
What software do you use for your post-processing?
Lightroom, photomatix, photoshop
How do you educate yourself to take better pictures?
Other photographers, i.e tour passengers, forums, critiquing other’s images. If you explore online galleries and stop and study images that impress you. See if you can explain how it impresses you and see if any of that can be applied to your own work.
I also use Google, youtube etc – just ask the right questions or watch the 100s of hours of talks with pro photographers.
Among your works, which one is your favourite?
GodaGlory – This was on one of my first Summer tours in the North of Iceland. I actually got lost on the way to the falls, but promised we would be there for the sun rise (03.30) we got there just in time. These are dream conditions to set up your composition and have light like this so perfect on the waterfall and foreground.
Who are the photographers you are taking your inspiration from?
Almost everyone else. There are thousands of great photographers out there on Flickr, 500px etc. I get drawn to the low-light landscape style and try to emulate what I like in my own work.
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started photography?
That driving was going to semi-cripple me. I have hikers legs and they are not supposed to be sat driving 70 hours a week. I have suffered agonising pain on a regular basis for the last 3 years, I wish I had paced myself.
I saw your work on Twitter few weeks ago. What do you think about the social environments as a marketing tool for photographers?
I have only been tweeting seriously for a few months, so the fact that I reached you down there in Melbourne is a strong testament to the platform.
I have built my entire business through social marketing, not facebook like many other photographers, but through the social photo sites like flickr, 500px and a load of smaller sites.
Interacting with active photographers is an unbeatable marketing strategy. Don’t think about the size of your reach think about the quality of your audience.
I would rather 100 flickr users knew about my business than 1000 twitter or facebook users. If I am selling images, flickr users are useless to me as customers, but still useful as active traffic!!
I had a great time talking with Tony. And it it was not just about great photography in Iceland but also on how he is using his psychology background to build better photos.
A couple of years ago I visited the Vincent Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Van Gogh was obsessed by the relationship of colours and how they can influence the brain to see beauty in a paint. He often used certain patterns of colours for certain reasons.
It is all so fascinating. How the brain can perceive beauty.
To read and see more of Tony Prower work and tours have a look to any of the links below
All of the photos in this post are property of Tony Prower. Please contact him directly on his gallery page for any question