As the rain hammered relentlessly on the windscreen and the headlights barely penetrated the gloom, the sense of trepidation and dare I say it, helplessness, was palpable. After a long day of trains, planes and automobiles, this was not the Icelandic welcome our guests had in mind. I made an inadequate attempt to lift the mood but only as the lights of our hotel came into view with safety and sustenance assured, could I sense a collective sigh of relief.
On the road again.
I rarely seem to have time these days to read all the magazines that drop through my door; I’m sure it never used to be the case. One headline however, recently caught my eye: “Make the weather in Photoshop”. Apparently, for those who know what’s what, ice, sun, mist and rain can all be plucked from the digital heavens and inserted into an image with no one being any the wiser. Is that what it’s come to? Is that what nature photography is now about?
I wonder whether there has ever been a place that has gone through a more meteoric rise to photographic stardom than Iceland? It is the unrivaled Susan Boyle of landscape photography honeypots and I have watched in amazement as a very much 21st century cocktail of media exposure has propelled this cold and unforgiving island into a major tourism destination. Continue reading “Winter Iceland”
Fresh or fodder?
On a recent photo tour I overheard my co-guide Mark Hamblin being asked about his favourite image. Mark replied that he tended towards images he’d recently taken, implying that ‘freshness’ equated to enduring ‘quality’. It’s inevitable that when photographers, even established pros like Mark, acquire new images, especially from a place that they’ve never before photographed, there is an emotional attachment to those images: Continue reading “Fresh or fodder?”
It is entirely possible that Iceland will be unkind to you. Not that the Icelandic people are unpleasant you understand, far from it, but the island can serve up copious helpings of rain, snow and wind followed by more rain, snow and wind. Did I mention that it might rain? On the plus side, it is that very changeability that makes Iceland such an exciting place to photograph. Continue reading “Extreme Iceland”
Iceland – fifty shades of grey.
If you’ve found this blog post and are expecting comment on an Icelandic translation of an erotic novel by E.L. James, I’m sorry to disappoint and, if you’re looking for that form of escapism, I’m not sure this post about nature photography will quite do it for you. Thanks anyway for dropping by.
If I was asked for just one word that summed up our recent Iceland tour, that word would have to be Grey. Grey, grey and more grey. Fifty or more shades of it. It can work, grey, but it’s hard work. It’s even harder however, to be angry with Iceland, a place that delivers a constant soundtrack of drumming snipe, bugling swans and piping waders. And big skies of course. Grey but big.
Our recent photo tour kicked off in the south where black sand beaches with troll-like outcrops are caressed by aquamarine waters, where icebergs centuries old calve into lagoons and where on the black lava plateaux, ptarmigan, skuas and golden plover raise their young in the brief window of summer. With almost 24-hr. daylight, we were up early and out late but with just a handful of exceptions, had to make the most of indifferent weather.
Heading west we enjoyed a single sun-kissed evening photographing red-throated divers, that most primeval of all birds and a real symbol of the north. With a confiding pair with well-grown chicks, accompanied by omnipresent phalaropes, our group could indulge their passion for bird photography that would be nigh on possible to replicate elsewhere. The nearby river and waterfalls offered opportunities with whooper swans, fulmars and harlequin ducks, the latter being responsible for a severe drenching of some of our group.
Our final port of call was Iceland’s west coast where we spent a long day on the remote island of Flatey, home to tame redshanks, terns, black guillemots and the ever-present red-necked phalaropes. Thankfully the weather held when it needed to but again, failed to excel itself. The Fish and Chips on the ferry were decent though.
Iceland is one of the most dynamic and fascinating landscapes of the north but it’s charms need to be teased out, it’s secrets are not easily given up. And of course, it’s become a hotspot for nature photographers all attempting to put their own spin on well-visited locations. The bar then, is high before you even start. 10 days, 10 weeks, 10 years – it’s not enough to tell Iceland’s story and so I’ll be back. You’d think there was only so much grey anyone can take? Nah, bring it on.
Thanks as ever to our spirited group and to my co-guide Mark Hamblin who needs to invest in a proper razor (beard trimmers are just plain wrong). As usual we shared ups, downs and lots of stuff in between. If we ever find out who nicked Sue’s sandwich, there’ll be trouble!
Top 3 mind-blowing, gut-wrenching, mouth-watering 2012 moments!
Well what a year! It’s easy to say that at the end of every year but 2012 really has been one to remember – not all for the best of reasons. So what have been the good bits? I mean the REALLY good bits? That’s tricky but if pushed, I can think of three very special moments that are etched on my mind for always. They weren’t necessarily planned or indeed expected; the resultant images are nothing more than pleasing, but for different reasons, the experiences remain vivid in my mind.
In 3rd place…
At midnight our work was done and although the Icelandic sun never sets at this time of year, we felt we’d had the best of it and headed back to our hotel. Our group were tired and so was my co-guide, Mark Hamblin, and I. But then the most surreal mist rolled in off the sea and my mind started racing. Mark and I have worked with each other often enough to know pretty much what the other is thinking so by the time we reached base camp, we knew we were heading out again. Along with the hardy few we looked for a subject to bring the scene to life. Given the choice I’d have gone for a red-throated diver and ten minutes later, that’s exactly what we’d found.
At 2.30am I was lying beside this small mist-enshrouded lake in the shadow of an ice-capped mountain, the silence broken only by the mournful call of this most enigmatic of all birds. And the sound of a handful of shutter buttons!
In 2nd place…
In all honesty I should have some of the best osprey shots ever taken. Not only do I live in the bird’s UK stronghold, I have a pair nesting just a stone’s throw from home. I could make excuses about the difficult position of the nest, but that’s just what they’d be – excuses.
This year I took a slightly different approach (more of that in a future blog) and it’s very much a work in progress. Meantime, one afternoon from the comfort (read discomfort) of my hide, I was confronted by a brief and violent downpour, which coincided with the male osprey landing right in front of my hide with a fish. It was a heart-stopping moment as any encounter with this conservation icon always is. A few minutes later however, my heart was pounding for a different reason. The osprey nest sits next to the River Feshie, one of the fastest spate rivers in Europe. My hide sits on a shallow shingle spit in the river bed and I sit on a flimsy stool inside the flimsy hide. It’s all a bit flimsy if truth be told but everything works fine…as long as it doesn’t rain.
And the top 2012 moment…
The polar bear had been feeding on a seal long before we spotted him in the distance. By the time we arrived on the scene, he was satiated and was intent on a long snooze. It was 4 in the morning and most of our small group were asleep in their cabins. Undeterred we decided a low-level shot from the zodiac might be worth pursuing and after several minutes of banging on doors, we had a bleary-eyed group of less-than-eager photographers assembled on deck.
Approaching the slumbering bear at a painfully slow speed we edged up to the ice floe and were initially met with nothing more than a dismissive glance. But bears being bears, this one wanted to check us out. He raised his lumbering head, then his lumbering body and started lumbering – straight towards us. He had that swagger of a top predator and all of a sudden we felt like trespassers, like intruders, like vulnerable intruders.
As he stood eye-level, too big to frame with my 500mm lens, you could power half of London with the electricity in that zodiac. As one of our guests remarked afterwards: “That was a thoroughly pleasing encounter.” (or unpublishable words to that effect)
Here’s wishing everyone more life-affirming experiences in the natural world during 2013. My thanks to friends, colleagues, guests and associates for not only the special moments above, but many more besides.
1 x obliterated 5d; 1 x smashed polariser; 2 x heavily bruised knees after a spectacular tumble and several severely furrowed brows and glazed eyes. I should also mention bruised buttocks from bumping around in the back of our minibus (that’s a different story though). This was the collective toll on our group following a recent trip to Iceland which coincided with 24hr daylight and a subsequent requirement to ignore the time and live by the light.
I love Iceland because I love drama. Skies full of threat, beaches full of nothing and birds everywhere – not a massive range but in massive numbers. Working at this time of year however, is demanding and there’s no doubt it’s tough on the body clock. But hey, you only live once.
Iceland has become THE destination for photo-tour groups in recent years. It wasn’t so much a secret before, it just didn’t seem to catch people’s attention. The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull a few years back changed all that and brought Iceland global attention. And rightly so – it’s a photographer’s nirvana.
I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of where we went and what we shot but the images here should give you an idea of the variety on offer. Once again, we enjoyed the company of a great group of guests so my thanks (in no particular order) to Pauline & Chris, Cynthia and Wojciech, Ann and Helen, Melanie, Adrian, Richard and Cheryl for their good humour and for being in the Little Green Bus Gang. My thanks also to my co-pilot on this tour Mark Hamblin who in his maturing years, seems to have developed a talent for impersonating fast-moving locomotives in his sleep. Over the years I’ve shared endless rooms with the Snorer From Hell but this trip reached new heights.
We’ll be doing it all over again next year so if you want to join us, drop us a line.
Favourite images of 2011: No.2
This was a desperate and torrid hour of photography leaving me exhausted and dripping wet. A pair of Harlequin ducks were riding the rapids of an Icelandic river and whilst there were shots to be had, their arrival on the slower water downstream allowed the use of the exquisite evening light. Only one problem: to get close enough to them I needed to wade the river and clamber onto a gravel spit. I did it once only to have the birds sail past. Remarkably they flew back upstream and repeated their journey – I did the same jumping back into the river. This happened several more times with me becoming increasingly frustrated. I took about a hundred images and liked just one. This is it. The following day the birds were loafing right by the river bank but the light was not a patch on the previous evening.
The face of change.
A meeting with colleagues this last week proved to be a tad dispiriting with talk of rapid and widespread change within the business of nature photography. Stock sales are in massive decline, tours are more difficult to sell and print sales are almost non-existent – all traditional revenue streams. There is undoubtedly increased demand for nature imagery but this is countered by the massive upsurge in supply over recent years. Everyone it seems, wants to be a nature photographer (who can blame them) and the market is knocking at the door of saturation. The spectre of image fatigue also hangs in the air – it’s simply more challenging than ever to elicit a reaction from an audience perpetually bombarded with top-class material. Factor in economic uncertainty and I’d like to meet the photographer who disagrees that times are tough.
So what of the future? What of the keen young fellow I met recently who was desperate to give up his (well paid) day job to follow his dream of becoming a photographer? Two years ago I’d have had a good stab at answering these questions – I’m less sure now.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Think Harry Potter. No, I tell you what, think Billy Elliott or Bridget Jones. All great films. All absorbing entertainment. The former perhaps relies on outrageous budgets but the latter two are just simple tales: stories. We love stories – as a species I mean. We’re hard-wired for stories. It doesn’t matter if they’re in book form or in 3D wraparound film format. A good story is always in demand – always will be (think Jackanory if you’re old enough).
And let’s face it, nature offers story-telling photographers untold material – we just have to package that material and importantly, make sure our stories are told. And therein lies the future I think. There are plenty of photographers who have something to say and then there are the few who know how to say it. In a volatile marketplace that’s perhaps the crux of it, and I for one, retain my optimism for a future that might look very different but will still welcome the modern-day yarn-spinner.