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Guest post: Nikon D800E does Iceland

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Joseph Caruana (websiteFacebookYouTube500px) shares his photographs and experiences during a recent trip to Iceland with the Nikon D800E (click on images for larger view):

Visiting Iceland had been on my bucket list for a very long time.  A place full of natural wonders and fantastic scenery, it called both to the scientist and the photographer in me.  So when the opportunity came along, I didn't require any persuasion.

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The idea of being outdoors for the whole stay was quite appealing, so we opted for camping.  We hired a car to give ourselves the freedom of roaming the place to our hearts' content, drew up a (not-so-rough) plan of which sites we wanted to visit and when, and three months later we were on our way.

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Upon arriving at Keflavik International Airport, we were welcomed by rain and a howling wind.  A short walk to the car was sufficient to convince me that if the weather were to stay like this, I'd have to work quite hard to get any decent shots.  But while driving to the first planned camping site, it quickly became clear to me that, as expected, the weather here was very variable and changed quite rapidly over both space and time (no physics references intended).  I realized that the light here would have to be constantly chased.  Indeed, the car would come in very useful later on, when we changed plans a number of times and drove for several kilometres to escape cloudy patches and emerge in beams of sunlight.

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The camera I took with me was my trusty D800E.  The list of lenses included the usual suspects: the 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VRII, and 50mm f/1.4G.  Way back when I was still trying to decide between the D800E and the D4, I had opted for the former because of its staggering image quality, and in particular its high resolution and superb dynamic range at its base ISO setting.  For this latter quality alone in particular, the D800E came into its own while shooting in Iceland.  (I should point out that none of the images presented here are HDR.)

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Oftentimes, I was photographing waterfalls at close range (such as when I was shooting Seljalandsfoss from behind, with the sun right in front, a scene exhibiting a very wide range of brightness levels).  At this proximity to the waterfall, spray was landing on my 14-24mm's bulging objective at such a rate that I had to turn around and wipe the lens dry after barely a single shot, as the rest would all be spoiled by out-of-focus water droplets.  (A piece of advice:  carrying a piece of perspex to shield the lens while composing the picture makes the process much easier.  Alas, I didn't have one with me at the time, so snapping a good shot became quite an ordeal.)  Once the lens was exposed to take a picture, I'd rarely get more than one "clean" shot, so acquiring bracketed exposures was out of question.  But the D800E's fantastic dynamic range enabled me to record detail in both the highlights and deep shadows in a single exposure.  It goes without saying that I always shoot RAW to have more flexibility in the editing stages.  You'd think that one would get used to the camera's dynamic-range capabilities after months of shooting with it, but back in the digital darkroom, I end up being surprised each and every time at how much detail it manages to record in both extremes of the brightness scale.  (Note:  If you're after long-exposure, filtered shots intended to yield silky-smooth waterfall images, then you'll have to keep a bit of distance to avoid spray.  In this case, it's also a good idea to shoot the same picture quite a few times to enable the removal in post of any water-droplets that might find their way on your lens.)

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The D800E's great performance at higher ISOs was very useful in a different scenario.  Such is the beauty of Iceland that one could literally stop the car to take pictures every few meters.  Since that's hardly practical if one is there on a short trip, the compromising solution is to keep taking pictures even when the car is moving, if you're not the one doing the driving, that is!  Needless to say, this is not going to give you a technically perfect image, most especially with a sensor as discriminating as that of the D800E.  But faced with the prospect of having a decent (if not so perfect) picture or no picture at all, I always opt for the former.  In such situations, turning up the ISO to enable the use of sufficiently small aperture settings (to achieve reasonable depth of field) without visible motion-blur worked pretty well.  And once again, I was very happy with the dynamic range offered, even at these higher ISOs.

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Well, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Iceland and would only wish that other photographers who might be thinking of potentially visiting the place have the same memorable experience.  So I thought I'd list a few tips which might come in useful (they also apply in general).  Here they go:

Prepare for the worst

Mentally prepare yourself for the very real possibility of constant rain and bad weather. It is all too easy to get very excited about prospective photos you've planned well in advance, only to get there and realize that the sun is nowhere in sight. So be prepared to make the most of whatever weather conditions Iceland might throw at you. Most of the time, I was getting myself and the equipment completely drenched.  Having said that, the weather in Iceland can change quickly and dramatically, so always be on the lookout for brief windows of opportunity. If you can gain access to a weather forecast (especially a short-term forecast), all the better. Sometimes, you might have to drive for a couple of hours (or more) to chase some clear patch of sky since it might be amazingly clear in one place whilst being completely clouded over a couple of hundred kilometres away.  But most importantly, remember that rain or shine, you have to get out there.  There is one thing that will guarantee you no shots: staying indoors (or in your tent).  So if the rain is pouring and the wind blowing, well, sometimes you just have to suck it in and head out anyway.

The lens-cleaning cloth is your best friend

Bring with you MANY lens-cleaning cloths. Trust me when I say that your lenses will keep getting wet, be it from rain or waterfall spray, and your lens cloth will become wet and useless pretty quickly. Make sure you have plenty others tucked away in your bag. Also, take with you a few plastic bags (or even better, a proper camera cover) to protect your gear from rain while still allowing you to shoot.

Take plenty of memory cards and batteries

There's no such thing as having too many of these.  I don't think I ever took as many pictures in so short a time - and D800 files eat up memory cards very rapidly.  So ample memory and power are a must.

Plan your shots in advance

This has been said before, but it's worth repeating here.  Some pictures can be planned well in advance.  If you know where the sun will be in respect to your subject, you can make sure that you get there during the best time.  (And if you happen to be clouded over, then it's time to improvise.)  A free tool which you might find useful to plan your photography is The Photographer's Ephemeris. I normally use this tool in conjunction with Google Earth to plan my photography.

Ignore your plans every now and then

Take a random detour. Some of my favorite pictures were snapped where I least expected them.  Spontaneous decisions to head down some route off the beaten path rewarded me with some of my favorite images.

Less is more

It is often the case that when you are surrounded by vast, beautiful landscapes, you will want to somehow capture it all.   Be disciplined with yourself.  Remember that including everything in your frame will not make for a better picture.  If you have a persistent inkling to get a super wide-angle shot that captures most of what you see, well, then for heaven's sake go ahead and do it to get rid of the distraction - and then focus on what's important.

Keep warm

This one is pretty obvious, but I'll list it here nevertheless.  Don't even think about visiting Iceland without some proper waterproof clothing and hiking shoes/boots.  If you get wet, not only is it a very unpleasant feeling, but it's quite likely that you will become careless and your photography will suffer too.  Also, make sure to take some thick clothes with you, even if visiting during Summer.  It can get quite chilly, especially when approaching glaciers (and obviously, at night).  The layers system is the one I found to work best.  One of the worst feelings in the world for a photographer is to be forced to leave an awesome location simply because it's too cold.  So keep yourself dry and warm.

Stay safe

Keep your own safety in mind.  It's easy to get very excited about a potential photo opportunity, in the process forgetting where you're placing your feet.  When shooting from cliffs in particular (be it for wildlife or landscapes/seascapes), whenever possible I insist on first finding a place from where I can get a view of the whole cliff wall right at the spot where I'll be setting up my tripod. That way I can tell whether the spot I've eyeballed happens to be a flakily protruding bit which could end up falling under my weight.  Indeed, this has potentially saved my skin on more than one occasion.  As a general rule of thumb, I adhere to the dictum that if you feel something might be too dangerous, it very probably is.  So back off before it's too late!

Forget about the missed opportunities

At some point or other we've all missed an opportunity for a fantastic picture.  Perhaps we arrived too late, or we weren't quick enough to draw the camera out, or we didn't have the right lens with us .  Well, it's no use spoiling the rest of your trip by mulling over the one photograph you've missed.  There are plenty others to be taken.  If you don't enjoy the rest of your journey and focus on the remaining opportunities, you're bound to end up way more disappointed in the end.  So forget about the missed shots and instead anticipate the many more that lie ahead.

I'll leave you with those bits of advice, for what they're worth.  In summary, I heartily recommend visiting Iceland if you ever get the chance.  It's a truly magical place and a photographer's paradise, which I will surely be revisiting soon.  Happy shooting!

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Partial equipment list

  • Nikon D800E
  • 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VRII and 50mm f/1.4G
  • SB-900 Speedlight (which I didn't use in the end)
  • Hoya NDX400 neutral density filter
  • Three Legged Thing 'Eddie' tripod
  • Bean bag
  • Remote release
  • Glidecam HD-4000 (which in the end I didn't use as I focused my attention entirely on photography)
  • Plenty of memory cards and batteries
  • Apple Macbook Pro (I was backing up pictures on the fly and occasionally having a quick look in the evening at some of the pictures of the day)
  • Compass, swiss knife, torchlight, notebook
  • Rain-cover for camera
  • Lowepro Fastpack 350 and separate raincover
  • Warm clothes, thermals, hiking boots, gloves, cap, etc.
  • Camping essentials (sleeping bag, mat, etc.)

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  • Sleeper

    Splendid shots. Makes me want to go to Iceland now.

  • http://stevewakeman.tumblr.com/ Steve Wakeman

    A damn fine set of images there my friend, thank you for sharing.

    • Joseph

      Many thanks, Steve! It was my pleasure to share them. Glad you enjoyed the post :)

    • Joseph

      Many thanks, Steve! It was my pleasure to share them. Glad you enjoyed the post :)

  • kwiatek

    Nice photos!

  • David G.

    I went there in June. A lot of the pictures are very familiar (but these are obviously much better than mine; my D3100 can’t compete !).
    I absolutely recommend going there for photography, especially if you’re in good physical condition and are used to walking long distances, in which case you’ll get to see a wealth of truly unique and breathtaking landscapes.

  • Jeffrey

    didn’t carry any filters (ND, GND, RND etc) in a trip like this?

    • Daniel

      D800E DR probably won’t need ND

      • Drazen B

        I’m yet to find a single camera which wouldn’t benefit from the use of an ND filter, including my D800.

      • AM

        Do you actually know what a ND filter is for?

      • Claude Dumas

        quite useful for waterfall actually, it allows you to increase the length of the exposure. I use it extensively during my june 2013 trip. However, the Hoya get completely messy if water get on it and you try to remove that with a lens cloth. You need special cleaning liquid to remove the mess (e.g. RC)

      • Daniel

        sorry guys.
        for some reasons I thought it meant CPL :)
        but CPL would be nice

    • Eric Calabos

      He mentioned: Hoya NDX400 neutral density filter

  • skaarj

    Very nice. Those pics are what I would expect from equipment costing more than my car. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ian Dangerzone

    Thanks for a very informative trip summary and some great photos. Iceland has been on my radar for a shoot within the next few years and I’ll probably be running a similar setup to you, albeit with my wife and two boys in tow!

    • Joseph

      I’m sure you will all love it! It’s an incredibly beautiful place.

  • Mark

    Joe, so many questions. Three only: What lens and settings for the bird flight shots? How did you do the focus?

    Your shots are awe inspiring. And I am so grateful for your ‘less is more’ adage. I suffer from the reverse – always have, since grade 2 track and field days. But those wide shots kept my memory intact.

    I am further grateful for your inclusion of the 50 mm lens, my absolute favourite notwithstanding the ridicule I get for using a ‘boring’ lens which I find just perfect.

    Please do a guest lecture about the technical aspects of your work.

    Kind regards,

    Mark

    • Plug

      Less is more indeed! Do you make prints? These pictures would look wonderful blown up to A3+ or bigger.

      • Joseph

        Yes, I’m actually waiting for some A3 and larger prints I ordered last week :)

    • Joseph

      Hey Mark, for the bird shots I used the 70-200mm f/2.8, employing continuous focusing to track the birds. The aperture for those was set at f/4.5 and the ISO was set between 500 and 1000. Glad you liked the post :)

      Joseph

      • Mark

        Thanks, Joe, for the answers. I wish I had thought about ‘continuous focusing’ a few weeks back in a park where I shot a woodpecker on the grass perfectly with that lens but failed the flight. If only I’d thought of ‘cf’. Thanks for the hint. And you are a good teacher, too! I remind you, please do a guest lecture on the technical aspects of your work. Many of us would be grateful. Kind regards, Mark.

  • Maji

    Lovely images. Thank you for sharing.

  • Plug

    Lovely pictures! I’ve been to southern Iceland many times and recognise most of these places. I presume this is summer? Try going again in late May. Then you will also get flowers, birds nesting by the side of the road so the opportunity for a bit more colour if you want. Beyond Skaftafell and towards the Jokullsarlon there are glacial pools at that time with nesting Red-throated Divers that are easy to approach although 300+ lenses are required. You have me planning another trip!

    • Joseph

      Thanks! Another trip to Iceland is most certainly in the plans :)

  • StarF

    Nice pics! Thx for sharing.

  • Drazen B

    Very nice, thanks for posting and sharing some first hand advice.

  • PeterReffi

    This is why you should have left most of your equipment at home and just have taken the D4, and the Nikon trinity (14-24, 24-70, 70-200)
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151616298968347&set=a.10151616298873347.1073741829.787463346&type=3&theater

    • Joseph

      Hehe, I think not. Most of that equipment came in quite useful :)

  • Alpha Whiskey Photography

    And all I had in Iceland was a D90. And yet, curiously, I still managed to eke out some images :)

    http://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblog/post/Iceland

    • Joseph

      Most certainly! First and foremost, it’s always about the photographer, not the camera :) The D800 does come in useful when making large prints. Nice pics, by the way!

      • Alpha Whiskey Photography

        Thank you Joseph! :)

      • jk

        or when you need the extra reach, when you are reach limited , just use the crop mode 1.2X mode.
        I do not use 1.5X mode because it noticeably deteriorates the IQ of it , but the 1.2X mode does not deteriorate it much , it it just a bit worse than the D600 at full resolution mode.

    • Abhishek

      Beautiful pictures.

  • groucher

    Excellent set of shots. Thanks for posting.
    I would have gone with some AI primes rather than the Trinity – just as good on the D800 and saves a lot of weight.

    • Joseph

      Thanks! As for lenses, primes wouldn’t have been quite the best option in these circumstances. Of course, they are fine lenses, but when you’re hiking for hours you want the flexibility offered by a zoom lens to cover a wide range of focal lengths. Carrying primes to cover the same range would have entailed carrying quite a few of them, and the weight factor would have become an issue :)

      • Claude Dumas

        not sure… I have made my 15 days trip in june 2013 with D800E + the following primes : 24mm 1.4G, 85mm 1.4G and 300mm F4. Never neded a zoom, except in one particular circumstances where 16mm would have been great. Take a look : http://claudedumas.zenfolio.com/iceland

        • Joseph

          Hey Claude, that’s fair enough. It often boils to personal preferences. For long hikes, I quite like the flexibility that zoom lenses offer. I ended up using quite a wide range of focal lengths, from 14mm all the way to 200mm. Sometimes you can do with simply shifting your position, but at times that can change the perspective, which is not always desirable. So whilst I love my primes, when I go for a long hike or trek, I tend to carry zooms as I find that they offer the best deal in terms of focal-length coverage and weight. But again, to each his own :) Nice pics, Claude!

  • cyclist

    because you mention Nikon D800 and Iceland here :)

    Iceland on bicycle (4000km, Juli/August 2013)

    Nikon D800 + 28-300mm + 18-35mm + Berlebach tripod (http://www.berlebach.de/?bereich=details&id=249)

    http://radlfahrer.blogspot.de/2013/08/island2013.html

    maybe use google translate to get an (awkward) English version :)

  • Majken Hammer

    Lovely pictures – and a god advice from Faroe Island – if you come here or to Iceland – be dressed like an “onion” / layer system ;)

  • peteee363

    “Take a random detour. Some of my favorite pictures were snapped where I least expected them.”
    this is a great idea when visiting anywhere, even across your own city. there are things the regulars take for granted, and never think to shoot.

    • Joseph

      Couldn’t agree more!

  • Shepherd

    Looks like you had better weather than I did on my trip back in March of 2012. Very happy with some of my shots there, but Iceland is still definitely a place I will revisit. It’s easy to go there en route from the States to Europe, with Iceland Air letting you spend a week or two (?) in Iceland between plane transfers. Anything I’d add to the advice here would be to use the very detailed atlas of Iceland – I decided to visit some places simply by reviewing the atlas and seeing unusual topography, and it made it easier for locals to point out sites if I asked them what I should see.

    • Joseph

      We were lucky during our last couple of days there when the sun came out, but we did have A LOT of rain and bad weather before that, which is why we were chasing the clear patches :) As for your advise about looking at a detailed atlas, that’s a very good tip indeed. In fact, I took one with me, but forgot to include it in the list above :)

      • http://www.stephanmantler.com/ Stephan Mantler

        Detailed maps can be bought in many places in
        Iceland, but are sometimes hard to find elsewhere. This link may be worth bookmarking for those planning to go: http://atlas.lmi.is/kortasja_en/

        • http://nikonrumors.com/ Nikon Rumors

          Even the map looks nice – you can tell that this place is heaven for photo nuts.

    • Plug

      Good advice about Icelandair. I did a trip to Boston recently (1st leg on BA) and returned via Reykavik with a 5-day stopover to London and the flying worked out cheaper than a direct return.

  • 10David

    Always glad to see someone out there actually doing it. Rock on.

  • jtmcg

    Great set of images. Went to Iceland in early August. It’s a photographer’s dream. Recognized some of the locations. Was the photo of the lagoon with the camera in the fg Jokusarlon?

    • Joseph

      That is indeed Jökulsárlón :)

  • pjapk

    Nice set, came back from Iceland myself a couple of weeks ago & the D800 definitely got put through its weather-sealing paces as I captured here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul-kelly/9882708923/ :)

    • jk

      actually it is almost as durable as the D4 if there is no pop-up flash.
      just tape the pop-up crap then your D800/E becomes as strong as the D4.

  • Photobug

    Outstanding pictures and great text make for a terrific article. Thanks for sharing.

    • Joseph

      Many thanks! Glad you found the post interesting! :)

  • robert

    its all nice but maybe put this in a different section. lately its a lot of everything but rumors. whats going on admin?

  • Z

    Nice … thanks for sharing

  • preston

    Great photos and advice Joseph – thanks for sharing! I just got back from Iceland myself 2 weeks ago (Iceland Air 6 day stopover on the way to the Netherlands). I had a hell of a time deciding on a pack for the 4 day Laugavegur Trail backpacking trip. I had a Lowepro Flipside 350 AW but sold it in order to buy something more suited to long distance hiking. Ended up getting an Aarn Guiding Light (60L capacity) with photo balance pockets. This setup lets you carry all your photo gear, in my case a D600, 16-35 f/4, 24-85 f/3.5-4.5 (don’t judge), 50 1.8, 70-300 vr, and pano kit all in the 2 packs on your chest. This turned out to be a pretty good setup to hold my 60 lbs of gear! Peter, I can write a guest post on these if you think people would be interested.

  • Markus Lajer Photography

    Amazing pictures!
    I think i will go to iceland on my next holiday!
    Thank you for sharing, and for the inspiration!

  • jk

    all great shots, thanks for postig these , I wish I could go there myself.

  • kk

    Well, i am sorry. The quality is nice, but most of the pictures have no composition at all.

    • Andrew

      kk, your comment suggests that you’ve got a thing or two to learn about composition.

  • http://www.naturalvolo.it/ michele perillo

    Ah,I will always remember my first time in Iceland, and it is always a pleasure to see another photographer’s interpretation; specially when the photos are so good.

    I notice that many friends here on NR took the opportunity to show their iceland portfolio; may I dare to submit my picture of a small valley deep inland? Iceland is not only seaside.

    sorry for the rather messy and work-in-progress website.

    http://www.naturalvolo.it/islanda-kerlingarfjoll.html

  • http://www.stephanmantler.com/ Stephan Mantler

    Nice! Stop by next time (I live in Höfn) and I’ll take you to some spots that most visitors miss out on :)

    Of course this applies to everybody else planning to visit, too!

  • Pablo Eduardo Quiroga

    I’ve a d800 And i can say that a dinamique range is really awesome,I am sure that HDR isn’t better NEF, GREAT SAMPLE, once the best place of world to shoot

  • peterw

    allways nice to read about the geologically magical Iceland and about D800…

    tanks for your report.

    (However, I guess any camera will do on Iceland – you might even take a Canon or – yuk – Sony ;) , but then, why not the best.)

    I admire your courage to camp. On my trips in summer we used guest houses and youth hostels, which provide current to recharge batteries and empty your memory cards. And which would keep us and the lenses dry in dark and rainy days (which we encountered only at Vik ;) ). However, camping you are much more flexible, to be out there in the golden hour… which in summer can happen any time between 1 h in the morning and 23 h in the evening. We found new dimensions in being tired: exhausted. Which presents a danger for man and material off course.

    I will never go to Iceland without at least a 300mm with tc. The birds are terrific: http://500px.com/photo/15735747
    Nevertheless, Iceland is one of rare places in Europe to photograph a bird with a wide-angle lens http://www.birdpix.nl/album_page.php?pic_id=328455

    when you go out there, check reports about wheather and vulcan activity. It can get very dangerous. A bridge on the main road NR 1 up to 1996: http://iceland.halofour.com/images/sandur/jokulhlaup/283_bridge.jpg

  • Matt

    Nice set of images you’ve made there. May I ask yourself, or others who’ d like to chime in- did you find any places to be crowded? I went in May 2011 and a big part of the magic for me was the feeling of isolation and relaxation by not seeing another person in sight- apart from the Golden Circle area and larger towns. I am planning to go again in July but am wondering if the crowds would be bigger- or is it still possible to have areas to yourself for a few moments?

    • Joseph

      Hi Matt, I agree that the feeling of isolation amidst the beautiful landscape is one of the most appealing factors. I have only been to Iceland this one time in August, so I cannot comment about other months, but I would expect that we encountered more people than we would have had if we had gone, say, in March. Having said that, there were certainly periods when we didn’t see anyone around, most especially when hiking away from the more popular sites and during early/late hours.

      • Matt

        Thanks for the info. I think we should be right as we tend to venture off the track a bit anyway and there will be plenty of good light situations given the longer summer days (i hope). I was lucky last time to get 10 out of 14 sunny/ partly sunny days.

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