Iceland Trip Pt 2

There are two places that I’ve visited this year that crept up on me slowly, hit me hard and now have a strangle hold on my heart and my mind. Cape Town was the first, Iceland the second. Neither place grabbed my imagination immediately. My first Iceland post below bears that out…had it been a two day trip I would have enjoyed it, logged it and left it behind. The remainder of the trip was when it became clear you just can’t leave Iceland behind. It’s been six weeks now and I still think about it daily. Nostalgia isn’t healthy. It’s about time I finished this to lay it to rest, if only so I can post about South Africa.

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Iceland Trip

Very soon there will be a new class of tourism. You’ll be picked up by the self-driving Uber and driven to the airport where the self-piloting airplane will fly you somewhere that allows you to hire a car from 2016 and have the pleasure of actually driving yourself. That ‘somewhere’ will be Iceland. A ring of smooth black asphalt runs around the entire coastline feeding a network of gravel arteries that run deep into the varied wilderness. Driverless cars are a solution to the hours lost to endless gridlock in badly planned city centres. In Iceland you can drive for half an hour without passing another car. It doesn’t need Googlecars. You might be headed towards somewhere in particular, but when you get there you just want to keep on going. The journey itself is the the destination. At least in summer. In winter I’d imagine even the shortest journey is terrifying. Especially if the car is driving itself.

That should give you some idea of whether you’ll love it or hate it. But if you need more convincing then read on. Just remember that I’m not a travel blogger so it’s more a stream of consciousness and some photographs.


I’ll happily admit that I thought I knew about Iceland. I knew it was fairly small and I could probably get round it in a day or two maximum. That it was permanently under a layer of ice and snow. That it was flat, rocky and barren. That it had shit coffee. I was right about the coffee.

1. Iceland is Europe’s second largest island

It’s 25% bigger than Ireland. So you can forget about getting round it in a long weekend. All that space and only 320,000 people living there. Definitely enough room for the 1m+ foreign visitors that come here annually. For the moment.

2. Iceland is warmer than it should be

Given it’s latitude, Iceland is actually relatively mild. That doesn’t mean it’s warm - even in summer it barely reaches 15 degrees - but the Atlantic currents keep its average temperature well above that of the Scandinavian countries.

3. It has a total prison population of 147

And most of those are in low security or open prisons. 15% of them are foreign prisoners anyway. To put it into context - there's  45 prisoners per 100,000 people. In the UK it’s 148 per 100,000 and in the US it’s 737. There was very little graffiti. There was no litter. We didn’t see any homeless. It just felt…calm. People seemed happy. And you’re 70% less likely to be murdered than in the UK. I have no idea what that means, but it definitely sounds like a good thing.

4. Only 1% of Iceland is covered by trees

You really notice that there are hardly any trees. By comparison the UK is 12% forested plus Zayn Malik. Most of mainland Europe is around 37% forest. But that doesn’t mean Iceland isn’t green - there’s lots and lots of grass. I’ve never been to the prairies but I bet they look a lot like Iceland does in places.

Route 1, Iceland

Route 1, Iceland

5. Iceland produces the most bands in the world per capita

And some of them are even good. I have no idea how you’d even begin to measure this, but it struck me that I could name more Icelandic bands than from probably any other European country. I mean the Swedes are still banging on about ABBA for fucks sake.

Day 1 - Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon and Ion Hotel

From what I’ve learned from bloggers it’s customary here to say how cool Reykjavik is and how amazing Blue Lagoon is. Reykjavik is possibly the least interesting capital city in Europe. On a ‘things to do’ scale it’s right up there with Wolverhampton. If you’re going to Iceland just for Reykjavik then I’d recommend you go to Stockholm instead. Or even Helsinki, which is saying something because I didn’t particularly find Helsinki that interesting either. Go to the church (Hallgrímskirkja) - a magnificently bleak piece of post war architecture that perfectly reflects the brutal natural landscape. Have the eggs benedict at Kex. Then leave. 

The Blue Lagoon is just genius marketing. It will almost definitely be on your ‘go to’ list if you’re visiting Iceland through the sheer weight of social media content. You might even have found yourself arranging a trip to Iceland just to go to the Blue Lagoon without really knowing why. Their marketing strategy really is that good. In reality, it’s like an episode of The Walking Dead set in a pool. Lots (and I mean LOTS) of disembodied tourists lurching aimlessly around the post-apocalyptic landscape in a pale fog waving GoPros, their faces appearing to fall off as mud masks melt. Yes it’s quite novel to get veruccas outside rather than inside, but basically it’s a milky pond full of people whose hygiene levels you know nothing about. Iceland is generally very expensive, but Blue Lagoon creates a whole other level of WTF when converting ISK to GBP. It took me three attempts in Google before I finally believed that yes, it really was about £120 for two people. And that was only a ‘Comfort’ package. There were two full levels of optional extortion above that. It seems Iceland’s unemployed bankers found a fun new way to screw the world.


From there we drove to Ion Hotel. I love a good hotel, and Iceland is woefully short of them so spending at least a few nights at Ion was a given. From Reykjavik we turned our rented Suzuki with 150,000km on the clock along a short cut onto a road with a friendly sign warning us that imminent death was highly likely if we carried on. So naturally we carried on. This is what holidays are for. The road (Route 435) basically followed a large menacing pipe for mile after mile across a flat moonscape as far as the eye could see. We hadn’t passed a single other car, house or person on the 30km route. The only sign of any human existence at all was the pipe. Towards the end of the road - when we were beginning to quietly beginning to relax and congratulate ourselves on successfully negotiating what was basically a very straight road with a very well maintained surface - the mountains started to loom out of the fog. Big, grey and covered in snow. They were much closer to us than the hotel meaning that we'd have to go over them. The words from the sign were burned in my mind. To add to the fog it was getting dark. The road started to climb. Steeply. Ice and snow encroached across the perfect tarmac. Walls of ice at each side and a ceiling of thick clouds. It started snowing. New roadsigns indicated vertical ascents with equally vertical sheer drops to each side. We inched up the pass feeling tiny in the presence of so much big. As we reached the top Iceland once again opened out below us on a vast scale. We pulled over, took some photos then dropped down the final 2km to Ion. 


The next morning we noticed the sign at the end of the road had been removed. It was 1st May and apparently the road was only dangerous until 30th April. Not knowing this the day before had made it the best non-event ever. We'd felt like Scott of the Antarctic but were probably about as close to any real peril as Lenny of the Premier Inn.

Ion had a certain charm. It looks like the best prison in the world. If you go, make sure you have the cauliflower starter. It is to carnivores what bacon sandwiches are to vegetarians. 


Day 2 - The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is basically how the Icelandic keep most of the tourists from cluttering up the rest of Iceland. Four or five natural attractions all handily accessible from a tarmac loop that takes roughly a day to get round with its own Trip Advisor page. Think the M25 but instead of a Welcome Break every 25 miles you get a geyser and a waterfall. The end result is similar though - big car parks full of tourist coaches getting off for a wee and a photograph. Lots and lots of people buzzing up and down well defined pathways into ‘nature’. Not knowing any better at this point, the Golden Circle was nice enough but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was on the Small World ride at DisneyIceland. A taster menu of geological phenomenon that appear elsewhere on the Island on a much grander scale but with the trade off of being less accessible. Iceland lite. Still - we took a lot of photos of waterfalls and geysers and lakes. Everybody took a lot of photographs. People stood in long lines taking photographs. I took some photographs of people taking photographs because to be honest, it was more real than a geyser with a rope around it and lots of people creeping into the frame. Trying to make each attraction on the Golden Circle look ‘remote’ is really hard work given the fact that half the population of Florida is stood just out of shot on a layover to Europe. If you’re wanting to shoot Iceland properly you need to be there early. Or, in summer, very late after the coaches have gone as sunset is after midnight and the golden hour is four times as long as anywhere else.


One highlight of the Golden Circle is the Secret Lagoon - it dispenses with the gloss of the Blue Lagoon and gives a much more relaxing hot spring experience for a quarter of the price. It had locals in it when we went - in fact the locals have been using the spot since the early 1900's. I think the most local person we met in the Blue Lagoon was from Alabama. It's probably secret because they don't have wifi and it's resolutely unphotogenic. Nobody wants to waste their time at somewhere they can't share.

I’ll conclude the trip in my next post. If you’ve got this far you deserve a rest. And I can drive more traffic with two posts about essentially the same event. I’ll explain why Iceland is on of my favourite places on the planet and why I feel homesick for a place I’ve only spent 5 days in. To do that we need to leave Reykjavik, The Blue Lagoon and The Golden Circle in the rear view mirror.


On Travel

I can’t speak with absolute certainty, but I’m fairly sure that when your dentist takes her annual vacation she doesn’t pack her drill. That your favourite barista leaves their Gaggia behind. The Uber driver parks his Avensis at the airport. I can’t think of many other professions where leisure travel involves you choosing to take along your entire arsenal of work tools. 

Photography is as much observation as it is light and composition, and the chance to observe and record unfamiliar horizons, cultures and architecture always outweighed sacrificing my entire hand luggage allowance to camera bodies, lenses, chargers and laptops. Memory cards, flashes, adaptors, filters. “Any electrical items in your hand luggage sir?” “Yeah, I’m a mobile fucking Currys”. I pity the busman queueing behind me at the security check. “Any electrical items in your hand luggage sir?” “No, just this bus”.

To lump together everything shot overseas into ‘travel photography’ in the first place is to overly simplify. Most photographers just take a break from their commercial work and kick back into travel mode - simple snapshots but with too many pixels - but lots also make a living from travelling - McCurry will single out the faces, Parr will look to the tourists themselves, Salgado will change your world, Adams chased light across landscapes and bloggers…blog. For most of us though it’s a holiday in the sense that there’s no client and therefore no pressure. Right? Wrong. There’s a new client. Everybody you ever met. Everybody-in-the-sodding-world. Instagram. 

You’re a photographer, so chances are you have social media accounts. As much as you’d love your feeds to be simple personal accounts of artisan coffees carefully framed to appear like they’ve not been carefully framed, and behind-the-scenes shots of unfathomable lighting setting ups and huge crews, they’re probably not. Your streams are a part of your shop window and you’re achingly conscious of this even when you pretend not to be. Shit holiday photos are not an option. Going overseas is too big an opportunity to simply not shoot, but thanks to the wonders of geotagging you’re entering a worldwide photography competition every time you point your camera at a tagged location. And everywhere is tagged. Usually more than once. So you’re not even sure if it’s the Eiffel Tower at the top of the list, or the third one down 5,000 miles away that some fuckwit tagged from their dorm room in Connecticut.

Somebody taking a selfie and probably hashtagging a #sunset on a #vespa in #sicily

Somebody taking a selfie and probably hashtagging a #sunset on a #vespa in #sicily

So now you’re measuring yourself against the whole world. Think about it. Somebody will have been wherever you’re standing when the light was perfect. Somebody will have been stood there when lightning struck or Elvis happened to pass by holding hands with the Pope. Somebody was stood there before the eternal scaffolding went up. Somebody was there with better photoshop skills than you making the lines in the locals’ faces even deeper. Somebody actually lives where you’re stood and can take a different image every day of the year. And probably has. “The Drop Coffee 365 Project”. You? Well, you’re just there for 15 minutes before your partner moves you on to the next culturally significant boutique fromagerie that somebody cooler than you blogged from. It’s not a lonely planet. Everywhere is mapped out according to bloggers. There’s a perpetual circle of them spanning Europe from Iceland through Stockholm to Santorini, back across to Milan, Como, dipping down to Marrakech, up to Marbella. I know Santorini intimately without ever having been there. I know which hotels to book in every European capital without referring to Mr&Mrs Smith. I know because the same bloody lobbies are perpetually showing up on my feed. Nothing is waiting to be discovered because somebody discovered it for you and helpfully made sure you’ve already seen it from every angle. The Blue Lagoon provides free Wifi so you can check in and post to Instagram. There’s a blogger lane guaranteeing you jump the 30 minute queue to stop you blogging about the 30 minute queue (I made this up, but only because they probably haven’t thought of it yet).

Everybody finding that unique angle at the same time

Everybody finding that unique angle at the same time

It’s nothing new and it is something I’ve been casually thinking about for a while. So when we booked our last trip away to Iceland, I made a change. To travel to the most incredibly photogenic landscape imaginable I decided to leave the DSLR at home and just take a point and shoot. I looked at mirrorless systems, got seduced by the various retro-modern Fuji and Olympus offerings, turned my nose up at Panasonic and Samsung (they make phones and TVs) toyed with investing in the latest Sony Alpha (okay, so they make phones and TVs too) then took a step back - mirrorless interchangeable meant that before long I’d build up a whole new kitbag of lenses, bodies and accessories and be back to hauling another full system around with me. So I narrowed it down to the Fuji X100t or the new Fuji X70. Fixed prime lenses. All day battery life. Pocketable. Small RAWs and decent jpegs. Jpegs that you can transfer easily and painlessly to your phone and edit from the comfort of the Yale campus Eiffel Tower. Back to basics. I bought the X70 and reclaimed my onboard flight allowance. My pre-holiday packing checklist halved in size. I sailed through security. I took more varied photos than I ever do with the DSLR. And the images were different - looser, more personal. Having one focal length makes you think about what you’re shooting more but also lends a coherence to the images. And because they’re quicker to download and sift through* I actually bothered to make an edit - so many of my holidays are sat untouched in folders because the thought of going through 100 near-identical frames of some vaguely photogenic mountain became a chore. The video on the X70 sucks, but then I had a GoPro and a drone with me for video. I’m not totally letting go. If I can sacrifice the DSLR and not miss it in Iceland, I’m pretty sure I can do it anywhere. 

A Fuji X70, a tea and a bun shot with a Panasonic flat screen TV

A Fuji X70, a tea and a bun shot with a Panasonic flat screen TV

So, for the time being at least, the DSLR will only fly when I’m shooting for clients overseas. No compact, no mirrorless system (with the possible exception of the Sony) will ever give you the quality and options that a great SLR with a judicious lens selection will. Unless it’s for a social media campaign. But then they’ll probably just hire a blogger anyway.

Over the next blogs I’ll post my last few getaways. Clear down those gigabytes of mountains (or mountains of gigabytes). Give me some memories to look back on. I’ll start with Iceland and the Fuji. By the time I’ve finished, I’ll probably have something from Santorini.

*In theory…but not quite in practise. At least not in Lightroom which seems to have a major case of the crawls with Fuji files.

Lady Diamond in the Sky - Manchester Fashion Photography

There are a few things I really really need to do...

  1. Update my site...a years worth of great images to select from since I last had chance
  2. Blog more...editorials languishing on my hard drive and thoughts burning my brain
  3. Step away from the 70s...

But in the meantime - here's a seventies flecked fashion editorial from a few months back

Photography & Styling - Jay Mawson
Hair & Makeup - Lauren Alice Phelan
Model - Ksenija @ Industry

Glam Slam - 70s Fashion Editorial

I'm not going to compare fashion editorials to buses. That's too obvious. But here's another one shot in the last days of 2014 in Manchester's Northern Quarter...

Great team, chilled shoot. Here's the photographs...

Photography Jay Mawson
Styling Natalie Armin
Hair & Makeup Martin McClean
Model Lily @ J'Adore