When I was 6 I got my first camera. My family and I were on holiday in England, Sherwood Forest to be exact, and I don’t remember whether I requested this camera or whether it was just something my parents thought of for me. This was my first trip abroad and I wouldn’t go away from Iceland again until I was 15. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stay still for most of my twenties, I was making up for lost time. The photos I took on that trip are hilarious. First of all, my thumb is probably on half of them. And some of them have stickers on to tell me why having a thumb in the photos is not such a great idea. Then, all the photos are taken from a somewhat strange perspective because I, being six, was much smaller than my grown up subjects. Lots of unflattering angles and double chins.
I don’t remember a time where I didn’t have interest in taking photos. When I finally went abroad again, to spend a week in Greenland with my classmates, I took 3 or 4 films worth of photos of ice bergs and seals and local life in Qaqortoq. Unfortunately I don’t have any of those photos today because I never had the films developed. I was never really good at remembering stuff like that and it was also fairly expensive to have photos developed. Remember those days where you had to think about what you were taking photos of because the film was limited and then you had to wait in suspense to see how they would turn out for the 3-4 days it took to have them developed (because the quicker options were out of your budget)?
After my time in Spain, which was the last place I lived in on my way around Europe, I moved back to Iceland and started working at an electronics store. That job basically sucked the life out of me but I was exposed to a lot of new technology so I was probably on the earlier side in fully adopting digital photography. At least I was one of the few of my friends that had a digital camera back then. This was my first turning point. After I got my first digital camera I didn’t go anywhere without it. I wasn’t so much mastering my skill as I was just taking photos of everything around me and I have a couple of external hard drives full of photos of everything imaginable from those days. The fact you didn’t have to get your photos developed anymore was a game changer.
The following years I traveled a lot. And because I always traveled on my own my only memories from those trips are the photos I took. I don’t have anyone to laugh with me at all the silly things that happened, I mostly just have photos of buildings and beautiful landscapes. When you are traveling on your own you also have more time to take photos. You notice things differently and pay attention to details that you might miss when you are busy drinking beer and chatting with your friends. So my travels probably prepped me well for paying attention to my environment when I finally got for real into photography.
I got my first DSLR probably in 2008 or 2009. I had dreamed about owning a “real” camera, as I called it, for a while because I felt my point-and-shoots just didn’t do it for me anymore. However, the step from a fully automatic point and shoot to a DSLR where you can control just about everything that makes your photos was not straight forward. I got frustrated that I had this camera and didn’t know how to use it and for the first 18-24 months of owning it I honestly didn’t use it much. It wasn’t until one day that I decided it was time to take a class and understand all the settings of my camera that I really started using it. That was my second turning point and I got obsessed with photography and spent most of my spare time trying to get better at it.
My spare time, as it happened, was dwindling at that point without me knowing it because I was also starting this little project that I dubbed “I Heart Reykjavík”.
The reason I’m telling you all of this is because I get a lot of e-mails from people that think my photos are pretty and they want to know how I ended up with them. This is often followed by questions about the equipment I use. Before we go any further I want to make clear that I don’t look at myself as a photographer. I have it in my e-mail signature that I’m the “owner, blogger, photographer and everything else” here at I Heart Reykjavík but that is more to help people realize they are not dealing with some big corporation but a single person. I’ve actually got the question more than once when I speak at conferences and such about how I produce all this content on my own – referring to the photos, the posts, the podcasts and everything. The short answer is: You make it into a lifestyle but that’s a whole different post actually.
I believe I’m a better photographer aesthetically than I am technically, meaning that my eye is probably better than my actual skills. And that’s important and why I wanted to give you this back story. I’ve been taking photos more or less all my life and even though I didn’t think much about the rule of thirds or the golden ratio back then I could still recognize which photos worked and which didn’t. So I did more of the things that worked. I also definitely don’t look at myself as a landscape photographer. Most of my landscapes are snapshots and I don’t spend a lot of time on them. I don’t have any photos of creamy waterfalls and HDR sunsets because that just doesn’t interest me. My landscapes are mostly just for my Instagram account or the blog. People and all living things is what I am interested in. I think I like the interaction. You can’t have a conversation with a waterfall. You can however, and it’s completely normal, have a conversation with a sheep. Just in case you were wondering.
So I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s not what gear I use that is the deciding factor when it comes to my photos and whether or not they are good. It has much more to do with how I use the gear I have and an understanding of what makes a photo beautiful. Or at the very least interesting. Or just not bad. If you would really analyze my photos you would notice that I’m very passive in my photography and that’s definitely something I need to work on to get better. I think you have to have a certain amount of self belief and arrogance almost to be a good photographer. You have to believe that you belong where ever you are at any given moment and not get intimidated by those around your and other people’s fancy lenses or titles. That part is really hard for me personally.
The cameras I use for this blog is my Canon 70D, a Sony RX100iii and the camera on my Galaxy S5 smart phone. Before I got the 70D I also had a 450D which I sometimes use as a backup. 90% of the photos on my Instagram account are straight from the phone but both my 70D and the Sony have built in WiFi so if I use them I can easily transfer the images to my phone on the go and I often do that. That’s how I get my northern lights photos on Instagram in real time for example.
For my Canon 70D I have three lenses that I use: 28mm, 50mm and 85mm prime lenses that are all f/1.8. If you don’t know what these numbers mean I recommend you take a class, you won’t regret it. These are cheap prime lenses but they are all very good when it comes to value for money. Except maybe the 28mm, I’m really not a big fan to be honest but I use it out of necessity. The 50mm 1.8 lens is called the nifty fifty and is usually considered the best value for money around. It was the first lens I bought and opened up new worlds to me. I like prime lenses because they are tack sharp but I kind of also like having the restriction of not being able to zoom. It makes you think about what you are photographing better. I’m sure if I had a very nice good quality zoom lens I would change my tune but I don’t so I’m sticking to my story. I hate the kit lenses (the lenses that came with my camera) now and almost never use them. Actually the only time I do use them is if I’m doing a whale watching or a puffin tour where I need the zoom.
The Sony I bought because I wanted something that was easier to travel with than a big DSLR but I didn’t want to go for a mirror less camera either because the cost of the lenses. The Sony is a pretty awesome point and shoot and it has all kinds of nifty features. You can shoot in RAW, you can use manual focus and you can control the exposure. All features I thought I would use a lot but as it happens I just want to get the shot so I mostly use it in auto. It’s awesome for low light and I’ve managed to get some seriously decent northern lights photos out of it on auto. Great travel camera, once you get the hang of using it.
I also have a tripod that is light but sturdy which makes it good for travel and I can hang it on my camera backpack. I have remote controls also but I never use them because I have the built in WiFi and an app on my phone that I can use as a remote control. Then I use the 2 and 10 second timers a lot. I also have an external flash which I bought when I was photographing a wedding in a small dark church once but I haven’t got the hang of using it yet. I take most of my photos outside in good light anyway. I also have a small reflector that I use when photographing people and I need some extra lighting. I would probably invest in a bigger reflector next if I had time to do more photo shoots with people.
Often on the blog I use photos from my phone because I always have it with me and I use it to snap the interesting things I see around me every day. Next time I upgrade I will go for a full frame camera for wider landscape shots and better ISO qualities.
I’m not ashamed to say that I take most of my photos on the Canon in AV mode or Aperture Priority. That way I control the aperture but the camera does the rest for me. I usually use auto ISO too, except when I’m photographing the northern lights or something where the light is limited because the camera tends to choose higher ISO than I am comfortable with. If I have a lot of time I might put the camera on full manual mode but I rarely have that time. When I use manual I often put the camera on auto and take a picture as a point of reference and then adjust my settings from the settings the camera chose. Recently, especially when photographing animals or children that move a lot, I’ve also started using the TV setting more or Shutter Priority.
Obviously it goes without saying that everything that comes out of my Canon is shot in RAW because it makes the photos easier to manipulate later.
Taking the photo is just half the battle
I try as much as I can to focus on taking a good photo in camera so I don’t have to edit them much later. Sometimes I succeed in this, often I don’t. On my phone I use VSCO to edit and I usually use one of their filters and then I maybe tinker with the exposure if the photo is under or over exposed or fade it a little because I feel that suits my style better. For the DSLR I have a pretty set work flow in Lightroom and Photoshop that has more to do with making the photo pop a bit rather than altering it. I do remove the occasional blemish when I photograph people but I never change their appearance in any other way. One of the things I do quite a lot of though is cropping if I see something that bugs me in the photo or the proportions are off in some way. Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to take a bad photo to something passable.
Iceland – the photographer’s paradise
There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned so far and that the fact that Iceland is stupidly photogenic. You have to be really determined to mess up your photos to not happen upon at least one good one It’s also good to remember that most of the breathtaking photos from Iceland that you see are taken by professionals or serious hobby photographers that have a) spent years on their craft and b) probably spent hours to get that photo before they spent hours on editing it. Photographers never post anything straight out of camera and if that’s what you do your photos are never going to look like that.
Getting a great photo is about many different things. The right light, being at the right place at the right moment, knowing which settings work best for that moment and having a good eye but none of those things have anything to do with the camera you are using. If you want to take better pictures on your trip to Iceland I would recommend a local weekend workshop at home where you get some more understanding of the basics of photography and your camera. Take your camera with you everywhere you go.and pay attention to your surroundings. That will help you much more than buying a new camera.
I’m by no means an expert but my willingness to improve is the single most important component of my photographic journey. I’ve wanted to study photography for a long time but my fear of lacking artistic abilities and time have stopped me so far. Maybe that’s my next challenge to conquer .
The photos in this post, albeit random, are all taken using the cameras mentioned in this post. They were all edited with either VSCO or a Lightroom/Photoshop combo