So I Shot an Engagement in Iceland

It seems like everyone has been visiting Iceland recently. It’s like the new Cuba. You’ve seen the photos of lush landscapes, pictureque waterfalls, the bluest glaciers, and all that aurora borealis. Everyone who has been there raves about Iceland and you better believe they want to tell you all about it. I won’t lie, I’ve been wanting to go – lured in by these very photos and great experiences that people have brought back with them. My girlfriend Kelly and I were about to celebrate two years of being together and friends of ours (Svetlana and Ben - who happen to be two local photographers) had dreamed of doing engagement photos there after their plans to get married in Iceland fell through. So after very little deliberation, we booked a mini-vacation and we were off to Reykjavik.   

Rather than talk about the places we visited, I wanted to speak more on what it was like to take photos there and what the reality vs. fantasy is when shooting in this beautiful country. We were limited to only four nights there and we stayed within a 200km drive of Reykjavik, so we were pretty limited to the more heavily visited locations. I definitely need to go back and spend more time looping the country over a couple of weeks. But the fact remains – it is everything people say it is.

Setting Boundaries…

I usually don’t like to mix work and play. I’m not the guy that can shoot a destination wedding while having island cocktails. Work is not a casual thing for me. I feel as though I operate at my best when I am fully committed and in the zone – when I can tune out all the other distractions and focus on the task at hand. On this particular trip I knew we were among close friends, so I didn’t feel as though I needed strict boundaries of when I was working and when I was just hanging out. Though I am happy with their engagement images, I feel as though setting boundaries would have allowed me to focus my efforts better. 

If I were to have the privilege of going to Iceland (or any other destination) again for a shoot, I would limit the amount of locations to two or three and focus on getting the best images with those restrictions in place. The problem with grabbing a few photos here and there without having a formal plan is that you never truly get into a rhythm and your mind is distracted and focused on other things.  Unfortunately, I think that influenced the other photos I took for myself); I never really felt comfortable creating my own photos as I felt a bit of guilt not shooting for my friends. The takeaway: set boundaries of where and when you want to shoot and then kick the crap out of those locations. Relax and enjoy the rest of the trip!

There is No Home Court Advantage…

One of the really underrated things about photographing at home is that there is a significant home court advantage. For example, when I schedule engagement shoots in Toronto, I try to do so at a time when the conditions are optimal for the mood that the client is looking to achieve. The weather, lighting, buildings, weather, people, etc. are predictable and familiar.

Before we left for Iceland, we had the idea to shoot around sunset on a couple of nights (sunset was almost midnight) and then wait the three hours or so until the sun rises (sunrise around 3 am) . What we did not expect was that even though the sun technically does set, it never actually gets dark out. The other thing we did not consider was the extremely cold and windy conditions that accompanied the sun going down. There was another instance where we photographed at a waterfall under grey overcast conditions. We drove 15 minutes to the next waterfall and it was bright and sunny with incredible golden light – at 10pm! The takeaway: do more research of the locations you’re shooting and ask locals prior to travelling about lighting and weather conditions. The average temperature and daily high and low readings mean nothing.

The Weather…

Yes, the weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable and quite harsh (even in summer). The other thing with the weather is that it felt a lot cooler than what the temperatures were showing. If the forecast showed a high of 15 degrees, it might have hit 15 degrees for maybe a few minutes that day. It was not the average temperature and definitely not the coldest it got. I dressed for about eight degrees centigrade cooler than the predicted forecast, and there were times I was still cold (there were fewer times when I felt overly warm).  The takeaway: dress in layers and definitely err on the side of being too warm. Expect everything to be more challenging and time consuming than anticipated.

Time (and Everything Else) is Not on Your Side…

Remember that your time is limited. It’s not like back home when in a worst case scenario you can reschedule the shoot to another day. There are no sick days. No rain days. No re-dos. If you’re about to embark on an hour long walk to the crashed DC3 airplane and it starts to rain, well you need to walk there in the rain. I carried a large pack and tripod for an hour long walk (one way) to reach this location. And of course once we reached that location, a bunch of French tourists were acting like idiots for about half an hour so we had to wait it out. The idea of going to these insane postcard-worthy locations and being void of other people is a fantasy.  

Shooting close to waterfalls resulted in a lot of excess mist to make its way to my camera and lens. I used a lot of ND filters for my personal images and there were times when the filters fogged up. In another instance some Chinese tourists was acting foolishly at the edge of an unstable rock face and I felt compelled to lecture them. Everything took just a bit more effort and time to execute. The takeaway: you can’t take for granted where you are and the scarcity of time while you are there. Make sure you expect everything to take longer and plan accordingly.

Managing Their Expectations…

Managing expectations can be difficult when a client has invested so much time, money and resources to do their dream shoot. Compound that with the fact that they’re both photographers experiencing the magic of these locations and you can see how expectations can easily get out of hand. This was probably the one thing that caused me the most stress. Did I do enough to get the images? Should I have spent more time here and less time there? Could I have done anything to get better results? 

I knew my friends trusted me to capture these images for them, but I was afraid that their expectations weren’t going to be met. And to be truthful, I don’t know if they had expected more (or different) from me or not. I know the rule is to under promise and over deliver, but I don’t really know if you can be exposed to all these picturesque locations and not have at least some expectation of what you hope the images will be.  

Managing Your Own Expectations…

I am notorious for being very critical of my own work. I have high expectations of the work I produce and I’m rarely satisfied with what I have shot. I guess this allows me to live to shoot another day and try to improve. I have no illusions about the quality of my work and their deficiencies, but I feel it is a part of the process and growth of being a photographer. I was very aware of the breathtaking wedding and engagement photos that were carved from the Icelandic backdrop and to be perfectly honest, I was a bit intimidated to compare my work with theirs.

In the end, I can’t say I am 100% satisfied with the shoot I did there. But as I reflect on it, I realize that the images are really consistent in style with what I’ve created in the past albeit in a different setting. I don’t think these images scream: “we’re in Iceland!”. And I am beginning to think that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I did my best given all these different challenges and I know now what I would do the next time I am there. I’m hoping it is soon. 

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