In 2008 I drove around Iceland on the Ring Road and rode a Superjeep inland while working on my book Planet Ice. I found that one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, endowed with rich colors and strong forms. When Kevin Raber invited me to be instructor for the PODAS Iceland adventure, I leapt at the chance.
Iceland was as dramatic as ever; however, meeting the other instructors and the participants was the highlight of the trip.
Mark Dubovoy was the master of all things Alpa. This simple and elegant technical camera extracts the maximum resolution out of the Phase One backs. Mark is driven to seek the highest possible quality in everything that interests him, and in the case of photography, he strives to eliminate any element that can degrade resolution. Vibration smears an image so naturally he prefers to use leaf shutter lenses where neither mirror slap nor the movement of a focal plane shutter can shake the camera. Add to that the inherent superiority of view camera lenses, and one is ahead of the game at the outset.
Alpa determined that tiny misalignments between back and camera degraded sharpness and were almost inevitable. Their solution was to offer exceedingly thin shims one could stack to prop up one side or another to align the back. The shims are as little as 1/100 of a millimeter thick. Mark showed us before and after images, and even on a projection screen, the improvement was clear.
Combining all these elements produced the clearest possible image. I felt like I’d been taken to school.
Jeff Schewe worked a prominent studio photographer based in Chicago. It was an early practitioner of digital manipulation and involved with the early development of Photoshop. For example, History was added to Photoshop at his suggestion. I was amazed at his early manipulated compositions, created when Photoshop and computers were slow and balky. I am certain Michael Jordan will never appear in front of my camera for a portrait. After showing us a selection of his studio work, Jeff presented an overview of useful techniques in Lightroom and Photoshop. His method for optimizing stitched panoramas stirred his audience.
Claus Molgaard, Chief Technologist at Phase One, accompanied us for a few days and delivered an overview of engineering issues, limits imposed by physics, and some products in the pipeline. He spoke at the end of a long day after a late dinner but held everyone’s attention and was gracious enough to field questions and suggestions from the bleary-eyed attendees.
After this avalanche of technical information, my presentation on creating projects and books, using images from Planet Ice as examples, focused more on how to tell stories or create a powerful effect with a body of work. I establish specific images the project requires and gather serendipitous compositions as the present themselves. As a working photographer, I need to keep an eye on marketing as well.
We had enjoyed a blue sky day when we landed in Iceland, but much of the next week was spent under heavy cloud punctuated by drizzle. That was fine with me. Sun would’ve increased contrast, washing out the electric greens and masking detail in the volcanic rocks.
I had missed Landmannalauger on my earlier circumnavigation of the island. Situated in the southern highlands, the area is famous for hills composed of interleaving pastel soils set against moss-covered volcanic rock and dotted with thermal features.
We were lucky to have Daniel Bergmann as our local guide. He is one of the most celebrated photographers in Iceland with many books to his credit and many more in the works. Daniel is tall, quiet, and equipped with a mordant wit he marshals to good effect.
He led us through the maze of gravel roads to the interior. Along the way we encountered great shooting opportunities, but Daniel had warned us that he would pass the good to get to the great. He kept that promise, engendering frustration among our eager hoard, but we arrived in the heart of Landmannalauger in short order, by far the most target-rich environment. We found an embarrassment of photographic opportunities, from macro to wide vistas to compressed telephotos. The group followed a trail along a creek, leaving a wide plain ringed by hills, passing through a narrow canyon, climbing on a mossy lava flow, and laboring past fumaroles to an expansive view of lakes and the surrounding countryside from a hilltop perch. I treasured every minute here, running from stance to stance.
I could have spent days exploring.
We continued our eastward odyssey en route to the SE of Iceland. Near Vik at the southernmost point, we encountered black sand beaches and sea stacks. Everyone worked on grand landscapes as well as abstract monochrome studies of white sea foam against black sand, arrangements of polished stones, or the strong lines of columnar basalt.
Skatafell National Park encompasses, Vatnajökull, the largest icecap in Iceland, and its subsidiary glaciers. At the base of the mountains braided rivers interlace across the alluvial plain. From time to time, glacial lake ice dams break and a wall of water washes away roads, bridges, and people. We enjoyed a fine view of the ice and mountains from our hotel and took a short hike to visit an elegant waterfall tumbling off a basalt wall.
Jokulsarlon, the ice lagoon, is no secret, but on a chilly September day, the summer crowds were gone. Fog blocked the view towards the icecap and glaciers that convey icebergs to the lake, but in compensation, it endowed the scene with a spectral beauty, a rare treat I preferred to the clear postcard view. Eventually, the skies cleared, unveiling the ice and rock above us.
We could see that the winds had pushed the bergs near the shore. I noticed that one of the smaller fragments would make a good foreground with a wide-angle lens so I waded in knee-deep water to drag it toward land. It was too thick to get close enough so all I gained were aching yet impeccably clean feet.
We found the icebergs more accessible on the beach adjacent to the lagoon’s outlet. After riding the outlet current to the sea, tides and onshore winds pushed them back, stranding some near the high-water mark. As the waves foamed around them, some would rock while others remained immobile. With long exposures the rushing water looked like smoke. Trapped bubbles and irregular melting within smaller crystal-clear berglets were perfect for macro images.
As we left Skatafell for our return trip west, the sun came out and the glaciers gleamed for the first time. Daniel halted the caravan so we could grab some images of the mountain panorama as a cold wind blew down from the icecap.
Without the indefatigable Phase One team of Kevin Raber, Murray Elliot, and Jon Gilbert, our small army of 28 would have ground to a halt. General Patton would have been impressed with the efficient transport of people and materiel.
They subscribed to the philosophy “You can sleep when you’re dead,” logging obscene hours, tending to questions, problems, maintenance, and inventory control along the way. The result was an experience that allowed the clients to gain a further grasp of photography, try cutting-edge equipment, and tap a vast knowledge base while experiencing one of the planet’s most beautiful places. PODAS is the result of Kevin’s vision, and the opportunity he created is unique.