So, there I was, plan set. I'd finally made up my mind to visit Iceland, with two goals in mind: to get a feel for the place by hiking around, and to make a bunch of images that I felt captured the place, or at least captured it the way I experienced it.
It didn't take me long to realise that the best way to see and photograph the island was to maximise one's freedom. In practice, that meant driving around, visit places, hike, camp, sleep, repeat (and from time to time, eat).
It also meant going solo, because waiting around for someone until he's finished shooting (which in my case, can take quite some time), is no fun at all, even for other photographers.
Turns out Iceland is perfect for a trip like that: a lot of sites/sights are located along the ring road circling the island (a better way of putting it would be that, certainly for a first visit, there's more than enough stuff to see in the immediate proximity of the ring road), the distances between them are usually on the scale of a car's drive, there are official campsites everywhere (no reservations necessary), and the diversity of landscapes and features is staggering, especially considering that Iceland is, after all, not that big and has no 'real' trees to speak of (we'll come back to that in a separate post).
So, the big trip I was about to go on, had become a road trip.
The perennial question a photographer is faced with, is very likely about gear: what do I take with me, so as not to miss a shot, or to get an acceptable trade-off between flexibility, portability, and image quality?
The portability part was easy: I knew I was going to do day hikes only, so within reason, weight wasn't actually a consideration. I did opt for a professional hiking backpack for comfort, based on earlier, rather negative experiences with a slingshot bag, a small photography backpack, and a shoulder bag. With dedicated photography inserts, lenses and cameras could be kept in perfect order. Yes, that's a plural on both, which brings me to image quality.
Weighing image quality against flexibility, I must say I gave the whole zoom vs. primes thing a lot of thought. On the one hand, take two cameras, a 24-70 and a 70-200, and you're set. You could add the last of the trinity, a 14-24, but I've never missed a lens wider than 24 mm In Iceland.
No lens changes needed, no dust on the sensor, no reaching in the bag for a lens, etc. In circumstances in which the ability to micro-adjust your field of view is more important than the choice of perspective (e.g., because of the vastness of the landscape), zooms might actually be your best choice from a flexibility point of view.
On the other hand, quality-wise, primes beat zooms every time (within the same segment). No matter the internet chatter on the subject, this is a fact. Knowing me, back at the computer when processing files, I'd be a really (I mean, really) disappointed if I would spot suboptimal lens performance (chromatic aberration, unwanted flare, unsharp corners etc) - and yes, it happened even with primes.
The moment disappointment sets in is personal of course, but I'm an unapologetic pixel peeper. Within reason ('reason' being mostly constrained by hardware cost, however), I'd rather go the extra mile in the field and have a smug grin on my face when post-processing the files back home, than being more flexible while shooting (and cursing myself when examining the files on the monitor).
I know, I know. Buy a number of primes for every zoom, and total price goes up. Depending on the focal lengths you need, that may or may not be true.
Additionally, using carefully chosen focal lengths, the limits imposed by primes on perspective or framing can actually work to your benefit: it's easier to predict how the scene will look through the few primes you're carrying, without lifting the camera to your eye, so consequently you start looking at scenes with those few focal lengths in mind (to a degree that not having to go through all the perspectives and fields of view, is actually a major relief). Obviously, key words here are 'using carefully chosen focal lengths'.
As far as I could picture the landscape based on the images that are out there (read: vast), I figured that I would predominantly shoot with long focus lenses. In a more contained environment (e.g. a jungle), things would surely be different. Nevertheless, I wanted to be covered at both the wide and long ends, so I took a 25, a 35, a 85 and a 135 mm prime.
In a selection of images I currently have before me, the focal lengths in question respectably amount to 4, 7, 38 and 51 % of the total. As expected, long focus won, and while I took a couple of nice shots with the wide angles too, in hindsight, not bringing them would have been an annoyance rather than a disaster.
Apart from the landscape which I feel lends itself perfectly for isolating features, I'd also gotten really tired of those typical wide-angle shots with a predominant element in the foreground (a rock, a flower, a puddle, ...) and diminished mountains in the background - truth be told, I made a few of those too, but you'll agree that the perspective distortion of a 25 mm is still rather limited. (As a side note, over-saturated images are also a bit of a pet peeve, unless the colours are actually real, or at least believable. But hey, that's just me.)
As weight was not really a practical consideration, I had already opted for a fairly heavy tripod, based on the advice of a colleague, and of internet sources, who'd warned me about the very windy conditions.
I can assure you they were in no way exaggerating: on one occasion, the wind was blowing so hard (and I'm talking continuously, not wind gusts), I had to place my foot on the base of one tripod leg, push down the thing with both hands around the ball head, and shield the setup from the wind with my body, to keep it from being blown away.
Oddly, the scenes I captured there, looked utterly peaceful. It took me a while to notice that all other people had left already, and truth be told, when leaving myself, I too was relieved to sink into the seat of my car - ready for an 80 km drive to the camping grounds.
In what looks like a masochistic move, I choose to limit myself beyond the use of primes in order to slow down the photography process even further, by resorting to tripod, timer or remote control, manual exposure and manual focus for every shot. Instead of the 20 000-ish images that I feared coming home with, I came back with about 6 000, some of which being part of a panorama or a focus stack.