Iceland photography workshop

Iceland Photography Lessons

I’ve been leading travel photography workshops around the world for 5 years.  And it still amazes me how much I learn on each trip.  I learn about teaching habits. I learn how each person learn differently.  I learn something about photography. Things I know already are reinforced.  And, sure, you might think that the leader of trips should have it all figured out. But, I assure you, there’s no one on a workshop that learns more than the leader.  For this blog post, along with a couple photos from the trip, I wanted to brain-dump some of the things I learned on my photography workshop in Iceland.

Things I Learned about Photography

I’ve split this post into 2 sections – the things I learned in Iceland about photography and the things I learned about leading.  I’m going to start with photography.

I should also mention that though I’m dropping some images from the Iceland photo tour into this post, there will be a full round up blog post coming soon.

Iceland is Harder to Photograph Than People Realize

Iceland is photogenic.

In fact, I’d be hard pressed to think of a country with such a high concentration of photo locations in the world.  However, it’s not as easy a photo destination as people think.  And, I think that people get somewhat unrealistic expectations regarding the photos they’ll be able to make on a trip to Iceland.

This country is full of challenges.  Weather, crowds, naturally sensitive areas, etc.  All of these things lead to road blocks to making great photos.  That’s not to say you won’t get great photos here – you will.  I think it’s just more difficult than people realize.

Iceland photography workshop

It’s Getting Even More Difficult to Photograph Iceland Uniquely

Iceland is over-photographed.  Nearly every location in the country is swarmed with photographers.  And that alone means that it’s become harder and harder to create unique photos in Iceland.

But, what’s made it even more difficult is that there are so many really sensitive natural environments in Iceland.  It’s what makes the country so beautiful and photogenic.  But, because the environment is so sensitive it means that photographers (and regular tourists) have done so much damage to the landscape that a lot of locations are now roped off.

From an environmental standpoint, it makes sense.

Iceland photography workshop

But, as a photographer it means that your composition are even more limited.  And, if you’re thinking that as a photographer you can simply jump the barriers – you can’t.  Photographers are constantly shamed by locals and tourists alike at all major photo stops.  Moreover, there are now national park rangers travelling around Iceland checking on behaviour.  In fact, lots of destinations are shutting down because of the damage visitors are causing.

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that most visitors simply don’t understand how delicate the landscape is in Iceland.  It really does need to be “babied”.

And, sure, I’ve made mistakes in the past and have climbed barriers in the past.  I’m not without guilt. But honestly, if you respect the natural environment, please don’t.

The good news is that there are still so many incredible and under-photographed places in the country to discover.  If a place is over-photographed go look at it, but maybe consider skipping it as a photo spot.

Iceland photography workshop

People Have a Hard Time Understand What a Good Photo Is and Why

My group was awesome.  All of the participants were really good photographers.  Sure, there was a mix in experience, but all had a pretty good eye.  I think it was interesting to see that most people had a handle on either composition or the technical side of things.  It reminded me that I’ve always been good technically and need to work on the composition side of things.  I think most people lean one way or another.

But, what I think few people understand is what a good photo is and why.  And, perhaps this comes from being a professional for so long – but I can see a good photo right away.  I can tell if a photo is “sell-able” right away.  For others it’s not so easy.  When I would go through participant’s images they’d show me images that weren’t great – but then I’d see other photos they took and think “wow, that’s so, so good!” and they’d have no idea.

And, of course, photography is subjective.  People are going to like photos for different reasons.  But, I think the biggest challenge to figuring out if a photo is good comes down to the ability to remove your own personal attachment to the photo and try to see it with fresh eyes.  If you were seeing that image for the first time – if you remove your personal pride, your emotional connection, the empowerment you got from making that image – how would you feel about it?

Identifying the quality of your own photos is a skill level that takes a lot of practice. Even more practice than it does taking the images.

Iceland photography workshop

The Difference Between Travel and Landscape Photography

About a year ago I posted a video called “the difference between travel photography and fine art photography”.  In that video I talked about how for an image to be a “travel” photo it needs to identify in one of two ways.  It needs to show a recognizable landmark or it needs to include a person or people.

There can be travel in landscape photography.  And, there can be travel in fine art photography.  But, driving home the “travel” side of photography is much more difficult than people realize. It’s about creating scale, it’s about creating a point of view angle.  It’s about creating a mood that says, “you should be here.”

What I learned on this trip is that I’ve gotten a little bit away from travel photography and hedging a bit too far to the fine art side of things.  I really want to get back at the travel angle.

Iceland photography workshop

I Work Best When I Re-Visit Places.

On these workshops we get a lot of time at photo locations.  If we’re shooting a sunrise somewhere, we generally spend a couple hours there.  It’s so necessary to give people time to find a composition, get the right light, and potentially find 3 or 4 photos.  It works.  But, for me, what works best is re-visiting places.

Last time I was in Iceland I photographed a couple places for my first time: diamond beach, Vik, etc.  At each of those locations I made photos I liked.  But, I didn’t create anything I loved.  This year re-visiting those places I feel like I really nailed down a couple shots.  I knew what I was looking for and perfected some things.

Early in my photography days, I almost treated photography like a treasure hunt. I’d photograph a place and then not re-visit it because, well, I already had.  These days I’m realizing that if you want to take things to the next level in photograph you need to go back to places many times.  It’s when you do this that you can really nail down your best work.

I think it also helps that on the first trip you tend to get the classic photo out of the way.  So when you come back, you can focus on getting something more unique.

Iceland photography workshop

Things I Learned about Leading and Photographers

I love observing people. I love observing photographers more than anything.  I usually keep my thoughts to myself. Although, there are definitely times I annoy Jodie with my musings about the photographers I’m observing in the field.

I love the workshops because I get to observe photographers AND I get to comment on them.

You Can’t Do – You Must Lead

I was reading this horrible article about a hunting guide in Southern Africa leading a couple hunters to kill a lion.  The guide tracked the lion.  He set up their tripod.  He dialed in their sights. He pointed the rifle towards the lion.  Then, the “hunter” slid into the hide and pulled the shutter… err, trigger.  And while I think it’s disgusting that people hunt wild animals for sport, what I kept thinking is “the hunter really can’t feel any pride in what he did – from a skill standpoint.”  I mean, they didn’t really do anything. They certainly didn’t learn anything about hunting.

Iceland photography workshop

It made me realize that as a leader you can’t do anything yourself. You have to lead the participant to do it themselves. You have to lead them to figuring out how to make it happen or they’ll never learn for themselves. They’ll never be able to do it on their own.

Another analogy of this is driving.

I used to drive tour buses for a living.  In driving school, our instructor used to say “turn left here, turn right there, pull over here”.  I’d travel that route they guided me down 100-200 times.  But, the first day that I was on my own without the instructor, I was totally lost.  I didn’t really learn the route until I drove it on my own.  It only took a couple times of driving it unassisted before I learned the way.   It’s the same with photography.

I’ve seen photography workshops where the leader goes around and manually changes the settings on people’s cameras. The some times even move their tripods and change their compositions. And while that might lead them to getting one good photo, it doesn’t help them get good photos beyond that one.

Over the years leading photography workshop in Iceland and beyond, I’ve become more and more hands off.  I have a rule that I might tell someone what they should do, but I’ll never physically do it for them.  I’ve noticed he participants seem to have a much sharper learning curve this way. It feels wrong sometimes, but the more hands off I am, the more people learn.

Leading is About Empowerment and Honesty

Empowerment is a really powerful tool.  Back when I was doing my photography clinic in Crete, Greece I asked the question of “who feels empowered when they take pictures” and everyone put their hands up.

Iceland photography workshop

If a person is empowered, they can do so many things. And, usually they take that newfound empowerment outside of their photography and apply it to other aspects of their lives.  For me, there’s nothing better than watch a participant become empowered during one of my workshops.  I saw it from a couple participants this time around, and it’s a special feeling to think that I had something to do with that.

But, as important as it is to empower, you need to be honest. As a leader, you need to walk this tightrope between empowerment and honesty.

I grew up in the world of sports where most coaches operated under the methods of negative reinforcement.  So, sometimes I have to restrain myself from being critical. Instead I need to work on giving positive reinforcement while also guiding them to making constructive criticisms of their own work.  People are much more successful at making positive changes when they are given honesty, but also figure out their mistakes on their own.

There are A LOT of Great Photographers Out There

Every time we do a workshop we do a “photo showing” at the end.  Each time we do, there are at least a handful of images I see and go “oh, I wish I shot that!”.

And, each time I lead a workshop I realize that a lot of my photography skill simply comes from the opportunity to shoot a lot – to be out in the field all the time.  I firmly believe that there are a massive amount of people who could do what I do if they simply had the opportunity or motivation.

I’m not unique. My skillset isn’t unique.

But, that’s not a negative towards myself. I’m OK with that.  I’ve long since come to grips with the reality that I’m just an average guy living an extraordinary life.  I like the challenge of being able to show people that an average person – like me – can do incredible things if they just work hard.

There are a lot of great photographer out there. And my group had 10 of them.

Iceland photography workshop

“Move – Stop Moving!”

I found that participants in my group generally fell into one of two categories – those who didn’t move enough, and those who moved too much.

Some participants would head directly to a composition that they liked and then sit on it for a really long period of time only making incremental changes to their shot each time.

Other participants took pictures like it was a sport where the goal was to take pictures of absolutely everything.

There’s nothing wrong with either.  I mean, the way you do photography is up to you and I’m not going to tell you how you should be doing it.  However you love making photos, do it that way.

However, I did mention to some people that their photos would greatly improve if they made adjustments.  For those moving too fast, I told them to spend twice as long with each photo.  For those who didn’t move enough I gave this advice: if you don’t LOVE a photo, take it and then move.  If you’re absolutely in love with a photo then, sure, sit on it until you get it right.

There’s nothing worse in photography than coming home at the end of the day and seeing that you missed out on a photo because you got stuck on one shot. Or, coming home and realizing that you cut off something in your image – or there is some other defect – because you rushed.

Move more. Or slow down.

What’s Next?

As I mentioned, I’ll be posting another blog post from this trip with some of my favourite photos from this Iceland photography workshop.

Also, I’m going to have another blog post from my assignment up in Scotland.

In real-time, Jodie and I are now in The Philippines getting battered by rain on the island of Siargao.  We’ll have some videos and posts from here soon as well.