Tag Archives: trip planning

Airline Cabin Baggage: A Photographer’s Minefield

As a photographer every international destination always brings its own unique logistical challenges, but one constant amongst them all is the dread of being forced to check my cabin baggage full of valuable and delicate camera gear into the hold.

Like many photographers I carry my camera gear in my cabin baggage or, more accurately, my cabin luggage is a camera bag with a minority of essentials, such as passport, ear plugs, eye mask and overnight toiletries. It represents not only a sizeable financial investment but also is the very reason I travel. It would not matter whether it was lost, damaged or stolen; all would have a disastrous impact on my trip. So it stays with me, come what may. But as any airline traveller will tell you, assuring that your cabin baggage does not get checked into the hold is a bit of a black art. But why?

Double Standards

For as long as I can remember the cabin baggage size allowance was set at 56 x 45 x 25cm. This size was suggested by IATA, the International Air Transport Association – an association comprising the majority of the world’s commercial airlines. This was not a requirement; it was a recommendation and an effort to clarify for all parties what was permissible cabin baggage. Airlines were ultimately free to choose a maximum size allowance and whilst some did, many simply adopted the IATA recommendation. An industry for cabin baggage grew up around this recommendation including camera bags and many camera bag manufacturers help by clearly stating whether the bag meets the IATA recommendation, such as the example from Lowepro’s site below.

Many manufacturers provide helpful guidance on cabin compatibility but beware, they may not be using the same standard size as your airline.

Many manufacturers provide helpful guidance on cabin compatibility but beware, they may not be using the same standard size as your airline.

The rapid rise of the “no frills” airlines – the ones that charge you for every extra, such as hold luggage – led to a rise in passengers trying to cram everything in their cabin allowance. The result was increased abuse of the cabin baggage allowance, overcrowding of the storage bins, passengers increasingly being told to check their baggage into the hold, arguments, fights and most importantly of all to the airline, delayed flights. Airlines increasingly began to impose their own, more restrictive cabin allowance resulting in cabin-compatible luggage suddenly not being as compatible as it once was.

In order to bring some order to this chaos in 2015 IATA introduced an initiative (http://www.iata.org/pressroom/pr/Pages/2015-06-09-02.aspx) which initially found acceptance with airline companies to standardise a new cabin baggage size that would, at least in theory, guarantee that cabin baggage would not become hold baggage. The size, 55 x 35 x 20cm was important for two reasons. First, it meant that on aircraft with 120 seats or more every passenger could fit their cabin baggage in the overhead bins. Second, it was smaller than most airlines’ maximum cabin baggage allowance and so was pretty easy for airlines to implement. Unfortunately, the rollout of the initiative was suspended a few months later after concerns from North American airlines about it being too restrictive. Quite how they came to that conclusion is a mystery as I’ve read the initiative and it is very clear that it in no way defines a recommended maximum size – it defines a size at which a passenger could expect that, in an overcrowded aircraft their bag would not be checked into the hold, whereas a larger one might. In any event, the initiative was suspended but not before some airlines adopted it as a new maximum; again not really understanding the point that IATA was trying to address.

If this were not already complex enough the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) have their own recommendation – 55.8cm x 36.8cm x 22.9cm and US manufacturers of cabin compliant luggage are likely to adhere to this standard before IATA.

So, why is this relevant to me now? Well at least that has a simple answer: An upcoming trip sees me make part of the journey on regional ATR42 twin propeller aircraft that is going to be a lot more restrictive on cabin baggage than the international Qatar flight on the first leg of my journey. In the past I have always had a bit of stress regarding the size of my current camera backpack, but the regional flight is a clear case of having it checked into the hold. Something had to be done.

Old, Not Obsolete

Like many photographers I’ve had my fair share of camera bags. For years I was a Lowepro user and I’ve worked my way through a number of their backpacks as my kit and travel patterns changed. But more than once I have returned from a week-long trip with aching shoulders after hefting my gear around all day, every day. It seems a common problem – for me at least – with Lowepro backpacks and so it was time to change brands.

Then I discovered the Think Tank Airport Accelerator v2.0 (https://www.thinktankphoto.com/) and fell in love. Capacious to the point of decadence but still within the FAA and IATA (original) recommendations at 35.6 × 52.1 × 22cm. I’ve used it for a couple of years now and find it to be extremely comfortable when hiking for long periods, even with 12kg of camera gear. The backpack straps are very well padded, the zips rugged and lockable and Think Tank’s customer service is unfailingly good.

But it isn’t the perfect bag. It almost is, and maybe it once was, but as I travel to ever more remote places and airlines continue to clamp down on passengers abusing cabin baggage limits I am finding it more difficult to have that guarantee – that peace-of-mind – that I won’t be asked to check my camera gear into the hold. For although it fits within FAA and the original IATA guidelines it (1) only does so when empty and (2) they’re only guidelines, which airlines are increasingly ignoring.

The Think Tank Airport Accelerator may have a depth of the FAA recommended 22.9cm but that is without the anything in the front pockets. Adding another 2-3cm for a laptop makes this bag much less cabin-friendly.

The Think Tank Airport Accelerator may have a depth of the FAA recommended 22.9cm but that is without the anything in the front pockets. Adding another 2-3cm for a laptop makes this bag much less cabin-friendly.

So began a search for a travel backpack and as I was playing ‘fantasy camera bag’ I might as well assemble my dream team of features!

  1. It had to meet IATA’s 2015 size recommendation of 55 x 35 x 20cm as this would meet pretty much any airline’s cabin baggage allowance.
  2. It had to accommodate two DSLRs each with a lens attached, specifically a D810 with 24-70 f/2.8 and a D750 with 70-200 f/4. My photography is increasingly in hostile environments – saltwater, deserts, volcanoes and snow – and changing lenses is to be avoided wherever possible. So I need to be able to swap between wide and zoom without exposing the camera sensor to contaminants.
  3. It had to be a backpack. Most of the things I photograph require a bit of a trek to get to and I want the gear strapped to my back in comfort, leaving both hands free to clamber up rocky paths and over uneven ground.
  4. It had to allow easy and fast access to all of my gear. Landscapes tend not to move that fast but in hostile environments, conditions do. The ability to pack up quickly is an important as unpacking.

Think Tank were my first choice but whilst they have a smaller camera backpack that satisfies requirement (1), it definitely wasn’t not going to accommodate requirement (2). I looked at other brands – Lowepro, Gura Gear, F-stop, Tenba, Manfrotto etc. – but nothing that met my needs. Things were not looking good.

Then during one of my Google searches I found the Think Tank Airport Antidote v2.0. Not listed on their web site it appears that this is an older model in their Airport series but one that showed promise. With nothing else presenting a viable option I took a gamble on a second-hand one.

The difference between the Think Tank Airport Accelerator and Airport Antidote v2.0 is immediate and noticeable.

The difference between the Think Tank Airport Accelerator and Airport Antidote v2.0 is immediate and noticeable.

The size difference is obvious. At 43 x 30 x 18 cm its external dimensions are smaller than even the most punitive airline restrictions and it even fits inside the Airport Accelerator. So, it meets requirements (1), (3) and (4) but what about the all-important requirement (2)?

"Old, not obsolete." Despite its diminutive size the Think Tank Airport Antidote v2.0 manages to fit a in impressive amount of gear without comprising ease of access.

“Old, not obsolete.” Despite its diminutive size the Think Tank Airport Antidote v2.0 manages to fit a in impressive amount of gear without comprising ease of access.

Yes, although tight I can get two DSLRs with lenses attached in the bag, along with a full complement of filters, two additional lenses, batteries and cleaning gear. Had I needed a longer zoom lens then this have been an issue but (my) photography rarely needs much above 200mm.

A Crash Diet

Of course, size is only one issue when to comes to cabin baggage; the weight allowance is the other and, as any photographer will attest, your camera gear always weighs more than the allowance. I’m planning on handling this in a couple of ways.

First, simple psychology. People assume that small bags are lighter than big bags so the mere fact that the Airport Antidote v2.0 is quite compact gives it a perception of lightness, especially if it looks less like a camera backpack and more like a day backpack. Coupled with the time-honoured technique of casually carrying it on only one shoulder and it shouldn’t invite a check-in or gate assistant to look more closely.

There is always a chance that it might get weighed and at that point you’re pretty much stuck. One tactic is to keep an eye on the check-in queue ahead of you and, if you see cabin baggage being weight-checked it may be time to discretely get out of the queue and move to plan B. There are plenty of photographer gilets that provide innumerable pockets but they are almost universally expensive. A fisherman’s gilet will do exactly the same thing (and be much cheaper) or camera belt can be used to carry enough extra gear to get the cabin bag down to the right weight – at least until you’re sure it won’t be checked into the hold (i.e., when you’re on board the plane). Of course being discrete is the key here and so wearing it under a fleece or – in hot climates – a somewhat oversized shirt can go a long way to not bring attention to your sudden gain in weight.

Including laptop, my Airport Antidote is 11.5kg against Qatar’s 7kg allowance so I potentially need to shift 4.5kg to my person. Tough, but just about possible. Yes, it is a pain to have to go through this, but there are not really many options.

The other thing is to keep the weight of the hold luggage down below the maximum allowed. I’ve been stopped at check-in in the past, but as the hold luggage was under the 23kg maximum the additional weight of the cabin baggage was tolerated.

So, here are some guidelines for maximising your chances of getting your beloved camera gear in the cabin with you:

  • Aim for a size of 55 x 35 x 20cm or less.
  • Aim for a weight of 7kg and, if you can’t, have a plan B for how to deal with the excess weight as you pass through check-in.
  • Do not blindly believe the manufacturers “cabin friendly” label on their web site. It may be an old or different definition to the one your airline uses.

In the end there will never really be a guarantee that a cabin bag won’t be checked, but keeping it as small and light as possible certainly helps. For photographer’s the challenge is finding that balance between size, weight and usability. Hopefully this article shows that it is possible to get a significant amount of camera gear into a lowest common denominator size allowance of 55 x 35 x 20cm; that such camera bags do exist and that there are creative options for making cabin baggage temporarily lighter than they actually are.

Good luck!

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Feeling the Heat

The ever-changing surface of the lava lake at Erta Ale guarantees that you'll never take the same shot twice. But be warned; staring at the lake's surface can become almost hypnotic.

The ever-changing surface of the lava lake at Erta Ale guarantees that you’ll never take the same shot twice. But be warned; staring at the lake’s surface can become almost hypnotic.

It has been very quiet around here for a few weeks simply because work has been insanely busy. I’m an IT security professional by day and right now I’m currently managing two projects that are well underway and all my time is split between them with the thousand different technical and operational queries that clients raise during the deployment phase. All my other work therefore has to fit into the gaps and the evenings.

Of course there is always a benefit to being so busy and one is that I have been working on one client’s site or another over the past few weekends and the travel fund has slowly been growing! So, despite feeling a little weary right now I do have something to look forward to: the next photography trip!

As mentioned in a previous post, Siberia is planned for 2017. The photographer running that – Alexey Trofimov – has suggested dates around the end of February and so whilst I’m really excited about working alongside him I need something a bit sooner.

The next option is to return to Iceland. I have an image in my head that I can’t get rid of and so I can see a week or two spent driving along the southern coast. Iceland is an easy trip; one I really do not have to think about but again, I want to go late in the year, when it is colder – perhaps November or early December. Again, I can’t wait.

So, the current plan is 18 days travelling through Java on a volcano hunt. The people who organised the trip to Ethiopia, Volcano Discovery, have a photographer-centric trip in September and over the past few weeks I’ve been talking to them about adding a custom extension. If all goes well I should be climbing Krakatoa in just under 80 days!

After the heat of Java's volcanoes Iceland will be a nice halfway-house before the -25°C expected in Siberia.

After the heat of Java’s volcanoes Iceland will be a nice halfway-house before the -25°C expected in Siberia.

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Siberia’s Lake Baikal: 2017

The World is full of wonder and this map is my reminder to not waste the one thing we all have in short supply: Time.

The map responsible for many of my trips. I’m sure my bank manager would prefer me to have wallpaper instead…

Here in the UK we are on the last day of the four-day Easter weekend and whist for many it is a busy time for me it is a time to rest and catch up with all those “I really must do that someday” jobs.

One such job was to clean fingerprints off the glass cover of the map in my study, fingerprints that covered most of Indonesia, China and well into Mongolia – so in the end I just decided to clean the whole map. A particularly stubborn mark over Mongolia had me scrubbing away and I was caught by the striking gash of blue in the otherwise orange expanse of Russia. Although not really obvious in the picture of the map above, you cannot miss it when looking at Google Earth, a deep blue against the green.

GoogleMaps - Russia 1600px

Anything that piques my interest is worth a quick Google, especially if it may lead me somewhere new and so the rest of the day became an increasingly interesting search about Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal has a lot of ‘firsts’ to its name. It is considered the oldest lake at approx. 25 million years, the deepest at just over 1600 metres, the largest freshwater lake in the World by volume of water and one of the clearest. If you took all the water from the five Great Lakes in the USA, Lake Baikal still has more.

However, it was when I looked at some example images taken of the lake in winter that idle curiosity became a “What would be involved in getting there” train of thought. The best images range from stunning landscapes through to downright other-Worldly and it is an area relatively untouched by mankind. Siberia has long been on my list of extreme environments and now Lake Baikal has given me a focus.

So, as Easter comes to an end, I have narrowed the photographic expeditions down to three possibilities and some have already replied to my email. There is one expedition that stands out although all three represent the best on offer that I could find. The only thing is that I’m too late for 2016 as all the expeditions are in the February/March timeframe and so it means a long wait until the 2017 season.

But, it is always nice to have something to look forward to…


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Composing the Dunes Namibia Workshop Review: Part 1

Sossusvlei 1600px

The kind of traveller that you bump in to on a trip to Antarctica is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the well-travelled one and so when relaxing in the bar each evening there were plenty of stories being swapped of the various destinations that people had visited.  So it was that I first received a recommendation for Namibia back in 2012.  Skip forward to the 2014 trip to Ethiopia and another recommendation, this time from a pair of photographers. Upon my return from Ethiopia I had already decided that I wanted to see Namibia for myself.

I didn’t realise just how much there was to write when beginning this review and it ended up being a little longer than expected. In itself that says something about the trip but since it is far too much to read in one sitting I’ve divided the review into three parts: Introduction and days 1-4, days 5-8 and finally days 9-13 and the conclusion.

Picking the Trip

Planning a trip to Namibia is likely one of the easier trips to Africa you can make. It is financially and politically stable and a number of tour operators have offerings to suit most people’s ideas of a “holiday”, photographic or otherwise. The photographer is well catered for with a number of different options and a lazy afternoon with Google saw me with a number of different options for a photographic workshop in Namibia. Because I didn’t fancy spending countless hours deciding on the small differences between each offering I picked three based on a range of costs, locations visited and the description on their respective web sites.

It is worth mentioning that this was my first photography-specific expedition. Ethiopia was described as a photography/geology trip, but most people on that were not photographers and as a result we ended up missing a lot of good opportunities through a variety of frustrations. As such I really have nothing to compare this trip to Namibia with.

The reason that I decided on a photographic workshop was two-fold. First, the missed opportunities in Ethiopia meant I really wanted to be on a trip dedicated to photography, visiting locations of interest to photographers and being with other people who knew not to walk into your composition. The second reason is that there are some countries that are better to travel with local knowledge. Namibia is a safe country – as safe as most destinations and definitely one of the safest in Africa (in fact probably only second to Botswana) – but I had already been forewarned about the high risk of blown tyres when driving the roads there and I really didn’t want to have to plan the logistics of hotels, hire cars, permits and all the other myriad requirements.


The Company

Of the three shortlisted options I decided upon the South African company Tailor Made Safaris who were advertising their “Composing the Dunes” photographic trip for five reasons:

  1. They visited the skeleton forest of Deadvlei and the neighbouring Sossusvlei , the ghost town of Kolmanskop and the quiver tree forest at Keetmanshoop – all on my shortlist.
  2. The trip was scheduled for November which is more-or-less my preferred travelling time. It was also the only trip I could find in this timeframe so that helped the decision!
  3. Small groups.
  4. They made a point that it was a landscape workshop (as opposed to a wildlife one).
  5. They were considerably cheaper that the competition – around 30% cheaper.

To be honest, they pretty much had me with the “focus on landscape” point – I have no interest in wildlife photography and any workshop that includes that would be taking time away from landscape work. Plus it is an refreshingly honest statement to make: There will be people who dismiss them as an option because they want ‘a bit of everything’.

The only concern that was nagging me was the fact that they were a lot cheaper than the alternatives. Perhaps I am jaded but whenever I see something at a significantly lower price than the alternatives alarm bells usually go off in my head. It was a bit of a gamble but I put the cost down to three things. First off, the workshop is run ‘off season’ having the benefit of cheaper accommodation and less tourists. Second, the company is based in South Africa where wages are lower than Europe or, to put this in a simpler context, had the photographer been a European photographer he would have cost more to hire. The final potential reason I could see for the lower cost is that Tailor Made Safaris is a (very) small company, the husband and wife team of Nick and Freya to be exact.

After reading a lot of independent feedback about Tailor Made Safaris’ other (non-photographic) offerings and a couple of reviews by previous workshop guests I decided to take a gamble.

Likely the most confusing aspect for anyone currently interested in the “Composing the Dunes” workshop is that the name of the company responsible has recently changed making Googling reviews of the workshop more difficult . At the time of my first becoming interested in the trip it was being offered by Tailor Made Safaris. By the time I arrived in Namibia I was greeted by someone holding a “Nature’s Light” sign.

The reason for moving the Namibia photographic workshop under the Nature’s Light brand was explained by Nick van de Wiel, owner of Tailor Made Safaris:

Nature’s Light is basically a Joint Venture between Emil from Limephoto and Nick from Tailor Made Safaris, bringing together great photographic expertise and reputable travel logistics. Although initially we both marketed our tours each on our own websites, we have discovered this year that it wasn’t working from a marketing point of view. The Limephoto website is optimised to attract commercial clients, and the Tailor Made Safaris website to attract ‘general tourists’, and hence we were ‘missing out’ on serious photography enthusiasts. These simply didn’t find out websites and thus didn’t know what we had to offer. We like to believe that was the reason we had so few people on our Namibia Tour, as we still feel the tour itself is good and offers good value for money. Our new website is designed purely for photographers, and we hope it will list better, and attract more serious people.

The Emil mentioned in Nick’s description is Emil von Maltitz, a Durban-based photographer and our expedition lead. Despite being a commercial photographer Emil’s landscape credentials include being included in the 2016 Nikon calendar and shortlisted in the International Landscape Photographer of the Year 2015 book.

For the rest of the review I’ll refer to it as the Nature’s Light workshop as, if you’re interested in it for the 2016 season, that’ll be who runs it.



Accommodation was generally to a very high standard.

Accommodation was generally to a very high standard.

The accommodation throughout the trip was excellent. The published itinerary gives a sense of what to expect in terms of rest time and realising that good sleep when I could get it would be essential if I were to last the two weeks, I had opted for the single person upgrade essentially meaning that I had a double room to myself wherever we stopped and in one case I had a choice of four beds to sleep in! Even the most rustic of the accommodation at Spitzkoppe was more than acceptable and, despite being the odd one out in that they had external toilets and separate external showers these were in good condition.


The Itinerary

The 2015 workshop ran between November 5th and November 17th with 12 days ‘in the field’. The first day was set aside for guests to arrive and meet each other over dinner and so the actual workshop really started on the following day. According to the brochure, the workshop concentrates on the Quiver Tree forest near Keetmanshoop, Fish River Canyon, the ghost town of Kolmanskop, Dead Vlei and Sossus Vlei and finally the Spitskoppe Mountains. Both Nick and Emil have run the workshop a few times and, being photographers running a photography workshop, have a good idea as to where guest’s interests will lie. From talking to Emil I got the impression that the itinerary is being reviewed based on the comments made by previous guests and so what the itinerary will look like in 2016 may well be different. That being said I’m pretty sure that the only location mentioned above that would potentially be missing is Fish River Canyon as the other locations are too visually impressive to miss. Fish River Canyon has been included as people have asked for it but the logistics of the trip (discussed later) and the fact that for many asking it is a “tick in a box” location means that the time could be better spent elsewhere.


Day 1: Arrival

As mentioned above the first day is for inbound guests to arrive off international flights, rest up after what would have been a restless sleep on the plane and meet each other and the workshop leaders. There are a couple of ways to get to the international airport in Namibia’s capital Windhoek and I chose to fly via Johannesburg. I must admit to not really having thought about the flights as best I should have: Had I done so I would have realised that buying the London to Johannesburg and Johannesburg to Windhoek flights separately (to save money) meant that I needed to clear immigration and customs and collect my luggage in Johannesburg in order to check in for the second flight. Having only allowed two hours between landing and the next flight – which would have been fine as a transit passenger – was worryingly tight.

Arrival in Windhoek was probably the only major issue I encountered on the trip and I’m still debating where the blame should lie. Upon entry non-Namibian nationals need to fill out an immigration card with the usual details, including an address at which you’ll be staying. The problem is: I hadn’t been given one. The only instruction I had was to look for a person carrying a Nature’s Light placard once I had cleared immigration and customs. The immigration officer wasn’t going to be helpful either, flatly refusing to point me in the direction of who to talk to about this and eventually refusing to return my passport to me. I did have Emil’s (South African) mobile number but that wasn’t working as he was about 60 metres away on the other side of Namibian immigration waiting for me.

In the end it was only the fact that another immigration officer read the introduction email I had been sent and, realising that I may be telling the truth, told me to go through (without my passport) to get the address. It was a lot of unnecessary stress.

So who is to blame for this? Well, to be fair I should have known better. I travel a lot and had I paid more attention I would have picked up on not having an accommodation address before I travelled. But not everyone travels as much as I do and so I have to say that this should have been communicated by Nature’s Light ahead of the trip.

Once we arrived at the Ondekaremba Lodge there was time to relax and freshen up before dinner. On this expedition there were only two guests; myself and a Croatian named Romeo. Because of this there was only one Nature’s Light photographer, Emil and due to the rather small group we were in a single 4WD, with plenty of room and, as I discovered as the trip went on, all the benefits of small group travel.

We also discovered what was to become a constant when staying at various locations throughout the country: Wi-fi that didn’t really work too well. Not that it bothered me all that much as it was quite nice to be ‘off the grid’ but if you’re planning on staying in contact with folks back home, you may want to consider a local SIM card on the MTC network – you’ll get the chance to buy this tomorrow.

Day 2: Windhoek to Keetmanshoop and the Quiver Tree Forest

The start of the 12 day workshop proper and a day with an awful lot of driving – just under 500 kilometres. The aim was to travel south from Windhoek and get to Keetmanshoop by late afternoon so we could be at our first location for sunset.

After breakfast there is a stop in town to visit an ATM/bank to exchange money, pick up groceries and for those interested, a SIM card for the local network. It is worth getting the SIM as it does not cost too much and will without question be cheaper than any roaming plan you may have. The SIM I opted for had 30 minutes of international calls and 500MB of data for something like US$10.

Driving days are inevitable on trips like this and the usual aim is to complete the journey with as little delay as possible. That said, put three photographers in a car travelling through a changing landscape and you’re bound to make several random stops to photograph something interesting. The only main stop was for lunch at a Wimpy roadside cafe. In the past I have noticed that people can be a bit funny about things like lunch venue but my view on these trips is that I’m not there to waste time in restaurants; as long as the food is reasonably tasty – and all the places we stopped at served a good selection of food – then the less time we spent eating meant the more time we would spend shooting. You’re also experiencing more of daily life in Namibia than you would in an actual restaurant.

We arrived at the Mesosaurus Fossil Site near Keetmanshoop and checked in to the lodge – home for the next two nights. After unloading our kit into the rooms we were back out and heading towards the first location of the trip, the Quiver Tree forest. I wrote a small piece on the forest and whilst it isn’t a forest in the traditional sense, the trees (which aren’t technically trees) are striking and so I could see why there were four separate shoots planned here. Also, I usually take a couple of shoots to get into the swing of things so having several shoots meant I could treat this first one more as a “warm up” session. After sunset we returned to the lodge for dinner – homemade food from the local farm – which was very tasty before heading back out for the first of the astrophotography shoots.

I have never really tried astrophotography before so this was one part of the workshop that I was quite interested in. I had emailed Emil before the trip to ask if we covered everything we needed to know and the simple answer is yes; despite having no real knowledge of how to capture astrophotography images before the workshop, I left with the knowledge and skills required to capture and process my own images. I wrote a more detailed piece on this, but the image below is taken from this very first evening session on the workshop.

16mm, f/2.8, 20 seconds, ISO 3200.

16mm, f/2.8, 20 seconds, ISO 3200.

I think that the astrophotography part of the workshop highlights a couple of important aspects of the trip. First, through the repetitive process of shooting images for astrophotography and then post-processing them, by the end of the two weeks I had a good basic understanding on the process and one that I have subsequently been able to replicate on my own. In other words the workshop has taught me a skill that I will be able to use on every trip I take from now on and to me, that is very valuable. The second aspect is that, up until this trip, I steered clear of using Photoshop as I really didn’t understand it. The post-processing sessions we had throughout the trip have helped me become more familiar with how Photoshop can help me produce an image that is in line with my vision. In fact, the image above is a case-in-point: It was actually taken as a test shot for a star trail time-lapse that we were looking at. Through using Photoshop’s masks and layers I’ve been able to turn the test shot into a very presentable image. So, the workshop has also given me familiarity with Photoshop.

After the shoot we headed back to the lodge to freshen up, transfer images onto backup storage and sleep. Tomorrow will be the first pre-dawn start.


Day 3: Quiver Tree Forest

4:45AM is not my favourite time of day – any time pre-coffee is eyed with disdain – but we wanted to be in the forest before dawn and one of the nice things about being out of season was that we would likely have the place to ourselves, which we did. We spent the early morning shooting the trees and sunrise and Emil was on hand to give advice. By 8AM the sun was getting hot and the light was becoming increasingly harsh so we finished up and headed back to the 4WD for coffee in the shade of a communal weaver bird nest, an experience only slightly diminished by the knowledge that there are likely several snakes in the nest too.

Examining a social weaver nest over coffee.

Examining a social weaver nest over coffee.

For those days not spending travelling the third day exemplifies the general structure of the workshop: a dawn shoot, coffee on site before heading back for breakfast, lessons/processing/sleep with lunch at some point, then out again for a sunset/night shoot.

Back at the lodge with breakfast out of the way we sat down for the only structured lesson of the workshop – a slideshow on frame, elements and relationships. It is not something new to me, having read this in many other places, and I’m guessing that anyone looking to attend a photographic workshop will have seen similar articles too. Of course a reminder of these aspects is always good – especially as I have difficulty in putting them into practice – but I do wish that I will one day find someone who covers “why photographs fail” – for example, show a scene shot in different ways and then explain why the ones that fail, well, fail.

But the slideshow did show one thing: if there were ever a question about Emil’s credentials to run a landscape workshop, it disappeared with the images shown then. I’ll come back to this at the end of the review but nothing in the marketing information shows this side of Emil’s work.

Like many places throughout the country the lodge is at least partially dependent upon solar energy and here power and hot water is provided by a solar array. Being out of season, we pretty much had the place to ourselves but still managed to overload the batteries of the array with three MacBooks connected to it. So, as always, have plenty of spare batteries. I took along my Voltaic solar charger as a backup.

After an hour-long snooze we headed back out to the forest – the same place as the morning but different to the previous day. The aim was to spend the sunset hours shooting, eat a light meal on site and then continue with some astrophotography.

The Quiver Tree forest is just dense enough to make subject isolation tricky…

The Quiver Tree forest is just dense enough to make subject isolation tricky…

I made the decision to head off by myself and see if I could improve on yesterday’s lacklustre start and I appreciated the fact that I could do so. In fact the only inconvenience I could have faced is that, had I wanted Emil to look over a composition or a shot I had taken, it would have meant a bit of trek to the other part of the forest.

One thing to be aware of in Namibia is that, despite your very best efforts, you will get sensor dust. Namibia is a very, very dusty country and so you should just assume that it will happen to you. The question is really what you do about it. The answer, of course, is clean your sensors and luckily having shot multiple times in these conditions Emil knew how to clean the sensors and had the kit with him. Back in the UK, a full frame sensor clean from a reputable dealer can cost around £100 by the time you factor in shipping and so having this service performed as needed was a bit of a boon. But, never being one to take a back seat, Emil was happy to show me how to clean my own sensors. Another skill that I can use whenever required which, aside from saving me a lot of money, more importantly means that I can clean sensors whilst on location. Never having been on another workshop I do not know if sensor cleaning lessons are a common thing, but I suspect not.

Dinner on location whilst waiting for sunset to become night…

Dinner on location whilst waiting for sunset to become night…

After sunset we waited by the 4WD as the sun fell far below the horizon and the sky darkened to reveal the canopy of stars. If you’ve never been to a region free of light pollution then the African night sky will be a bit of a shock. It is, simply, magical and if you’re looking at learning astrophotography then you’re in the right place. Another nice thing about out-of-season Namibia is that with no people around for miles it is perfectly safe to set up your cameras and walk off, so after setting up one camera each to take the necessary shots for a time-lapse, we headed back to the 4WD with the aim of using the other cameras to shoot some standard astrophotography. Unfortunately we took the scenic route (OK, we got lost!) and spent an hour trying to get our bearings by which time the time-lapse had finished. In the end we only had enough time to capture a couple of standards shots which doesn’t sound like much but bear in mind that each ‘standard’ shot required three 240 second exposures and an addition 30 second exposure – basically around 15 minutes each. Then it was back to the lodge for the end-of-day image backup, showers and to pack the contents of our international luggage into big plastic boxes so that we could put clothing on the 4WD roof giving room for the camera gear to go in the 4WD. Make sure that you have a big dry bag (or similar) to put your items in as, starting tomorrow, things will get really dusty.


Day 4: Keetmanshoop to Seeheim via Fish River Canyon

Another pre-5AM start for a dawn shoot at a third location in the Quiver tree forest followed by coffee and breakfast back at the lodge. After breakfast we were driving to Fish River Canyon which isn’t a particularly long drive – approximately 125 kilometres – but it did introduce us to the more common type of road surface in Namibia: crushed rock.

Other than a stop for lunch at an American-style roadside diner – complete with American sized portions – we didn’t hang around and made good time arriving early afternoon.

I can see why Fish River Canyon is the one location that may not make it into future workshops. Without doubt the canyon is impressive and a quick look at the Wikipedia article shows that there is a popular 90 kilometre hiking trail and a yearly ultra marathon that attracts visitors to the canyon floor. Speaking of which, the high canyon walls must mean that there is some impressive light and shadow down there – not that you’ll get to see it. Due to the high risk of flash floods (and no way to get out quickly) the trails down to the canyon floor are closed between September and April and although you could ignore the signs and get down, no responsible workshop is going to ignore official warnings.

As impressive as Fish River Canyon is, it will be the light that matters…

Fish River Canyon is definitely impressive, but it will be the light down in the canyon that matters…

Being confined to the top where the light is harsh leads to somewhat flat images and aside from the option to zoom in and focus on details you’d probably have a tough time producing something for the portfolio. Still we spent a couple of hours at a few places and grabbed a couple of shots that could potentially make it into a stock library.

We had passed the hotel on the way to the canyon and so had to drive back the same way we had come. On the way back we stopped at a tree we had spotted on the drive to the canyon, a lone tree in the middle of nowhere and we spent a pleasant half hour or so attempting to get an interesting composition out of it. It was here that we were introduced to the concept of focus stacking, something I had heard about about but never really paid much attention to (as Photoshop was involved), which essentially involves taking a series of shots of the same scene only varying the point of focus. These shots can be combined in Photoshop later to produce pin-sharp images from foreground to infinity. It is worth mentioning that we tried focus stacks a few times throughout the trip but I have since found that none have really worked out for me as the lens I used suffers from focus breathing. So if you are going to try this technique it could be worth testing to see if your lens suffers from focus breathing too as it is a pain to correct – if you can at all – later on.

By the end of the trip tress were being described using adjectives such as ‘attractive’. A ‘sexy’ may have even slipped out once…

By the end of the trip trees were being described using adjectives such as ‘attractive’. A ‘sexy’ may have even slipped out once…

The evening was a leisurely affair at the Seeheim hotel which is about the only remaining structure in the town and a curiously cobbled-together place reminding me of an Escher drawing. The bar is curious in itself looking like a colonial retreat complete with stuffed and mounted animal heads. But the highlight of the evening was a waitress whose humour was drier than the surrounding desert and whose sarcasm was delivered in such a deadpan fashion that you didn’t know whether it really was sarcasm or her simply speaking her mind. Even Romeo, who had hitherto been the master of dry wit, was impressed.


In part two, we continue the trip and look at the wonderfully photogenic Kolmanskop, a perfect film set for a horror movie!

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The Iceland Trip’s “Worst Case Scenario”

With the trip to Iceland being tomorrow and packing essentially complete I’m now at the point where I’m actually beginning to get excited. In fact there are only a few items left to deal with, including buying a few of those “meals in a bag” for the middle of the trip when I’m up in the Icelandic highlands and nowhere near a supermarket. That’s the double-edged nature of Iceland: It’s a truly breath-taking country but it favours the prepared.

Now, I do consider myself a reasonably prepared traveller, including the steps I take to stay out of trouble. But a recent post by a regular contributor over on the Trip Advisor Iceland forum did stop me in my tracks. In it she suggested that the profile for those travellers to Iceland that end up never leaving (alive) is male, a solo traveller, hiking and often with some experience. I fit 100% into that profile and whatever the source of this statistic I found myself double-checking my preparations for a “worst-case scenario”.

Risk analysts with tell you that there are three ways to deal with risk: Accept it and carry on (assume the risk), take steps to reduce the risk (mitigate the risk) or get someone else to handle the risk (transfer the risk). Depending upon the situation each option can be a valid approach, but in the case of my time in Iceland’s highland interior as the predictably unpredictable weather continues to worsen, option one would be plain, flat-out, stupid and option three (in this case meaning going on an organised trip) would be too expensive – if possible at all – and so inflexible as to render the reason for being there not worthwhile. So it was time to take the middle ground.

It is worth pointing out that there are usually three potential sources of danger in a given environment: From other humans, from animals and from nature itself. In Iceland you can disregard the first two completely. If anything is going to cause you problems, it will be the weather.

Staying on the Grid

The first thing to mention is telecommunication. Iceland has excellent mobile phone coverage from a number of operators. For example, take a look at Vodafone Iceland’s GSM coverage:

Everybody love 4G but despite being “so last century” GSM is your new best friend in Iceland.

Everybody loves 4G but despite being “so last century” GSM is your new best friend in Iceland.

So, should the worst happen I’m more than likely going to have access to the outside world, but who am I going to call?

Perhaps the obvious would be friends or family back home. If I had no other alternative then, well, I have no other alternative but I’m not going to be calling for a chat – I’m going to be having an emergency. If you’ve ever tried it trying to organise a rescue for someone from another country it is very difficult and as time is the enemy here, I really I don’t want to be in that position. So I’m making sure that I have the phone numbers for my accommodation in Iceland and confirming my arrival with each of them on the morning of arrival.

An example of why making sure that the accommodation knows you’re definitely arriving is useful happened to me back in 2010. We were taking a 4WD from the village of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile to the town of Uyuni in southern Bolivia. It’s a route taking three days and involves travelling through the northern Andes at an altitude of 4,500 metres. It’s a barren, unending wilderness where the temperature drops to -15°C or below once the sun goes down.

It is official – the fuel pump is dead. At 4,500 metres altitude that's not what you want to hear...

It is official – the fuel pump is dead. At 4,500 metres altitude that’s not what you want to hear…

Due to contaminated fuel the fuel pump died stranding us on the second day. Despite having been told otherwise there was no radio to call for help – and mobile phones were definitely out – and it was only because we were on a route that other 4WD vehicles used that we were able to ask a passing driver to let people know we needed help once he arrived back in civilisation. Which he didn’t do.

Luckily the accommodation we were staying in that evening were expecting us and when we didn’t show up they contacted the company who had organised our arrival and help was sent overnight to look for us. It was an uncomfortable evening – and we missed out on seeing some spectacular sights due to the delay – but we were rescued because of the accommodation raising the alarm.

In Iceland you have other tools at your disposal. The completely free 112 app from safetravel.is and available for iOS, Android and Windows mobile devices allows you to keep in contact by letting the emergency services know your location. It’s simple to use and works by sending a SMS text message so doesn’t need 3G or 4G to operate, hence why I showed the GSM coverage map above – it’s all the app needs to work.

Free, easy to use and could possibly save your life. What's not to like?

Free, easy to use and could possibly save your life. What’s not to like?

How you use it is up to you this but I just set my watch to remind me every 30 minutes to check-in. That way if the worst were to happen then the emergency services know my approximate location.

So, letting people know is very, very important and Iceland makes it so easy to do that there is no excuse not to do so. It is a zero-cost option for having someone looking out for me. I’d be stupid not to use it.

Of course, should I find myself needing assistance I’m likely going to have to wait until help arrives. For my trip I’ve considered three scenarios when travelling by myself: (1) The 4WD breaks down (2) I’m out hiking  and the weather unexpectedly turns for the worse and I end up in a biting cold storm with very low visibility or (3) I sprain an ankle. Each of these conditions is quite possible and can be life-threatening if not prepared.

The “Car Breaks Down” Scenario

The ‘car breaks down’ scenario is a relatively easy one to deal with: Phone the car hire company. However, it may be that they cannot rescue me quickly and so I have to spend the night in the car. That’s where my trusty Alpkit SkyeHigh 600 sleeping back comes in. Rated down to -5°C it means that an evening stuck inside the car out of the wind and rain inside will also be a warm one and a break-down becomes an annoyance rather than dangerous.

The “Bad Weather” Scenario

Due to its geography and location the weather in Iceland can change exceptionally quickly, especially in the highlands, and so the best course of action is to assume the worst. For me this entails being out hiking in the highlands of Kerlingarfjoll and a sudden snow or rain storm comes in and reduces visibility to near zero.

Cold! The red rectangle shows the highland area that I’ll be hiking in.

Cold! The red rectangle shows the highland area that I’ll be hiking in.

The first common-sense thing to do is check the weather forecast. It’s not accuracy that I’m after but rather a general idea and as can be seen in the above image from vedur.is – Iceland’s meteorological office – Kerlingarfjoll is going to be reaching sub-zero temperatures and so I need to ensure that I can keep warm and dry when out-and-about.

The easiest way to dress for the occasion is to use the layering principle of clothing (if you’ve not come across this then Google ‘layering principle clothing’). This is a tried-and-tested method of ensuring that your clothing suits your environment and in the highlands the outer waterproof and windproof layer is as important as the warmth-providing base and mid layers. Easy things to forget are gloves and some kind of hat.

I am pretty confident in my clothing and I’m happy that it will cope with the extremes of Iceland’s weather that I’ll be facing – it better as 66 North is an Icelandic outdoor brand – but I’m definitely following the advice of many experts who recommend avoiding jeans and cotton as, when wet, they don’t dry quickly and in a cold environment they can accelerate the cooling of your body and speed up the onset of hypothermia.

So, should the weather turn nasty, it won’t present an immediate danger and I’ll be warm and dry enough to get back to camp. Assuming I can find camp!

GPS used to be the tool of the seasoned outdoor adventurer but smart phones have put this powerful navigational tool into the hands of just about everybody. GPS apps are available for all brands of smart phone and, given that the software is cheap – and you can have a lot of fun later by downloading the data to your PC and showing your friends and family exactly where you hiked on Google Maps – it makes sense to invest in the app.

The display may look a little unfriendly but there are also options to download Google Maps data and use if when away from 3G/4G mobile coverage. You can then watch your route unfold as you walk.

The display may look a little unfriendly but there are also options to download Google Maps data and use if when away from 3G/4G mobile coverage. You can then watch your route unfold as you walk.

I use an old iPhone 4S with no SIM card and running a dedicated GPS app – in this case GPS Kit. Other than the obvious ability to pinpoint my location it also has a tracking option that will allow me to backtrack without having to rely on visible clues such as path markers should I need to. The phone is in a rugged, waterproof case (by Lifeproof) that I picked up second-hand on eBay so there is no worry about using it in rain or snow. I’ve actually tested the waterproof nature having been diving with it to a depth of 12 metres so it doesn’t matter how bad the rain gets, it won’t be worse than that! I’ve also got a portable USB battery pack that is small enough to be easy to carry but can charge the iPhone twice over.

The “Injured” Scenario

The most likely form of injury when out hiking is a sprained ankle, especially when walking over uneven ground. Anyone who has had a sprained ankle will tell you how painful it can be, but when out-and-about by yourself it can be deadly. Back in 2008, when I was preparing to walk the wild section of the Great Wall of China, I relied a lot on the local knowledge of a photographer based out there and his advice as simple: Do not walk it alone. People have died after an injury and not being found for a couple of weeks. The good news is that in Iceland’s highlands you wouldn’t have to suffer that long – a night would probably be enough to finish you off.

There’s a reason that the “Wild Wall of China” is closed to hikers.

There’s a reason that the “Wild Wall of China” is closed to hikers. This was a complete section until someone walked on it…

The single best piece of advice I have been given for hiking is to wear properly fitted walking boots that support your ankle. This does not necessarily mean the most expensive walking boots you can find – my current boots were significantly cheaper than all the others I was considering but they hold my feet securely. Looking where you are going and not rushing is good advice too. As my clothing is going to keep me warm and dry, I have no need to rush and anyway, having 10kg of camera gear to carry always slows you down.

No, should the weather turn nasty and visibility fail, the only thing that will likely kill me is panic.

But should it happen there are a number of tips for dealing with a sprained ankle and whilst I have a plan the simple fact of the matter is that the injury scenario is really one of those where my best hope of survival is the steps I will have already taken that day and outlined above. In the case of my stay at Kerlingarfjoll in the highlands my plan is simple:

  1. Each morning tell hotel the route I’m taking, when I expect to be back and that I will check in with reception on my return.
  2. I’ll also double-check the weather that day – local knowledge is always good.
  3. Use the 112 app.
  4. Use the GPS app to plot my route.
  5. Don’t rush and watch where I’m going.

Of course, I have my Icelandic “worst-case scenario” kit-bag (which is really just my usual travel kit with a dramatic name)  which contains a few, cheap, lightweight items – along with a couple of larger items I use in photography.

  • Strong painkillers
  • Sprain bandage
  • Spare bootlaces (handy for so many things, including boots!)
  • Emergency stitches (also called suture strips)
  • Liquid plaster (a paint-on anti-sceptic plaster)
  • Plasters
  • Compede (a UK brand of blister plaster)
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers
  • Survival blanket
  • Gaffer tape (carried due to its use for photography, but handy for splints)
  • GPS
  • USB power brick
  • LED Torch (again, used for light painting in photography but has a 20 hour charge)
  • Swiss Army Penknife (well, it’s not proper hiking without one!)

Despite seeming a large and costly list, the medical bits all fit into sunglasses case so really easy to carry around in a pocket or backpack.

At the end of the day you can never plan for every eventuality. What you can do is identify the potential dangers and plan as best you can around them. That’s usually the difference between trips that have “moments” that to tell your friends about for years afterwards and those trips that are your last.

Posted in Travel, Trip Planning, Uncategorized Also tagged , , |

What’s the Rush?

As a result of not spending so much time diving on the forthcoming trip to Iceland (see last post for the “why”) I now have an extra day or two spare. But whilst having some slack time in the schedule is always a good thing, I’ve already planned “quiet” days and so don’t really need any more. For some destinations it might be a struggle to fill these extra days, but not so with Iceland – it has the opposite problem: What to leave out.

I’ve been driving to a customer site the past couple of days and so had plenty of time to mull the various options over in my mind and I have decided to take my usual “quality over quantity” approach – after all Iceland is notorious for its unpredictable weather and all the images I have planned have specific moods that would easily ruined by the wrong weather. But whilst this approach makes sense to me, others do not seem to share my opinion. I spend a fair bit of time over on the Trip Advisor Iceland forum and not a day goes by without someone asking something along the lines of “Here’s my seven-day itinerary to see the whole of Iceland – what do you think?” I do understand that people have limited time for travel, but seriously, what kind of experience are you going to have rushing around trying to cram everything in? Surely it would be much better to pick a few highlights and explore them a bit more?

A classic example of this is Seljalandsfoss, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland.

Seljalandsfoss is extremely popular due to its close proximity to Reykjavik and the fact that you can walk behind it. Oh, and it’s a waterfall – everybody loves a waterfall… [Click to enlarge!]

Seljalandsfoss is extremely popular due to its close proximity to Reykjavik and the fact that you can walk behind it. Oh, and it’s a waterfall – everybody loves a waterfall… [Click to enlarge!]

Seljalandsfoss sees tourists arrive by the coachload – thousands of them every day during the summer months – and it is easy to understand why. It is an easy day trip from Reykjavik, it is impressively big and easy to approach – you can even walk behind it along a path. The chances are good that you’ll even get to see a rainbow due to the water vapour in the air. So, if you’re looking to see Iceland’s top attractions, you’ll end up here. On my last trip I visited Seljalandsfoss a few times hoping to get an image I was happy with and spent quite a bit of time watching the tourists arrive and depart like waves breaking on the shore. And virtually all of them followed the same pattern: arrive, follow the path to the waterfall, take some pictures, then either return to the car or coach or continue along the path and walk behind the falls and then return to the car or coach. And if you’re on a tight time schedule that’s your total experience of Seljalandsfoss – you’re already off to ‘bag’ the next tourist hotspot. What almost none of them did was take time to look around but had they done so they would have had a bit of a surprise as there are actually two waterfalls. A short walk past Seljalandsfoss is Glufrafoss. Unlike its more popular brother Glufrafoss is hidden from view – in fact you have to walk through a crevice in the cliff face in the above image.

Glufrafoss is only a short walk from Seljalandsfoss but for the number of tourists it sees, it could be a million miles away… [Click to enlarge!]

Glufrafoss is only a short walk from Seljalandsfoss but for the number of tourists it sees, it could be a million miles away… [Click to enlarge!]

As a picturesque setting there may be better waterfalls, but as a private table for two having a picnic it will be an experience few others will have had. [Click to enlarge!]

As a picturesque setting there may be better waterfalls, but as a private table for two having a picnic it will be an experience few others will have had. [Click to enlarge!]

But when you do you have the falls all to yourself as you stand in a 6 metre wide opening with the rock face towering above you on all sides. It’s loud and you can feel the refreshing effects of the ionised air and you’ll probably want to stay a while – luckily there is a handy rock to sit upon. The brave could even stop for a picnic – just bring your waterproofs as it does get wet!

The other advantage of the “quality over quantity” approach is that you get to have different experiences of the same place. Skogafoss, another extremely popular tourist stop – and usually on the same tour as Seljalandsfoss – is a great example of this. Here’s what Skogafoss looks like to most tourists:

Skogafoss, a truly magnificent sight by any standards, is usually hidden by a mass of tourists. [Click to enlarge!]

Skogafoss, a truly magnificent sight by any standards, is usually hidden by a mass of tourists. [Click to enlarge!]

And here’s what looks like to those who take more time:

With plenty of slack in the schedule you can afford to wait until you are, quite literally, alone with nature. [Click to enlarge!]

With plenty of slack in the schedule you can afford to wait until you are, quite literally, alone with nature. [Click to enlarge!]

I know which experience I prefer.

So, that is a very long-winded way of saying that, now that I have more time to explore the Thingvellir region of Iceland, I’m not adding any additional sights to visit and instead am going to concentrate on those already on the itinerary: The geyser Stokkur, Gulfoss and the enigmatic Bruarfoss. I may revisit Skogafoss as, although it is 100km out of my way, I still feel a photograph is waiting for me there.

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The Fine Line Between Theory and Practice.

The blog has been quiet for a few weeks for a few reasons, work being the primary one. But despite the lack of updates, there have been a few things happening.

Probably the most important is that I am now PADI Open Water certified, meaning that I can scuba dive at any PADI dive centre on the planet. PADI is by far the most prolific dive school and so holding a PADI certification certainly opens up options for where I can dive although the basic certification limits me to a depth of 18 metres. Holding the PADI certification is also important for the forthcoming Iceland trip as to dive at Silfra – the only place where you can dive between tectonic plates whilst touching them – you need to hold at least the basic certification. I have also picked up dry suit diving experience – Silfra is a positively cool 2°C and a few minutes of that in a normal wet suit would see you getting first-hand experience of hypothermia.

If you recall the “grand plan” was to learn to dive so I could dive at Silfra with the camera. My direction for the web site is extreme environment photography and underwater photography from Silfra would have added some images to my portfolio. In fact the whole trip to Iceland in September was built around this premise; whilst I love Iceland I perhaps would not have returned so soon after last year’s visit. Although I didn’t go in to the details in the last update I had already worked the plan out in my mind: first get the PADI Open Water certification, then gain diving experience throughout July before taking the PADI Advanced Open Water certification and more diving experience with the underwater camera rig throughout August, then Iceland! I knew it was a tight schedule but I think most people who know me would agree that I can be doggedly determined to attain my goals. It was a clear and logical plan. But then I actually went diving.

Having 30kg of kit to carry is just one reason that you’re not going to be gliding dolphin-like through the water.  [Click to enlarge!]

Having 30kg of kit to carry is just one reason that you’re not going to be gliding dolphin-like through the water. [Click to enlarge!]

The one thing that I didn’t anticipate in all my planning was just how supremely difficult it is to both move and not move, and if that sound contradictory then bear with me for a while. I’m used to seeing divers on TV programmes and you always see some graceful display of the diver gliding in an arrow-straight line through the water, stopping occasionally to view something of interest before gliding off once again. Uh-huh. What you’re seing there is pure experience and skill. The biggest problem that I – and all new to diving have – is buoyancy. Humans tend to naturally float in water – especially salt water – they’re positively buoyant. But by the time you strap a bunch of kit to them and then add additional weights, they sink like a stone – they’re negatively buoyant. The trick, no the skill is to be neither – to be neutrally buoyant.

To attain this neutral buoyancy you have the ability to pump air into your jacket which expands adding buoyancy and, all else being equal, the trick is to put the right amount of air into the jacket to counter the weight of the kit and the additional weights. And pretty much everyone can master this in the first lesson, but two things conspire against you: First as you breathe in and out you become more and less buoyant as your lungs fill and empty and second, as you go deeper or shallower air compresses and expands by a different amount. The result is a horrible combination of factors and what most newcomers assume to be a simple act becomes a frustrating and time-consuming experience.

The other issue that I hadn’t accounted for is that currents in the water are continually moving you in various directions. Kneeling on the bottom of the pool or the lake was made more challenging by nearby divers moving and creating pressure waves that buffeted me. Being partially buoyant the pressure waves were enough to cause me to continually have to twist and counter the movement by using my arms.

By the end of the course I had become better and I will continue to do so. But, here’s the problem: Unless a miracle occurs I will not be in control and stable enough by September to be able to remain motionless at will – that can take upwards of 50 to 100 dives. And when photographing landscape – underwater or otherwise – you need a stable platform to shoot from.

I’ve been told that I have an air of confidence in this shot. It is not confidence, simply happiness from resignation that I can’t fight Newton’s First Law of Motion.

I’ve been told that I have an air of confidence in this shot. It is not confidence, simply happiness from resignation that I can’t fight Newton’s First Law of Motion.

So, at this point I have a choice: Doggedly stick to my plan to spend two days at Silfra and shooting some underwater scenes, or admit I was way too optimistic and call off the shoot.

Of course the obvious choice would be to say “Heck, I’ll do it anyway, what have I got to lose?” and, yes, that was my initial reaction, but then the second part of the whole “underwater photography” issue arises: You need a camera that can shoot underwater. It is a topic unto itself but for now suffice it to say all the options I have looked at involve a significant cash investment. Not only that, but I’ll need a lot of time to learn how to shoot underwater. In short, the “do it anyway” approach will have a high cost with a low chance of success.

What would be worse: Deciding to pull the underwater photography – the very reason for returning to Iceland so soon – or sticking to the plan, making a huge investment in kit, and ending up with images I am nowhere near happy with? It is a fine line between doggedly sticking to the plan and admitting you were too ambitious and well past your limits. One option smacks of failure whilst the other of stupidity.

But anyway, after a lot of agonising, I have made a decision: I am going to postpone the underwater photography. Yes, part of me feels like I’ve failed and yes, part of me is disappointed. But if I am to aim to do something I might as well aim to do it right. I can still dive at Silfra – a kind of recognisance mission – but I can concentrate on the dive and not the photography and probably have a far more enjoyable time in the process. Plus I have more time to explorer the surface of Iceland.

Well, as enjoyable as swimming through 2°C water allows.

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Iceland 2015: The Itinerary

In the last post I mentioned that I’m returning to Iceland as the ‘reward’ for learning to dive. Of course there’s no point in travelling to what is a photographic dream of a country and not spending a bit of time exploring, especially as I have seen so little of it, and so the past few weeks have seen me spending hours hunched over maps and making good use of Google and the Trip Advisor Iceland forum. And finally I have what I believe to be a workable outline for the 14 day trip.

The trip in 2014 concentrated on a section of the southern coast between the Reykjanes peninsula and Jokulsarlon. Despite being such a small section of the country there is an incredible amount to see – a testament to how much Iceland has to offer – and I left feeling that I had spent my time well and not regretting the decision to limit myself.

Much like the trip in 2014, for this trip I’ve picked just three bases to work from in the centre and west of the country: Thingvellir National Park, Kerlingarfjoll and Grundarfjordur.

As good as Google Maps is, I recommend that you invest in the Ferdakort 1:250,000 touring map for the area that you are visiting. They’re clear, detailed and full of highly useful information such as locations of petrol stations, camping sites, accommodation and, for those venturing onto the highland roads, where you will have to drive through rivers. For my 2015 trip I only need to take Map 2, covering the south west. They are perfect for driving but if you’re considering hiking, you may want to invest in some higher scale maps, such as the Serkort 1:50,000 maps.

A good map can make all the difference when on a self-drive or hiking trip.

A good map can make all the difference when on a self-drive or hiking trip.


Arriving on the evening of day 1, the first base is just south of Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir is a popular tourist stop for its historical and geological significance although for me it is the latter that draws me there. Whilst the immense North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are separating along their entire length at a rate of approx. 2cm per year, only in Iceland can you see the result of this on land. In dramatic terms, Iceland is literally being torn, very slowly, in half although it would be more accurate to say that, due to the resulting magma rising up to fill the void, Iceland is very slowly getting bigger. Whilst most visitors view the geologic transformation from above, it is here that you find Silfra, a lake formed by glacial runoff filtered through volcanic rock. The resulting waters are crystal clear and said to offer some of the best diving visibility on the planet. It is also jolly cold.

Being under no illusions as to my lack of underwater skill I have allowed for two days diving, each day consisting of a morning and afternoon dive. I’ve also left a spare day just in case I need it. I’ve checked and they dive even if there is only a single participant although I hope I’m not the only one as a lot of the shots I have in my head require more people.

The remaining day – or two if a third day of diving is not needed – is spent visiting Gulfoss and Geysir and the national park itself. I’m not planning on spending too much time at these two sites as they are very touristy and anyway, you don’t go to visit Geysir but rather its little brother Strokkur – Geysir rarely erupts these days but Strokkur repeats approximately every six minutes.

The second half of day 5 has been reserved for one of the sights worth visiting although it has turned into something akin to my own Moby Dick: Bruarfoss, a picturesque waterfall with wonderfully vivid blue waters. However, the more I read about this waterfall the more I become confused as to whether it is easily accessible or not. After three evenings of reading trip reviews, blogs and going over Google Maps inch-by-inch I’ve ended up with a definite “maybe”.

The issue isn’t its location – it is on the map and I have GPS co-ordinates – the issue is how to get there. From what I have been able to piece together it is behind a summer home area with three access roads. Two of these have already had barrier access erected and the third is an unknown. The next issue that reports from those who have been there recently suggest that you then have to pass through a hole in a fence which may, or may not, still be there when I arrive. However I have a plan B that entails parking along route 35 at a safe place and hiking for about 90 minutes along the Bruar river. I’d prefer to get the car as close as possible as I’m after dusk shots and so the thought of hiking back along the river in pitch black isn’t enticing. Last time I was in a similar situation was on the Falkland Islands and the only person at Cape Pembroke. There were only three kilometres between me and any form of civilisation but it was all marshland and I discovered the hard way that hiking on boggy ground in the dark not only wasn’t fun, it bordered on dangerous. I want to avoid the same in Iceland if I can…

As pretty as Cape Pembroke was at sunset, hiking back wasn’t a fun experience. [Click to enlarge!]

As pretty as Cape Pembroke was at sunset, hiking back wasn’t a fun experience. [Click to enlarge!]

But, the main reason to be here is really the diving.

The Highlands and Kerlingarfjoll

On day six I head out from Thingvellir and head north into the highlands. I’ve left a whole day travel time to get to the hot spring at Hveravellir, in part because I know that I’ll be stopping every so often to marvel at some new landscape, but also because most of the journey is on route F35, a notorious, pothole-filled highland road. Accommodation is (hopefully) at the hot-springs although they haven’t confirmed yet. Well, they had confirmed but it went into my SPAM folder and so I only found it a week later. So I have confirmed their confirmation, but I may be too late. But if there are problems I am not really too worried as it is only for a single night and so if the worst happens I can simply sleep in the 4WD. In some ways I’m hoping they don’t confirm as it adds to the adventure. Ah, well its time to live up to my words: They don’t have a room anymore for that evening so it looks like sleeping in the 4WD is the plan! I’m pretty sure that the back seats fold down flat and I will have a sleeping mat and sleeping bag. The Alpkit sleeping bag is a serious bit of kit which I really want to try ‘in-the-field’, and throw in a couple of beers, pasta cooked the night before and I’ll not only be OK, I’ll have a ball!

Much of the day will be spent on the highland road F35 - not something you would want to attempt without a 4WD. [Click to enlarge!]

Much of the day will be spent on the highland road F35 – not something you would want to attempt without a 4WD. [Click to enlarge!]

On day seventh I have a dawn shoot planned at one of the hot springs after which I travel back down the F35 from Hveravellir about 35km to Kerlingarfjoll. This leg of the journey takes me past Gígjarfoss, a waterfall that I discovered during the original trip planning in 2013, and so I’m keen to see it this time around. To be honest the entire day is quite relaxed. Whether I spend the day at the waterfall and arrive late afternoon, or arrive early afternoon and go on a recon mission into the Kerlingarfjoll mountains I don’t know, however the main focus is to arrive at the second base at Kerlingarfjoll at some point.

Kerlingarfjoll offers some stunning landscapes; the lights hues of the rhyolite mountains sandwiched between two vast glacial caps. Peppered around the area are hot springs and fumaroles. There are a number of marked hiking paths in the area of differing lengths and difficulties and with two days to explore I’m going to get see a fair bit. The only thing to watch – as is always the case in Iceland, but particularly in the highlands – is the weather. It can turn from sun to blizzard in a very short period of time.

It is also in Kerlingarfjoll I get to try the Serkort 1:50,000 scale maps. A scale of 1:250,000 is perfect for driving – and you’d have to prise the Ferdakort out of my cold, dead, hands – but for hiking I wanted a lot more detail. Ferdakort do have higher scale maps, but not that I could find in the UK so the Serkort maps are about to get chance.

On day 10, I have a full day of travel as I travel back south along the F35 again before turning west and out to the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The original plan was to turn on to the F338 as this is what Google Maps’ directions option suggested. But while examining both the Ferdakort and Serkort maps I noticed a discrepancy: On the Ferdakort map it lists both the F35 and F338 as gravel roads, but on the Serkort it lists the F338 as a track. A small difference but one that had me asking about the F338 on the Trip Advisor Iceland forum. And, just as well I did as the F338 is apparently a power line service track and one that not only passes through several rivers but it may already be impassable in early September! So, as good as Google is, always double-check your sources!

Luckily with the entire day set aside for travel the error has not put me in a difficult situation and is another reason that travelling in Iceland is best done with plenty of ‘slack’. In this case allowing a whole day for travel had meant the new, significantly longer, path F35 – 37 – 365 – 36 – 48 – 47 not only doesn’t cause a problem it allows me to travel the coastal road around Hvalfjordur and see the fjords there. The real delay will be the innumerable stops I’ll be making.

Google Maps chose the blue line as the 'best' route between Kerlingarfjoll and Grundarfjordur, but best for whom? Reseach and local knowledge suggests the longer, but safer route in blue/white. [Click to enlarge!]

Google Maps chose the shorter blue line as the ‘best’ route between Kerlingarfjoll and Grundarfjordur, but best for whom? Research and local knowledge suggests the longer, but safer, route in blue/white. [Click to enlarge!]

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

From day 11 I’m at my final base of the trip, Grundarfjordur, a small town conveniently located halfway along the peninsula’s northern coastline where I have easy access to many of the locations I want to visit. The Snaefellsnes peninsula is often said to have some of the best landscapes Iceland has to offer including the distinctive Kirkjufell mountain and the Snaefellsjokull glacier made famous by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Again I’m hoping that the 1:25,000 Serkort maps prove their worth as a lot of the trip here is on foot along the countless hiking paths that criss-cross the peninsula.

The day-to-day plans are much more loosely defined at this point and the only reason that I’ve been so specific for the first two-thirds of the trip is necessity – rapid changes in accommodation and trying to be in places at specific time dictating the schedule. Once on Snaefellsnes I can relax a bit more.

The trip ends on day with a leisurely drive back to Keflavik airport for a late afternoon flight. Even if I err on the side of caution and allow four hours for the journey that still leaves me half the morning to sort out any last minute shots.

Snaefellsnes may be a relatively small peninsula but it offers a wide range of landscapes to photograph. I struggled to limit myself to the dozen points of interest above. [Click to enlarge!]

Snaefellsnes may be a relatively small peninsula but it offers a wide range of landscapes to photograph. I struggled to limit myself to the dozen points of interest above. [Click to enlarge!]

Planning a photographic trip takes a lot more effort than normal – in large part because everything is so time-dependent. But after a few weeks of planning and a few major changes to the schedule I’m now happy that I have a workable itinerary. I’m confident in the time I have allowed at various places and also in knowing what to expect when travelling (no dubious power line tracks, for example). Importantly I also know where and when to stock up on food and fuel. All I need now is to turn up. Oh, and learn to dive…


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The Diving Gift Horse

Years ago I subscribed to the UK travel magazine Wanderlust for a short while. It is a magazine that styles itself as one for “adventurous” travellers, eager to go beyond tourism.

One of the first editions I received had an article on Iceland and its lead image, a full page shot, showed a diver in the crystal clear glacial waters of Silfra with arms extended. To their right they touched the vast North American continental plate; to their left the touched the equally gargantuan Eurasian plate. A lone human between trillion tonne lumps of rock.

I can’t dive, but it stuck I in my mind and a few years later in 2013 I found myself planning a trip to Iceland. I made the classic mistake of “doing Iceland” in 14 days although Iceland is in part to blame as it offers those who dare an easy round-the-country path in the form of the oval route 1. After a few weeks of planning I realised that, as someone interested in trying to capture the essence of what they see in a photographic image, this was a foolish idea. Being so close to the departure date meant that I couldn’t change accommodation and so the trip was scrapped.

In 2014 the trip was reborn as a 15 day trip covering a route along the southern coast. It was a good trip with just me and the rental car and three bases to work from. I fell I love with the solitude that Iceland offered me and left with images I felt proud of.

Like most offices across the globe in ours there are always several lines of conversation going on about peoples’ interests and hobbies and you learn to tune out one that you are not particularly interested in. One of the guys at our place is a keen diver – passionate about it – and spends as much free time as he can pursuing his dream. Maybe it was the recent return from Iceland and the remembered full-page image in Wanderlust, or his utter enthusiasm, but I began paying more attention. I put learning to dive on the 2014 list of things to achieve, but then the trip to Ethiopia suddenly appeared and sucked up a lot of time and money. By the end of 2014 I still hadn’t learnt to dive.

But the return from Ethiopia brought two things: First it was the start of a new year – the time at which I set my yearly goals. Second, Ethiopia had cemented in my mind something that had been troubling me for some time – a lack of photographic direction. After witnessing one of the more extreme environments nature has to offer I had a direction. There are many extreme environments on the planet, but the one underwater remains one of the most enigmatic.

So learning to dive is an aim for 2015, but it is nice to have a specific goal to aim for and mine is to dive at Silfra in Iceland. I’ve set an aggressive target; Aiming to get my PADI Open Water certificate in early July, then the PADI Advanced soon after, followed by diving at Silfra in early September. In between there’ll have to be plenty of practice dives too.

I’m under no illusion just how difficult this will be; diving is difficult enough but trying to photograph under water – and in temperatures of 2°C – adds a layer of complexity on top of that where even something as simple on land as standing still becomes a battle underwater. Plus trying to operate a camera with 7mm thick neoprene gloves is an acquired skill. Frankly, right now, I don’t even know how you focus a camera underwater. It is going to be a very steep learning curve and one where the chance of not being good enough to take the images I have in my head is easily 50% and likely much higher.

But if you don’t try you don’t know. If nothing else I’ll be able to learn from the mistakes making the next attempt easier. And anyway, it is a little early for me to be talking about failure. I’m very lucky. I know a passionate diver very willing to give advice and help with any questions and less than an hour’s drive away is a place where I can go and practise diving on a Tuesday evening – which is a traditionally dead evening for me. And as for the expensive underwater camera gear needed, well, I have the loan of that too. At any other point in my life, learning to dive would have a number of challenges to overcome but right now I’m being given this opportunity on a plate.

And, as the saying goes, never look a gift horse in the mouth.

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Ethiopia: Dreaming of a White (and Black and Red) Christmas

Well, with just twelve days until I leave for Ethiopia and after spending the bulk of yesterday picking and ordering the last of the clothing and equipment, most of the shopping is now complete. All that remains is the medical kit, a plastic funnel for transferring water between containers, some coloured pens and pencils and a few inflatable globes. So with all of that now done I have finally started thinking about the thing that made me want to travel to the remote Danakil Depression in the first place: Landscape photography. 

Starting in Addis Ababa we’ll head east to Awash National Park before heading north and entering “No Man’s Land”

Starting in Addis Ababa we’ll head east to Awash National Park before heading north and entering “No Man’s Land”

It is going to be a packed two weeks as we travel northwards from the capital of Addis Ababa up to the very top of the country and then back again along a loosely counter-clockwise route. As we travel everything will change around us: the landscape, the climate, the wildlife, the people, even the predominant religion will alter as we descend from Addis Ababa at an altitude of 2300 meters to Dallol with an altitude of -130 meters, one of the lowest points on the Earth’s surface.

For me the highlights of the expedition are the three days spent at the Erta Ale shield volcano and the time spent at Dallol. There are many descriptions of Dallol but Wikipedia probably best describes it:

Dallol features an extreme version of hot desert climate (Köppen climate classification BWh) typical of the Danakil Desert. Dallol is the hottest place year-round on the planet and currently holds the record high average temperature for an inhabited location on Earth, where an average annual temperature of 34.5 °C (94.1 °F) was recorded between the years 1960 and 1966. The annual average high temperature is 41 °C (105 °F) and the hottest month has an average high of 46.7 °C (116.1 °F). Dallol is also one of the most remote places on Earth. In addition to be extremely hot, the climate of the lowlands of the Danakil Depression is also extremely dry and hyper-arid in terms of annual average rainy days as only a few days record measurable precipitation. The hot desert climate of Dallol is particular due to the proximity with the equator, the very low seasonality impact, the constance of the heat and the lack of efficient nighttime cooling.

For someone who is as fond of cold weather climates as I am, it will be interesting to see how well I cope with such opposite conditions. The temperature will be further exacerbated by the heat coming off the lava lake at Erte Ale whose surface temperature is a mere 1200 °C

Whilst we spend three days at Erta Ale it is, for all intents and purposes, a single environment. At an altitude of 600 metres there is little else other than the lava lake itself and the black balsaltic lava ground. Getting a good series of photographs here is likely to be as much luck as skill as we will be at the mercy of just how active the volcano is at the time, but I have a series of photographs in my head that I want to try and capture in the limited colour palette of volcanic black and lava red.

Once we descend from Erta Ale and head towards Dallol the pace will pick up dramatically and photography is going to be more of a challenge as the area offers several different landscapes with only approximately two days to capture something decent. One of the big landscapes is a salt flat much like the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia although much smaller at only approximately 200 square kilometres. Here I’ll hopefully have a number of opportunities – from the wide vistas of the salt flats themselves to the Afar miners who extract the salt with picks, to the camel trains that take the salt to market. I may even get a chance to try my hand at salt mining in what can only be described as intensely harsh conditions.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

The Salar de Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia. A similar white Christmas awaits me in Ethiopia.

The volcanic area of Dallol is a sight that still causes me wonder at just how such a place can exist. It is a landscape that would look at home in an old science fiction movie where they have pumped the colours to the maximum and day-glo blues, greens, pinks and yellows all mix together. Lighting here will be a key factor – it has to be right first time as there will be no chance for a revisit.

Another thing that I want to try whilst in the Afar region, and particularly the Danakil Depression itself, is astrophotography. It is not a style of photography I have any experience of and involves its own set of rules and techniques that I know very little about. But the one thing that every astrophotography web site and blog I have visited agree upon is that astrophotography works best when there is no light pollution to obscure the incredibly faint light from distant stars.


Yellow is light pollution and blue is darkness: Jazan on the top border is typical of towns and cities. In the northwest of Ethiopia we’ll have no problems with light. The only light sources are from lava.

Yellow is light pollution and blue is darkness: Jazan on the top border is typical of towns and cities. In the northeast of Ethiopia we’ll have no problems with light. The only light sources are from lava.

Looking at the above image from blue-marble.de – a web site that shows satellite imagery of light pollution across the planet – it is easy to see why the one thing I can guarantee is that – in what Wikipedia and National Geographic call one of the most remote places on Earth – light pollution will not be a problem.

So I have given myself a crash course in astrophotography which in turn has led to having to learn the basics of how to locate and identify the constellations and navigation by the stars. I am hopelessly under-prepared but there is not much I can do now other than make use of the location and hope that what little I have learned will help me produce something I like. Unfortunately however, whilst I would love to take a photograph showing the Milky Way galaxy in the night sky, I believe I’ll be there at the wrong time of year. On the plus side however, to capture some really rich star field images, even the moon can be a problem and most recommendations suggest shooting on nights leading up to and immediately after a new moon. As I start the expedition on the 21st December – the day of the new moon, I’ll have ideal conditions to shoot the night sky – assuming it is not cloudy, that is.

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