Seals in the Glacial Lagoon

Our zodiac driver killed the engine and we could hear the thunderous sound of ice breaking off the glacier in the distance. From there, it then enters this lagoon, giving the Seals something to rest on. These Harbor Seals were a ways off so I had to use a 1.4 extender on a 300mm bringing it to 420mm. Also had a super fast shutter speed to prevent any motion from the rocking boat. I was using the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 with the extender which is far lighter than a prime 300mm would have been on a DSLR. I think this makes it a bit easier to handle.

Old Church with Turf Roof and Crepuscular Rays

This old structure was built in 1858, and is one of only six turf roof churches left in Iceland. Rain here is quite common making the microfiber cloth an essential part of my gear. Even with a lens hood, drops would collect on the lens and were visible in the shot. I was carefully wiping down the 3 stop ND filter when I looked up to see this scene forming. Crepuscular rays broke through the gaps and stretched towards the steeple. I had just enough time to make a few frames before they receded back into the clouds. 

Backlit Horse Under a Midnight Sun

This was captured around 10:30pm while the sun was low in the sky. Since Iceland is so far north they have about 24 hours of daylight in the summer, hence the term "midnight sun". This young Icelandic horse was still nursing, but walked away from its mother for a few minutes while keeping an eye on me. With the golden quality of light I made a number of photos before catching this frame with the horse's breath visible. 

When Light Passes Through

The light in Iceland has a special quality with undulating clouds that allow fleeting beams of sun to pass through and bathe the landscape below. While driving through a very rural area I noticed the sky growing darker with each passing mile. We eventually came to a wonderful rustic barn resting on a hillside and I pulled over to the shoulder and hopped out to make a photo. By looking at it, you might think it was taken with a wide angle lens, but it was actually a telephoto with an effective focal length of 300mm. 

OMD EM1, 40-150mm, f4, 1/800, ISO 400, grad ND filter.

OMD EM1, 40-150mm, f4, 1/800, ISO 400, grad ND filter.

Photographing Puffins in Iceland

The majority of the world's Puffins are actually in Iceland, so naturally, Sue and I set out to find them.

My fascination with these birds started about 6 years ago when I photographed them off the coast of Maine. They were bringing back fish for their young, and I ended up making a video from the bird blind, and having an image published online by National Geographic

Dyrhólaey is located in the southern part of Iceland.

Dyrhólaey is located in the southern part of Iceland.

While Iceland is rich in natural beauty, it seems most who visit put Puffins at the top of their list of things to see. Every gift shop has a dedicated corner for stuffed toys with colorful beaks, magnets, T-shirts, hats, etc. You can even buy a taxidermy Puffin for about 25,000 krona ($185 usd). Thankfully we did not see them on any restaurant menus as the only close encounter I wanted was through the lens. 

As for gear, I was using an Olympus OMD EM1 along with the 40-150mm f/2.8 and a 1.4x teleconverter. This gave me an maximum focal length of 420mm at f4 in a small and weatherproof system. The ruggedness of the setup was immediately put to the test in Dyrhólaey. The winds were enough to knock you down, and I definitely got my share of black sand in the eyes. While others scrambled to protect their gear, I kept shooting.

The hearty souls who stuck around were rewarded with a great view of the birds. Sue wisely recommended that I get down low to the ground where it was less windy. This proved helpful, as did my sturdy Gitzo 1325 tripod. With gusts upwards of 50 mph, there was no way hand holding a telephoto lens would have worked out. I even used a cable release to fire the camera without touching and moving it. 

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From this low angle, I watched as one, then two, and finally three Puffins gathered to look around. Using the low speed burst mode I fired off shots at every possible head angle. I opted for S-AF as opposed to C-AF as the birds were relatively still and I wanted to make sure focus was tack-sharp. I was using a single AF point along with a fast shutter speed of 1/1000. With a shallow depth of field at f/4, the flowers and grasses were thrown out of focus nicely.

As a side note, I have to laugh when I read reviews from those who say the bokeh on this lens isn't good. This is the best telephoto lens I've ever used and produces results far better than any of the Canon L lenses I've owned in the past. It even works well for macro shooting, and as you'll see in upcoming posts, it's a workhorse for landscapes. While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, I think the images speak for themselves. If you're still struggling with your backgrounds, try my tutorial here

After bunkering down in this spot for quite some time, I found a few more birds who were resting along the steep cliff wall overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The contrast of their colorful bills against the dark waters below provided nice impact, and I tried a variety of compositions.

From this vantage point I was able to get fairly close to the birds. They actually don't seem to mind people at all, and at no time did they seem disturbed in the least. This experience in Dyrhólaey was indeed amazing, so much so, that we really wanted to see more Puffins if at all possible. 

 
 

Once we completed our drive around the "ring road" we had a full day in Reykjavik and decided to take a bird watching boat tour with the Elding company. This was a fun ride, and the guide provided a good amount of information about the birds. Thankfully, every passenger has a good seat so there was no jostling for a better viewing position. With warmer weather (55 degrees), the captain was able to get us fairly close to Akurey island. This was a much different habitat with massive rocks that gave way to wildflowers along the bluff. The birds were burrowing into the soil.

Still, being on a moving boat made technique even more critical. From this swaying vessel, I opted for shutter speeds no slower than 1/2000, which of course required a slightly higher ISO. The files held up really well though, with very little noise up to about ISO 800. At 1600, it's a bit more noticeable but super easy to clean up in Lightroom. Once again, the teleconverter helped a great deal as a 400mm was absolutely necessary to capture tight shots.

I also pulled the zoom back a few times to show how they fit into the overall landscape. Watching them navigate over various boulders was comical, as the Puffins are definitely not the most graceful of creatures. For example, when taking off for a landing, they seem to run on the water's surface while frantically beating their wings. 

After spending several hours watching, photographing, and learning about these birds, it's hard not to fall in love with them. Yes, I'll admit to buying a magnet for the fridge, and even a little figurine for my office. Still, not everything about the Puffins situation is cheerful. In fact, due to the rising temperature of the water, they are struggling. This is explained in a recent article by National Geographic. "Warming oceans and earlier thaws are driving away the seabirds' prey; unleashing deadly, unseasonal storms; and knocking tight breeding schedules off-kilter. Mounting carbon dioxide absorption and melting glaciers are acidifying and diluting the aquatic balance, jeopardizing marine life and the creatures that depend on it for food."

 
 

The opportunity to photograph these birds in the wild was thrilling, especially in such a beautiful setting. As a growing number of people come to appreciate their beauty, it's reasonable to think that more will be done to protect their habitat. That is one of the joys I find in photographing the natural world. Sure the technical details are important, just as the lens, camera, tripod are essential tools. Yet, the power of photography doesn't stop there, as pictures can be used to educate, enlighten, and reveal truth. 

In the coming days and weeks I'll be sharing more new images from this epic adventure in Iceland. Check back soon, follow on Facebook, and sign up for the free monthly newsletter here

Reaching For the Sun

I love the tilt screen on my EM1 and EM10 as it makes it easy to work from extremely low angles without contorting my neck. This was captured with the EM10, which is a huge bargain on Amazon right now. Granted, it lacks the weatherproofing, and phase detect AF of the EM1, and settles for 3 axis image stabilization as opposed to 5, but it's still a tiny powerhouse capable of stunning results.

For this shot, I paired it with a Panasonic 42.5 f/1.2 which I'm testing out (thanks Borrow Lenses!). I just unpacked it this morning and have only used it once, so much too early for a review. First impressions are that it's well made, feels like metal, a bit front heavy on the small EM10 even with the 3rd party grip. It does focus fast and is definitely sharp. It's also pretty incredible to open all the way to f/1.2. I'll definitely have more to say about the lens after using it for a few weeks. 

Here it is wide open at f/1.2. I love how soft the out-of-focus areas appear. This was also captured on the EM10, which I've long been referring to as the most underrated mirrorless camera on the market.  


The Making of Two Creative Closeups

These were both captured with the incredible Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 lens and the EM1 camera body. For the first shot, I positioned myself to shoot into the sun and got down very low to the ground. The backlighting worked to highlight the edges of the flower and the wide aperture of f/2.8 provided terrific bokeh, throwing the entire background out of focus. Meanwhile the bee slowly made it's way towards the top of the flower like a mountain climber reaching for the summit. Using a very fast shutter speed of 1/1000 I was able to freeze its motion completely. Looking at the image at 1:1 in Lightroom, the detail is simply astounding. This was shot handheld.

When I came across this field of lavender, these beautiful moths were dancing about, only stopping occasionally to rest on a flower. I decided on a vertical orientation and metered to hold the detail in the white tones of the moth. This particular capture was special due to the moth in the background which landed in the perfect spot. At f/2.8 it became a white glow in the distance. This helped to really bring attention to my main subject in the foreground. The wash of purple color on the sides was created by shooting through lavender flowers that were very close to the lens. It's a technique I've come to enjoy as it gives an image more depth, and a painterly quality. In looking at this series of shots, it took 72 captures before it all came together in this frame.

 
 

What I Learned in Ansel Adam's Footsteps at Yosemite National Park

For photographers, Yosemite National Park is perhaps best known for the famous black and white prints created by Ansel Adams. While looking at the same mountains through my viewfinder, I couldn't help thinking of his process so many years ago. This led to a series of observations that I found helpful in my growth as a photographer, and believe will be useful for you as well. Read the full piece over on the PicsArt blog