Iceland, The Land of Opposites

It’s just far enough away to be exotic. It’s just big enough to get lost. It’s just wild enough to be dangerous and it’s so beautiful, we can’t take our eyes off it. Iceland is rapidly becoming one of the most photographed places on earth. And with only three people per square kilometer vs the 35 in the US, there’s plenty of open space to create images!

The entire country is similar in size to the state of Kentucky, and yet more images have probably been created in the past 3 years in Iceland than in Kentucky since the civil war. There is good reason for this, and it has much to do with the landscapes created by a land that is still growing and very young, geologically. The place is chock-full of unusual landscapes, and I believe the reason for this is the lava.

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Iceland is one lava flow on top of another, and in many regions covered with a carpet of green moss. When the various types of lava cool, there are many different shapes created, such as the obsidian blocks in the lava flows in the highlands. Compare that to the basalt columns that show up around the coast and behind many of the waterfalls. In total contrast, there are the pumice fields and Rhyolite hills shaping many of the moonscapes in the highlands. The pumice fields from a distance also appear like black sand.

Speaking of black sand, there just happens to be one of the more unusual locations in all the world, a location that is so interesting that it captivates more photographers than any other beach I’ve visited in my home state of California, the Caribbean or even Hawaii. It’s a beach on the southern coast between the famous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and the ocean, where large chunks of ice get pulled out from the calm waters in the lagoon at low tide and flow down a short river into the ocean, where they are then slammed back up on the beach at high tide. I’ve seen some of the most violent surf ever at this beach, throwing 15' high walls of water across the iceberg-laden black sand. On most days, though, when the surf is relatively calm, there’s a plethora of compositions waiting each hour, as new bergs wash ashore, tides change and light varies in its uniquely Icelandic, dramatic way.

This beach is unique in that the crystal clear icebergs are a contrast against the black sand, and at the right tide, they are caressed by the oceans waves, making for dynamic slow shutter speed compositions.

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Then there are the waterfalls. There are way too many waterfalls to photograph, especially considering that many are in inaccessible locations way up on a steep volcanic cliff. However, there are plenty to keep the most adventurous photographer happy for years. Most of the waterfalls live between the highlands and the coast, as this is where all the glacier melt runs down though the layers of lava, eroding canyons and carving out troughs of beauty. This battle between the lava and water is what makes for such a troll-infested, exotic looking landscape. I recall the first time visiting Seljalandsfoss, and running around behind the water like a kid in a candy store. I remember running up the stairs on the side of Skógafoss the first time I laid eyes on the place, and each waterfall since, has been nothing shy of a visit to my childhood fantasies. One of my all time favorite images, I call “Trolls of Iceland” was created up on a steep slope adjacent to Skógafoss waterfall. I was working with a Olympus EM-1 camera that day, so I wanted to stitch many images together to create more resolution. In doing so, I was not as focused on all the details within the composition I was creating. I did manage to capture all the stills, knowing that from them, I could create the image I wanted. Rain set in quickly, forcing me to leave before spending more time enjoying the view and taking in all that was there. It wasn’t until I returned to the states, was sitting in my office and looking at the image that I had just stitched with Photoshop, that I realized what I had captured. Within the moss and lava surrounding the waterfall were the shapes of many troll faces, so many that with just a little imagination, I counted more than 20.

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Iceland is a land of opposites, in that the lava is covered by large icefields. It’s a contrast of big and small, black and colorful, hot and cold, dry and wet, and light and dark. I’m also intrigued by the open spaces. Having grown up in the west and spent much of my youth traveling the roads of Arizona, California, Colorado, and other places, I experienced much of the vastness that had a enduring effect on me and my images. I love composing within the great wide open spaces, where very little breaks up the viewshed.

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I believe Iceland has to come to terms with the fact that their viewshed is unique and needs to be protected, just as the tundra and open spaces of the highlands. After visiting the highlands this past month, I was encouraged to see that Iceland has begun posting signs and educating visitors about the sensitive mosses and plants that should not be driven over. There were many bumper stickers with comments regarding not driving off road and rangers are issuing stiff fines to violators. Like so many great places, when the world notices it, there must be a plan in place to protect and maintain the natural wonders, and I believe Iceland is just now realizing this. Not only does Iceland contain vast expanses of rural and wild country, but also, waterfalls, rugged coast, and magical northern lights.

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The “Breath of the Dragon” is what the Chinese call the Aurora and Iceland has been breathed on every winter, as far as the locals know. During the summer, it’s simply too light out to notice the lights or stars. In the last 3 years the winter months have been quite busy for Icelandic hotels, as the waves of intrigued photographers show up to capture the show of lights. Now, many of the farmers have converted barns into hotels and restaurants, and those that existed are expanding as fast as they can. It is an amazing sight to witness and Iceland offers one of the most dramatic landscapes to view it from. On a full moon near the Black Church of Búdir, we waited with our group as the lights were supposed to show up. The sky was crystal clear and the stars faint from the moon light, we waited and waited. There are many various apps to predict the location and timing of the Northern Lights, but many are simply faulty, as the lights are amazingly illusive. However, that night at around one in the morning a thin and very faint hazy band appeared in the sky above, creating what was to the eye just a jet trail. When this happens, it’s best to take an actual exposure with your camera, as the camera sensor will have the ability to reveal the colors if it’s truly the Aurora. Indeed that night it was, and moments later, shafts of green and red lights were shooting down at rapid speeds. Everyone in our group began running around like chickens with their heads cut off, happily screaming, Oh My God, Oh My God! We photographed until the lights faded, which was several hours.

Icelanders love to get out into nature and have no issues with hiking. There is a large group of trails that connect a network of small huts and hostels in and around the highlands. The hiking is amazing in this region and offers some of the most remarkable scenery around.

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Only miles from the ocean is one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, Mt. Hekla. In fact the sign posted along the access roads warns of possible eruption, and that one should download the emergency app to be notified of imminent danger. “ Mt. Hekla erupts almost without warning producing both lava and ash. Seismic activity was detected 30-80 minutes prior to recent eruptions in 1970, 1980-81, 1991 and 2000. Scientists monitor geological unrest in Hekla and report increased activity to the Civil Protection so they can activate their emergency measures.”

My friend and I realized, once more than 30 minutes into our hike that we were embarking on what could be a fatal mission!

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Once you get past the sign, and your fears of the unthinkable, you begin hiking up the gradual slopes to the summit. There are several various types of lava flows to walk over, with one more recent and jagged section that takes some time to negotiate. It was in this section that I experienced something remarkable. It was such an alien looking surrounding that I felt further away from home than I can ever recall. There was a mist rising from the sharp brittle shapes of the lava in the low light of dawn. The path was difficult to locate as there was no warning signs or poles to show the way. The only pole was on the other side of the flow which was about three hundred meters up the slope and invisible in the low light. Each step sounded similar to walking over broken glass on a tile floor. Every now and then I would stop and look for the end of the flow, trying to determine the best approach in front of me. When I got frustrated, not finding anything real straight forward, my eyes would wonder up and out. There I noticed vast valleys, craters, more volcanoes and enormous ice fields way, way off in the distance. This was something very difficult to photograph, and all I could do was experience it taking a mental picture for my memory bank. I’ve been a climber since I was 7 years old, when I first reached the summit of a 14,000 foot high mountain in the Rocky Mountains. Since that time I’ve climbed vertical multi-day routes in Yosemite and ascended glaciated steep ridges up Mt Rainier and others. When asked why I do it, it’s real simple, for memories just like this one. If you want to enjoy Mt Hekla I recommend leaving early enough to watch the sunrise from the summit, which can be done in fairly light skies in the summer months. From the summit of Hekla, you can come to terms with Iceland, it’s vast viewshed, dramatic volcanism, enormous ice fields, and occasional whiff of sulfur. Iceland has it all, and then some. I will be returning for many more experiences in the future, and hope the swell of tourism does not cripple the beauty of this incredible country.

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Life is short, create pictures!

– Marc Muench

Svalbard Trip Report

Those of you affected by wanderlust will understand. There’s something about reaching the far corners of the globe! It was that way with Svalbard for me. I have been “north” in Iceland, Alaska and Norway, but never this far, and never to see and photograph arctic wildlife at such northerly latitude! On our Svalbard Arctic Expedition, our main photographic target was the Polar Bear, in Norwegian Isbjørn, the latin name Ursus Maritimus. But one of the things that amazed me was the amount and variety of different landscapes and wildlife we photographed in this icy, watery, rocky, northerly corner of the world.

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Svalbard journeys begin in the town of Longyearbyen, and did you know that it is also home to The Global Seed Vault? A cool little town, it seems to be a-buzz with the vibrational energy from all the pent-up excitement from those about to head out on various arctic journeys. But let’s talk about our home for the eight days of this expedition, the M/S Malmö. She’s a sturdy ship, ice-strengthened to handle the rigors of the sea at 80 degrees and higher latitudes. A great base for photography because her main decks sit low in the water, so you can nearly get at eye-level with polar bears on the ice! It’s “our ship”, only for our group of 10 (12 max), and our leaders and the crew. The size is perfect, since we can get to places the big ships can’t, and once there, we have much better angles for photography from the ship. Very comfortable cabins with en suite facilities, big common rooms, plenty of deck space for photographing and relaxing. And the food! Quite simply like nothing else I’ve seen on a small ship like this. Breakfasts featuring fresh fruits, freshly-baked breads, cereals, yogurt, smoked fish and of course the traditional nordic cold meats and cheeses. Lunch was usually soup or a casserole, or sandwiches. Each night for dinner there was amazingness in the form of freshly caught fish, steaks, lamb, chicken, turkey and more. Accompanied by fresh vegetables, salads, and so much more. Desserts were freshly made and to die for! Suffice it to say, you won’t go hungry!

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Now that we are comfortable and well-fed, let’s talk about the photography. The combination of the arctic landscape, the midnight sun and the wildlife is a very unique experience, and provides for unbelievable photo opportunities. The landscape varies first from steep granite mountains that line the channels we sail through, to open sea, to rock-lined nooks and crannies filled with iceberg of all sizes, and finally, to endless sea-ice that stretches out to infinity, every view a different crazy-quilt pattern that is a visual feast. It is so much fun to compose here, and once you start adding wildlife into the landscape photos, it’s even more fun! Even while sailing, the sea birds following the ship make for great subjects against the backdrop of the mountains bathed in the soft light of the never-setting sun. There’s something about shooting at one o’clock in the morning in the same manner that you’re used to shooting during the day! In June, the sun never sets - and the quality of light is just amazing. It’s soft and directional for for the most part, but we quickly found that shooting in the wee hours of the morning provided some of the best light.

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Shooting from the Zodiacs is even cooler! You get to actual eye-level with many animals, and there’s something to be said for the sheer quiet you experience after cruising, and then we shut the engine down. It’s magical. And the ice-scapes! Oh did I mention the zodiac ride to the bird cliff called Auk Mountain? Drifting up and down these 100-meter tall cliffs filled with 250,000 mating pairs of guillemots is an experience not to be missed. On other Zodiac cruises we circle a beautiful iceberg, looking for just the right combination of light, shadow and color. Oh and yes, we take the Zodiacs ashore, and find piles of walruses and of course more sea birds. With two Zodiacs for just 12 guests, there’s plenty of room for everyone and their gear, and most importantly, to get the shots! Zodiac rides are smooth and dry (though we’re prepared for the wet!), and shore landings are easy (step out of the Zodiac onto the beach). 

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We sail the Malmö up the inside channels and turn clock-wise deeper into the archipelago, and also further north to the pack-ice, all the way to 80.5 degrees north. Here we’re on polar bear watch - with the open bridge policy on Malmö, everyone who wants can take a turn with binoculars searching for the bears, though with over thirty expeditions under their belt, our expedition guides will likely find them before you do! We plow the Malmö through thick pack-ice, searching and searching. We found over 15 polar bears on this expedition, but one in particular stands out. We had just finished our starters at dinner when the call from the bridge came: “Isbjørn!” Needless to say, our dinner would have to wait (no problem, our chef is also a photographer and was keen to try out his new Nikon D500 and long lens!). A magnificent male began approaching the ship. Slogging through the ice and puddles of slushy water - stopping every few meters to lift his nose up in the air and sniff to see what we are all about (perhaps he wanted to have some of the amazing dinner that was keeping warm in the kitchen?). Again because of the low decks of the Malmø we are able to get really great angles on the bear, both for close-up intimate shots and for wide-angle bear-in-the-landscape shots. After circling the ship a few times and posting quite nicely for us, he was off in search for seals, so we all, humans and bear alike, went back to dinner.

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Lots of time and plenty of space on board for image reviews, post-processing instruction and individual processing and critique session. Image counts were high on this expedition, and everyone enjoyed both the group sessions and impromptu “hey look at this!” moments as well. Our expedition staff gave great lectures on the biology and behavior of the polar bears and the birds that we saw and photographed.

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But wait, there’s more! As we were sailing back to Longyearbyen on our very last day, again the call from the bridge comes: “Blue whales!” and we quickly got into the Zodiacs to go for a closer look. Little did we know that these amazing creatures, the largest animals on earth, would surface and frolic within twenty meters of our Zodiacs! An experience that was rather exhilarating, for sure. A great end to the week. All told, we saw and photographed polar bears, walruses, seals, blue whales, fin whales, bowhead whales (rather unusual for Svalbard), arctic foxes, reindeer, kittiwakes, guillemots, ivory gulls, arctic terns, and many more birds. We experienced mostly very calm seas, beautiful light twenty-four hours a day and a truly one-of-a-kind polar phototographic and nature experience.

We’re back to Svalbard in June of 2017, with just a few places remaining on the ship. Is one of them yours?

Enjoy (Arctic) photography,

— Andy

Antarctic Inspiration

As a long-time photographer, Antarctica inspires me like no other place I've ever been. I've spent over 30 years visiting this remote region of the world and every time I come away with something new, that surprises and inspires me photographically. In addition to the commercial diving I conduct in various locations on the peninsula, I have also served as a zodiac boat driver and guide.  This work gives me the opportunity to see the excitement and exhilaration of the visitors as they see these amazing places for the first time. It's easy to have your senses overloaded the first time out. Many people imagine Antarctica as a place of stark whites and blacks, nothing could be further from the truth.

On the Antarctic Peninsula in the summer, the sun doesn’t set, but there are different qualities of light during late evening and early morning that linger, giving opportunity to capture the many different hues of the ice and snow. This, combined with active wildlife, makes each visit unique.

In this picture I was intrigued by the penguin tracks, the posture of the Gentoo penguin, the women’s red jacket, the shadows, the blue shades of the water and sky, and the contours of the snow covered glacier. I managed to slither into position, on my stomach, so everything aligned.  I used a 24-105mm lens, giving me some flexibility with the focal range if the penguin did not let me get as close as I had hoped.

I'm very much looking forward to Antarctica with Muench Workshops in December of 2017!

— Jack Baldelli

Healthy Travel

You've spent months and months prepping and planning for the photo trip of a lifetime, and the worst thing that can happen is to get sick while traveling. But it can and does happen. After so much travel with Muench Workshops, here are some things that we have found helpful "just in case" something goes wrong:

  • A good first aid kit, to take care of basic minor injuries.
  • Over-the-counter pain reliever, something like Motrin / Tylenol. 
  • Powdered cold/flu relief, this works great to soothe the throat, calm a cough, and decongest.
  • Benadryl, which has many uses for allergic reactions.
  • Anti-diarrheal medicine, in case the worst happens!
  • Pedialyte or similar—a powdered mix of electrolytes to aid rehydration.
  • Pepto-Bismol—if you do get a stomach bug, the bismuth can help kill the bacteria sometimes
  • Hand sanitizer to keep your hands clean.

There's plenty more that could be carried, but these items are all small and easily packable. Big disclaimer: Of course, you should discuss these and any other medications with your own doctor, since we're not doctors!

While it’s great to be prepared with remedies to provide relief, should you get ill on a trip, there are also precautions you can take both before and during your travels to reduce your chances of catching a bug. Here's what Culinary Nutrition Expert (and Andy's amazing wife!) Nancy Williams offers up to all of us travelers:

"Starting two weeks leading up to your trip, consider these steps to boost your immunity and increase the odds of feeling your best:

•   Choose foods high in Vitamins B (eggs, fish, chicken, mushrooms, lentils, nuts) and C (citrus fruits, broccoli, dark leafy greens, berries, bell peppers). Pair them with ingredients found to be particularly essential for optimal immune function, such as garlic, onions, ginger, thyme, parsley, chili powder, and cayenne pepper.

•   Limit sugar and highly processed foods, as these can cause inflammation, leaving you susceptible to viral, bacterial and parasitic invaders. Once at your destination, keep your blood sugar balanced by eating some protein or healthy fat along with carbs and sugar. This is especially important at breakfast, as it may determine your energy level throughout the day. Having pancakes and maple syrup? Try sprinkling a handful of walnuts or almonds on top. Enjoying some tropical fruit? Add some full fat yogurt or goat’s cheese.

•   Consider supplementing your diet with a broad spectrum pro-biotic. This will greatly support your digestive system in fighting off pathogens and bacteria. Ideally, you should take these before and during your trip.  For a complete rundown on essential travel supplements, check out this excellent summary.

•   Hydrate and re-hydrate! Don’t wait until you are on the plane. Start way ahead by consuming 8-10 8 oz. glasses of pure water. It’s also a good time to reduce or remove alcohol and caffeine from your diet, especially if your trip involves many hours on an airplane. If you do have that cocktail, remember to offset its dehydrating effects with extra water.

•   Prepare your body and your soul for take off! Don’t let that “prepping for that trip” take precedence over things you know keep you totally fit. Make sure you get enough sleep. Do some stretching or take a walk. Take time to meditate, read a good book, or enjoy your favorite music.

Adopting these simple tips can help ensure that memories of your trip will be of how it exceeded your expectations, not of time wasted recovering from unplanned for health concerns."

Well, there you have it. Safe and healthy travels to all!

Demystifying Travel and Trip Insurance

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Travelers should expect the unexpected to happen - and that’s precisely what insurance is for. But there’s a lot of confusion about Travel Insurance, Travel Medical Insurance, and Trip Cancellation Insurance.

Trip Insurance, also sometimes referred to as Trip Cancellation Insurance, is designed to protect you from financial loss due to trip related issues, such as:

  • You (or in some cases your spouse or traveling companion) get sick and can’t go on a trip
  • Death of someone traveling with you or of a family member
  • Trip interruption, delay, missed flights, missed transportation like a boat departure, baggage loss
  • Cancellation for any reason (offered by some plans)

So what will trip insurance do for you? Let’s say you book an African Safari, over a year in advance. Over that year, you pay your deposit, and further payments, and you’re typically fully paid up some months before the trip. Now you get sick a week before the trip, and your doctor says you cannot travel. This type of coverage is designed to reimburse you for the (now) not refundable money you’ve paid to the operator of the trip (in our case, a photo workshop). If you’ve paid for a plan that includes that “cancellation for any reason clause, you could even be fully reimbursed for something like a work project that comes up, and you have to cancel.

Many policies offer other benefits: coverage for weather-related cancellations, coverages for your rental car (damage and liability), additional coverage for lost or delayed baggage, and even replacement of lost items on your trip.

Travel Medical Insurance is a whole different thing. Understand one basic thing first. Your personal medical insurance in your home country will most likely not cover you for medical expenses when traveling outside of the country.

Travel medical insurance is designed to cover you for unforeseen medical and health issues while traveling, especially abroad, and can include the following:

  • Medical treatment at nearest hospital facility
  • Medical evacuation from your location to another hospital (example, from a small town to a larger city)
  • Medical evacuation to your home via special medical flights
  • Medical evacuation to your home via commercial flights
  • Dedicated assistance from customer service to help with getting local medical care
  • Death repatriation
  • Life and / or disability insurance benefits
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Now to complicate matters a little further, these insurances can be bundled together or they can be sold separately, so it’s very important to read the plan descriptions and the fine print.

Where do you get it? Many airlines and airline booking sites are selling insurance right before you checkout and pay - and this may be a good choice, but be aware that these policies typically cover you for the cost of the flight tickets, some baggage benefits, and some medical coverages (plans vary, read the fine print!). They typically will not cover other expenses like the cost of a trip with Muench Workshops. For this, we like and recommend Ripcord. Ripcord sells complete packages including Trip Cancellation Insurance and Travel Medical Insurance together, and they also sell Travel Medical Insurance separately as well as all-important Medical Evacuation coverage. This is good flexibility, especially if you sign up for a trip very close in to the trip departure date, and have a high expectation of making the trip–so you really only need the medical coverage.

How much does it cost? It’ll be different for everyone, based on your home state, your age, the cost of the trip, the timing of when you buy it and the coverages you want. But here is an example:

A $9000 Trip to Iceland (trip costs including airfare), Male, aged 53, purchasing between 60-90 days ahead of the trip which starts June 2016. Coverage can be had for $300-400 USD. Same plan for a trip that is 11 months out, between $450 and $600. Includes: full coverage for trip cancellation or interruption; coverage for sickness, injury or death of you/traveling companion or family member; waiver of pre-existing conditions; coverage for termination of employment; travel delay coverage up to 50% loss on the trip; terrorism, strikes, inclement weather; damage to your home by fire or weather; missed connections; $50,000 in medical expenses, $1,000,000 in emergency evacuation; $1,500 for lost baggage; $50,000 accidental death and dismemberment; travel medical assistance by dedicated assist line.

What if you only need Travel Medical Insurance? For the same trip outlined above, you can purchase just the medical insurance for roughly $60. At the very least, you shouldn’t take an international trip without taking out this extremely low-cost coverage which will give you and your loved ones peace of mind.

To buy or not to buy? Only you can answer that, but we as workshop leaders strongly encourage trip cancellation and travel medical coverage. We do offer refunds, under certain conditions - but there are no guarantees on us being able to fill your spot if you have to cancel, so take the risk away and get coverage! Many of our workshops require Medical Evacuation Insurance at a minimum. 

Travel smart, and travel safe!

Thanks to Harry Behret and Kate GIlbert for their images.