18 March 2012

Second post from Iceland

(all shots made by Daniëlla with her iPhone and some goofy post-processing apps)
We spent a number of days at the glacier lake, hoping to get some good shots of the northern lights with the huge blocks of glacier ice that were lying on the beach. But it was very hard. The weather in Iceland can change in 5 minutes from clear to completely overcast with a blizzard blowing right into your face. And there were a lot of clouds hiding the northern light from our view. During the day we visited the glacier that produces all the ice blocks in the glacier lake. The colors on the glacier were beautiful.

It is amazing to see the blue and black ice of the glacier Breidamerkurjokull
that expands into the glacier lake Jokulsarlón.  
During our stay at the glacier lake it was full moon, which helped a lot with bringing out the ice blocks on the beach at night. As the northern light seems to come and go really quickly here, we didn't want to miss anything and decided not to have dinner in the guesthouse, but to take hot water with us and have noodle soup in the car. When the moon was out, we started working on a composition, hoping the northern lights would cooperate and appear at the right spot. It was freezing cold and the wind was blowing hard, and we had to wait a long time in the cold, but in the end we got the shot we were looking for. Patience is key. Oh, and lots of warm layers to avoid you from freezing :-)

Speaking of freezing.... we are so glad we came to Iceland at this time of year. The frozen water on all the waterfalls really adds character and makes this beautiful country even prettier to photograph! The spray of the water clings to the rocks and the most interesting ice formations and patterns are formed on the rocks. A real feast!

The half frozen Selfoss waterfall had amazing ice sculptures on both sides.
Last week we traveled to the northern part of Iceland, to well known places like Lake Myvatn and some of Icelands most iconic waterfalls: Dettifoss and Selfoss.

It is always nice to see a location from various sides, as it clearly changes your view on it. In most cases, you just walk to the other side, but with a waterfall.... hm... different story! Below you can see Dettifoss from the east side. You can see the full scale of the waterfall, but the view is somewhat obscured by the snow on the side. But you can also use it to frame your shot :-)

Dettifoss from the east side, where they made a new road in order to give easy access for everyone.
Visiting Dettifoss on the west side was another story. It was quite difficult to get there, as there was a lot of snow. But it was interesting to see it from both the east and the west, as the perspective on the waterfall was quite different. Below is a small movie clip that I made with my iPhone, showing you the view from the west side, where you can get very low and close to the waterfall.

There are several craters in the Myvatn area that you can visit. It is not easy to climb to the rim when the tracks are covered with snow and ice, but the view is worth the effort; both on the crater and the surroundings. Unfortunately, Marsel didn't know I was photographing him, and the distance was too great to shout at him and ask him to stand still, so he is a bit blurry in the shot. But it does give you an idea of how big this crater is. 

Apart from the beauty of the ice and snow, another advantage of traveling here in winter, is that there are hardly any tourists around. In summer it can be really busy in Iceland, because all the roads are easily accessible during the milder summer months. This means that you can visit the highlands of Iceland, which are in the center of the island. However, we prefer the current weather conditions and solitude. We often had the most spectacular locations all to ourselves. A very nice experience.

The only time we were extremely happy to see other people, was when we got stuck! 

We were exploring the back country to look for interesting locations off the beaten track for next year's photo workshop in Iceland, when we suddenly sunk deep into the snow. Hidden underneath it was a large pool of mud that was way too deep for our jeep. Reversing only resulted in spinning wheels and mud being thrown up into the air and onto the car. After various attempts with floor mats, we gave up. Luckily, there was a nice Icelandic man that spotted us waving for help and he offered to pull us out with his big jeep with huge tires. That did the trick. 

The lava from age-old eruptions has solidified and left interesting formations and rock arches behind.
 I swear the arch in the middle is trying to imitate Turret Arch - one of the most iconic arches in Utah :-)

We are glad we have taken the time to do the scouting, because it is actually quite difficult to stick to our plan of getting somewhere around a certain time when we travel. We see so many interesting things along the way, that we stop after driving for just 10 minutes for something that we want to photograph or have a closer look at. No, I am not complaining about it - it just shows how beautiful this country is.

As we were traveling north, the river next to the road gave us a spectacular sight: once frozen over, the water level had risen and all the ice broke. At the curves it was all pushed on the shores by the force of the water, forming two more rivers of ice :-) We drove back and tried a small road that was on the other side of the river, which came much closer and lower to the river than the main road. We asked a farmer for permission to walk on his land and went down to the river. The blocks of ice where huge and stacked up about 3 meters high. We had to be careful walking on the ice, as there were big gaps in between them. And needless to say - the ice was quite slippery.

We are currently staying in a wonderful guesthouse near Godafoss and had another great morning shoot. We left before sunrise and made our way to one of the most impressive waterfalls Iceland has to offer. In order to get a good perspective of the waterfall, we had to climb down, which was a huge challenge. The snow made it difficult to see where we were putting our feet, and at some parts the snow had accumulated, so it was extremely deep and our legs sank right in at times. Getting down to the river's edge was very steep, but we made it... and it sure was worth all the trouble! 

Godafoss is one of the waterfalls in the Skjálfandafljót river.
It runs across a lava field, which is approximately 7000 years old. 

The canyon just below Godafoss is about 100m wide.The waterfall is shaped in the form of a horseshoe and divided into two main falls and a few smaller ones, depending on the amount of water flowing through the river. 

Tonight we are going back to shoot Godafoss after sunset. Northern light predictions are good, so we are planning to stay out for a long time, hoping for the sky to clear a bit later in the evening. I am already looking forward to it :-) 


08 March 2012

First post from Iceland

We are currently in Iceland, where we will be setting up a photo tour for next year, to photograph this amazing country in winter time. 

Marsel photographing an artistic viking ship at sunset.

We started our trip with a few days in Reykjavik. It is a very small city and the old center has some interesting buildings. There are a number of nice locations to shoot in and around the city. 

Left: the big church in Reykjavik is set up high on a hill in the old city centre.
Right: When the tide is high at night, the shallow edges freeze, forming white cracked ice balls where rocks and seaweed are, when the tide gets low again.

The third night we already saw the northern lights, so we headed out to a location we had photographed earlier that day: a nice site with white houses and water in front of it. We were very happy we bought insulated rubber boots at a local fishing store, so we could stand in the water while shooting and not get cold feet! The aurora borealis turned up really early and the spectacle started at 8 o'clock at night. It was quite static, but in the perfect position and we could make a really nice composition with the green band of light framing the houses and reflections in the water. 

This photo was taken with my iPhone, photographing the back of Marsels camera.
Weather conditions can be quite harsh, with lots and lots of wind, clouds, rain, snow - we have had it all in our first week. But it is worth it, because if you can shoot, the landscape is just wonderfully rough and the snow really adds to the beauty of the scenery. 

You can't go to Iceland and not visit the many waterfalls it has to offer. There are some that are really spectacular when it comes to their height, width or the amount of water that goes through them with great force. Impressive to see them. 

At the moment we are staying at a glacier lake, with a black sandy beach. The lake itself is probably more impressive in the summer, when more pieces of ice break from the glacier and icebergs float around in the lake. 
Unfortunately the panorama app on my iPhone had some glitches, so it's not perfect, but MAN... what a surreal place!!!

Now it is more ice plates that flow with the tide in and out of the lake, but the blueish chunks of ice that are scattered around on the black sand of the beach make it all very pretty! Now only if that aurora will come back tonight and do it's thing at the right spot :-)

Daniella (all photo's in this post were shot by me on my iPhone)

07 March 2012

Squiver Review: Gura Gear Chobe laptop bag

For years I thought I had a camera bag fetish. Whenever I walked into a camera store, I would spend considerable time at the bags department - picking them up to feel the weight, opening and closing the zippers to see whether they ran smoothly, counting the amount of compartments and dividers, and eventually: trying it on. It turned out I didn't have a camera bag fetish after all, I simply wasn't happy with the bags I had been using and was constantly looking for something better. When I first saw the Gura Gear Kiboko bag on one of my workshops, I was fascinated by the revolutionary butterfly design, the incredible amount of stuff that fit in there, and the supposed low weight - it sure looked like the perfect bag. I decided to get one my self, and I haven't been fumbling other bags since. The Kiboko bag is not perfect, but it's close enough for me.

When I travel, and I tend to do that a lot, I bring a lot of gear. The challenge photographers are facing all the time is how to fit everything in your cabin luggage. I am fortunate to be able to travel with Daniella on almost all trips, and she also has a Kiboko bag for her video camera and accessories. With all her stuff in the bag there is still an entire compartment that is empty, and I usually put some of my gear in there. Especially when I go on safaris this is really necessary, because I then not only bring my 200-400, but also my 600. The 200-400 can fit in the Kiboko bag easily with a body attached, and even the 600 can fit in it, but without the hood. However, if I were to put both in my bag, there wouldn't be any space left for other items - Daniella gets the 200-400 plus body, or the 600. All the cables and chargers go in my laptop bag, and the only thing that goes into my checked luggage is my tripod and my Wimberley head.

A few months ago I went on a trip to Antarctica, without Daniella. I didn't want to bring my 600, so luggage was no problem. Two weeks ago however, I was on assignment for National Geographic Traveller in India, also without Daniella. On that trip it was vital to bring my 600, so I had a logistics problem. I knew I wouldn't be able to fit everything in my Kiboko, so that meant I had to somehow fit either my 200-400 or my 600 in my stylish Oakley laptop bag. Yep, not very likely. Enter the Chobe laptop bag, also by Gura Gear.

The Gura Gear Chobe laptop/camerabag
The Chobe laptop bag

My first introduction to the Chobe laptop bag was probably one of the most surreal product demonstrations I have ever witnessed. I was leading a workshop in Kenya, when I ran into Andy Biggs, founder of Gura Gear. We were all sitting in our Jeeps, waiting for the wildebeest to cross the Mara River, so Andy decided this was the perfect time to give us a demonstration of the new Chobe laptop bag. And it worked, because I got one myself a few months later and I now use it on every trip.

What's so great about it?

The great thing about the Chobe bag is that it has the same characteristics as the Kiboko bag. That means it is very light, has lots of space inside, is made of the same material, and has a very clever design. Let's start with that last one.


At first sight the Chobe bag looks just like any other laptop bag - it is black, it has more or less the same dimensions, it has handles and a shoulder strap, as well as a few external pockets. But the Chobe bag can do something no other laptop bags can: it can turn itself into a camera bag. By unzipping one of the center zippers, not only does the middle compartment becomes twice as wide, creating enough room for more stuff than you'll need, but with the included insert you can turn this bag into a serious camerabag with space for a few camera bodies and lenses. This means that the bag is compact when you don't have a lot of stuff to carry around, and that it is bigger when you do.

When I travel by plane, I like to bring everything on board that I need for my photography - my check in luggage does not always arrive in time, and when I'm on assignment that would be disastrous. That means not only cameras and lenses, but also all chargers, cables, remotes, filters, ballheads, flash, etc. all go in my cabin luggage. When I don't bring my long lenses, there usually is enough room in the Kiboko for everything I need, but when I decide to bring my 200-400 and my 600, things get really complicated. On most trips I travel with Daniella, so any excess camera gear can usually go in her bag (thanks honey). In those cases I only have a laptop and a few external drives to fit in my 'one personal item'. However, when I travel alone and need all my long lenses, it's a whole different story.

One of the great things about the Kiboko bag is that I can fit my 600mm in it. It will fill one compartment together with my 70-200 (I know, it's incredible). That leaves the other compartment for three bodies and three short lenses. The 200-400 does not fit in the bag anymore. A lens of that size is not something you would normally consider trying to get into your laptop bag, but with the Chobe bag you can.

When I was on assignment in India for National Geographic earlier this year, that was exactly what I did. My 600 and 70-200 in one compartment of the Kiboko, the D3, D3s, D3x, 14-24, 24-70, 17-35 in the other. The SB-900 and remote also fit in there, but that was about it. Enter the Chobe bag.

I simply expanded the middle compartment and put the insert in. I then could have taken all the dividers out and put the 200-400 in, because it really fits, but I decided to use the dividers to design the layout of the insert so that it would fit all the smaller items (external drives, cables, chargers, GPS) - neatly organized. I then put the 200-400 on top of that, and I could still close the zipper without any problems. Amazing.

Size and weight

Photographers are obsessed with weight. This is completely understandable, as everything seems to get lighter and lighter, except for professional cameras and lenses. On an average trip I bring at least two bodies (a D3s and D3x), a 14-24, a 24-70, a 70-200 and a 200-400. Add to that a flash, spare batteries, and chargers, and you're already talking about some serious weight. Getting that amount of weight onto an airplane as cabin luggage is already stressful enough, so you don't really want your 'one personal item', usually a laptop bag, to be so heavy as well. Well, no worries there, because the Chobe bag is really light - a mere …grams. With just my Macbook Pro, charger, a Wacom tablet and some small loose items, it feels as if there's hardly anything in there.

Very old Samsonite laptopbag
The size and weight are comparable to an old Samsonite laptop bag I've been using lately, but the Chobe is a bit wider and much better designed. But just as with the Kiboko bag you can't imagine how much actually fits in there until you try to fill it up. And even when you do, it will still easily fit upright in the overhead luggage compartment of most airplanes, or you can stow it underneath the seat in front of you.

The design

In terms of looks the Chobe bag is no stunner - it just looks like a laptop bag. Personally, I'm happy it's not too flashy or techy, because that could draw unnecessary attention to the bag that usually contains my most important items: laptop, external drives, passport and money. Of all the three bags that I travel with (check-in bag, Kiboko camera bag and Chobe laptop bag), it is the Chobe that I always keep my eye on. Of course it helps to know that my Kiboko usually weighs around 20kg when fully packed, so a thief that tries to make a run with it won't get very far.

The largest outside pocket can also be used for an iPad
On the outside there are two large pockets. The largest one I use for my Wacom tablet and lots of small items. The smaller one I use for flash drives, pens, business cards, connectors for my MacBook and other small stuff. A nice touch is the rubber protection piece that covers the metal zipper so that it can't scratch anything. The latest version of the Kiboko apparently features this as well - good thinking.

The right pocket features lots of space for small items
On the back there is a large zipper that gives access to a pocket that you can use for documents, but officially it is designed as a travel sleeve - you unzip it and slide it over the handles of your roll-on. I use this only before check-in on my big bag. After that, it's just an extra pocket.

The zipper of the travel sleeve is located at the bottom of the sleeve and protected by velcro
On the left side there is a water bottle sleeve that, when unzipped, fits a 1 liter bottle. This is perfect, because I like to bring lots of water on the plane, and it doesn't even cost any space inside the bag.

The water bottle pocket - it's only there when you want it to be
The opposite side features a cell phone pocket. You have to know that it's there, because it doesn't look like a pocket at all. It's very tight and does not have a zipper, and so far I have not used it for my iPhone for that reason. I'm often waiting in crowded airports with people standing close to me on all sides, and I like the idea of having at least a zipper to prevent pickpocketing. Dust is another issue. I mainly use it for wet wipes.

The mobile phone pocket is not easy to recognize. The bag is zipped to the most compact size.
The laptop pocket is just what you expect: my 13" MacBook Pro fits in there nicely, even with the bulky sleeve around it.

The expansion zipper is located on the bottom right side of the bag. When you unzip it, the bag expands an additional 2.5 inches. That may not sound like much, but it is. You suddenly have tons of extra spaceYou can then add the photo insert and turn your laptop bag into a serious camera shoulderbag. I prefer to keep the middle pocket unzipped and travel with the Chobe at the maximum size with the photo insert added. Even when I don't need it for camera gear, I still like having the possibility to use the dividers to custom build the interior of the bag. It's a nice way to keep everything organized and not have it move around the bag constantly. It's only on short non-photography trips that I remove the insert and zip the bag down to the smallest size.

Chobe expanded without the photo insert
The photo insert is included with the Chobe bag. Lots of inserts too.
Chobe with the photo insert inside

This bag is the near perfect solution for any photographer that has to deal with the complicated logistics of having to travel by plane with lots of camera gear. Great built quality and flexibility, very lightweight and lots of space for both camera gear and non-photographic items. It's an impressive bag with clever design, especially considering this is version 1.0. So is it perfect? No, there are a few things that could be improved upon.

First, the handles have uncomfortable sharp edges on the inside, and you feel this especially when you're carrying heavy gear inside it. I'd prefer the handles to be much softer and gentler to the hands, because most of the time when I'm traveling I'm wearing the Kiboko on my back and using the shoulder strap of the Chobe is a bit too much on the shoulders. That shoulder strap is very comfortable, but I don't like the rather flimsy connectors that are used to attach it to the bag. On two occasions I've had one of the connectors open during transport because something pushed against it. In theory the bag could fall down and damage the gear, but I'm lucky that hasn't happened yet.

The shoulder strap is very comfortable
The zippers are smooth, but I'd like them to have some sort of locking feature, for instance to be able to use a small padlock. I know it won't stop determined thieves, but it will give me some peace of mind when I'm in very crowded airports or when I leave my bag in the hotel room. A small extra piece of metal with a hole in it on the existing zipper is all it takes. I would also like to have this feature on my Kiboko bag.

Finally, everything on the bag being black, it's sometimes difficult to find the zippers. The zippers now have small pieces of flexible black material attached to them, but I'd prefer them to be brightly colored so that I can find them easily, especially in dimly lit situations.

That said, this is the bag I have been searching for for many years, and this is the bag I will be using on all my future trips. Gura Gear did it again.