An Unexpected Love

My love for Iceland was born unexpectedly, I absolutely didn’t see it coming and it washed over me like a tidal wave in a monsoon.  We were planning a holiday of a lifetime. Somewhere with beautiful scenery to photograph, that was the only stipulation. It was more of an exploring holiday rather than the usual beach holiday we were used to.

Countries were thrown in the ring, I really wanted to go to Sweden and my husband threw in Iceland. It’s like I didn’t even know it existed until that point. It's weird thinking that now as it’s become one of the most popular destinations for tourists in recent years, but back in 2012 when he suggested it I was like, Iceland?  Why?!  He showed me a video he’d found on a tour operators website and it was not great. It was raining and grey, you couldn’t see any of the amazing sights I now know by heart. It certainly didn’t make me want to go there over Sweden.

In all honesty, I’ve no idea how he won the argument for Iceland but, it was booked and we were set to tour the country in February 2013.  The time came and it was nothing like that horrible video i’d watched.  It was the dead of winter, every day spent driving and taking photos, hardly anyone else in sight, just us and the open road.

Two weeks later we were hooked, and it wasn’t long after returning home to the UK that we decided it wasn’t enough and we made a snap decision to go back and live there  That was just over 4 years ago and we are here to stay.

Diving in head first

Just before moving here I was studying commercial photography at Lincoln College where I was introduced to the darkroom.  It was here that I learned how to develop and print black and white film, starting out with the Kentmere range.  I purchased a Hasselblad 500cm and dove head first into analogue processes. Being in Iceland has given me ample opportunities to practice what I learned and I’m now 100% shooting with the Hassy and 99.9% of the time it’s with a Delta 100 in the chamber, I love the consistency and sharpness of it.  That other 0.1% is the flirtations with other film types. (Usually Ilford). PANF  50, FP4 PLUS and recently I've been getting a little more into the Delta 3200.

I have such a love affair with the Delta 100 that i’ve gained a little reputation for it in my friendly local film stockist in Reykjavik (shout out to Beco), so much so that when i’ve sent the husband in for film as soon as he says Delta 100 they tell him to say hello to me.  Film photography has not died in Iceland and although we may have a smaller population it’s still very popular and is taught at the photography school as well as a few local clubs and groups dedicated to it.

Untouched Beauty

In the last 4 years i’ve explored and photographed nearly every corner of this beautiful country and I know there’s a ton of it left that I haven’t.  The beauty of Iceland is there is so much to see and with the constant changes in weather you can quite often find yourself somewhere you’ve been several times before but it looks completely different each time.  I can often be found roaming the countryside, be it up mountains in the east (thank god for 4x4), on the edge of a cliff or by a lake just outside of the city but one thing for sure is I never get bored of it.

A typical trip

It usually always starts with a place or an idea.  Whether it be an end destination to drive towards and explore on the way or an idea of a particular shot I’m chasing (my current one is frozen lakes, I’ve had a taste and now I want more!).

Then it’s time to stock up on film, check what I already have in the film chick in my fridge and then head over to Beco where I usually relieve them of a lot of Delta 100. I always give Hassy a thorough clean and check before loading the first roll and then, we're off.

The main thing to remember when I’m on the road is I never go straight from point A to B. It’s more like from A to Z missing out B and then back again.  Having upgraded to a 4x4 last year (all hail GED the Subaru), I've become particularly partial to driving off on the F-roads.  These are the roads that are for 4x4's only Mountain roads or not paved, the odd river, often closed over winter and wholly unpredictable in quality but OH MY GOD are they fun!  They also yield the most unexpected and untouched beauty that Iceland has to offer, which I think has solidified my love for landscape photography over the last few years.

Love and Hate

In terms of actual photography, I’m a huge fan of tripods, I don’t leave home without it and I rarely hand hold shots.  One of the most engaging things to me about film photography is it slows you right down and makes you really think about what you’re doing.  This is even more so evident using the Hassy as there’s no built in light meter or second chances so I have to get it as close to right as possible first or second go or i’m stuffed.

This has taken some practice and has been a labour of love and hate at times but i’m in my flow now that i’m comfortable with.  I spend a lot of time looking at a scene first, trying to figure out my composition, where i’m going to set up and what I want from the scene.

First and foremost i’m looking for texture, i’m crazy about texture, it’s something that adds feeling to photographs to me I feel it’s what adds the life to the images.  As long as it’s got texture in the image the rest is a bonus but i’m often looking at shapes, symmetry, leading lines and overall a scene that fills the frame front to back.

That there has been the biggest trial and error with the Hassy, especially with the 80mm that came with it, finding that a scene looked amazing to the eye but on developing found that there was a whole lot of sky and nothing at the front and just a row of tiny mountains in the middle.  I’m currently experiencing the exact opposite now I've got a 180mm lens and i’m in the midst of another learning curve with that one but that’s another story entirely.

The Set Up

After deciding the composition I start the set up, tripod out, camera on and then frame it up ready to go (keeping the dark slide in until the last second, learned that the hard way, light leaks, eurgh!).  Once i’m all set up I take the meter readings, again a trial and error but mostly trust that what i’m reading is usable and not having to compensate up or down towards.

Now on choosing what to go for settings wise. This depends entirely on the scene. If there’s any movement i’ll most likely go for the F22 settings and if there’s something that needs a faster shutter speed to capture it like some cool cloud formations i’ll go to the F4 or lower.  More often than not i’ll take one at either end of the extremes, F22 and F2.8-F4 then decide which I prefer from the scans.

Wasting Film

I’ve learned painfully and expensively that taking more than 2 shots of a set up is just a waste of film. A rule I've broken on many occasions by getting over excited in the wild and absolutely not wanting to lose the shot. Every single time without fail I regret this later when I've got 4 frames of the same thing and only need 1.

I’m definitely getting better at talking the excitement down in the wild and most of the time i’m at the 2 shots per set up rule Occasionally shooting a one shot wonder when I’m not feeling  like going full guns. (Often finding the one shot wonder is a favourite on the roll).  I aim to shoot more one shot wonders in the future and just trust that I know what I want at the time but that’s going to take some time I think.

Finally after taking the shots it’s become a little bit of a ritual to then photograph Hassy in situ, either from the back or through the viewfinder.  Originally this was just to add a little contrast and colour when posting on Instagram along side the black and white images but has become part of the whole process and I really enjoy the juxtaposition of the images together as a before and after kind of thing.

Black and white Film

One thing I'd like to mention is the love I have for black and white film.  I’m often asked why I don’t shoot in colour.  It started out as being that, that’s how I learned to develop and print.It’s become so much more than that to me now.  Black and white is amazing, the tonality of it, the feeling, the depth and how it can show you the true beauty in a scene without any distractions.

As I’m looking at the scene and trying to decide where I’m going to set up, I'm also converting the image to black and white in my mind.  The more colours in a scene the better, that means more tones, the same with shadows and highlights.

I’m the sort of person who, when they find something they like they stick with it to the bitter end but I can’t see me ever getting sick of shooting in black and white. I’ve been doing it for so long now that it’s become second nature and I take a lot of comfort in that when i’m photographing.  This was more evident recently when I decided to throw caution to the wind and actually put a colour film in my spare Hassy back, I found myself trying to look at scenes in terms of colour and black and white at the same time and my head exploded, I don’t think i’m ready to give up the love affair just yet!

My Darkroom

I’m also enamoured by the process after the roadtrip and have adopted our laundry room as my darkroom.

As I've tried several but stuck with Delta 100 for my film of choice. I've been through the same labour with film developers.  I started with Ilfosol 3 which was always great, then tried Ilfotec-DDX which works amazingly with Delta 100. I’ve ended up settling on using Adox Rodinal.  It adds a ton of contrast which i’m a big fan of, but also it keeps open for long periods of time which is handy up here in the Arctic as it can sometimes be tricky getting chemicals.

In the last year I've added an enlarger to my little darkroom laundry and I’m working my way through the printing processes and which papers I prefer.I’m sure i’ll settle on one type that i’ll use for eternity but I’m currently enjoying figuring that out.

All images © Laura Cogan