In 1988, The Sugarcubes debut album “Life’s Too Good” was getting heavy rotation in my cd player and served as an introduction to the quirky band’s native Iceland. Over the years other Icelandic bands like Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men, continued to sonically and lyrically paint an enticing canvas of their native homeland, further cementing the small country on my bucket list of places to visit. So this fall, while friends planned their winter vacation to warmer climes, I pitched the family on an adventure in the land of Ice and Fire. My wife has come to accept my odd predilections and the kids were just happy to get passports so we booked the flights and began our planning.
Anxious to capture the beauty of Iceland, I still had to be realistic about the nature of the trip. This was a family vacation, not a photo tour or workshop so I had to pack light and work quickly. Luckily, a friend was in possession of a loaner Sony RX1RII from B&H Photo and offered it up for use during the trip. This friend is building some impressive 3D printed Arca Plate compatible grips for compact cameras that add almost zero weight. Check them out here – highly recommended.
With the RX1RII secured, I committed to use it for the majority of vacation shooting; almost 90 percent of all the photos here were made with it. Some may question why use a camera with only a fixed 35mm focal length but not everyone wants to play the roll of conspicuous tourist sporting a DSLR and zoom lens. On the contrary, the RX1RII embodies the classic concept of a decisive moment camera, similar to film compacts like the Konica Hexar AF that enabled pros to pack a much smaller kit when traveling, without sacrificing quality. The a7RII along with the Zeiss Touit 12mm, on loan from the Zeiss rep out of Precision Camera, and a Leica Summitar 50/2 also made it into the travel bag, but the primary test was to determine the RX1RII capabilities in real world shooting under some extreme conditions, not a traditional lab review with test charts. Click any of the images below to view larger with camera and lens metadata – if no lens data appears, the 50mm Summitar was used.
While light was at a premium, what was available (about 5 hours per day) was wonderfully diffuse and photography friendly. The weather in Iceland is quite variable with multiple daily changes in climate and conditions as we roamed the countryside. Unfortunately, there was record snow in December and persistant cloud cover so the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) were hidden from view, but that didn’t stop us from hitting everything else on the itinerary. With good planning, you can easily maximize the available winter light and complete a full day of activities.
Being our first trip to Iceland, we wanted to knock off the more popular spots but also have a bit of a native experience, so instead of a hotel we split time between a rental on the southern coast and an apartment in downtown Reykjavik. Day one was spent acclimating to the time change and exploring our temporary home in the small fishing village of Stokkseyri (pop. 445). Our cozy little house was situated across the street from the Atlantic ocean and within walking distance to the local geothermal pool and a famous lobster restaurant. Soaking in the warm waters of the pool, we met a few locals including Scuggi, a carpenter/brewer who had recently moved to town. We had to pass on Scuggi’s kind invite to come by his place for some beers, instead opting for a provision run to the discount market, Bonus. You can’t miss the Bonus marts in Iceland – they have a big yellow sign with a cartoon pig in place of the O in Bonus.
The next few days were spent touring the southern coast Ring Road in our rental car. Word of warning – the Icelandic roads are generally well maintained by plows but can be treacherous without winter driving experience and/or a four wheel drive vehicle. If you aren’t comfortable, I would recommend booking the many tours that operate out of Reykjavik. We had no problems driving ourselves to the Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls, the wreckage of an American DC-3 on the black sand beach of Sólheimasandur and a few very cold and blustery minutes visiting the Dyrhólaey promontory.
A highlight of those first few days was a trek to the Seljavallalaug swimming pool, nestled in solitude south of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that erupted in 2010, ceasing airline traffic in Europe. The 25 metre long pool is one of the country’s oldest, constructed with stones in 1923. To reach the pool you must hike along a riverbed into a valley where the pool is tucked away from view. The changing hut is rustic so don’t expect a Four Seasons experience but we had the pool to ourselves and enjoyed the stillness of this beautiful place. For those wondering how I was so brave (or stupid) to use the cameras close to and in the water, I was using a cheap but well tested plastic waterproof housing for mirrorless cameras.
On the road back to our costal rental we would make daily stops to visit our new friends, Olaf and Coco. The sweet Icelandic horses always welcomed us and now I have to convince my wife that Austin, TX is not an acceptable temperate zone for one of these creatures.
On the fourth day, we drove farther east to the Jökulsárlón glacial lake area for an ice cave tour on the glacier. The exotic blue ice caves are only accessible in the winter months, so they present another compelling argument to visit this time of year. As the water flowing through the caves continues to carve through the ice, more and more of the cave becomes navigable, until March when the warmer weather renders the spaces unstable. The ice caves were the sole reason I packed the wide angle Touit 12mm (18mm and 18mp on the a7RII) and the lens really shined, both in the caves and later on Ice Beach. Stopped down, the Touit was razor sharp to the edges with excellent color and low distortion.
After the Ice Cave tour we were left with just a few minutes of light to checkout Jökulsárlón. The lake was created when the glacier began receding from the Atlantic ocean and as it continues to melt, the body of water grows in size. Deposits of ice are shed from the glacier into the lake where they then drift to the ocean, depositing crystal clear pieces of 900-year-old ice on the black sand of “Ice Beach”.
The next day we met our tour guide at the Skaftafell gas station before embarking on an “ice walk” of the Svínafellsjökull glacier tongue. The scenery on the hike was stunning. The blues and greens of the tongue look good in photos but are truly breathtaking in person. These glaciers are in recession and the guides claim that they will only be available in the lowlands for potentially ten or fifteen more years so see them soon if you can. I didn’t want to pack a lot of photo gear on the hike so the RX1RII was a perfect fit in the pocket of my jacket. I also left my travel tripod behind so the few panoramics I attempted were handheld. The results were beyond expectations; the 42mp sensor in the tiny RX1RII is capable of generating impressive high megapixel stitched images. The shot below is a low resolution web version of a 162mp panoramic with levels of detail unheard of in a camera this size.
Wrapping up our South Coast adventure, we drove west to Reykjavik, stopping along the way in the coastal town of Vik as the sunset over the beach.
On Christmas Eve we booked a walking tour of Reykjavik via the terrific Icelandic travel blog, I heart Reykjavik. Blog proprietor Audur Osp and her boyfriend Hrannar, walked us through the city, providing historical background and more importantly, spot on recommendations of the best eateries and bars. As you can see from the photos there is a significant amount of graffiti and commissioned art (to cover the graffiti) that graces the colorful buildings of downtown. I was hoping to go up into the tower of Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic church that perches above downtown to capture a panoramic of the city from above but unfortunately the tower was closed on the days we were available.
Iceland is increasingly becoming a Christmas destination; the locals take their holiday celebrations seriously with 13 naughty Yule Lads (their version of Santa Claus) and Christmas beginning a day early on the 24th – a welcome alternative to the Black Friday mentality in the US. Strolling the downtown streets that evening, we witnessed what appeared to be the whole of the local population out dining, completing their shopping and reveling with friends and family. Everyone seemed to know each other and although we were strangers in a strange land, we couldn’t help but feel part of their celebration. Despite protests from the kids, my own parents would be happy that we made it to the midnight Christmas mass at Hallgrímskirkja.
The food in Reykjavik was expensive but outstanding. Visitors can expect local lamb and fish presentations and more daring palates can try Minke whale and Puffin, if their conscience can handle it. The five course Festive menu at Apotek on Christmas was remarkable and as a converted Texan it pains me to admit that the beef tenderloin was among the finest I have tasted. The Chocolate Rose mousse desert wasn’t bad either.
But if I am honest, the food that I craved every day was the budget friendly hot dogs at Baejarins beztu pylsur (translation: The best hot dog in town). The flagship stand has been in operation at more or less the same location since the 60’s and is famous for its tasty lamb based dogs with crispy and raw onions, mustard, ketchup and remoulade – you must order at least one this way if you want the authentic experience. It might sound silly to be waxing poetic about a hot dog, but the whole family agreed that these were the best – and easiest on the wallet.
On Christmas day, Reykjavik transforms into a ghost town so we hopped back in the rental car and drove out to see a couple sites on the Golden Circle. The weather was extremely cold (-15 C) but we were not to be denied a view of the majestic Gullfoss waterfall. This wonder transfers more volume of water than even Niagra Falls and should be on every tourist’s must see list. After Gullfoss we were almost out of light but squeezed in a quick visit to Geysir for a couple viewings of the “great geyser” that launches boiling water up to 70 meters every 8-10 minutes.
The following day was spent revisiting Reykjavik for some shopping and a walk down to the architecturally impressive Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager sculpture. Bringing the story full circle, I wandered into a shop that sells prints of Reykjavik street photography and other scenes from the countryside and there found a print of a 88′ live performance by the same Icelandic band – The Sugarcubes – that had introduced me to this lovely country. I snatched up the print, along with several others as our souvenirs of Iceland; what else would a photographer buy?
Our trip nearly complete, we closed it out with a visit to the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. The geothermal spa is an extremely popular tourist destination featuring 37–39 °C (99–102 °F) mineral rich milky water and a surrounding permeable lava field that could be mistaken for the moon. The water is indeed all natural and mineral rich (great for the skin, bad for the hair) but the dirty secret is that it is fed by output from the local geothermal plant. Nonetheless, we relaxed with our adult beverages and silica masks before showering off and heading to the airport for a return to the States.
For the photo enthusiast readers that have made it this far, thank you for your patience and for those without an interest in the camera gear, Takk (thank you in Icelandic) for visiting – feel free to browse away, it’s about to get geeky.
Reflecting back over the week spent with an RX1RII as a primary tool, there are few cameras that would have been more satisfactory for the task of vacation photography in this environment. The compact size allowed for easily accessible stowage in a jacket pocket, a more challenging prospect for big brother a7RII or even the Leica Q. Why was this important? While the camera was well protected from the weather – see below for thoughts on its weather handling – I still wouldn’t want it exposed to the cold and rain if needn’t be. Second, for many activities, not having a camera or bag swinging around or in a difficult to access backpack was a big plus. The fixed lens meant no concern for switching lenses in extreme cold, humid or dusty conditions and by using a small hood I was able to keep most of the foul weather off the front lens element. The RX is also by nature of its small size and with the new flip screen, extremely inconspicuous, perfect for street scenes and easy low perspective photography.
Autofocus is greatly improved over the original RX1 with advanced modes like object tracking and eye-AF that are not just gimmicks to be ignored. Being able to lock-on to my subject’s eyes or face with the push of the button is a useful feature that enables a more effortless and accurate off-center composition, compared to a traditional focus and re-compose technique. Sony claims a 30% improvement in AF speed and that figure feels about right – maybe 40-50% in some circumstances. Really we are at a level of AF performance with these cameras that is beyond good enough for most purposes.
Since the majority of my work takes place in front of a music stage, I don’t normally expose my gear to the elements in a way they were in Iceland. Both the a7RII and the RX1RII were used unprotected in significant exposures to rain, snow, waterfall spray and sub freezing temperatures. I came away with new found confidence in the weather handling capabilities of these cameras. On the RX1RII I even used the EVF in the rain which I was initially worried would expose the camera to water due to the pop-up mechanism. The one criticism I can lay on the RX is the poor battery performance in cold weather. The little battery just couldn’t hold the juice when the temperature dropped below the freezing point. With a pocketful of spares, I never ran out of power but the hassle of swapping batteries in -15 C was not an overly pleasant experience. There are solutions available, such as using an external power pack via USB and I may look closer at those options if I was to use the camera extensively in such cold environments again. Comparatively, the a7RII battery held up quite well and I never once had to change it in the field.
The Zeiss Sonnar 35mm f2 lens that the public and reviewers raved about in the original RX1 makes a return in the new camera matched to the resolving power of the 42mp sensor first introduced in the a7RII. The Zeiss was magic on the original and none of that mojo has been lost on the RX1RII. The Zeiss renders almost like a Planar design, with softer/smooth bokeh, while retaining a Sonnar’s critical sharpness in the center wide open and across the field when stopped down – an almost perfect recipe for a 35mm lens. No one should call this Zeiss clinical, but rather images have an organic feel that is hard to come by in modern designs. The lens appears to be resolving every single one of those 42mp, especially evident in scenes with a distant subject such as a landscape. I am simply staggered by the level of detail this combination is resolving in many of the Iceland scenes.
All images here are shot in RAW so I can’t comment on JPEG performance but working with the Sony files in post is a pleasure. Dynamic range is as expected – stellar – and having continuity between my a7RII and the RX1RII is a big deal as it can be a challenge to match output on a shoot from different camera models. Color is subjective and easily manipulated but I enjoy working with the base Sony color space. So far there haven’t been any surprises or ugliness in terms of how the files react to edits -no artifacts or banding, just rich malleable data.
To wrap it up, if I measure the RX1RII based on the resultant images, the satisfaction while using it and the desire to keep using it, this field test in Iceland can only be categorized as a success. As groundbreaking as the original RX1 was, expectations were high for the new camera and if my experience can be used as an indication, Sony delivered a worthy successor.