The Northern Lights dance. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.

Interview with Jón Hilmarsson

Verified expert

Northern Lights in Iceland. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to reflect the true beauty of nature… particularly with so many different styles of processing and art forms available in the world today. However, for Icelandic photographer and Iceland Photo Tours guide Jón Hilmarsson, it comes as an unwritten matter of course.

Having held numerous photographic exhibitions all over Iceland, this well-published artist has stayed committed to his own principles and sense of style. This month, he sat down with us to discuss his pathway into photography, as well as the importance of achieving something new by making the most of the available lighting and weather conditions in Iceland.

Hello Jón! Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to develop an interest in photography.

It started around 14 years ago. My wife is an opera singer and she need to have some quality pictures of her for promotion and posters. I asked a professional photographer how much a day with him would cost to take pictures in the studio and outside in nature. When he gave me the price, I went to the shop and bought a camera and some lenses instead.

Of course, my first pictures were terrible but they got better and with time, I got more interested in landscape and nature. Since that time, I have held several photo exhibitions here and there in Iceland, as well as published two books.

Who influenced you in your early years of photography?

My wife. She is a great artist.

As my interest in photography developed, I started to look at other landscape and nature photographers, pictures and tutorials on YouTube – no one special, just something or someone that would influence me at that moment. At that time, I was working as a school principal out in the country and did not socialise with any local photographers.

Along your photographic career, did you go through different phases or different styles?

From the beginning, I have always been interested in landscape and nature. With better cameras, lenses and filters, it has given me many possibilities to try different things.

I am always trying to improve the creative part and compositions, trying to approach the subject or the location in new way, seeing new possibilities for a different angle. I tried HDR some years ago but don’t do very much of that now as I try to have my pictures as natural as possible.

I like panorama photography very much and would like to do more of that. Using the drone also gives me more and new possibilities with panoramic pictures, which I find very interesting.

Aurora Borealis in Iceland. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.Aurora Borealis in Iceland. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.

What was the first place that you visited that really helped you to develop your appreciation and passion for landscape photography?

It’s hard to say. I live in Iceland and we have beautiful landscapes and nature all around us. When I started photography, I was living in the north of Iceland, Skagafjörður. The sunsets are amazing there, lasting forever with an incredible red colour.

How would you describe your approach to landscape photography today? 

As it has been my job for the last two years, I try very much to use the ever-changing weather to get something new. The drone is also a new tool that gives me the option to see different angles or compositions that were not possible before.

Can you tell us a bit about your favourite locations for photography in Iceland?

The highlands of Iceland, as there are so many places there that I haven’t seen yet or that I want to explore better, both with my camera and drone.

Aldeyjarfoss. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.Aldeyjarfoss. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.

What are your thoughts on photographing lesser-known and more unique locations versus chasing the “trophy shots” (i.e. copying popular images)?

It is interesting and challenging to find something new, new locations or new compositions as opposed to very well-known locations. It is difficult because there are so many good photographers, every time and everywhere in Iceland, chasing the same.

Who is another photographer at Iceland Photo Tours whose work you particularly admire?

I think Raymond Hoffman is great in finding the best options for the weather and lighting conditions each time that he is out there. He is hard working and it pays off.

Northern Lights dancing. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.Northern Lights dancing over Kirkjufell. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.

Locations and weather conditions seem to be a crucial aspect to creating a successful picture, particularly when you are out with your participants on a workshop in Iceland. How do you handle these unpredictable factors to ensure that everyone takes home a great photograph that they can look back upon?

Shooting in Iceland is all about using the ever-changing weather conditions to your benefit. You need to be able to make decisions very quickly if something changes, especially if the conditions might be better somewhere else. It is challenging but also rewarding when it works out.

When participants know about these conditions and are ready to play along, then we are more likely to get great pictures.

I learned that sometimes, you need to be very quick to get your gear ready and run out from the car to get the sunray, the rainbow or the cloud formation that appears suddenly in front of you. Respect for each other, opinions, space and work methods are also very important, so that everyone feels comfortable and sure about their work and approach to photography.

Northern Lights over Hvitserkur. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.Northern Lights over Hvitserkur. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.

As far as advice that you would give to others in relation to improving as a photographer, would you recommend more in-field practice, organised photo walks, discussion groups, photography courses or educational books? In your opinion, what kind of resources would be the most helpful?

For me, it has always worked best by discussing, showing and trying techniques out myself. You need to be open minded, be able to take criticism and to ask others for advice. Probably a mixture of all you mentioned is good in the right portion, according to the different strengths and skills that you might already possess.

Cameras are constantly evolving and we’ve recently seen a lot of new releases, not just of photographic equipment but also of software. What is the influence of digital technology on your photography?

In my opinion, technology definitely gives you more possibilities. However, I like to keep the picture natural. I use technology to my benefit though I continue to respect the subject and try not to lose myself in post processing.

Do you feel that there is an urgency for you to share your images online as soon as you have shot them?

Yes, if I feel that I have something good then I want to share it online. It’s good to have positive feedback.

The Northern Lights dance. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.The Northern Lights dance. Photo by: 'Jon Hilmarsson'.

What do you think is the future of photography in the next 20 years?

With all the changes that have already happened in last 10 years, I have no idea about the future. I just hope that we will not get lost in technology and software.

For me, it is about the quality time you can have being out there in nature, looking for angles, chasing the light or waiting for the right moment – I hope it will still be about that after the next 20 years.

Finally, if you didn’t live in Iceland, do you think there's another city or country that you would certainly want to be in to expand your photography career? 

No, I just can’t see myself living anywhere else than in Iceland. There are still places that I haven’t seen here and photographed.

There will probably come a time when I want to shoot somewhere else, such as scoping out bigger icebergs in Greenland, higher mountains in Patagonia, or the exotic landscape in Asia. In the end, it’s all about the natural landscape and nature for me.

For more information on Jón's work, check out his website or follow him on Instagram.

Join Jón on a summer photography workshop in Iceland!