Life is not always what it seems. For Iceland Photo Tours guide, Óli Haukur, photography has opened up a whole new way of understanding the world around him. With a background in Information Technology, this intrepid explorer began utilising his computer skills to delve into design before turning his hobby of photography into a career that he now undertakes full-time. This month, we chatted with Óli about how he established himself as a photographer and how photography has changed him as a person from within.
Hello Óli! Tell us a bit about yourself and how you developed an interest in photography. Can you describe a bit of the process you went through in your early years as a photographer to get noticed? How did you start building your portfolio?
In my early years as a photographer I wanted to build myself as a brand in Iceland and I was leaning towards commercial photography because my experience came from the Advertising agencies I had worked for over the years. It was a business I knew well and it’s in human nature when shifting the focus to lean towards things you already know and are confident in trying.
In my heart however, lives a photojournalist and travel photography intrigued me though I was sure it wouldn’t be a “profitable” career.
I built a website for my portfolio early on because I knew that would be my showcase, the window for my future clients to see my work. When I started discovering the magic of landscape, I threw almost everything out of my portfolio as I developed my newly found talent and at the same time opened a Facebook page.
Very soon, I found that this was an easier way to get my work seen and appreciated. I was late to start using Facebook as a marketing tool, and when I started using it seriously the glory days were gone, everything had gotten a bit harder and today you have to Pay to Play. But it was through Facebook that I started to get some recognition.
Soon, I started appreciating Instagram and again, I was late for that party. I've had the Instagram account for a while but just recently started to post regularly, the stories intrigued me and got me really appreciating it.
The thing is, I always got a lot of work the old fashion way, I called people on the phone, met them in person and sent them emails and that worked, and it's still working. Sometimes, I think people are putting too much energy on social media, and not enough direct contact.
Through the Instagram stories, I get more personal contact than with posting my thoughts as a Facebook post. Like everyone, I’m constantly trying to get noticed. The newest thing for me is a YouTube Channel, which I'm trying to get on its feet. YouTube is giving me faster feedback – more of a conversation with fellow photographers – and I think that’s very healthy.
Although social media came in quite late for me, right now I feel more need for it than ever before. Originally, I did not realise how much impact it had upon my being noticed. It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I did a lecture in a Photo Club in Hong Kong and it was pleasantly surprising that most of the people there already knew of me and my work.
What do you think is the most important thing that people should understand about learning landscape photography?
Landscape photography is all about composition, light and timing. Right now, there is so much emphasis on gear & equipment, but of course it's always been like that.
But things are getting a little crazy now and for a reason. Camera gear is getting so good and it's cheaper now to get a decent set-up than ever before. However, I think for many people, photography has become more about gear and less about shooting. I think that in most cases, people need to understand that their gear is already good enough. If your photos are crap in 30 megapixels, then it's just going to be worse in 60 megapixels and all the dynamic range in the world is not going to make any difference if you don't understand composition and light.
Looking back on your portfolio, are there any images that you’ve chosen not to take in the past for personal or other reasons?
Not in landscape photography, but I was a bit shy during my first travel photography tours and I skipped taking a few photos.
For example, I really like to take photos of kids whom I meet along my travels, but sometimes I struggle with the ethics. So I have a few rules to follow: the most important one is to get consent from an adult who knows the kids. It’s also important that I don't shoot if it's degrading for the person whom I want to shoot, no matter whether it’s kids or adults.
It's not always easy... sometimes I shoot but afterwards I decide not to publish the photo, even if I really want to and know that I have an interesting photo on my hands. There is no exact science regarding this. It's just about being a decent human being and listening to the voice in your head that tells you, "maybe we should not shoot this".
While you often spend a lot of time in nature, where else do you find inspiration?
In people. Nothing inspires me more than meeting new people and getting to know their culture and history, not just as a photographer but also as a human being.
A person’s story can inspire me to do better and achieve more, and the people I’ve met through my travels have definitely inspired me and changed my way of thinking and my perspective of life.
You’ve travelled to so many far-reaching places for photography. Has there been a photography tour that you’ve undertaken which has been the most memorable for you?
My first time in Myanmar would have to have been my most memorable photo trip. It was so different from anything I‘d seen or done in my life before. The whole experience was like a dream. I go there every year now at the beginning of December and I can‘t think of a better way to start the Christmas month. Travelling through Myanmar makes me value everything else in my life much more and the wonderful people of Myanmar have taught me to appreciate what I have instead of constantly focusing on what I don‘t have.
It‘s not just the most memorable trip for me, but I can honestly say that no trip has influenced my life more.
With the advent of significant improvements in camera and computer technology, how important do you think post-processing is in photography today? Can someone get the perfect shot in-camera and succeed in a landscape photography career without undertaking any post-processing?
Post-processing is very important... for me, personally, 50% of the image creation is shooting and 50% is post processing.
These days, heavy post-processing or "overcooking" is what gets you the most likes on social media, so if that's your measurement of success, then it’s probably the best way to go.
However, I think that people are getting tired of over-processed photos. At the very least, I see more and more people succeeding with less processing and more minimalist shots. That’s a good thing, in my opinion. But again, it all comes down to how you measure success. If success for you in landscape photography is to be outside connecting with nature, shooting, travelling and meeting great people (with the extra advantage of getting great photos), then edit in a way that makes you happy with your photo. There will always be an audience for your work. If your measurement of success in photography relies solely on how many ‘Likes’ you receive on Instagram, well then, overcooking will help with that :-)
Out of all of your world travels, which places have captivated you the most, or were the most challenging to photograph? Were there any locations that left you a bit disappointed?
I have never really been disappointed while travelling, probably because I try to keep my expectations low. Even if I don‘t get the “money shot” from every location that I visit, I really don‘t care. I do what I can and I try to have a good time doing it.
Perhaps my most challenging time was when I was scouting and planning a trip to Bolivia. Working in that altitude can be challenging, especially if you’re not careful and do the same mistake I did, which was trying to fit more into the itinerary than I had time for.
As for the place which captivated me the most, it would be Myanmar, closely followed by Vietnam. For landscape photography, I would say that nothing beats Iceland, but winter in the Canadian Rockies is just magical.
Given that you spend most of the year travelling for photography and teaching, how do you find the time to work on your photos and how exactly do you handle your workflow? Do you spend a portion of each trip doing post-processing?
I do my post-processing whenever I can fit it in. On trips, I try to do some when I’m back at my hotel… if it’s not too late in the evening. Also, I’ll work during travels, for example, during stopovers in airports, while flying on airplanes... just whenever I have a bit of time and I’m motivated … and not too tired.
How has photography contributed to or changed your perspective of the world and life in general?
Photography has given me a lot... it has brought me to places that I never expected to see and I have met people I would never have dreamt of meeting. My life view has changed a lot with exposure to different cultures. Prior to taking up photography, I never really cared about landscapes and other people or cultures. I actually never even saw any beauty in Iceland, though I had been exposed to all the waterfalls and glaciers... I just didn‘t care about them. Prior to photography, my ideas about travelling centred completely upon sunshine and parties! In fact, I never even made any effort to meet the local people.
These days, it’s all changed. I want to experience new places, meet people with different backgrounds and through that, grow as a person.
Thank you for such great insight into what photography means to you. What are some projects or ideas that you have in the works for the rest of 2019, heading into 2020?
The biggest thing for me will be to better establish my existing photography workshops. I’m doing a really interesting photo project in Vietnam before I start my next Vietnam workshop in September and in a few weeks, I’m going to Scotland to scout locations for a new workshop that I have in mind for 2020.
I have a lot of things going on which I’ll need to finalise in 2019. I’m also working on starting a small charity fund intertwined with my workshops in some of the poorest countries I tour in... there is a lot ahead and I’m enjoying every minute of it.
If you could relive the last 10 years of your life, what would you do differently?
I would start travelling sooner. I’d also do a better job of cataloguing and tagging my photos. I’d also put more energy into getting my work out on social media networks.
Finally, if you didn’t live in Iceland, do you think there's another city or country that you would certainly love to be based?
Just somewhere in Southeast Asia, maybe Vietnam. It’s a beautiful place filled with beautiful people who have a mindset that I admire.
Join Óli on a 12 day travel photography workshop in Myanmar!