She’s Mercedes, together with Bell Collective, went on a road trip around Iceland with the local travel photographer Ása Steinarsdóttir.
While navigating the rough terrain of the Icelandic highlands in the GLE, Ása told us about her love for travel and exploration – both international and in her home country – as well as about the perks and challenges of being a freelance photographer.
What did you do before becoming a freelance photographer?
I have always been photographing but before going fully freelance about 1.5 years ago I was the first employee at an Icelandic marketing agency. At the start it was only the founder and myself doing everything – from sales to shooting music festivals. But we grew it quickly and when I left two years later to become a full-time freelance photographer, the company had 40 employees.
How did you start with photography? What did your first pictures look like?
I started photographing when I was 12 using a film camera. At that time, I took pictures of my friends at summer camps. In the beginning I was shooting everything without putting much thought or effort into the process, but started doing it more seriously in my early 20s because I started travelling a lot. In the beginning I was fascinated with HDR and highly-saturated images before locking in on the editing style I have now.
You are now a popular Instagram travel influencer. Can you describe your workflow for us?
Being a freelance photographer and social media influencer is very much like running a start-up. I don’t have a specific routine, since the projects I get can be very different, but I always have to be quick, flexible and make things work. I do many things at once – from nature photography, travel influencing to modelling, film production for brands and creating full marketing campaigns. Every task is different and needs its own unique structure. It is a lot of fun but also hard work, with a lot of multitasking, problem-solving and planning involved. I face lots of everyday challenges. There’s always a delivery as the end goal so my mentality is to get things done the best way possible.
Many think that being a travel photographer is equal to being on a constant holiday. Can you please tell us about your experience with overworking/burnout?
Even though I spend time on holiday destinations, that does not mean I’m relaxing. During most of my work trips I am up before sunrise to get the best light, then shooting all day through to the sunset, and later editing what I got during the day. This means very little sleep and sometimes not even time for lunch or a short break. It is constant work, which can be both physically and mentally demanding.
In addition to that, being a freelancer and working for yourself makes it hard to schedule real holidays. It is so motivating to work for yourself and I want to take every opportunity to deliver the best quality for my clients. There is never an end to work, I can always do more and that makes it very hard to schedule time to relax. This makes it easy to burn out and I have had a few times I had just got home to Iceland and crashed. Burnout is not a thing which one should take lightly, so now I am trying to find a better balance between productive work and proper relaxation.
How do you relax after intensive travel work trips?
An intensive trip is always followed by days of editing. It is still work but to me sitting at home and editing pictures I am excited about is really fun. If I need break, I go to the local outdoor pool which every neighbourhood in Reykjavik has.
How many countries have you visited already?
I have been to 52 countries in total but recently I have felt a very strong urge to stay at home in Iceland. I still feel I have so much to explore there.
Do you prefer backpacking, road-tripping or luxury travel?
If I have to choose a way to travel, then road trips are always my favourite. It is important to me to be independent on locations and a car or van is the best way to do so. This way I can catch the best light and visit many places on my own pace.
You are from Iceland and you travel your own country a lot. Do you ever get bored with it?
I have not got bored with Iceland yet. I have done two big trips around Iceland this year and on both I have found new incredible places that I had never been to before. Iceland has so much to offer and I still have seen far from everything. I still find new hot springs and new waterfalls and I find it extremely exciting to be out exploring my home country.
What is the best way to travel in Iceland?
The best way to explore Iceland is by car – either a 4x4 or a camper van to be able to decide the pace and not be bound by hotels or places you have to be at a certain time.
Can you give an example of a one-week road trip around Iceland with your favourite stops?
So there’s no “correct” way to do a road trip in Iceland. Do it at your own pace, and stop whenever you choose. But to give you an idea, the beginner’s 7-day road trip to Iceland would look like that:
Day 1: Driving from Reykjavik to the Golden Circle. It consists of the three most famous sites in Iceland: Þingvellir National Park, the geothermal area in Geysir and Gullfoss waterfall.
Day 2: The South Coast. This is one of my favourite areas of the country and filled with breath-taking wonders. There you have countless waterfalls, glaciers and black beaches.
Day 3 & 4: Skaftafell National Park. I recommend spending two days in the area, checking out some glacier tongues, hiking up to Svartifoss and then to Sjónarnípa.
Day 5: Höfn. After driving through the desolate South Coast, arriving in Höfn truly feels like entering a metropolis. Höfn is quite an important centre for tourists who travel around Iceland’s ring road.
Day 6 & 7: Return to Reykjavik with a few stops on the South Coast you’ve missed before (I recommend a short hike and a soak in the Reykjadalur hot river just a few hours away from the capital). In order to finish the whole Icelandic ring road, one needs 9–10 days.
What are the challenges one may face while travelling in Iceland?
Travelling around Iceland in summer is definitely easier, because of the weather and midnight sun. In June, for example, the sun almost doesn’t set, so as a photographer you have plenty of time to take pictures. But even in summer the temperatures on the highlands may drop below zero. Also, many roads on the highlands are only accessible by 4x4 vehicles and involve deep river crossing. In winter time it is not unusual for roads to close down for days due to snow and wind. You will need a good 4x4 vehicle for winter and not even then will you always make it, since many roads are simply closed.
Another unexpected problem you need to be aware of is to always park into the wind. It can be so strong the car door simply breaks off if the wind comes from the back.
As a female photographer, do you have advice for little girls and young women about stepping into the field of photography?
Photography is a very male-dominated world but do not let that scare you. I have never really listened to what other people say and always followed my passion. I love taking pictures and I made it my profession. So my advice is, if you have a passion – just go for it and never look back.
What kind of equipment do you use for your photos? What is your favourite lens?
I work with a full-frame DSLR and use it for both pictures and videos. I love the 24mm f1.4 lens but I use whatever lens is good for the situation, of course – be that a zoom or a fix lens, tele or macro.
What is your plan for the future? How do you see your career going?
I recently decided to buy a van and convert it into a camper. I want to be able to explore and go on road trips while having my home with me. So, my plan for the next year is to keep adventuring but mostly at home, in Iceland. That is about as far as my plans go at the moment, you just need to keep following me to see what happens next.
Please name 3 photography tips for beginning photographers.
Experiment a lot. It is like everything you want to learn in this world, the more you practise the better you get.
Talk with other photographers, go out and shoot together. It is a lot of fun and you’ll likely pick up something from them.
Shoot anything in any kind of conditions. Do not only wait for the perfect sunset.
This interview was conducted as a collaborative effort by Bell Collective and She’s Mercedes.