After a bustling year of projects in 2021, photographer and director Rachid Dahnoun needed to produce one last deliverable for his global ambassadorship with the brand Lowepro to promote their Flipside photo backpack. He considered shooting near his home in Bodega Bay, CA, or even out of his second residence in Lake Tahoe, yet this adventure photographer sought a quieter location where he could slow down and appreciate the destination without distraction. Rachid asked his good friend and main DP (Director of Photography) Canyon Florey to join him on the trip, and together the two traveled to Iceland at its darkest, coldest, and most peaceful time of year.
I said to Canyon, ‘Let’s go to Iceland! We can travel the whole country and shoot a bunch of new personal work together, getting what we need for Lowepro along the way.’ But it was also an opportunity to say thank you to one of my hardest-working crew members.
Traveling to Iceland in December is not high on most tourists itineraries. The average below-freezing temperatures and five hours of daily sunlight deter many individuals, making the off-season in Iceland a time of local traditions. Because Rachid was there during the Omicron outbreak, he felt like he and Canyon had “the place to themselves.”
Even Reykjavik was really quiet. And then once we were out in the countryside, I mean, you’d run into a few tourists here and there, but it was few and far between.
The isolation in the country provided the pair with discounts on hotels, roads with no traffic, and many experiences to connect with locals as they drove the Ring Road that encircles all of Iceland. While the famed route boasts an 830-mile journey, Rachid and Canyon logged over 2000 miles in two weeks on their own intimate drive across the wintry mountains and landscapes.
We drove the whole Ring Road and then did some offshoots of that, like Raufarhöfn, which is one of the northernmost towns in the country. We were really curious to just get as remote as possible, and we spent a lot of time in villages where we were the only two people in town that didn’t live there.
Having only five hours of sun to work with might seem daunting for a photographer, yet Rachid describes the sun as “epic daylight,” a stream of incandescent golden hour rays from sunrise to sunset. In contrast, at night he searched for pockets of clear weather so he could capture the Northern Lights.
For three-quarters of the trip, there was cloud cover from all the winter storms. But we did have four nights where it was clear enough to see the aurora borealis.
When planning to capture the incredible natural light show, Rachid remarks that there’s a 4-5 hour window of visibility beginning at around 10:00 pm and lasting until almost 3:00 am. Previsualization is key to Rachid’s creative process, he drove to the locations before the lights appeared so he had as much time as possible to scout the scenery and compositions.
We were researching, saying: ‘Okay, where should we drive to next?’ And Canyon shows me a photo, he’s like, ‘What is this?’ And I laugh, saying, ‘I don’t know, but we’re going there!’
Without an intended shotlist, Rachid and Canyon searched for unique features and off-the-beaten-path locations, which is how they stumbled upon the “Arctic Henge.” A massive stone sundial, much like the famous Stonehenge, these giant rocks are set to track the light of the midnight sun in the summer. Finding this mysterious sculpture was the highlight of Rachid’s trip and a surreal moment that he chose to shoot for his Lowepro gear content.
We were two miles from the Arctic Circle and that’s where we decided to shoot the Lowepro scene. It just seemed to make sense, as a landscape photographer I felt like we were on another planet.
The other-worldliness of Iceland is what initially drew Rachid to take this personal trip and turn it into a fun and challenging short film project. The country presents some of the most geographically interesting and diverse landscapes — glaciers, black sand beaches, waterfalls, and volcanoes — all on one small island. Rachid felt that even covered in ice and snow it is still one of the most beautiful places in the world.
I spent my whole childhood going to Europe because my father’s Moroccan, so we would always go to a different European country or city on our way down to Africa. After seeing all that, I felt like Iceland was a totally different experience from every other place I had been.
While tourists and travel photographers may journey to similar destinations — both with cameras in hand — their approach and appreciation of the experience can differ greatly. Everyday travelers enjoy vacations of comfort and ease compared to photographers, who seek out remote or new spaces and challenge themselves to find a truly unique perspective. For Rachid, taking the time to travel with a friend was a great way to end a year of hard work. As he journeyed home he wrote the voiceover heard in the video and reflected on the process of taking photos as a metaphor for self-growth:
Photography is an exercise in failure. For every finished shot there are thousands that never see the light of day, that’s simply part of the process. Failure is learning and that’s what makes you better, embrace it. But at the end of the day, you must be present to win.
See more of Rachid’s work on his website.
Director/Still Photographer/Drone Pilot: Rachid Dahnoun
DP/2nd Drone Pilot: Canyon Florey
Editor: Canyon Florey and Cameron Daniels