Finding the right exposure
Donal Boyd, 26, is a full-time photographer and guide from the United States who’s now set up a base in Þórsmörk, Iceland. Getting there has been one unexpected journey.
Really, it all started with a dare.
In February 2015, a friend’s idea—an impulsive challenge to join him on a trip to Iceland—steered Boyd from a vagabond lifestyle toward the island nation and consequently, self-realization. He didn’t anticipate this. In fact, until that day Boyd had never considered visiting Iceland, though he was no stranger to travel. A chemical engineer and burgeoning photographer, Boyd had been jet-setting aimlessly across the globe from his home base near Boston. Rambling weekends were spent in London, Dubai, Brazil… anywhere he found alluring. Though all the while he tinkered with the idea of pursuing full-time photography, something just hadn’t clicked.
Still, though, Boyd isn’t one to say no to adventure. With a $250 WOW air roundtrip ticket in hand, he accepted the Iceland dare.
Latent dreams brought into focus
The trip lasted a week. An artist’s ultimate fantasy of brooding mists and sprawling vistas, Iceland had the same visceral effect on Boyd as on countless others; the landscape fueled his imagination.
“I was stopped in my tracks,” says Boyd. He and his friend rented a Land Rover Defender from Geysir Car Rental, and from there met a German photographer adventuring in his off-road 4x4. “I thought, ‘Okay, I could be this dude.’ Iceland was the final mind blowing experience for me,” Boyd says.
That week he made a major decision—something spontaneous though tempered by strategy and not exactly out-of-character; he’d start a business, Donal Boyd Photography, in Iceland. “I realized that’s where I wanted to make my transition into photography full-time,” says Boyd.
After that week, on his flight from Keflavik to Boston, and during the drive home from Boston to Raynham, Mass., and for the weeks and months that followed, Boyd did his research. Was a move from the United States to Iceland even logical—or possible? Where would he live? He’d need an Icelandic social security number—though conveniently his already-existing dual citizenship with Ireland allowed him permanent residency in Iceland. He waded through these logistics and more with a longtime phrase from his uncle in mind: “Do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.”
It would take some time and more short trips back to the Land of Fire & Ice to place what he wanted in the forefront, swapping it with his chemical engineering degree from New England’s Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Despite his appreciation for chemical engineering, he says, cameras have been in his life since childhood, tracing back to the days when his father and uncle experimented with various camera models on holidays. Boyd gravitated to the cameras, eventually moving from pictures of his pets to portraits and sports photography, eventually developing a passion for landscapes, discovered in part during a NGO trip to Namibia in 2012.
“Photography—it’s unlike any other way I’ve connected with people and places before,” says Boyd. “With Iceland, I took a risk. I did the research, talked to the right people, asked all the questions, and made a plan for what to do if things didn’t work out.” So, in March 2016, with six months’ worth of savings and his Canon 5D Mark III and Sony A7RII in hand, Boyd purchased a one-way ticket—destination: Þórsmörk, a mountainous valley, ideal for hiking in southern Iceland, where he’d end up collaborating with two companies Geysir Car Rental and Volcano Huts.
Reactions from friends and family—unanimous—“Hell, yeah, do it!”
A long shot: From traveler to resident
During his first season in Iceland, Boyd fulfilled that envious fantasy from a year prior and roamed indefinitely in a Geysir Car Rental Land Rover, managing the brand’s Instagram account in exchange for the vehicle. He drove the iconic, island-perimeter Ring Road multiple times and became better acquainted with this new roiling land.
Mainly, though, he was repeatedly drawn to the highlands, that massive region making up Iceland’s untouched interior riddled with rocky deserts and precipices, volcanoes, ice caps, valleys and hot springs. The allure of the landscape brought something fresh to the table. He reasoned—new perspectives that deviated from the images littered on Instagram featuring easily-accessible, though no less imposing, destinations like Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss or Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. “I focused on capturing scenes that had never been photographed or even seen before—especially with aerial shots,” says Boyd.
A new friend joined him on the highlands ventures, Australian photographer Benjamin Hardman, who, having been ahead of the trend, was already living in Iceland for some time and was stationed in Reykjavik, with an Instagram following more than 200,000 deep. He took Boyd under his wing. “He gave me loads of advice and helped me in so many ways, down to pronouncing the volcano Eyjafjallajökull,” says Boyd.
During that time last summer, Boyd notes, is when his Instagram following really started to take off—now upwards of 50,000 and rapidly increasing. That was when he began spending time at Volcano Huts, a wilderness resort in Þórsmörk, located in the southern highlands. This became his favorite area, thanks in part to the vehement weather optimal for shooting.
He collaborated with Volcano Huts, too, in exchange for a space to store his belongings and to regroup when he wasn’t exploring with the Land Rover. Soon, his original six-month timeframe sidled past. Now he had a home base. He made friends; he explored the country enough to launch a business. He acquired a healthy addiction to lamb soup and learned which fast food drive-thru serves svið (singed and boiled, sliced-in-half sheep’s heads). What says “home” more than that?
Expat entrepreneur: A closer look at Donal Boyd Photography
As he says, capturing shots in remote locations sets Boyd apart from the hordes of other landscape photographers, but there’s something to be said for style, too. In his case, it’s minimalism melded with uncommon perspectives. Boyd wants to get across to viewers what he feels when he sees a place, whether it’s new angles through drone photography or focused on-the-ground shots.
“There’s not a ton of things going on in many of my photographs. I want to show one specific thing without the distraction of too many colors or lines,” Boyd says. To get the best shot, he’ll plunge headfirst into a setting, particularly when the weather is most intense, like when sideways rain pelts the ground. “Every photo that I put out there has taken a lot of thought,” says Boyd. “I feel a super deep connection to a particular landscape or how the ridge line moves along the clouds or how ice is falling from a glacier in a certain way,” Boyd says.
To those who have worked with him, like his photographer friend Hardman, a steady rise from obscurity has been inevitable. “Donal has really grown into his own in the space of a year. He has a natural eye for composition and a unique editing style in which all blacks fade into softer gray tones,” says Hardman.
These days, Boyd’s business is in full swing. Stationed at Volcano Huts, it’s a one-man show: he’s guide, photographer and photography instructor. Typically, a client will find him through Instagram and set up a customized trip, with rates depending on the details. Highland tours are recommended, “where the fringes of glaciers are home to the most transient, radical landscapes,” he says. “We go to places that you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce, or where the name has been long-forgotten. I go with people who are looking for that kind of experience,” says Boyd.
Þórsmörk still tops his list of favorite places, and with limited access and nine rivers to cross, it’s an obvious place to traverse with a guide like Boyd. In the meantime, this year, Boyd is expanding his business to photography workshops in Namibia and elsewhere. Conservation of the Icelandic highlands is important to him, and he’s promoting the pursuit of a national park, Hálendið. And of course, he can be found outside in all weather conditions at any hour, shooting.
“If my pictures make one person think more about going somewhere, that’s really cool,” says Boyd. “Since really for me, it’s all about the feeling of a place, if someone can go and experience that same intense feeling I had when I took the photo, then I guess I’ve reached my goal.”
Find your cheap flight to Iceland now to visit that magical highland and find your own focus in life.
Words: Krista Connor
Photos: Courtesy of Donal Boyd
Follow Boyd’s adventures: @donalboyd; donalboyd.com.
Photo of Boyd by Jon Jonsson