Interview: Donal Boyd
Donal Boyd is quite simply a sensational travel and adventure photographer. His breath-taking images from around the globe have gained a huge following on Instagram and he is quickly becoming one of the most influential travel and landscape photographers on social media. Our latest interview not only gives us a fascinating insight into how Donal built a full-time career in travel photography but he also explains how he was able to move to Iceland from the United States to pursue his dream job. Donal has also shared some of his favourite shots from both his home country of Iceland and others from his travels around the world. He has created a unique style to his photography and emphasises during his interview why it is important that photographer's carve out their own creative style rather than follow what's popular. When giving advice to other aspiring photographers Donal explains "that in order for any artist to grow it’s of the utmost importance to take chances with your art". Read the full interview below and make sure to check out his portfolio at www.donalboyd.com and follow his creative journey on Instagram @donalboyd. >>>
Rucksack Magazine: Can you tell us about yourself and how you got into the industry?
Donal Boyd: My entry into the industry full-time begins with my move to Iceland.
I’m 26-years old and I was born and raised in Boston, MA, USA, but my current home is in the Southern Highland mountains of Iceland in a remote location called Þórsmörk. About a year ago I quit my job as a Chemical Engineer in Boston and moved to Iceland to pursue my passion for photography full-time. Prior to the move, I was practicing photography professionally on the side (~10 years), but wasn’t ready to go full-time until I visited Iceland for the first time back in June of 2015. During this first visit I was awestruck by the intensity of the landscape and forever changing climate. I felt such a strong connection to the nature that I became totally consumed by it. On that initial adventure, I decided I couldn’t live anywhere else in the world.
Through subsequent visits and lots of planning I was able to take the initial leap of faith in March of 2016 with the help of Geysir Car Rental, my greatest supporter since the very beginning. Early on I began working with them when I first visited in 2015 and since then I’ve helped to develop their online social media in return for a vehicle. At first, I actually lived in the car for a while, a Land Rover Defender. It’s the best way to explore the most remote landscapes and furthest reaches of the island. Everything I owned travelled with me in the truck as I roamed the country from the coast to highland glaciers, discovering and learning as much as I could about my new home.
One of the most common questions I’m asked regarding my move to Iceland is “how did you do it as a US Citizen?”. Normally I wouldn’t be able to live there without a special visa, but because I have dual American-Irish citizenship I could apply for permanent residency since Iceland is part of the European Economic Area (EEA). The Irish citizenship, which I obtained through my grandmother as a child, was the key that made my full-time entry into the industry possible. >>>
RM: What kind of professional work have you completed since you pursued your photography career full-time?
DB: In the past year, I’ve worked with major tourism companies within Iceland and several other organizations internationally including the Faroe Islands Tourism Board and Nature Reserves within Namibia. I’ve also collaborated with large brands such as DJI, Staples Inc., AquaTech, Avis Car Rental, and countless more. Whenever I travel outside of Iceland I’m often linking up with companies and offering my services as a social media consultant in exchange for travel essentials, like a car, camera equipment, or accommodation. I enjoy working with smaller operations the most, such as startup businesses, emerging tourism boards, and new brands just starting out with social media.
I also lead photographic workshops worldwide with Iceland and Namibia being two of the main locations that I’ve established this year. I really enjoy connecting with photographers of all levels, from amateur to professional, and teaching skills that I’ve learned during my travels while guiding people on journeys that they’d otherwise never be able to arrange on their own. Whether it be taking on torrential rainstorms on a Namibian safari during the African rainy season or an exploration of the remote Central Highlands of Iceland guided by the glow of summer midnight sun… I’m always up for a crazy adventure with friends I haven’t met yet. Typically, workshops are posted to my website and advertised through my Instagram, but anyone interested in joining one in the future can contact me directly through email.
Much of my future work now focuses primarily on wildlife conservation and my goal moving forward is to continue taking on meaningful projects that benefit threatened ecosystems worldwide. Some of my current ongoing ventures are related to conservation of the interior highlands of Iceland, preservation of the worlds ocean, and protection of several key wildlife areas across the African continent. I’m always looking for new projects and organizations that share my passion for nature.
RM: What is your favorite travel destination?
DB: Outside of my home country, Iceland, I’d say my favorite travel destination is Namibia. The African nation of Namibia is home to a multitude of interesting landscapes, especially during the rainy season. From lush green savannahs hosting brilliant wildlife, to arid coastal deserts with towering sand dunes and brilliant night skies. There’s a such wide variety of photographic opportunity in Namibia that you could easily spend 2-months travelling around and barely scratch the surface. >>>
RM: What is your favorite location to shoot?
DB: The Central Highlands of Iceland. It’s an unforgiving landscape with vast deserts of black volcanic ash flecked by fields of neon green moss leading up to towering glacier capped mountains, colossal canyon systems, and countless jagged rock formations. Leading out from these glacial plateaus are scores of vibrant braided rivers snaking through the region. Craters riddle the interior where remanence of past eruptions are prevalent throughout in the form of new and ancient lava flows, steam vents, and massive boulders strewn across the barren lands. You can feel the power beneath your feet.
Access to the center is often quite difficult and many areas are only accessible for as little as a few weeks out of the year during summer months when all the snow has melted. Weather within the center of Iceland can change drastically and without warning as well. One minute it could be sunny and clear and the next, torrential rains and hail. Many locations are only accessible by technical 4x4 driving and river crossings separate most areas that are close to the glaciers. It must be noted that driving within the Highlands can be extremely dangerous, especially the river crossings, and shouldn’t be attempted without expert local knowledge or without an experienced guide. Although this remoteness and factor of difficulty adds to the experience of exploring the interior, I encourage those interested in visiting this region to consult with professionals and/or to hire a guide to bring you to the most remote locations safely. Every year tourists get themselves into serious trouble by traveling through this territory on their own. Please be safe and don’t take the risk.
RM: What is your favorite style of photography?
DB: I really enjoy aerial photography because it offers the ability to illustrate unconventional perspectives of a landscape. Oftentimes, especially in Iceland, I’ll discover completely new aspects of an area by viewing it from above, further deepening my understanding of how the landscape was formed. >>>
RM: Which images would you say have been the most significant for you in your career so far?
DB: I’d say my initial aerial series of Humpback Whale images, “Arctic Waters”, has surely been my most significant body of work so far. The series of 5 was shared countless times across social media and I received a lot of recognition for the unique photos captured in the Westfjords region of Northern Iceland. >>>
RM: How would you say social media contributes to your work?
DB: Through social media we as photographers now have the ability to make real change happen. People listen to us on platforms like Instagram and our voices have never been louder and more powerful. With a single post, it’s possible to alter perspectives, ignite movements, and inform people on what’s really important… Never has there been a time in history where we as photographers can reach so many people with such ease. I’d say social media contributes everything to my work.
RM: What are your future travel plans?
DB: Very high on my list is the Democratic Republic of Congo to photograph endangered Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park. >>>
RM: Are there any other places you would like to photograph in the future?
DB: I’d really like to photograph more of the underwater world, specifically marine mammals. One place that’s long been on my list is Tonga for the opportunity to swim in close proximity to Humpback Whales, one of my favorite aquatic creatures!
RM: What kind of gear and camera equipment do you use?
DB: Currently I’m using a Sony a7RII as my main body with several Canon lenses using the Fotodiox adapter. I also have a Canon 5D Mark III as a backup body and I frequently use both the DJI Phantom 4 Pro with PolarPro filters. My standard setup is the Canon 24-70 f2.8 II on the Sony and a Canon 70-200 f2.8 II on the Canon.
RM: Which is your favorite lens?
DB: My favorite lens is a 24-70 f/2.8 because it’s so versatile.
RM: What is your favorite gadget or must have adventure accessory?
DB: My favorite gadget is 'PhotoPills', a photography planning app for iPhone and Android. I use it frequently to determine how the sun, moon, and stars will be oriented depending on where I am in the world and what time of the year I’m visiting. It helps me to understand where I need to be and when to get the best shots.
RM: What software do you use for post-processing?
DB: I mainly use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, but mostly everything I do is processed using Lightroom. Only about 5% of the work I produce goes into Photoshop. For film projects, I’m using Adobe Premiere. >>>
RM: How do you educate yourself to take better pictures?
DB: Working frequently with other photographers is the primary way I’ve educated myself to take better pictures. In my opinion the best way to learn how to be a better photographer is to go out with another photographer or a group and learn from each other. I’ve gained so much from seeing how someone else captures a scene and how they set up a shot.
RM: Among your works, which one is your favorite?
DB: I’d have to say the photo titled 'Between Two Worlds' of my 'Arctic Waters' Humpback Whale series is my favorite because of the motion of the whale and the stillness of the water.
RM: Whose work has influenced you the most?
DB: The works of my great friend, Benjamin Hardman, have inspired me a lot in the past year. I met Ben, an Australian photographer living in Iceland, right after my move and we quickly became good friends, exploring the country together. His sense of color and unique aesthetic constantly push the boundaries of photography, which has influenced myself and many others to break free from traditional forms of visual art and try new things all the time.
RM: What advice would you give to another adventure photographer?
DB: To do something different. One of the downfalls of many photographers I see on Instagram especially is repetition. They finally find a style that receives great engagement and they’re efforts shift from experimenting to repeating what they think everyone wants to see. I think in order for any artist to grow it’s of the utmost importance to take chances with their art. Utilize the community and/or your followers to gain valuable feedback so you can develop and evolve. Don’t just post what you think people will like… post something that you think will surprise them.