Landscape photographer Donal Boyd moved from the outskirts of Boston last year to pursue running a photo and tour guide business, Donal Boyd Photography, in Þórsmörk, Iceland
Photos by Donal Boyd
Donal Boyd, 26, is a full-time photographer and guide from the United States based in Þórsmörk, Iceland, though 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, of course. In fact, until that day Boyd had never considered visiting, though he was no stranger to travel. A chemical engineer and burgeoning photographer, Boyd had been jetsetting 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 yet clicked.
Undoubtedly, 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 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 own off-road 4x4.
“I thought, ‘Okay, I could be this dude.’ Iceland was the final mind blowing experience for me,” Boyd says.
He made a major decision that week, though nothing exactly out-of-character. Something spontaneous tempered by strategy: 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 on 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 Boyd’s 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, and shot part-time, 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 every single person questions, and had a plan for what to do if it didn’t work.”
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 brands Geysir Car Rental and Volcano Huts.
Reactions from friends, 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 drawn repeatedly 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 region 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 Lagoon.
“I focused on capturing scenes that had never really 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’s definitely one of the people to give me the most advice,” says Boyd. “He offered to help me in so many ways, down to pronouncing the volcano Eyjafjallajökull.”
During that time last summer, Boyd notes, is when his Instagram following really started to take off — now upwards of 50,000 and rapidly counting — after he began spending time at a wilderness resort, Volcano Huts in Þórsmörk, located in the southern highlands. It 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. He made friends. He explored the country enough to launch a business. He had a home base. He acquired a healthy addiction to lamb soup and knows which fast food drive-thru serves svið (singed and boiled, sliced-in-half sheep’s head).
What says “home” more than that?
Expat Entrepreneur: A Closer Look at Donal Boyd Photography
Like 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 Boyd’s case, it’s minimalism, melded with uncommon perspectives; he wants to get across to viewers whatever 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 landscape or just the way the ridge line moves along the clouds, or the 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 grey 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 the name has been long-forgotten. I go with people who are really looking for that kind of experience,” says Boyd.
Þórsmörk still tops his list, 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 that’s my goal.”
Follow Boyd’s adventures: @donalboyd; donalboyd.com.