Teradek RT CTRL.3 three-axis wireless lens controller and SmallHD Indie 7 on location in Iceland. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Hardman
Benjamin Hardman is a nature videographer and photographer based in Iceland. For the past 10 years, he has dedicated his work to capturing the fragile and barren landscape of the north—achieving some of the most challenging shots with nature both as his subject and, at times, his adversary. Benjamin recently shot the Icelandic Fagradalsfjall volcanic eruption, and we sat down with him to get a glimpse into his impressive devotion in seizing the beauty of nature’s fleeting moments.
Tell us about your work in Iceland and your journey from your hometown in Australia to your current home in the Arctic.
I moved here six years ago right after the last volcanic eruption, purely out of a love for photography. I had traveled to Iceland from Australia—which are on opposite sides of the world—a few times already, and I figured I should spare the travel costs and just stay here in Iceland. It was a big risk and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I started working at a hostel and I took any chance to join someone who had a car to photograph in nature. I started sharing my photos on Instagram and it became a hobby to share a story or image every day. I started stitching my photos together to create more breathing space in the composition, which in turn created an aesthetic I stuck to for years. I love minimal images that give a sense of peace and calmness to me and my audience.
"Moving here was one of the first times I felt like I was in the right place. I feel like I was born to be here."
How do you evoke that sense of peace and calm? And what made you pursue that?
The aesthetic was really determined by what I felt. If there was too much going on in the image, it wouldn’t resonate with me and I’d move on to something else. I would continue to pare down the composition, and it became something like a perfectly symmetrical mountain ridge with a completely white sky. I liked seeing it all work together in a curated Instagram feed too. It’s all based on special, singular moments that have given me a sense of peace and helped reflect the reasons I moved here. The Icelandic landscape is so far from what I grew up with and it quickly became my home. I grew up in Perth, Australia, which is very hot and I never really felt comfortable in that climate. Moving here was one of the first times I felt like I was in the right place. I feel like I was born to be here.
You’ve found something special that everyone is looking for—a place where they truly belong.
Yes, absolutely. I will say, though, that the photography was a big unknown. I didn’t know if I could make a career out of it. I had a business degree and I studied accounting, so this was really different for me. My work grew with my online presence, and I started getting brand deals. I hustled, made connections, and worked with local companies to create an aesthetic for their brands. That was the foundation, and I continued to build upon it with more consistent work.
So it looks like your business degree did come in handy!
Yeah, I feel lucky that I studied business because it’s a founding principle of what I do and it’s so useful to know how to run the business.
How’d you transition from photography to videography?
A couple years ago, I became a location scout because of my experience as a guide in the highlands. That led to some small opportunities where I started translating photography into videography and basically, making my images move. I quickly realized that going to that extra level was bringing me lots of joy. I’d been looking for something new after focusing on one style of imagery for five years. I traveled to other regions in the Arctic to see how my photography would translate to new places and when I came back to Iceland, I felt like it was time for something new. Video quickly became an obsession, especially with the beginning of aerial video. Seeing Iceland’s glacial rivers from the sky and capturing dust storms in motion is a whole new experience. I’ve been getting more into it and now, I’ve been a natural history DOP for the last 1.5 years as my main job. I started making films for local companies and a few of those have been released, but I’d say the work I’m most proud of has yet to be released to the world.
Yes, I saw your short film, “The Journey of Lava,” and it looks so good!
Thank you! That was one of the first times where I brought all the things I’ve learned together. I’m very proud of it because it took a lot of work and waiting—waiting for the right lava to flow, and then getting the camera and all the gear ready to go. The gear I was using was:
- Teradek RT MDR.M (my go-to) and MDR.X, MOTR.X, CTRL.3 and the RT Thumbwheel
- Bolt 4K LT 750 and Monitor Module RX
- SmallHD Cine 7 and Indie 7
My normal workflow is single-operator. I use the Teradek RT system with the thumbwheel on the gimbal. My girlfriend uses the 2nd monitor to keep track of the image while I’m walking around, which is really helpful because I’m still learning about shot development. With photography, it was about a single image, but now I’m really thinking about how to move from here to there in a way that translates into a 10-15 second shot. It definitely feels more complicated. And there’s such a high standard in the natural history world. Anyone can go out there and film an eruption or nature shot. With my work, every frame needs to be good enough to print and put on a wall. So it’s quite a challenge. It’s been a lot of waiting in nature for the weather to be right.
What kind of physical and mental preparation do you need in order to shoot an actively erupting volcano?
Physically, it’s about managing the gear logistics and getting a cinema camera plus all the gear to the edge of the lava flow. It involves hiking with an Easyrig, Ronin 2, and RED® camera for two or three kilometers. Once, I got caught in a blizzard and luckily, I had a waterproof vest so I put that over the camera and just ran as fast as I could. Having my background in hiking helped me be comfortable hauling gear. The gear is not light, and it’s not like photography where you just pack a backpack.
Before and after. Photos courtesy of Benjamin Hardman.
Mentally, it’s about being adaptive to the changes that are happening every minute. With filmmaking at this level, with this kind of gear, it takes time to move between locations. So how do I get the most lightweight, nimble setup that I can? The single operator setup that I’ve built is unique and I can just run around without a crew. I’m really happy with the RT and thumbwheel. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without it.
By the time the volcano erupted, I had spent so much time preparing the shots and brainstorming different scenarios the gear could be used for. There was a lot of thinking it through. Cinematography is such a complicated, technical industry beyond photography. There’s so much more gear and many more variables. Another reason why the Teradek and SmallHD gear is so nice, is that it’s been made to be easy to use. It’s easy and reliable.
How do you even shoot lava without a drone? Isn’t it really, really hot?
You just stand next to it. Avoid standing in the direction that the gases are blowing, especially in the early days of the eruption. Provided that you’re out of harm from the gas, you can approach the lava flow in close proximity. For the first few weeks, we stood next to the lava flow. All of the Teradek gear survived the possibility of getting melted! One time, I knew I went too far when I tried to roast a marshmallow and I stuck my head right over the lava and felt my skin harden. It stayed like that for a week.
“Every frame needs to be good enough to print and put on a wall.”
What have you liked about RT? In what scenarios do you find RT most useful?
The focus modes are awesome. I’ve been using the 2 channel MDR and I recently started using the 3 channel MDR. I love the customizability of the systems; I’m able to change the speed of the focus motor depending on the stiffness of the lens. The thumbwheel has the integrated record button. The RT overlays are really, really nice. Also it’s all very sturdy and rugged gear. In Iceland, most bigger productions use ARRI’s focus pulling setups and that’s all you can rent. The Teradek RT system can really hold up on their own. I’m one of the only people using Teradek FIZ motors in Iceland and people are becoming more interested in it.
I made a music video for a friend of mine where I filmed Icelandic pillow moss in macro to show how the moss “dances” really quickly when water touches it. The MOTR.X on my probe lens was so useful because you have no perception of distance and size in the macro world, and so the overlays were really helpful. That’s one of the most memorable use cases for the RT system that I’ve had. I also used the Bolt 4K LT and Indie 7 for that shoot.
Whenever I use the RED®, I always have the RT and I love the reliability. It instantly works and I can trust it. It’s even so strong that once, I put in a broken cable with the negative and positive in the wrong positions, and I was worried for a second, but the signal came back quickly—it had fixed itself! It’s super strong and sturdy. Most of the time, I’m doing tracking work on the gimbal and the RT thumbwheel is essential for me. I really like being nimble because I’m so used to being a solo photographer and controlling all the elements of the shot. This system has allowed me to do all of that. When I first started using RT, the main selling point was that it worked with the EF lenses I already had. I’ve since moved on to cinema lenses, but knowing I could throw on an EF lens and do both photo and video has been really nice.
How do you pull focus and work in Iceland’s climate? Has RT been easy to work with, even while wearing gloves?
I’ve adapted my setup to be screwless. I have a big, levered screw for the RT unit so I can change things easily. The thumbwheel is so easy to use that I can move it and still wear thick gloves. Actually, it’d be very tough to work without the thumbwheel because the record button is there. I prefer using the thumbwheel to pull focus, which isn’t common. Most people have a focus puller, but in a lot of these environments, you’re literally hiking around ridges while recording, and it’d be a bit too hard to rely on a separate focus puller. I also just find it fun to do it myself and the thumbwheel makes it so easy.
You’ve come up pretty close with some beautiful animals in Iceland, like Arctic foxes. How do you make sure you fully enjoy and experience the moment while you’re capturing it?
To get a shot like that, it requires a lot of exposure with the foxes and a lot of waiting. I was just waiting all day and I just...became a fox. Once the shot lines up, you can pull the camera out, get the shot, and then go back to being immersed in the scene. To give you another example, capturing the Northern Lights takes 30 seconds of exposure. Usually, I’ll just click the shutter, lay down, and look at the sky. I try to be aware that I’m in such a beautiful place. It’s important to not let that moment slip by because you’re only focused on the camera.
When the volcano erupted in March, the first days were consumed by the camera. I mean, I had been waiting five years for that moment; I had reserved funds so that if an eruption started, I could drop everything and go. All of my being was in the shot—dreaming about it and thinking about the aerial perspective. After a few days, I needed to just sit, watch, and realize that it’s growing and changing, and what I was experiencing will hardly happen again.
As a photographer, you can burst off 4,000 shots a day and only care about the camera. I try to shoot less and really embrace what I’m doing.
Follow Benjamin Hardman as he continues to capture the dramatic beauty of the arctic through his Instagram at @benjaminhardman and subscribe to our emails to stay on the pulse of other awesome stories from our users!