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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Iceland: A Traveler's Paradox

Skógafoss, Iceland

Iceland, so many photographers and travelers have already been but yet there is so much to see that it keeps them coming back. That being said, this was my first visit to the island country and my initial impressions were mixed.

Now, I was in country for ten days and while that may seem a good bit of time, Iceland, for the photographer, is a very large area to cover. Yes, theoretically you can complete the entire Ring Road (Iceland's main highway that circles the island) in that period of time. But that gives you almost no time for ensuring you are at a particular location of choice for sunset or sunrise and does not give you the chance to linger in an area as the weather changes for better light. So, I did some of the more traveled areas: the Southern half of the island. This had me driving East from the international airport East to the Stokksnes Peninsula then back West to the Snaefellsjoekull Peninsula before ending up in Reykjavik, the nation's capital. By only doing this area in the ten days it gave me the opportunity to visit places several times as desire and conditions allowed. It also gave me time to rest as this was just the first leg of this photographic journey for me (more on that later).

Ring Road to the Glaciers

Travel tip: If you are going to be shooting continuously for weeks at a time, ensure you build in rest periods so that you do not burn out. Photography, just like any other art is a creative craft. If you are tired, run down, or ill, it is hard to create your best work.

Location tip: In Iceland the weather can change on a dime and not always for the best. Always watch for weather reports and be willing to adjust your itinerary to err on the side of caution and safety while out shooting, especially if solo.

Storm over the Vik Coast

With that itinerary, I knew I was going to be visiting some of the most popular stops and areas that tourists flock to on the island. What I was unprepared for the gross negligence and disrespect I witnessed from other visitors! It was one of the most consistent themes I saw each day and why I will have a hard time returning any time soon. Nowhere else in the world have I seen such blatant disrespect of nature, property, and boundaries.

Unfortunately, the growth of tourism in Iceland has far exceeded the services, infrastructure, and environmental protection plan the officials had in place. Because of this, the delicate nature is being beat down and destroyed by the mass' narcissistic indulgence. If you go, ensure you are thoroughly versed in Leave No Trace principles and nature photography ethics.

Location tip: DO NOT GO IF -

- you cannot afford to stay in designated campgrounds, hostels, or hotels! Visit the Environmental Agency of Iceland for the most up to date rules and regulations regarding tent and car/van camping.

-you are more worried about getting the shot than following the rules, regulations, ropes, signage and other forms of direction from official offices or landowners! As I soon found out, many of the images I have seen on Instagram and Facebook over the years are no longer able to be replicated or accessed because of the destruction caused be tourists/photographers and/or because too many people have died trying to get the next great image at certain locations.

-you are not willing to clean up after yourself! This includes any human waste you may create out in nature! The environment in Iceland is not like that of most other places. Waste can sit on the surface for many months and damage the delicate mosses that hold much of the top soil in place. I can't tell you how many times I pulled over to take a picture only to find toilet paper spread across the bushes. The "best" find was when hiking to a less visited waterfall and coming across a big pile of human feces right in the middle of the trail overlooking the waterfall.

The moment I saw thirteen!!! camper vans overnight parked in a spot just off the highway that had a huge "No Camping" sign posted was the moment I became so disgusted with travelers there. Or maybe it was the photographer at Kirkjufell who had his wife/female companion traipse over the barrier ropes and across the fragile moss to the base of the waterfalls, who, when confronted and told she wasn't suppose to be in that area, just responded with "I know," and went on shooting.

I acknowledge not everyone, or even the majority, visiting Iceland are misbehaving. Yet the number of people I saw just walk by as someone climbed over a railing or rope to get a "better" picture and didn't say anything was astounding. If we want to keep these places open and beautiful, we need to start calling people out when they are breaking the rules. If you just ignore them and go on your way, you are part of the problem.

OK, so if you have made it this far, congratulations and thank you! I will now share some of my favorite spots and images as, beyond the tourists, the landscapes are so diverse and ever-changing.

Random gravel road in Iceland

Driving in Iceland is pretty much necessary unless you are going to book tours for everything. I highly recommend going on your own as there is so much to see and so many roadside "picnic" stops that are great for stretching the legs while taking photos.

Roadside waterfalls of the cliff edge

If Iceland was to need a different name Fossland would get my vote. Foss in Icelandic means waterfall and I honestly don't think I have ever seen so many waterfalls in my life! You will be driving down the Ring Road and come to sections where there are 10, 12, 15 or more waterfalls visible along the cliff lines. Many are a great distance from the road but are distinct white lines against the green-grey cliffs and mountains. For me it was just a wonder thinking "If I can see them from here, how big are they when you are up close to them?" The most popular ones to stop at are Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind, and Skógafoss, which is just massive.

Skógafoss, Iceland

Location tip: These two are relatively close to Reykjavik and consequently are where many of the tour buses deposit loads of visitors during the day. By timing your visit either really early in the morning or late in the evening, you should be able to have these falls almost to yourself.

Further down the Ring Road, about five hours from the airport or Reykjavik is Jökulsárlón, a large glacier lagoon that feeds out to the sea. Where it connects to the sea is the famed "Diamond Ice" beach that gets its name from the chunks of broken icebergs that wash up on the black sand.

Jökulsárlón reflections

Between these two locations (you can walk from the lagoon to the beach in less than 10 minutes) I spent almost two full days. A full day there first, then the next morning and then a third stop the following afternoon. Each day presented very different weather conditions, both in the lagoon and at the beach.

Variety of iceberg colors and shapes reflected in the calm waters of Jökulsárlón

While at the lagoon, my favorite thing was to watch the seals. When I go back I will be taking my longest lens with me to get better images of these curious and playful creatures. As it was, I had my 70-300mm for these images.

Seal in the rain at Jökulsárlón

Seal swimming past icebergs in Jökulsárlón

On the beach side, I loved having a partly overcast day to study the play of light within the shapes of the ice washing up. The contrast between the clear ice and the black sand make it obvious why this location is on every photographers shot list when coming to Iceland.

Iceberg on black sand

Small piece of ice surrounded by the ebbing tide

Sea ice that looks much like a sea dragon against the black sand beach

Detailed piece of sea ice in the shallow waters on the black sand beach

Vestrahorn on the Stokksnes peninsula is the main reason I came to Iceland. Yes, its been shot many times, but it was one of those icons I felt called to see with my own eyes. So can you imagine how I felt when I arrived to this?

Vestrahorn enveloped in clouds

The entire mountain range was capped by closely held clouds! Such is Iceland though. Had this been only a couple hour stop on my itinerary I would have been a bit disappointed. However, I camped the night at the campground on location in hopes that the clouds would lift for sunrise the next day. A storm moved in overnight as well, killing any chance of photographing the aurora at this location. But, storms are great to have as they bring clouds, drama, and when the light is changing, such as at sunrise or sunset, and a storm is clearing, that is when some of the best images are created. Such as this!

Vestrahorn reflected with dawn's early light

Photo tip: Watch for transitions in weather. Those transitions typically bring great clouds and lighting. It's one of the things that makes Iceland so special is that the weather is always changing throughout the day providing tons of shooting opportunities regardless of the actual time of day.

As the sun continued to rise and the clouds dispersed, I was able to get a second composition with the sand dunes illuminated by the brilliant warm light flooding the scene. This light was fleeting as it lasted only a few minutes before taking on a less vibrant, more washed out tone.

Vestrahorn and sand dunes washed in golden light

I could have gone home happy after that, but seeing as I had a few days remaining, I made the push to drive over to the southwestern side of the island to the Snaefellsjoekull Peninsula. On the way I made a few stops and routed myself around the Golden Circle (a route that is commonly done by those with only a few days in country.) Along the Golden Circle I had pinpointed Öxarárfoss as the main attraction I wanted to see. It was mid-afternoon when I got there and there was a bit of a crowd. The overcast skies again worked in my favor and utilizing a 10-stop filter, I was able to slow the motion of the water and capture the movement in the clouds for this image.

Öxarárfoss long exposure under overcast skies

Location tip: With so much of Iceland being picturesque, it really does make you want to stop the car every five minutes. Make sure when you go, you know what your main POPs (points of photography) are so that you don't lose yourself to all the other beautiful distractions and miss the images you really wanted a chance at.

Quaint farm community just outside Vik

From there, sadly the trip went a bit south for me. Upon reaching the Snaefellsjoekull Peninsula, I was hit by a windstorm that lasted almost 24 hours with winds upwards of 70 miles per hour. When it had died down some, I headed to Kirkjufellsfoss. The winds obviously had not died down enough because just when I thought it was safe, a gust of wind toppled my tripod with camera into the rocks. Thankfully, only the lens was broken and not the actual camera. That being said, it was my 10-24mm lens which is the workhorse for landscape shooting.

A bit devastated, I decided to retire back to Reykjavik for the last remaining days of my stay in Iceland. Reykjavik is a great walkable city with a plethora of food, drink, and tourist establishments. It was a good place to relax, recoup, and reorganize before flying to the Faroe Islands.

Overall, Iceland was fantastic from a photographers point of view, but from an ethical standpoint, I hesitate to revisit any time soon as the tourist burden is taking its toll on country as a whole. They need some time to adjust and let Nature heal a bit from the stressors we as travelers have been placing on it.

Next month, I head back to the Faroe Islands for a second time and when I get back from that trip, I will write up a location guide for there as well. Stay tuned for that is the Faroe Islands are just spectacular and are a place you will want to visit sooner rather than later!

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