Perfectly Iceland, Part 1: The Photographer’s Zoo

Perfectly Iceland, Part 1: The Photographer’s Zoo

When you’re planning a trip to visit Iceland’s majestic countryside, chances are that you are probably following the ring road in one direction or another. And with good reason. Almost all the major sights are dotted around this single road. Or are they? Should we even be chasing these well-known compositions to get a copy of our own on the wall?

People Make the Story

When my wife and I arrived on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, a storm was just hitting the coast. We were there for two days before driving down to the south again to complete our trip around Iceland. On the first day, about an hour before sunset, we sat in the car on the parking lot near Kirkjufell. We were surprised as to how many other cars were already parked there, because the gale force winds were strong enough to topple campervans. I’ve met my fair share of strong winds, but going out in this weather was insane. To our amusement, a young couple did go out. While we shoved in our dinner in the warm and shaking car, that amusement soon turned into horror, as we saw Dad fetching their infant daughter from the car. These guys were having a stroll with their 3-4 year old flapping in the wind like a flag, held to Earth only by the hands of her Mom and Dad.

The second day, as often is the case in these parts, the weather was completely different. I mean it’s like another season. Calm winds; 10 degrees warmer; different set of clouds. This time, there weren’t a couple of cars parked in the same spot as the day before, though. The place was packed. This is when I met this awesome French photographer while we waited for the clouds to turn orange when his camera slipped out of his ballhead… the entire crowd (and it was a crowd) stood flabbergasted as his full-frame Nikon came tumbling down the slope before making a final jump into the river.

These are some of the stories that stuck with me. My impression of Kirkjufell and the waterfall in the foreground wasn’t much different than that of the next one hundred guys. Did you know there’s even a photograph of the mountain (yeah, that same composition) at the parking lot? In case you don’t know what to shoot, you can always go ahead and put the tripod inside the holes of the previous photographer. My goal here is to illustrate the popularity of this place, not enrich your lives with glorious new art.

Waiting for nature to happen. A lot of cloning still to do, though.

Peak Tourism

When the annual amount of tourists outnumber the resident population of a country, there’s reason for joy, because tourism stimulates the local economy. However, we must consider the environment as well. Especially when entire busloads of people get off-loaded every day to the same exact spot.

Via The Telegraph

This chart (courtesy of The Telegraph) depicts only the annual US visitors to Iceland. Notice that the sharp increase in popularity over the last few years. It is why the Icelandic government wanted restrictions on the numbers of tourists visiting natural sites.

The government is currently in the middle of a nine-year tourism strategy that runs to 2020, with a focus on improving infrastructure while also ‘protecting and maintaining’ tourist sites.

Overcrowding is a serious issue in Iceland since a recent currency plunge. The HBO hit series "Game of Thrones" also frequents scenes from the barren and desolate landscape, which is another reason for the sudden rise in popularity of this land of ice and fire. It has become known as the "Game of Thrones effect."

It isn't a grand mental exercise to find the similarities between Iceland and anything "north of The Wall".

Minister of tourism Thordis Kolbrun Reykfjord Gylfadottir spoke out about environmental concerns as a result of tourism in a recent interview with Bloomberg. "Some areas are simply unable to facilitate 1 million visitors every year," she said. "If we allow more people into areas like that, we’re losing what makes them special – unique pearls of nature that are a part of our image and of what we’re selling.” Iceland is also considering tourism caps on these areas by carefully weighing the positive effect of tourism on the economy and the detrimental effect on their delicate landscape.

Exploring Nature

It’s the title of a great piece by the pen of wilderness photographer Marc Adamus that was published in Landscape Photography Magazine earlier this year. The gist of it is that Adamus advocates a more explorative approach to our creativity, rather than looking up pictures of others online before emulating them ourselves. “A little more effort and a less structured itinerary could easily deliver you to much more unique opportunities,” Adamus said. That certainly holds true for your planned visit to Iceland. Why not explore more of the wild and unpaved backcountry? The highlands have many rich photo opportunities, sans the amount of tourists. And by keeping off the ring road, you’re diverting your effect on the already trodden paths and wildflowers. There’s a reason for the fencing around those paths as well, but many people don’t seem to mind them. In fact, paths look far wider than they are perked out.

Probably not a footpath.

Greenland Is the New Iceland

Adamus further talked about the oddly familiar relationship between hunting and photography that we have going on today. As soon as we bagged a couple of shots from a certain location, we’re off to shoot somewhere else, in search of that shiny new picture. This hunting for the new “head on the wall”, as Adamus put it, is a far cry from what Ansel Adams taught us about landscape photography. Getting to know an area deeply makes you much more attuned to what the light does to the land. And when you’re familiar with the seasons, the interplay between light and land and the life in the area you will start to notice subtle differences over the years. Maybe the daffodils start to bloom two weeks early or there’s fresh snow in the first week of June. The subtleties in nature can be truly inspiring if you’re open to them and can yield some of the most interesting compositions you can’t even pre-visualize. But how can you be open to what nature throws at you when you’re out shooting what everyone else is shooting too?

We would have to admit that even the majestic landscapes of Iceland aren’t giving us enough satisfaction. This is probably why there are a growing number of photo tours being lead in countries like Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Although these places might suffer the same fate eventually.

This does not mean that Iceland should be avoided. On the contrary: I've had some of the best encounters with the natural world of my life here.

A New Mindset

It all comes down to our own stance toward landscape photography. Is it truly about traveling to places no one has seen or photographed before? Or is it about the hunt and about bragging rights? If that’s your game, then we’ll have an article for you in the next chapter of this short series. We’ll explore Iceland around the ring road with example images to help plan your visit. But only if you don’t get left out by the tourism restrictions.

Until then, go out today and show us your own area. Tell us what you know about the place, about how the seasons affect the wildlife and the landscape and which light is the best for a new composition. In photography, your own backyard is probably more unique than Kirkjufell. If photographers around the world would start seeing their own area for what it is, while feeling inspired by nature instead of pictures of others, we’ll all start to see some next-level landscape photography.


Daniel Laan's picture

Daniel Laan is an outdoor enthusiast, teacher, writer, and landscape photographer. While his dramatic landscape photography has gained international acclaim, his pursuit of the light is primarily a means to get to know himself. Daniel teaches introspective landscape photography around the world through running tours and workshops.

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Perfecly? Really?!

Totally agree and in fact I will not return to Iceland unless it is a) for a paid customer project or b) for a backcountry highland tour. What happens there is simply insane. And well by being there I am part of the problem, no?

In Reynisfjara beach there were some idiots standing at the front of the strong shore. They laughed at me when I told them that people died there just a few days before. Seems people think this is a Disney theme park where nothing can happen to them.

I still love the country, but it pretty much goes down the drain these days. And most locals I talked to would agree to that.

I've read this stuff about comparisons to theme parks as well. It was either that, or "Zoo". :)

The game even encompasses dangerous, no, life threatening decisions and of free will no less.

This article reminds me of the US National Parks constant marketing for more guests and then, when you go, you can barely see the park for the visitors! :-(
Regarding researching for photo locations, I research and then visit the known locations before going off on my own.

Went in August and loved it. Didn't find it overcrowded. I've been looking at the West Coast of Greenland for sometime this year.

I remember when I arrived at Kirkjufell, we passed in front of it with the car, hesitating to stop because we didn't think it was really there. We had that very popular photo (the one in this article) in mind ... and we thought that this couldn't possibly be it since the waterfall were so ridiculous in height ... and that the road would be in the shot. Fact is, yes the waterfalls are small and the road is in the shot. Even though my photographic experience taught me to expect such effects, that one reaaaaaally struck me. So be prepared: it REALLY does not look like the photo.

Great article and nice pics! Love the out of the mist "Others" image. It's been interesting seeing how huge travel photography has become over the last few years with the rise of Instagram. Definitely agree with you that Greenland/Faroe Islands are going to "suffer" the same fate as Iceland soon.

I struggle a lot with Adamus' photography as hunting observation. When I travel, I want to explore, enjoy my surroundings, immerse myself in the culture but it's also hard not to want to come back with "portfolio" images and of course the easiest way to do that is by getting shots from the iconic, well-known spots. I usually travel for leisure with photography adding on to the trip. I don't often have the ability to keep going back to far-flung places nor do I have a couple of weeks to explore for compositions. It's a few sunrises and sunsets if I'm lucky and I gotta be economical about it. I hate coming back with the same shot(s) as everyone else but sometimes it's what works best!