Firstly I should point out this was not a photography trip as such, it was a week away with my very photography tolerant wife, Emma, in some of the most dramatic landscape the northern hemisphere has to offer. That said, there was no way I was going to be without proper camera gear and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t harbouring hope of capturing something epic, albeit confined to the locations easily accessible from the ring road.
So, was it what I hoped it would be? As a holiday and experience it was fantastic, but for photography, I found Iceland a very frustrating place. Don’t get me wrong, it is a target rich environment and you’d be hard pushed to come back without something good. That however, is a double edged sword as there are so many good images of Iceland out there it can feel like you’re simply going through the motions and struggle to see how you can bring anything new to the table.
Now, there is nothing wrong with taking an image of the iconic with your particular take on the scene with the given conditions but there is only so much personal spin you can put on something so recognisable. That point is not limited to Iceland of course, I could say the same about the Lake District here in the UK, which is why I like to explore an area and try and find different vantage points or better still, a less common subject. And with that in mind, this is why I had a frustrating time.
People. There were so many people at pretty much all of the locations we went to. That is not really that unexpected as people don’t wander away from Reykjavik for the nightlife and at times, tour buses outnumbered cars, but it was the lack of spatial awareness that had me taking a deep breath and counting to ten too often to remember. On one occasion at the Skogafoss waterfall, where I was actually standing in the river to find a little extra space and an angle to minimise the people I’d have to get rid of in Photoshop, someone waded over and pretty much lent on me as they reached around and held their phone in front of my camera on it’s tripod, presumably thinking I’d succeeded where millions before me had failed and nailed the perfect composition. It was possibly unfair of me to expect this person to understand the technical intrusion of sticking his plus sized phone in the frame while I was taking a long exposure shot but the personal space intrusion was a different matter…..8…9..10..and breath.
Second on the list and not totally unrelated to the first, was how these locations have had to engage in crowd control by roping off the area and keeping people on specific paths. This is not so much of an issue if you are there to simply marvel at a thing but it is incredibly restricting for a photographer. Queuing up to take your turn on a viewing platform is not at all rewarding and feels like buying that photo of you – along with people you don’t know – looking ill at the end of a theme park ride. Now to this point in general, although personally frustrating, I get it. I really do. In fact, I’m all for it as we have to protect these places from the sheer amount of people that must visit in a year and I don’t know of a better way. So yeah, I get it, I just wish it didn’t apply to me. You also have to acknowledge the lengths that stupidity goes to to get everybody tarred with the same brush. You only have to use Instagram to be aware of that. For every ‘Fall Hazard’ sign there’s a photo of an idiot hanging off it looking into the abyss below, you know, for the ‘gram. I should also point out that whoever oversees these locations, they are doing a pretty good job of improving the areas to resist the constant footfall, but like I say, I just wish it didn’t apply to me.
At this point I should probably once again concede the point that this was not solely a photography trip and we were visiting well known and iconic locations on the south coast that are not only easily accessible from the main road but also day trip destinations from Reykjavik. Trips for those who realise that spending the day in a bar in the capital will require you to sell your liver to pay the tab long before the alcohol pickles it.
Had it been a photography-centric trip, I’d have adjusted my visiting times to suit the image I was after rather than a loose location collecting schedule. I’d have given Reykjavik a miss altogether, I’m not a city person, but Emma is and even with spending two nights in town, which I did actually enjoy, the compromise tally over the week was still very much in my favour. And I’d want to seek out places away from the honeypot spots, it’s not like Iceland stops being spectacular between the tour stop car parks.
That leads me to the third thing I found frustrating, which was at times downright annoying. There is nowhere to just pull over. I have to admit to underestimating how big Iceland is; even along the relatively well inhabited south coast you can drive for miles without seeing anything but geological beauty, a beauty that also seems to change in style with bizarre frequency.
As is often the case on self drive holidays, the driving is enjoyable as you are driving through the stuff you are there to see. As such, there were many times I’d see things that were just as visually pleasing as the tourist fly paper we’d just left. However, to not be able to conveniently stop and capture what might possibly be something unique, and definitely more rewarding to work with, was highly frustrating. There are pull-offs and the odd minor road but they are miles apart and never where you need them. The nature of the landscape means the perspective will have changed significantly from what caught your eye to the lay-by three miles down the road.
Hiring a car in Iceland is unlike anywhere else I’ve been: they have insurances for natural phenomena that I never knew existed and after reading the exclusions of the policy, we were reticent to take our chances pulling off the raised main road. We did encounter someone who thought just stopping after a bend and wandering off with a camera was a good idea for which I refer you back to my earlier stupidity comment.
One particular moment sticks in my mind, the sky was dark and moody but the glacier that was framed nicely by snow topped mountains was reflecting light back under the cloud. Cloud that had broken nicely to allow the sun to illuminate the golden grasses, grasses that topped the small hills of black volcanic sand, hills that filled the foreground leading to the glacier with interesting patterns. By the time we found somewhere to stop, not only had the conditions changed but so had the landscape. Chances are my memory is ignoring the many reasons it wouldn’t have been any good, but very much like the fish that got away, what an image it could have been.
I suppose this presents the big question, would I visit Iceland again? Absolutely. I can’t wait to go back with a more photography based mindset. I’d probably go slightly earlier so the highlands were accessible and would definitely get beyond the radius deemed bearable for day trips from Reykjavik: there were far fewer people the further east we travelled.
I’d already decided this trip was going to be partly a recce to get a feel for the infrastructure and stuff like that and as such it was certainly worthwhile but as a good old fashioned road trip holiday with Em, it was fantastic. Covering just shy of 2000km in Iceland means you get to see some pretty cool stuff before you even get out of the car and we even got to see the Northern Lights for the first time as an unexpected bonus.