Reflections on Travel and Photography in Iceland

Okay, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything for the blog. I’ve been pecking away at my reflections on shooting in Iceland, and I would finally like to share these thoughts.

Iceland is a stunningly beautiful and raw country. While the island has been inhabited for more than a thousand years, it still feels like a recent colonization, and still feels wild. This is perhaps because of the rugged, volcanic nature of the island; there are large areas which are simply uncultivable for any kind of agriculture or industry, because the land is too rugged and unyielding.

Those wild, uncultivable lands – the mountains, the lava fields, the black beaches – feel otherworldly. Lava fields can stretch on for hundreds of square kilometres, like Eldhraun in southern Iceland; the country’s ring road was carved through that eerie, lumpy, moss-covered black basalt wasteland. Black beaches, like the ones near Vík, are made up of the same basalt that has been ground into sand over time, and are overshadowed by cliffs and bizarre rock formations. Then there are the rough places like Thingvellir, where great rifts in the earth reveal the strains of the tectonic forces pulling the North American and European plates apart, or Geysir, where bubbling pools and geysers are fringed by brightly-coloured mineral crusts. The rough mountains and volcanoes loom over everything, and glaciers perch atop the tallest.

Iceland largely lacks forests now, and much of what exists is rather stubby; the joke in Iceland is that if you get lost in a forest, just stand up. Human colonization destroyed most of the forests of Iceland; before settlement, forests covered between twenty-five to forty percent of the island. Settlers ended up destroying about 95% of that forest, clearing land for farms and pastures, or using trees for building supplies or fuel. Grazing sheep kept the forests from regenerating for a long time, but there have been efforts over the last hundred years to preserve and expand the island’s forests, and create something of a forestry industry. The overall lack of tree cover certainly contributes to the rawness of the landscape.

South Park, with Icelandic subtitles. This is mostly here to break up a Great Wall of Text.

Many Icelanders speak English, which is good for travelers (especially for those from English-speaking countries). It was explained to me that Icelanders were taught both Danish and English in school, and English is the one that sticks. It certainly makes life easier for getting around and interacting with service industry workers. International signage takes a lot of the guesswork out of road signs. However, it does help to be a bit familiar with a smattering of Icelandic words and phrases. And when you’re really bagged out but not quite collapsing into a coma, you discover the array of English-language TV that they have available, since there isn’t a huge market for Icelandic TV shows.

I’ve been to Iceland a couple of times now (both times with my wife, who endures my photography habit), the first time in autumn and the second time in winter. In the intervening years, travel in Iceland has changed. The international airport at Keflavík has gotten bigger, but is has also become the victim of its own success, as the traffic has now exceeded the capacity of the existing terminal. This seems to be true of the rest of the hospitality and tourism side of the country; there are more and bigger hotels, for example, but the main sites of interest (such as the massive waterfall at Skógafoss, or the glacier lagoon of Jökulsárlón) have gotten more crowded. This might not be such a big deal, were it not for the feeling that the crowds of visitors don’t show as much respect for the sites or each other as perhaps they did when there were fewer people. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend people go to Iceland, but I would say that going in an off-season time is definitely better, and that going off the beaten path is going to be more rewarding.

Iceland is a country where, if you want to have the freedom to travel when and where you want, you should rent a vehicle. There is public transit by bus around the island, and you could also take a bus tour if you wanted, but you’re probably better off with a rented vehicle if you want to see anything that isn’t serviced by either. And while I wouldn’t say this of most places, you probably want to rent something with four-wheel drive, especially in winter. Getting to some of the interesting sites requires going on some dodgy-looking roads that can only be euphemistically considered gravel. While you might manage reasonably well with a two-wheel drive vehicle for much of the year, you wouldn’t want to try in winter; while Iceland is, for its latitude, relatively warm (no worse than the East Coast of the US around, say, New York), it gets a rather rough combination of snow, ice, and wind that you probably wouldn’t want to risk driving through on a two-wheel drive. In fact, on our last trip to Iceland, there was a massive wind storm that shut down the island for a day – bad enough that the weather service in Iceland actually troubled itself to issue a travel warning – and driving the following day was gruelling even for a four-wheel drive.

The sign you will become most familiar with is the one that says “einbreið brú,” which translates as “one-lane bridge.” There are quite a few of these around the country, and some of them are quite long. Long enough that there are passing places built into them. Not the most pleasant thing to have to make use of when the oncoming traffic is yet another tour bus, but at least you can see the traffic coming and prepare for it.

From one of the shopping bags we bought at Bónus.

How you feed yourself is always a tough question when you’re travelling. One of the areas of improvement in Iceland in the last decade has been in restaurant quality and quantity. There is some pretty damn good food available in the restaurants there now. However, that good food costs. Even the little diner in Hella that serves the best lamb I have ever tasted costs an arm and a leg. So, you learn quickly to find the grocery stores. My favourite is Bónus (it has a bright yellow sign with a smiling pink pig), which is about equivalent to No Frills here in Canada. And the grocery stores have a surprising variety, especially considering that Iceland has a relatively small population spread out thinly over a large sub-arctic island. Even the mini-marts at the gas stations are good for restocking some supplies. Travelling around Iceland in winter makes the task of transporting your food easier as well; the car doubles as your refrigerator.

I never had the courage to try their fermented shark or fish jerky. However, skyr – the Icelandic answer to yoghurt – is amazing. Icelanders appear to be chocolate and licorice junkies as well, judging from the prevalence and prominence of both in their grocery stores. And since Easter fell early this year (2017), we got to try out some of their Easter candy.

Icelandic Easter candy – cryptic messages sealed into hollow chocolate eggs. The translation from Icelandic via Google Translate – “Often silent / -after the fun.” I can only guess that it makes sense to Icelanders.

While I like Iceland for the nature, Reykjavík is a pleasant city. About two thirds of Icelanders live in the city, which is still mostly low density. Some parts of the city are really quite lovely, such as the harbourfront, or the little lake in the downtown called Tjörnin (“the Pond”), or the hill below Hallgrímskirkja. It’s a pretty low-key city, and it’s an easy place to walk around and relax on the days after or before flights. I also rather liked the National Museum (just southwest of Tjörnin). There is some pretty neat architecture scattered around the city, the most interesting to my eye being Harpa (a concert hall on the waterfront) and Perlan (a former restaurant, and now a museum, with a nice viewing deck; the deck is nice, but the museum wasn’t open yet when we were there).

One of the best things about going to Iceland in winter is the light. The “golden hour” of photographers lasts much of the day, providing softer, warmer light as the sun hangs much lower over the horizon. The “magic hour” of cinematographers, the pre-dawn and post-dusk glow, also lasts longer. Even the midday sun isn’t as harsh, being more like a mid-morning sun much farther south. Of course, in winter the day is quite a bit shorter, but you really can make the most of that day.

Weather is a challenge in Iceland, perhaps more so than other places. I mentioned above the wind storm that completely shut down travel for a day; even on less drastic days, the wind can be ridiculously strong. The long exposure photography I prefer these days is made quite a lot more difficult by that wind; a tripod that doesn’t shake for a shorter shot still vibrates a bit for a longer exposure. Sometimes the gale-force gusts are just too strong even for a solid tripod, shutting down the possibility of photography. The wind, combined with the frequent and varied precipitation (e.g., getting snow, sleet, and hail within a short span of time in one place during the winter), makes for an extra challenge when shooting in Iceland. Whatever time of year you go to Iceland, this is the place to which you bring rain pants; if you go in winter, bring ice cleats, too. Additional protective gear for your camera, even something as low-tech as a plastic bag to cover your camera, is important as well.

Why go in winter in the first place? While I like to see the landscape cloaked in ice and snow, the main reason to go is the aurora borealis. Even with the lousy weather we had on our last trip, we did manage to see the aurora on one night. It is a truly surreal experience, but one that I am glad I had.

So that is my set of reflections on visiting and shooting in Iceland. It is a beautiful place to visit, and a challenging place to shoot, but one that is certainly worth it. Next up, reflections on travelling and shooting in Scotland.

The sign leaving any town in Iceland (this one was at Hellisandur). Seems vaguely apocalyptic.

Reflections on Travel and Photography in IcelandBill Hornbostel
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