For those of us living in the US or Europe it can be a daunting challenge to search for a nearby destination in which we may truly immerse ourselves in nature, specifically without enduring months of near bankruptcy directly afterwards. There are still plenty of hotspots left, especially in Northern Europe, but the signs of civilization can leave one feeling placed in an artificial bubble, albeit a beautiful one. Like it or not, this often is translated into the images we take.
We therefore look for places not yet marred by the encroaching presence of human beings. It’s a way to connect with what was, until just a few millennia ago, our natural habitat, to experience the sweet melancholy of complete isolation. In pursuit of that I took a week long holiday and traveled to Iceland with a partner in crime on a shoestring budget. We rented a car, a white Nissan Qashqai, and called it home for the duration of the trip.
A Quick Comment on Location and Budget
Iceland is perhaps one of the most conveniently located natural hotspots for those of us living in the West’. As it sits halfway between the European and American shores flights are cheap and travel time is short enough that a weekend trip is a realistic consideration. Within the country itself roads are in excellent condition and the ring road allows one to foray into smaller side roads and points of interest whilst keeping close to the main route.
If you are willing to rough it out by using a tent and a small gas cooker (a luxury compared to our journey) costs are incredibly low as you can find any number of secluded spots to set up camp free of charge. Coupled with the numerous free hot springs and pools, public bathrooms, and clear and safe spring water you can comfortably traverse the country without ever needing to pay for utilities. Restaurants and hotels are expensive so be prepared for a significantly lighter wallet if you decide to go that route.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to capturing bright and Tolkienesque images of the landscape is the unpredictability of the Icelandic climate. The day can start out in spectacular fashion with opal blue skies, the sun shattering the clear waters into thousands of bright shards of light, dancing in the wind-stoked waves. In an instant however this can turn to a rolling fog, enveloping the sky above you, and reducing line of sight to ten meters or less, making driving an exercise in patience and vigilance. Don’t trust the weather predictions on this, as they are inaccurate on all but most general trends. Fortunately we were lucky, and experienced unseasonably sunny and warm days. In any case, it’s something to consider.
Landscape and Photography
While the more tourist filled areas show unfortunate signs of strain on the environment the majority of the country remains spotless. The low population density combined with many views that require at least a modicum of sweat and effort to reach mean you can enjoy the primeval landscape at your leisure.
If you are willing to stay awake into the late hours of night and early morning (given the weather holds) you can enjoy a prolonged sunset and lasting dawn/dusk at this time of year. If you feel up for some late night driving you can visit numerous locations with the same lighting conditions, which can be spectacular, turning even mundane subjects into worthwhile shots.
Personally the smaller and more out of the way places discovered amongst the East and West Fjords were the highlight of the journey, however the path most traveled, nearer to Reykjavik also had some ‘must capture’ locations and activities. The two that most spring to mind are the Jökulsárlón glacier ‘lagoon’ (really just the meltwater of a very, very big ice cube), and the whale watching ventures off Husavik. The latter is an enjoyable experience that brings you close to creatures that you would otherwise never encounter. Fog is common unfortunately and so for photographers conditions are often not ideal. Like most ventures into wildlife photography you have to bank on a large amount of luck, so this is par for the course.
The glacier lagoon is located in an area flush with large glaciers. The drive through provides countless opportunities to go off the beaten track and, if the path is not too dangerous, find your way to the foot of some spectacular glacial structures. The main attraction, Jökulsárlón, has large ice breakages the local birdlife perch on and dart amongst. An avid bird photographer such as myself could spend several days there pining for the perfect image.
Some Final Thoughts
In terms of gear and equipment a tripod is non-negotiable, as low levels of lighting when the sun is covered mean hand held shots are tricky. In addition a cable shutter release is a life saver; wind comes in unpredictable gusts. It’s strong enough to disturb your tripod and so replacing timer shots with a cable will save you a lot of headache. In addition I would highly recommend a super telephoto lens for bird life and the occasional puffin, more importantly some of the more interesting geological features can only be observed at a significant distance. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, a proper lens cleaning kit will save you again and again. The incidence of strong wind and fog was such that I needed to clean my lens of moisture and dirt constantly. I’m neurotic about dust on my lens however, so take this as you will.
In terms of the trip given a higher spending limit and more time there are countless activities that one could partake in; the greatest feature of Iceland as a destination however (aside from the landscape) was that most of its natural areas can be accessed without doing any of these things. As someone traveling there for photography it was perfect, as I felt free despite my own financial constrictions. Having recently done a large safari in Africa (I hope to discuss more on this soon if possible) I was restricted in the time and distance I could travel. Since I focus on wildlife and nature photography Iceland was a fantastic and budget friendly alternative, homicidal seagulls aside.
This article contains a small vertical slice of my journey, with the rest soon to be found on my website, I hope you enjoyed my work, and thank you!
Robert Alexander is a wildlife photographer from Tanzania, currently based out of the Netherlands and working part time alongside his studies in ecology and the environment.