There are quite a lot of photographers who are joining Locationscout because they want to travel to Iceland, so here is a very important guide about mistakes you should definitely avoid when you are planning to visit this amazing country.
When I visited Iceland at the end of summer in 2015, I did a lot of research about the country. I wanted to be prepared and I really didn’t want to be „one of those guys“, who is disliked by the locals because he is doing all the "mistakes" that unfortunately quite a lot of the tourists do. So here are my top 7 mistakes you should avoid if you want to have a great vacation with lots of exciting moments. #3 by the way was my biggest mistake and #6 was something I did once until I recognized what I was doing wrong - but read the full story below.
#1 Dying for a selfie
It may sound absurd and this topic is discussed over and over again, but it’s still the most important thing that I want to draw attention to if you haven’t visited Iceland yet. Respecting nature still seems to be a huge issue for tourists and it was just a few weeks ago when a young woman died near the beach of Reynisfjara, because she probably didn’t expect the very unpredictable waves and the very strong undertow into the cold ocean.
The same applies to the sometimes very stormy days, which are definitely not comparable with windy days in other countries. I saw people myself, nearly dying for a selfie in the storm, because they left their car and couldn’t come back to it without extreme luck. A young woman was hanging on a pole like a flag in the wind, nearly falling down the cliffs because of the very strong wind and she only lived because the wind paused for a few seconds. Afterward, she destroyed the car by opening the door when the wind started again to blow. Damaged cars because of lacerated doors is one of the most common reasons in Iceland and you definitely don’t want to be "one of those guys" who have to pay for that when returning the car, do you? ;-)
Here is a great video that gives you a good feeling for a windy day in Iceland:
Another very popular thing is selfies near cliffs or people who climb on rocks to get a better photo of themselves. I saw one of them at Godafoss and quite a lot of people were needed to get this person to safety again. Or a guy, standing extremely close with his back on the brink at Haifoss, trying to get the best perspective of himself leaning even more towards a 180m deep gorge.
You’d almost think that I’ve been there for a few months, but these very real examples happened just within a few days and all of them were even more dangerous than I expected them to be in the first place. Enjoy the beautiful landscapes of Iceland as much as you want, but please don’t take such extreme risks for a stupid photo.
#2 Having the wrong equipment / car
Sounds pretty obvious too, but I saw enough people in Iceland, running around with high heels or sandals. Do yourself a favor and get good tramping boots / weather resistant clothes when you plan to walk for a while away from your car, because the weather can change pretty fast. An umbrella is usually a pretty bad choice for the simple reason that the wind is usually too strong, so having a weather and wind sealed jacket + rain trousers with you is always a good idea. If you are not that familiar with cold temperatures it’s also great to wear multiple layers you can put off and on, depending on the current temperature.
According to what you want to see it’s also very important to choose the right car. If you only want to see places near the Ring Road you might be fine with a small car, but visiting Landmannalaugar for example requires a 4x4. Anything that is off the path is way better reachable with a bigger car that can handle dirt tracks. There are even a lot of roads, especially towards the center of the island, which is forbidden to pass with non-4x4-cars.
One of the dirt tracks towards Landmannalaugar with quite a few rivers you have to pass with your car.
Tip: Book your car upfront at a local car rental, because the prices are way cheaper. I used Iceland car rental and they are just 3 minutes away from the airport and even pick you upon your arrival. I made good experiences with them, but other local car rentals can be a good choice too. Just make sure to check ratings from former customers to get a good one that you can rely on in cases where you need them.
Bonus Tip: Based on the feedback from the comment section, a few had issues with returning the car and suddenly having to pay for scratches they maybe didn't even cause. If safety is important for you, make sure to get insurance for cases like that. It's also always a good idea to document the conditions of the car with your phone during pickup, documenting scratches, etc. yourself via photo or video.
#3 Underestimating the travel time
This is definitely the biggest mistake I made and that changed 12 days that should have been awesome experiences + relaxation to only awesome experiences ;-) It was still fine, but we planned to hike around Landmannalaugar and visit so many more places. Driving in Iceland just isn’t the same as you would do on a motorway in Germany without any speed limits. The Ring Road is pretty easy to drive and yet it takes a lot of time because many places you may want to visit are far away from each other and that’s the part when visiting Iceland and enjoying nature becomes to sitting in your car and driving for the longest time of your day. Just keep in mind, that especially dirt tracks will make you extremely slow and a 30 km distance may become a very long tour you won’t accomplish until it’s getting dark.
This is also very important for your photography when you want to be at a specific place around sunrise or sunset. Another popular mistake during wintertime is to start traveling when the sun rises, but then it’s usually already too late because it will settle again in a few hours and you still will have to drive to the place you wanted to visit.
Aldeyjarfoss waterfall is not that hard to reach during seasons without snow, but you still need some time to get there and it's extremely important to be on the right side of the river (travel details are described in the spot), otherwise you might not get the perspective you wanted to photograph.
#4 Visiting the most touristic places during daytime
When you plan your daily trips on the island it’s pretty important that you have an idea of what you really want to see and enjoy and whatnot. Especially when your time is limited you might need to visit some of the places during the touristic times. Iceland isn’t as pristine as you might expect and there are some popular locations like Seljalandsfoss or Gullfoss with tons of huge busses in front of them. Don’t get me wrong! They are still extremely beautiful, but you need to be there at the right time. If you are in Iceland during summer you might need to be there during the midnight sun to get good photos. You could even have a look at the time tables of those tours to make sure, that you won’t be there with hundreds of other tourists.
#5 Not leaving the Ring Road
There are a lot of people coming to the country and they are just visiting the „attractions“ at the Ring Road or even worse - they are only taking part in a daily trip, called the Golden Circle tour. All those places are nice during the right time, but those are also not the places that will show you how amazing this country really is. It’s like doing a bus tour around New York, but never walking through those streets for yourself. Even if you don’t have a 4x4 you still could hold somewhere and hike for a few hours to see some of the places that are not just like an amusement park.
You will miss places like Haifoss waterfall if you only stay at the Ring Road.
#6 Stopping on the road to take a picture
Well, that’s something I also did on the first day and I really had regrets afterward. Some of the landscapes you will pass are just so beautiful that you instantly want to stop your car and take a photo. I did so too and when you stop your car somewhere, more and more people will stop because they think that there is something they might miss. Suddenly there was a bus driver who could barely pass the narrow street and who was raging quite a bit about the tourists and that was the point where I changed my mind because I couldn’t even imagine that something like this could happen.
The following days were full of people, suddenly stopping their cars right on the street and blocking the traffic. Some of them even activate the hazard lights instead of just blinking, which usually indicates that you might have trouble with your car, resulting in locals who will stop nearby and ask if they can help you.
While I can understand this behavior for some places, you really should keep these situations at a minimum, because you really don’t want to be „this guy“ who is blocking all the traffic on the main roads every few kilometers.
Öxararfoss waterfall is still a very beautiful place to visit, even if it's in Thingvellir National Park, which is part of the Golden Circle tour in Iceland.
#7 Not protecting your camera
Visiting a country like Iceland is also about protecting your valuable equipment. Therefore I can really recommend you to take shower caps with you, to protect your camera + lens from the spray of waterfalls while you are not taking photos. As long as you are hiking you should always stow your camera because the paths are sometimes very rough and so is the weather. Rain is only one side of the medallion as the heavy wind also results in flying stones, which can easily damage your lens. There were some regions in the north where I could barely open my eyes due to flying dust and little stones, making it nearly impossible to photograph these days.
You should also never leave your tripod without being nearby, because just one gust can knock over all your equipment, not only damaging it but also making it unreachable anymore. I saw a tripod, lying down in the gorge at Haifoss and there is definitely no easy or short way to get down there to get your equipment back.
Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.
Iceland is such a wonderful place to discover pure nature and its beauty. It’s obvious that this is only true as long as people protect it and keep it as they encountered it. So please make sure that you won’t leave any garbage, stay on the paths and enjoy nature without leaving or destroying anything. This seems like such an easy rule, but it’s still too difficult for some tourists.
Some of the 7 mistakes seem to be quite a stretch, but I experienced them all in various situations just within 12 days. Enjoy your time in this amazing country, but stay respectful to nature, the locals, and other tourists, and please… "don’t be that guy or girl"… ;-)
Did I miss anything? I would love to hear your travel experiences in the comments below!