Landscape Photographers Throwing Elbows

Kirkjufellsfoss at sunset. An Icelandic landscape photograph by Shannon Kalahan.
Shannon Kalahan relays the highs and lows of her landscape photography trip to Iceland with a particular focus on the issues of over-tourism.

In 2008, the value of Iceland’s krona plummeted after a financial crisis that collapsed the economy. In 2010, an Icelandic volcano erupted and disrupted international air traffic for days, stranding millions. Those two catastrophes put Iceland in the spotlight.

With the value of the krona deflated, Iceland became an affordable destination for travelers to visit. While the small island had been trying to entice visitors to stay on long stopovers between continents, it wasn’t until 2010 that things began to shift. The news coverage of the volcano, working in concert with an international marketing campaign to promote Iceland, gave birth to a massive tourism boom. Tourism is now the biggest contributing factor to the country’s economy.

A landscape photograph of Skógafoss and Foss á Síðu in Iceland.
14mm, 1/60s, f/8, ISO 100 - Just down the way from Skógafoss and Foss á Síðu is a lovely roadside pull off with a great set of cascades and almost no crowds!

The tourism industry has been a blessing that has helped the country dig itself out of severe economic depression, but in many ways, Iceland was not prepared for the tourism boom. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, in 2010, there were 488,600 international visitors to the island. In 2016, just a few years later, 1,792,200 international visitors flocked to the island.

That has put a strain on the country’s infrastructure, created cultural pressures previously unseen in Iceland, and has left the government struggling to keep up with the growth. So what does that mean for a landscape photographer? Well, the good news is, Iceland still has large areas of pristine landscapes to access and photograph. That is, after all, why we go. We want to see the volcanoes, the sea stacks, the northern lights, the icebergs and glaciers before they’re gone...

Landscape photography of Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon in Iceland.
24 mm, 1/4s, f/8, ISO 100 - This was where the dreaded “bad tourist moment” happened while I was photographing Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. A rude gentleman was bullying me at the edge of a slippery cliff.

What we don’t necessarily want is to share those views with 300 strangers all throwing elbows to get their tripod in line for a classic shot.

During my visits to Iceland, I saw countless “bad tourist” moments.  I even joked that for once, I wasn’t the “crappy American tourist” people looked at in a crowd. The “bad tourist” awards went to the eastern European men who hopped over the chains on the cliff-edge at Dyrhólaey, to the Asian group who risked their lives out on the black sand beach of Reynisfjara despite the sneaker wave postings, to the people who hiked the closed trail at Hafnarberg, or the closed trail behind Seljalandsfoss, to the people seen climbing around on the delicate moss-covered lava rock along Ring Road, and to the overwhelming hordes of tourists flooding places like Jökulsárlón or Kirkjufellsfoss.

Heck, the first time I tried to see Skógafoss I was so overwhelmed with the number of visitors, and I left without even taking a photo. The magic of the waterfall was ruined by a sea of selfie sticks. I had similar experiences in the Golden Circle at Gullfoss and Strokkur geyser. I think that says a lot when even the tourists begin to feel like there are too many other tourists.

A long exposure photograph of a cascading river in Iceland by landscape photographer Shannon Kalahan.
23 mm, 8s, f/8, ISO 100 - Just down the way from Skógafoss and Foss á Síðu is a lovely roadside pull off with a great set of cascades...and almost no crowds!

During my second visit to Diamond Beach, near Jökulsárlón, I was met with an incredible crepuscular ray sunset. Sunsets, however, are problematic at popular tourist locations in Iceland and Diamond Beach was no exception. The beach was filled with tourists, despite the dangers of rapidly shifting ice chunks and the unpredictable ocean. As I set up my composition, I noticed another photographer manhandling a torso-sized piece of ice down the beach.

I know the ocean waves in Iceland can be dangerous, however, so I tried to ignore him and focused instead on my own position in relation to the water kissing the shore. Before I knew it, the man had shoved his iceberg into the edge of my frame. In general, we are all taught to be mindful of other photographers’ compositions and to be respectful of each other’s time at any given spot. It was clear I was set up and waiting for a wave to brush the edges of my own composition, but the other photographer was determined to get his shot even if it meant getting in other people’s way.

A long exposure photograph of an ice diamond on Diamond Beach in Iceland.
24mm, 0.6s, f/22, ISO 100 - Diamond Beach is across the street from the iceberg bay Jökulsárlón, and is very popular with tourists. The place was overrun, and I had a bad experience with both another photographer and a couple on holiday.

During that same sunset, I was also asked by a couple to take a cell phone photo of the man “proposing” to his girlfriend holding an ice diamond.  Although I explained more than once that I was trying to take a photograph and wanted to keep my eye on the waves, they persisted. Eventually, I agreed to take the photo.  As I was handing their phone back to them, a large wave flowed in and soaked me to mid-calf, almost knocking over my tripod.

By far, my worst “tourist” moment in Iceland was on a visit to Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon in southern Iceland. There was a light rain falling, but we decided to take a chance on the canyon. Difficult weather is often a landscape photographer’s friend, creating moody, well-lit scenes. We parked in the tiny lot along the roadside, and threw on our packs and rain gear, then began hiking up the slippery trail to the first lookout. Like many other spots we saw in our travels across the country, the Icelandic government tried to curtail the bad tourist behavior.

There were caution signs and ropes to keep people from slipping off of the cliff edges. From the worn look of the popular “deep thoughts in the wilderness” outcropping on the cliff edge, which lay on the far side of the ropes, the safety precautions were only moderately successful. The rain and difficult roads kept the number of tourists to a manageable amount, and when we arrived at the outlook, we had the place to ourselves.

A landscape photograph of a mountain in Iceland.
270mm, 1/800s, f/6.3, ISO 250 - Roadside view in Iceland. Travelers need to be careful where they pull over though. Although there are shoulders on the roadside, if at all possible, it’s best to look for the frequent parking spots that pop up along Ring Road.

Mindful of my gear, I carefully wrapped my camera into its raincoat and then set the camera onto my tripod.  I was just lining up my composition when a man pushed his way out onto the slippery promontory with me. The gentleman demanded that I move so that he could take a photo. I explained that I had just set up my gear and I would be just a minute to fire off a few exposures. Impatient with that answer, he instead reached his hand and cell phone into my frame.

I tried to ignore his rude and demeaning attitude until he began trying to crowd me and intimidate me at the edge of a slippery cliff with only a flimsy rope between me and a large drop. Suddenly, it was a dangerous situation for me, and something needed to be said.  Thankfully, I’m a firm believer in teachable moments. The photographer I was traveling with immediately called him out on his behavior, and as a group, we had a discussion about respectful behavior.

Aurora photography taken from the Dyrhólaey peninsula in Iceland.
24 mm, 4s, f/2.8, ISO 6400 - Taken from the Dyrhólaey peninsula. The crowds during the day were overwhelming, but it was finally quiet at night.

Among photographers, there is a code of ethics that pertains to our interactions with the land, the public and with each other. Granted, this gentleman was likely not another photographer and so wasn’t obligated to follow the same rules that we do. But at the very least, his dismissive and bullying attitude was wrong by basic modern human standards and putting another person in danger over a photograph will always be unacceptable.

Although there is no way to know with certainty what motivates the rude behavior of other tourists and photographers, I suspect it generally falls into a few categories. In some cases, it is simply a lack of respect or education about the expectation of courtesy. Other times it may be motivated by money, such as a workshop leader pushing to get his students a good shot, or a social media influencer who gets paid to create motivational travel shots.

Still other times, it may be cultural, such as the disparity in rights between men and women. Despite the perceived justifications for said behavior, though, by allowing these “bad tourist” moments to continue, we risk losing both access to beautiful locations and in some cases, the fragile locations themselves.

A seascape photograph of a sea arch on the Icelandic coast.
18mm, ⅕ s, f/8, ISO 100 - While I was shooting this sea arch safely from behind the cliff edge chains, I watched two gentlemen with tripods hop over the barrier and shoot from the wrong side of the chains in front of about 15 other people. It set a terrible example for the crowd.

To be clear, I am thrilled for the opportunity to visit Iceland and happy that they’ve recovered from economic hardship. But it cannot be denied that the tourism boom has had some unintended consequences, many of which fly in the face of our responsibility as landscape photographers to be good stewards for the planet and good examples for the world.

For better or for worse, as landscape photographers, we are tied to the environment and environmental concerns. The natural world is our office, and protecting beautiful locations is in our best interest. The business aspects aside, most of us get into landscape photography because we love nature and protecting it for future generations is something many of us are passionate about.

Furthermore, rules and courtesies in society keep us from devolving into chaos. There should be a mutual respect among photographers, where we all work together to ensure that everyone has a good experience, and sets a strong example for the world. That includes following the rules set in place at locations, and asking the people around you to do the same, especially when those rules are meant to keep everyone safe.

A bio photograph of landscape photographer Shannin Kalahan.
Shannon Kalahan, owner of Seeing Spots Photography, is a professional photographer, author, blogger and teacher. Like many things in life, Seeing Spots Photography started out as a happy accident. In 2002 she started volunteering her photography skills for an equine rescue. It was from there she eventually adopted her horse “Spot”. The name of the business is a homage to the circumstances that lead her down this photographic journey. Shannon currently offers private photography classes in the New England area.