Iceland is a place where the forces of nature are on full display. Volcanoes, ice caps, lava fields, glaciers, geysers, black sand beaches, natural hot pools, etc. Heck, there are even volcanoes underneath ice caps!
Another example of nature on display is the waterfall. Sure, Iceland is not the only country to possess waterfalls, but they are so frequent there that even a spectacular one that would be a landscape highlight in another place does not even warrant a brief mention in a guidebook.
Before I write further on the subject, let me preface it with a little story that a friend of mine once told me. An American woman was traveling on a tour in Germany, and one day she got lost and couldn’t find her way back to her hotel. She managed to find someone who spoke English, and as she couldn’t remember the name of the hotel, he asked her if she knew the name of the street where the hotel was located.
“All I can remember,” she said, “is that the name of the street ends in ‘strasse’.” As ‘strasse’ is the German word for ‘street,’ it’s unlikely that her bit of information was very helpful (but as the story is being told, presumably she did eventually find her way back).
What does this story have to do with Icelandic waterfalls? Absolutely nothing, though it does serve as a prelude to my saying that the names of most waterfalls in Iceland (like Dettifoss, Godafoss, Oxarafoss, Barnafoss, Bjarnafoss, Magnusarfoss, etc.) end in ‘foss’ because that is the Icelandic word for ‘waterfall.’
The photos I’m presenting here are all located in southern Iceland. I saw quite a number of beautiful ones on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland, but I didn’t have time to stop to photograph most of them.
There was one that I wanted to try to photograph when I was riding around with Aubrey –the aforementioned Bjarnafoss – as Aubrey thought that she might be able to get out to do some quick modeling with the waterfall behind her. I had passed a turnoff on the road with a sign naming the fall, so I thought that this road would lead to the base of the fall. Well, it did – sort of. About half way back the road was intersected by another one, and at that point, straight ahead on the side of the road, was a mailbox. Further back at the end of the road, by the base of the mountain near the fall, stood a house. Apparently, this road was meant to lead not to Bjarnafoss but to the house. Of course, for all I knew, “Bjarnafoss” was also the name of the house, and the people living there had their own private waterfall!
Gullfoss (the “Golden Waterfall”), is one of the main tourist attractions in Iceland, being part of the Golden Circle route that almost every tourist to Iceland takes. It must be one of the largest waterfalls, too (though not the largest). The story about this one is that some people had the idea to dam the fall to harness it for hydroelectric power. As I understand it, the farmer who owned the land didn’t want to sell, but the power company people went behind his back and made an underhanded deal with the government. The farmer’s daughter then walked all the way to the capital, Reykjavik, and told the parliament that she would throw herself into the falls if the project went through. The project ultimately did not go through, though it may have had less to do with the daughter’s pledge than with business reasons.
I decided to try to create an image a little different than a standard shot, so my photo of Gullfoss here (above) was made with my full frame fisheye lens.
Seljalandfoss is a waterfall located just off of the Ring Road near the southwest coast. I visited this fall on my trip to Iceland in 1995. This one is a little unusual in that one can actually walk behind the fall. I didn’t do that 18 years ago, but I did it this time, and it was worth getting wet from the spray to do so.
While Seljalandfoss gets a lot of visitors, there’s an even more interesting waterfall just a little way down the road, Gljúfrabúi (aka Gljúfurárfoss), that doesn’t. This is a waterfall that has its lower section hidden behind a series of rocks. It’s also located at the back of a campground. I parked my car in front of the campground and walked past the rocks to the base of the fall with Brooke and Aubrey. Brooke said that it may be the most fantastic place she’s ever been. It was easy to see why, as it was like being in a cathedral of water.
When I left the car, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to find, so I left my tripod behind. I definitely wanted to make some photos there, so fortunately I was able use the small table tripod in my bag and place it on top of a large rock there. It did the job.
The remaining two waterfalls are both in southeast Iceland, in Skaftafell National Park. My primary goal was to see Svartifoss (the “Black Falls”), so named for the dark basalt columns over which it tumbles. I had read that the park can get very crowded on a weekend, but as we were there on a weekday, I had hoped that I might have a minute or two with nobody around to photograph some nudes.
I knew that I had a fat chance (meaning no chance) of doing that when I saw how crowded the parking lot was. Still, I wanted to see the fall, so we went on the hike to see it. After walking for a while, we came upon a beautiful fall that I thought was Svartifoss. I was surprised, however, to come upon a sign a short way on that indicated that Svartifoss still lay ahead.
The fall that I had come upon and photographed was another one, Hundafoss. Even if I had known that it wasn’t Svartifoss, I would have photographed it all the same, as you can see how beautiful the scene was. Finally, ultimately, we did come to Svartifoss, though I chose to photograph it from a distance rather than take the additional time to hike up close and back.
So, I hope you enjoyed my version of Icelandic Waterfalls 101. Just one final note: I am saving my favorite waterfall photo for Waterfalls 102.
About Dave Rudin
Dave Rudin is a fine art photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. He specializes in art nude and travel photography, using black & white film and making silver gelatin prints in a darkroom.