The photography guide to Iceland
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Iceland photography guide

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Introduction


Iceland, the land of fire and ice and the midnight sun, has an incredibly varied landscape for an island its size; volcanoes (some active), mountains, lava fields, geysers, glaciers, fjords, sea stacks and waterfalls, it has them all. Put simply Iceland is a photographer’s paradise.

Probably the world’s youngest country, Iceland was formed from the outflow of lava resulting from the divergence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and is still growing (the Island of Surtsey off the south coast was formed in 1963). Many of the country’s volcanoes are still active, the most recent eruption in 2010 causing an ash cloud that spread across northern Europe, and Iceland is well known for its hot springs and geothermal activity. If you venture into the highlands and stay at Landmannalauger you can relax after a long days walking in the thermal pools, the water heated by the lava field through which it flows.

Iceland was probably uninhabited until the 9th century when the Norse Vikings settled on the Island and Reykjavik, now the capital of the Island, was established. By the early 10th century it is believed most of the outer edge of the island was inhabited, only the harsh and often inaccessible central highlands were not. This Viking history is found in many places across the island, most notably in Reykjavik in Museums, statutes and of course the Sun Voyager sculpture (although the original concept behind the sculpture was that of a dream boat and ode to the sun, but it certainly seems to have been influenced by the Viking long boats).

Being very close to the arctic circle (in fact the very northern parts of Iceland sit at a latitude of 66 degrees north, in the arctic circle) Iceland is a great place to view the northern lights, that is when the sky isn’t covered in a blanket of cloud (which can be often). It also means that in summer the sun can be up for 24 hours (here you can see the midnight sun) and in the depths of winter daylight can last for as little as 4 hours. Iceland is a very different place in the summer and the winter and this guide includes details on what to expect across both seasons.

There is much for the photographer to see and do in Iceland, from easy roadside views to arduous hikes into remote areas of the highlands. It has become a very popular tourist destination and is very popular with photographers. It is therefore unlikely that at the well-known locations you will have the place to yourself. With this increase in popularity it is important that we photographers respect the local environment, stick to paths and be sensible when shooting.

Most popular Iceland photo spots


Travel

The international airport is in Keflavik about an hours drive south west of Reykjavik. If going on a self drive tour (most flexible option – but see further details below regarding driving in Iceland) there are plenty of places to hire cars at the airport from well-known international operators to local firms. 


It is possible to travel around Iceland using public transport (buses – there are no public trains on the Island). There are regular bus services from the airport into Reykjavik, and from Reykjavik it is possible to get buses to all over the island. 

Many people choose to explore the island on some form of guided tour, be that a fully organised one for the whole duration of a trip, or through taking day trips from Reykjavik. There are many firms and individuals that run photography tours of the island, and if you don’t want to self drive these can be a good option, in particular as they are tailored with photography in mind. 

Driving in Iceland

The most flexible way of photographing Iceland is to hire a car (you must be 20, or 23 for a 4x4 car) and held a licence for at least a year. This allows you to set your own itinerary and visit locations when the light is at its best. Many people assume that to drive around Iceland you need a 4x4. Whilst 4x4’s can be useful, they are not essential, unless you plan to drive into the mountain “F-roads”, gravel roads of varying states of repair which are open in the summer months, in which case 4x4’s are mandatory.

All of the car hire companies will offer different levels of “accidental damage” insurance. It is worth making sure you are clear what is and isn’t covered and what you are getting for any extra premium, and research what kind of cover you are likely to need. For example, if visiting the south coast in particular, it is probably advisable to get “sand and ash” cover. This will cover you for any damage to the car caused by sand and ash particles blown onto the car from the very high winds that can blow across the island (see below for more on weather) – sand and ash storms can literally strip the paint from a car. It is also advisable to be careful when opening car doors in high winds as it has been known for doors to be ripped off cars and most accidental damage policies won’t cover this.

Route 1, or the “Ring Road” runs 825 miles around the entire island starting and ending in Reykjavik. A lot of the photographic spots can be found on, or a short drive from, this road. Route 1 is a good road which is now nearly all tarmacked, but many of the smaller roads, and the roads off route 1 in the far east, north and west of the country, are gravel. Many of Iceland’s smaller roads, and part of the ring road, are narrow and contain narrow single lane bridges. The car that is closest to the bridge has the right of way.

In the winter months, from October through to April, when the snow starts to fall and the roads start to ice up, driving in Iceland can be a challenge. Whilst the Icelandic are very good at getting the main roads ploughed, many of the smaller roads may not be cleared as regularly, and after heavy or prolonged periods of snow even the main roads will not be completely free of snow. There are many sites on the internet that can provide detailed advice on driving in Iceland in the winter, and it is worth reading a selection of these if you are considering visiting during the winter months. If you are careful, drive slowly, give yourself plenty of time to reach a destination and make sure you check the road and weather conditions before driving (always visit the road.is website before heading out on a journey), then everything should be fine. If you get caught in high wind or poor visibility, then pull over safely onto the side of the road and wait it out. And be flexible with your plans, if you are travelling a particular distance from Reykjavik then it maybe that you can’t reach your intended destination. 

Weather

Despite its name Iceland is not actually that cold, given its latitude. This is because it benefits from the gulf stream bringing warmer air from the south. In the winter months the average temperature is just below freezing in the south of the Island, although in the north temperatures can drop to as low as minus 25 degrees, colder in the wind. In the summer the average temperature is 12-13 degrees but can reach as high as mid-twenties centigrade.

From October to April much of the country will be covered in snow, in particular the further north you get, and the mountain F-roads will be closed. From May, as the temperatures start to warm, the snow in the exterior of the country will disappear, but the highlands will often remain inaccessibly until mid to late June, and patches of snow will often persist here well into the summer months.

The wind on Iceland can get very fierce. Whilst the average wind speed is around 10-15mph, in stormy weather winds can reach up to 40-50mph with gusts much higher. As a lot of Iceland is an open landscape there can often be little shelter from the winds. 

Whatever you are looking to do in Iceland it is always a good idea to check the weather forecast so you know what to expect during the day and whether you need to change your plans.


Reykjavik 

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and home to over half the population of the country. It is a great place to base yourself for a trip to the Island (day trips are possible to many of the great photographic spots from here) and well worth spending a couple of days exploring itself. 

Photographically the capital has a lot to offer, from the Sun Voyager statute on the waterfront that is a great location for both sunrise and sunset shoots, the Harpa Concert Hall which has the most amazing and interesting glass façade, and the impressive Hallgrímskirkja cathedral.

There are also many spots close to Reykjavik that are good places to see the Northern Lights, in particular the Grotta Island lighthouse a few miles to the west of the city centre, Kleifarvatn lake about a 40 minute drive south of the city and Thingvellir National Park about an hour east of the city.

Snaefellsness peninsula

Located 150 miles to the north west of Reykjavik lies the Snaefellsness peninsula which sits in the shadow of the Snaefellsjokull volcano. There are many areas here for the photographer to visit and I would recommend spending two to three days in the area.

Highlights include the black church and dunes at Budir (the church is often used as a foreground for aurora shots), the sea arch at Anastapi and stacks of Londranger, and of course Kirkjufell which rises majestically out of the sea at Grundarfjordur and which provides the perfect backdrop to the waterfalls of Kirkjufellfoss. 

This area is good to visit in both summer and winter. In winter the main roads are generally fairly well ploughed including the Utnesvegur road that runs around the edge of the peninsula from Budir to Olafsvik. The route 54 road, which runs over a pass to the east of the volcano, may be hard to cross in this section after heavy snow and before it has been ploughed. 

Golden Circle

The golden circle is made up of three areas each within a 2 hour drive of Reykjavik:

- Thingvellir National Park
- Geysir Geothermal Area
- Gullfoss Waterfall

Many guided tours run from Reykjavik but the most flexible option, for a photographer, is to hire a car and explore the sights at your own pace and own time.

South Coast

The south coast of Iceland is home to many great photographic spots and it is worth spending four or five days along here, with maybe a couple of days based near Vik and a couple of days based further east near Jokulsarlon. It is also possible to visit some of the more westerly locations on a day trip from Reykjavik.

Main highlights worth visiting in the area are:

- Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls
- Solheimasandur plane wreck
- The town of Vik and the nearby Reynisjara beach
- Fjadrargljufur Canyon
- Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon and “ice beach”

The beach and dunes at Stokksnes with the views to the Vestrahorn mountains rising out of the sea

Thórsmörk, at the end of the Laugevagur trail, is also a short drive off the ring road, and can provide a taste of the highlands, especially if you hike to the top of Valahnukur.


Highlands

The Highlands, in the interior of the country, are an expansive area of mountains, volcanoes, lava fields, lakes, rivers and expanses of black sand desserts, and are a must visit for any photographer who loves mountain photography. To say the shots you will get from here can be unique is an understatement.

The most easily accessible part of the highlands is the area between Thórsmörk and Landmannalauger, between which runs the Laugavegur trail. Both Thórsmörk and Landmannalauger are accessible by bus, which is probably the most sensible way to reach these destinations, certainly Landmannalauger which lies deep in the highlands (Thórsmörk which is close to the south coast is more easily accessible). Whilst it is possible to drive 4x4 hire cars into the highlands it is not recommended unless you are a skilled and confident off-road driver.

The Laugavegur trail is a 55km walk that runs through the most amazing and varied scenery, from the Rhyolite hills surrounding Landmannalauger, to the green mountains and black sand expanses near Alftavatn, and lush green woods around Thórsmörk. Most people and tours will do the trail over 4 days, but if photography is your main aim I would suggest taking 5 or 6 days to walk the trail, keeping the time on the trail short, and allowing plenty of time to explore the area where you camp. There are 6 official campsites along the trail at Landmannalauger, Hrafntinnusker (can be very windy), Alftavatn, Hvanngil (not far from Alftavatn), Emstrur and Thórsmörk. If you wanted to spend a couple of days in the same area as part of the trip then I would recommend doing this at Landmannalauger, Alftavatn or Hvanngil. 

As the mountain F roads are shut during the winter, which in years where the snow fall has been extensive can reach into May/June, it is best to plan on taking a trip to the Highlands in July to September. 


Northern Lights

Many people travel to Iceland in the winter to see the magic of the northern lights. If you are lucky, and conditions allow, you could be rewarded with an amazing multi-coloured light display. However, many factors need to come together to realise this dream (clear nights and sufficient solar activity being the main ones) so it is best to go with low expectations. Even on clear nights when there is solar activity the display maybe weak, barely visible to the naked eye. There are a few websites that predict solar activity

Photographing the northern lights is much like other astrophotography. You will need the widest aperture lens you own, ideally an F2.8, set at that aperture, probably focused at or close to infinity, with a long shutter speed, typically 10-30 seconds depending on the ISO at which you set your camera (try 1600 to start with) and the intensity of the display. 

As with any other photograph you need a compelling composition to make an interesting photograph, so plan to be at a location that will provide this. Lakes, where there is potential for the lights to be reflected in the water, are often good locations, as are locations where you can place a strong foreground objective in the frame, such as the Black Church at Budir, and those with a strong background such as Kirkjufell or the Vestrahorn mountains at Stokksnes.


Top Picks

With so many great photographic locations in Iceland to choose from, it is hard to whittle these down to a select few, but if I had a gun against my head I would probably choose the following.


The view to Alfavatn on the Laugavegur trail – the whole of the Laugevegur trail has epic views, but probably the most spectacular for me is the view across to the lake at Alftavatn and the surrounding mountains from the plateau to the north. If you are walking the Laugavegur north to south this view opens up almost unexpectantly as you turn a corner. 

Kirkjufell – Kirkjufellfoss is a very popular and often photographed location and you are unlikely to be alone here, although at sunrise/sunset whilst there might be a few photographers you are less likely to be in the company of general tourists. But it is a classic location and popular for a good reason. If you want to avoid the crowds try shooting from further up the stream, away from the main falls. Kirkjufell can also be shot from other locations, such as from the road to the west or from the water’s edge (good on still days when the mountain is reflected in the water). Good location for shooting northern lights if the conditions allow.

Jokulsarlon lagoon and ice beach – there is something special about walking onto the ice beach at Jokulsarlon for the first time, watching the chunks of glacial ice flow out to sea and be carried back onto the beach by the crashing waves. The great thing about this location is that no two photography sessions will be the same as the blocks of ice washed onto the beach are always changing. You can literally spend hours here watching the ice and weather conditions change, looking for different compositions both big and small. The nearby lagoon, which contains large chunks of ice floating around, is also good place to photograph, and if you are lucky you might even get a glimpse of a seal or two.

Stokksnes – located at the far eastern end of the South Coast Stokksnes is a magical place, the Vestrahorn mountains seeming to rise out of the sea to the north of the beach. The beach here is large and black with dunes on the edge covered in grass (in summer a vibrant green, in winter yellow) that provides wonderful contrast and focal point for foregrounds. Great shots can be made from here in nearly any weather condition, and many great northern light shots have been captured from here.


Responsible Photography

Iceland has become increasingly popular with photographers, as well as tourists, and rightly so. But we, as photographers, need to make sure that we act responsibly when capturing images and respect the local rules and restrictions. At many of the sites in Iceland there will be paths and barriers. Where you can stick to the paths to limit the damage from erosion and to the plant life in the area, particularly in the most popular locations, such as the most visited waterfalls, where erosion can be a big issue. Where there are barriers, be those iron railings or merely rope barrier do respect these and don’t cross these just to get a shot, or because there are too many people around to get a clean shot from behind the barriers – the barriers are there for a reason. If you are taking a drone do stick to the local rules which essentially limit flying to 120m and not in crowded areas (which would include sites where lots of people are visiting).


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Curated By

Richard Lizzimore Curator
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Jules Renahan Admin
Love my family, my dog, travel, photography, PhotoHound, kickboxing, books & coffee - order of preference subject to change!
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