Iceland is an incredible place and it has definitely become a top destination for photographers which is no surprise when you see the endless landscapes and ever changing light. When I first visited Iceland in the winter of 2007 there were very few tourists and at most locations, we were the only people. On my last trip I found even in winter you can expect Iceland to be full of tourists especially around the Golden Circle, and while the Golden Circle is definitely worth seeing you might have to be creative to get shots void of other tourists. Reykjavik itself has some iconic places to photograph but for the more unique photo opportunities it is best to explore further afield such as the North & East of the island and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to the West of Reykjavik. There will be fewer tourists although it can still get busy.
Like most trips mine began in Icelands capital city of Reykjavik. I had booked a hostel for the first night as it was pretty cheap and fairly flexible which was handy as I had booked various excursions and had a couple of nights in Reykjavik throughout my trip. The specialist photography trips to Iceland are very expensive, although I'm sure they are worth the money if you have it. For my trip I had booked a three night tour of Southern Iceland and two night tour of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Both were small group tours with about 16 people. I wanted to spend about a week there overall as I figured the longer I was there the more chance I had of seeing the Northern Lights.
If you're visiting Iceland you will most likely end up spending some time in Reykjavik. You will find all the general tourist attractions like restaurants and shops but for photography Hallgrimskirkia Church in the centre of Reykjavik is definitely one of the most iconic locations and well worth visiting day or night. There might be a bit too much light pollution to see the Northern Lights above it unless they are particularly strong, but day or night, the building changes with the ever changing light. Designed to resemble the rocks and landscape of Iceland it is one of the most popular tourist attractions. You can also access a range of day trips from Reykjavik such as the Blue Lagoon or Northern Lights Tours but for the best results I would recommend spending a few days away from the city.
The South of Iceland has some amazing landscapes to visit from volcanic black sand beaches to breathtaking waterfalls. One of the main highlights is the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach where the ice washes up. I didn't have chance to visit them on my last trip so I was really looking forward to seeing them this time. The first day of the trip was spent exploring the Golden Circle which is the most popular tourist route in Iceland as it is easily accessible from Reykjavik.
The Golden Circle
The first stop on the Golden Circle is normally Thingvellir National Park which is a unique rift valley where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, making it prone to tectonic activity. The volcanic landscape is particularly impressive in the low winter sun and while the main viewing area gets quite busy there are some walking routes to explore as well. The second and one of the most popular stops on the Golden Circle route is the impressive Gulfoss Waterfall. This epic waterfall has a lot of view points and I think it looks best in Winter with the snow and ice. When I first visited this place in 2007 it was just a car park. Now it has a large visitor centre and it's a bit more challenging to photograph it without capturing other tourists as well. Strokkur Geysir is the third stop on the Golden Circle. Also know as the Great Geysir it erupts fairly consistently so is great for photo opportunities.
Our next stop on the tour South was Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. This large waterfall is a great place to visit and you can even walk behind it if it's not too icy. I always think it looks best in winter with the ice and snow but its impressive anytime of year. One issue I found with not been on a dedicated photography tour or just travelling solo is the time constraints. It was a bit of a rush trying to get all the shots I wanted especially long exposure images in the time I had. I think next time I go back I will be doing a solo trip just so I can spend as much time as I want in places and avoid the crowds.
Skógafoss Waterfall was our next destination. One of the largest waterfalls and another popular destination, this huge waterfall looks incredible all year round and you can even climb to the viewing platform at the top which seemed much safer than the 6 inch high fence that was there last time I visited. It's worth taking a decent zoom lens for photographing the waterfalls in Iceland because the strong winds usually mean a lot of freezing spray so if you're too close this will quickly cover your lens probably ruining your shot so it's handy to have something like a 70-200mm as well.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Beach & Ice Caves
The next day we headed to the Jokulsarlon Glacier in some pretty large off road vehicles to reach some ice caves. Ice caves are incredible places to visit with the compacted ice reflecting endless shades of blue in the patterns formed from water erosion. The Glacier Lagoon is where pieces of the glacier break away before floating out to sea and it's filled with hundreds of Icebergs which are also home to numerous Seals. After drifting out to sea, a lot of the icebergs get washed ashore along the nearby volcanic beach also known as Diamond Beach. I'd recommend an extended stay here if you can because a day wasn't long. Sadly the first glacier I climbed back in 2007 has almost disappeared now due to climate change.
I hadn't had much luck with the Northern Lights on previous trips to Iceland and Scandinavia but I finally got to see them this time! While staying at our hotel in Southern Iceland I got up at 3am to photograph the lights and suprisingly it was only myself and one member of our tour who braved the cold. At first it just looked like clouds lit by moonlight but within minutes of stepping outside the whole sky had turned green and the lights where dancing above for about an hour. I took quite a few photos until I lost feeling in my fingers and then I just put my gloves back on and watched them for a while.
We were meant to return to the Glacier Lagoon the next day but got a call from Reykjavik to say basically if we didn't start heading back asap we might not get back for a few days as a huge storm was going to hit Southern Iceland that day. This meant we didn't get to visit some of the other places on the tour as well but they were definitely right about the storm. If you plan to do a self drive trip to Iceland in winter you will need a 4x4. While a lot of the roads in Iceland have geothermal pipes running under them to prevent them freezing, a big storm with that much snow soon makes the road hazardous and I counted at least half a dozen tourist cars in ditches and snow drifts along the side of the road on the way back to Reykjavik. So instead of a second day at the Glacier Lagoon I spent an extra day in Reykjavik seeing the sights in the sleet and snow.
Waterfalls Of Iceland
Iceland has countless amazing waterfalls to visit. The tours will visit a lot of the most popular ones but to explore more of them you will need to be driving yourself and if you're like me you will want to spend longer than half an hour at some of these places. As I already mentioned a zoom lens can be handy for photographing the waterfalls in Iceland because the winds can carry spray from the falls a long way and it isn't always possible to view them from another vantage point where you can avoid the spray. You will also want a heavy duty tripod because even with my heavy Manfrotto tripod half my long exposure shots were ruined because of the wind shaking the tripod.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula
After two days in Reykjavik I joined my second trip to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula which I hadn't visited before. The weather had improved but there were still the very strong winds which are endemic in Iceland especially in the winter months. One of our first stops was the black church of Budir which is iconic among photographers. Stood out in the middle of the landscape with the incredible views over the snow covered mountains. This remote location may still have a few tourists but no where near the numbers that visit the golden circle route. Nearby is the small settlement of Hellnar which has some of the most impressive landscape I've seen in Iceland with the black volcanic rocks along the shore. I had hoped to see the Northern Lights again that night but out hotel was bombarded with vicious winds blowing the snow and ice like small projectiles, even walking the twenty feet from the bedrooms to the restaurant was like being sand blasted in sub zero temperatures.
The next day we headed towards Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall and mountain. If you have seen photos of Iceland then you have probably seen this location before. While it did look pretty cool in winter I think this is probably a location which would be better other times of year. The small waterfalls were pretty much frozen solid and the mist around the mountains meant I couldn't really photograph much but they were still incredible to see in person and I'd love to go back again to explore the area more.
Travel & Equipment Tips
The Northern Lights is undoubtedly the reason most people visit Iceland but I wouldn’t make this your only goal as you could come away disappointed. As with anything in nature there is no guarantee and even if the lights are in full effect it might still be cloudy where you are. There is a lot to see and do in Iceland so it is best to just go and enjoy the experience and if you get the lights as well then that is the icing on the cake! There is a good chance of seeing them from late September to late March but December and January are usually best. Try and stay somewhere away from the towns with the landscape on your doorstep and I would recommend a week minimum as this should give you at least one or two clear nights.
If your a photographer and you're taking long exposures or night photos the wind will be a problem for light kit so take a heavy tripod! For lenses I travelled light with just my Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 and Nikon 70-200mm f2.8. I would highly recommend taking some filters, even if you don't have a Lee Filters Big Stopper for the waterfalls, a polariser or ND filter will give you a few extra seconds of exposure for those beautiful waterfall shots. A wide angle lens like the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 can be great for the Ice Caves and Northern Lights. For wildlife take a longer zoom or prime lens but whatever you're photographing in winter don’t forget to take extra Batteries because the cold will sap the battery life a lot quicker.