Iceland is one of the most famous countries for landscape photographers and I can ensure you that it is famous for a reason. When I travelled to Iceland in March 2017, I could not drive for more then 15 minutes straight without stopping to take advantage of yet another fantastic photo opportunity. The photo possibilities are endless and I was still pulling over in between the great Iceland destinations that I was travelling between.
There are great subjects for landscape photographers everywhere, no doubt this is what has made the country so famous amongst photographers.
Before you pack your backpack and race off, read through these 5 things you should know before your photography trip to Iceland, and make sure you are ready for an epic adventure.
Iceland became extremely famous for its landscapes in the past few years (most probably due to all those stunning shots on social media), so no matter which time of year you go to visit the island in the north atlantic ocean, you WILL find tourists there. Tourits are flooding in more and more, and with a modest population of 300.000 the little nation is expecting around 2 million visitors this year. Most of them are visiting in summer between June and September. So the earlier you get there, the less tourists you will come across.
Another advantage of visiting in winter or early spring is the opportunity to shoot some northern lights. I was travelling around Iceland in March and saw the aurora multiple times. Most of the time the cloud cover was quite dense but there were a few occasions when I got lucky with clear skies, and I was blown away with an awesome light show. You will only get that opportunity when you visit in the winter season.
(For tips on shooting the Northern lights check out “Northern lights, from the sky to your wall“)
The advantages of summer is still something to consider though. In summer you have the ability to access more of the island with better road and hiking conditions. For example, hiking in the highlands is very difficult in winter with all the huts closed and the paths covered with snow.
Summer is also the right time for a visit if you want to shoot some puffins. They start to come to the island in May and the puffin peak season is in summer.
While you have long nights in winter with a lot of opportunities to see the northern lights, combined with a golden hour that stretches from morning to evening (around 3 hours in the middle of winter), then benefit of summer is that you have long days with daylight almost 24 hours a day.
So now you can choose the season you want to go. I know that it is a hard decision and the easiest way to get rid of the downsides of your decision is to visit Iceland at least twice – once in summer and once in winter. You will not get all of the country in just one season, so visiting multiple times is almost mandatory if you love landscape photography.
When you have made that hard decision on when to go, there is another thing you should consider. No matter which time of year you will visit, it will be quite cold. While it can get fairly warm in summer it will be freezing cold in winter. With an name like Iceland this is almost common sense, but even with the warming sun the wind has the ability to chill you to the bone and will definitely ruin your time if you stay outside with the wrong clothing.
As long as it is dry, you can move around to stay warm quite easily, however, It is always a good idea to have some rain clothes with you when you go on longer hikes no matter what the weather looks like at the start. On my last trip I come across some people going on hikes in sweatpants and a t-shirt. While the weather looked promising at the start of the hike it changes very quickly and 15 minutes after starting along the path, the rain and wind came without warning, the next moment I saw these guys with nothing but a t-shirt freezing badly.
As a landscape photographer I found out that patience is one of many parts in achieving a good end result. So while you stand there waiting for the perfect light freezing because you do not move much, having warm clothes is crucial to waiting for that amazing light to come through increasing the level of your photography. The last thing you want is to abort your session because you weren’t prepared for the cold weather.
After stressing the importance of being prepared with the right clothing, Iceland is great in that you don’t always need to go for those longer hikes as photo opportunities can often be found close to the road. Either way, be prepared to endure the cold and changing weather conditions.
There is no question; It will rain and you will get wet.
When you get caught in the rain or the spray from the waterfalls, or you find that there is snow siting on your camera, please keep your camera out and keep shooting. Shooting through the wet conditions means more photo opportunities, amazing mood and drama in your images and at the of the day you shouldn’t worry too much about your gear.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying act stupid and ruin your gear but I’m saying to not be overcautious. The gear is built to last and it will definitely survive a little rain or a waterfall shower. Usually the housings and lenses are sealed and are way tougher than we think. So use that expensive gear you have paid for, stop worrying about it and keep shooting, you will ultimately get way more out of your trip this way.
If you are struggling to change your mindset about the weather destroying your gear, there are camera ‘rain covers’ available from different companies to help protect your gear.
I instead choose to just wipe the water off my lenses and camera before I put them back into my bag, and it has always been fine. To keep the moisture out of my bag, I started collecting the little moisture-absorbing bags that came in many packages from things I buy. I then store them in my photography bag and It works like a charm, plus it does not cost anything.
Photo by Simon Markhof
Photo by Simon Markhof
Now that you have stopped worrying about your gear you can also be prepared to change your lenses constantly.
I was swapping between wide-angle to telephoto to mid-range-zoom, I was forever changing to what I thought would look good and increasing the diversity of my photos. The Icelandic landscape is conducive to many compositions in one area at different focal lengths. There are just so many opportunities so please use that expensive glass in your bag and avoid missing out on photo opportunities because of being lazy.
The main reason I am saying this is because I was surrounded by random photographers in Iceland, and I overheard someone saying “this would be cool with a telephoto lens, but I can’t be bothered changing lenses now“. I hope you never say something like that, because why would you not change lenses?
Yeah, of course you have to take a shot of Skogafoss or any other famous attraction of the Icelandic landscape, but please do me a favour and stop copying other photographers. I came to Kirkjufell waterfall and saw photographers queue up to take the exact same shot we have all seen sprawled across the internet a thousand times.
It is not a bad thing to take that shot or any of the other iconic Iceland images, but Iceland is as an outstanding beautiful location and finding unique compositions is not that hard. The country is so photogenic and there is much more to it than just ticking off the well known photo spots.
My advice; Use those well known images for inspiration, but If you stop chasing the same shots other people have already made and start seeing the country with your own eyes, there will be a ton of new and exciting subjects to shoot.
If you can, you should go to the east fjords as well as to the north which gets less photographed.
Generally give yourself plenty of time to drive down side roads and explore for interesting subjects. The famous spots are famous for a reason but there is so much more to shoot in Iceland that enriches your portfolio and the overall experience of your trip.
Photo by Simon Markhof
Photo by Simon Markhof
Photo by Simon Markhof
Christian Hoiberg: This winter I spent three full months living and guiding in Arctic Norway. While I’ve spent a lot of time there previously, staying there for this extended period of time led to me getting a more intimate understanding of the surroundings.
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