Iceland is one of the most popular countries for landscape photographers and I can ensure you that it is popular for a reason. When I traveled to Iceland in March 2017, I could not drive for more than 15 minutes straight without stopping to take advantage of yet another fantastic photo opportunity. The photo possibilities are endless and I was constantly pulling over in between the great Iceland destinations that I was traveling between. Needless to say, I got nowhere fast in Iceland!
There are great subjects for landscape photographers around every corner, which is why this country has become such a destination for 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.
Photos by Denis Palanque
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 this special place, you WILL find tourists there. Tourists are flooding in more and more every year and with a modest population of 300.000 this little nation is hosted more than 2 million visitors in 2017, however, most of them visited in summer between June and September so the earlier you get there, the fewer tourists you will come across.
Another advantage of visiting in winter or early spring is the opportunity to shoot some northern lights. I was traveling 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“)
Photos by Nico Ruffato
The advantage 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.
The benefit of winter is you'll 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). Of course, the flip side of that is in the summer, you'll have long days with daylight almost 24 hours a day.
I know that it is a hard decision to choose one season over the other. The best compromise? 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.
Photo by Simon Markhof
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's going to be cold. While it can get fairly warm in summer it will be freezing cold in winter. With a 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.
Photo by Simon Markhof
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. Don't make the same mistakes: Bring weatherproof layers!
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 for waiting for that amazing light to come. The last thing you want is to abort your session because you weren’t prepared for the cold weather. It kind of goes without saying but we'll say it anyway, bring your photography gloves! The last thing you want is cold hands.
Photo by Simon Markhof
If you're not into long hikes in bad weather, don't worry. 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.
Let's get this out of the way now: 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 sitting on your camera, just 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.
Photo by Nico Ruffato
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 opt for an easy fix of wiping 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
Now that you have stopped worrying about your gear, get prepared to change your lenses constantly.
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“. That mentality is the difference between great photographers and mediocre photographers.
Yeah, of course, you have to take a shot of Skogafoss or any other famous attraction of the Icelandic landscape, but please do yourself 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.
Photo by Simon Markhof
It is not a bad thing to take that shot or any of the other iconic Iceland images, but Iceland is as an outstandingly beautiful location and finding unique compositions is honestly 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.
Pro tip: try to go to the east fjords as well as to the north which gets less photographed. In general, it's a good idea to give yourself plenty of time to drive down side roads and explore 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
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