What to expect on your first trip to Iceland to do landscape photography
Where we stayed and how long we went for
We went for 4 nights which gave us 3 full days in Iceland. I went at the end of March with my girlfriend, it wasn’t a pure photography trip but the idea was to rent a car and drive around Iceland to see the landscape and what all the fuss was about. We booked a hotel in Reykjavik and I made a rough plan to drive North, East and South on each of the 3 days.
What I took with me
I took my entire kit
The first day we traveled east to Gulfoss from Reykjavik. As we traveled through the first national park a snow storm started but only lasted for around 15 minutes. There was a lot of snow around which I think is typical for this time of the year in Iceland, however it was slowly melting as the temperatures increased. I found it to be a nice and relaxing drive with some nice scenery, even if it didn’t lend itself quite to landscape photography. We turned up the ‘tunes’ and motored towards Gulfoss. When we arrived at 11am we parked up and headed down to the waterfall. It was the first and best one I saw in Iceland. Covered in snow, it is a fantastic sight. The first viewpoint was impossible to photograph because of the spray so I moved a little further back nearer to the lower car park where the spray wasn’t reaching. I managed to get a few nice shots such as this one:
We wandered up to the higher path so we could walk along the side of the waterfall. This created a different composition which looked directly down the valley and it was the kind of composition where all the work is already done for you. I choose a portrait orientation in order to cut out the crowds and the carpark. This was my favourite shot of the location and I was briefly treated to some nice ambient light.
After Gullfoss, we then visited Geysir which is around 5 miles down the road. It is a spouting hot spring which is worth seeing as it can go as high as 70 metres. We then drove 2 hours to the famous Blue Lagoon where we spent the afternoon (which I loved btw). The camera did not come out for the rest of the day.
We woke up to howling winds and rain. Checking the forecast it seemed to be overcast and rainy in the majority of Iceland. I originally planned to travel South but after checking the forecast there was a slight chance for some light in the North at Kirkjufellsfoss Mountain. So I decided to take a chance and drive North. We had breakfast at the hotel and set off, by now some nice light was breaking through in Reykjavik and illuminating the urban landscape. We drove North for around 40 minutes and came across a cluster of mountains which really interested me. I pulled the car into a random lay-by and looked around for higher ground so that I see over the immediate foreground and shoot the mountains. I walked across a random field and found a couple of nice compositions including:
We drove a little further into the town of Borganes and again I pulled in just before as I spotted some beautiful abstract patterns on the side of the mountains. By this point the wind was absolutely ferocious. I set my tripod up and clipped my bag around it to help hold it down. I used a long lens to really focus on the details and the clouds, setting a fast shutter speed due to the windy conditions. As I was struggling to keep everything on the ground, a local walking her dog went by me without a care in the world. This was probably a normal day for her in Iceland.
After visiting a museum in Borganes, we headed for Kirkjufellsfoss mountain. The drive is really scenic and mostly flat, however, the wind would not calm down. We drove through ‘fjords’ and across multiple bridges until we reached the iconic location. It had also started raining by this point and we sat in the car park with the car swaying from side to side. After deliberation I got out and went for a walk; I almost didn’t bother taking the camera with me as the conditions were virtually impossible to shoot in. Absolutely gutted, but at the same time, millions of people have taken that same shot. I was more excited to find a unique composition or different take on the area, but unfortunately, I was not able to do due to the weather. We gave it another hour or so, checked the forecast which wasn’t going to change for hours and then headed back to go out for a meal.
The third and final day our plan was to travel south. Our first stop would be the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, just short of a 2-hour drive from Reykjavik. You can actually see the waterfall as you approach it from around 10 miles away, as it is right off the main ring road. Parking is 700 ISK. It was a very nice location but I didn’t really feel inspired to take images, due to the flat light and the fact that 200 people were all taking the same image. It was just nice to spend time there and enjoy the moment.
After the first waterfall, we drove another 20 minutes down the road to Skogafoss waterfall. This is a larger waterfall and one of the most famous in Iceland. I walked to the top and found a nice image with a river leading towards the opposite mountain. A glimmer of light came out and lit up the yellow moss.
Finally, we went to Reynisfjara beach, home of the ‘3 trolls’. I should mention the weather had been overcast up to this point, but now the wind had picked up again and seemed worst at the coast, which is often the case. Again lots of people there, but I found a simple composition using the black sandy beach and the white tide. I would have liked to use an exposure time of 0.5 – 1 second to catch the rushing tide, however, it was impossible due to the ridiculous wind. At some points, I had to literally just hold onto my tripod and wait for it to calm down. I didn’t manage to capture a noteworthy image.
We then drove back to Reykjavik, packed up, had some food and caught a flight home the following morning at 9 am.
Would I go back? If so, what time of year?
Yes, I would like to go back. I class this trip as a ‘get to know Iceland’; I truly didn’t know what to expect. However, I would go back in summer in order to get out on the hiking trails more and explore area’s which are off limits during winter.
What would I do differently?
Next time I would go to the South East of the island. There are 3 or 4 locations here which I want to visit and explore such as Jökulsárlón lagoon, diamond beach and Stokksnes (which looks absolutely phenomenal).
Is Iceland good for landscape photography?
Yes of course it is. Although you will need to do a lot of planning and research, it is not a place you can just turn up and wing it. You will do a lot of driving as a lot of the popular locations are not close to each other.
Do not expect the weather to play ball. From what I’ve heard and from my own experiences, it is cloudy, windy and wet in Iceland a lot of the time. You really need to check the weather forecast constantly and try to follow the best weather (although this didn’t work for me either). Here is an app I found really useful as it gives you detailed forecasts of locations around the island.
It is fair to say there are lots of landmarks which are beautiful landscape scenes which deserve to be captured on camera. But also expect lots (and I mean lots) of tourists and photographers to be taking the exact same shot throughout the entire day. But I always say if you like the shot, then it doesn’t matter. Photography should be for you first and foremost, you shouldn’t be influenced by outside factors. And think about it from other people’s point of view, they are also thinking the same thing about you. To take the old analogy about someone complaining they are in a traffic jam, they are part of the reason there is a traffic jam.
Also what I noticed in Iceland is yes there are lots of good locations to go to, but there is really nothing in between. Just empty space and the main ring road. Again, this is just the impression I got and I think this is amplified in winter when you are limited to where you can go. In summer it should be easier to go ‘off the beaten track’ and find unique images.
So the two points above make it difficult to develop unique compositions on a short trip where you have a limited amount of time and large distances to cover between locations. Planning routes and constantly checking the weather is vitally important.
I would say you really need 10 days / 2 weeks to learn about the landscape, explore hiking trails/national parks and to catch the iconic locations during the best conditions.
So overall I take this as a learning experience that I can build on for future landscape photography trips. I was lucky to get a few nice images that I am proud of and to see some fantastic natural sights. Ironically the first image I took on the trip was probably my favourite and the only time I saw some nice light 🙂