A Photographer’s Guide to Iceland

The popularity of Iceland has exploded in the last few years.  After the economic crash ended in 2011, they began to do something they’d never really done before.  They invested in tourism. The number of visitors more than doubled in only a few years as a result of the marketing push.   As is usually the case, they relied heavily on photography to show what Iceland has to offer, but what Iceland offers is different than most places that are on the typical vacation short list.  The standard vacation spot focuses on luxury and amenities, but Iceland is known for its other worldly landscapes, dramatic weather, huge waterfalls, and being remote and untouched.

This kind of marketing especially appealed to one demographic in particular.  Photographers have flocked to Iceland, drawn in by the incredible landscapes and the northern lights.  I’ve never been anywhere with so many photographers, and with such a high concentration of pro level gear.   On the flip side, the majority of them are concentrated in the same five spots, all vying for the iconic angles that they’ve seen repeated again and again.

I spent 10 days traveling around Iceland with my girlfriend Amber who’s also a photographer shooting photos for Eagle Creek, prAna, and Surftech.  Here are the top eight things that we learned that I believe every photographer should take into consideration for their own Iceland adventure.

Capturing the Northern Lights

Standing under the Northern Lights in Iceland.

This is perhaps the biggest draw for photographers in Iceland, and capturing it is also the most serendipitous.  There are apps that try to predict the Aurora, and tour companies that try to make it more formulaic, but in the end, you need clear skies, patience, and for the auroras to cooperate.   The best plan is to watch a weather radar and search out the clearest skies.  On the night that we saw them, we had the clear skies and had waited for hours with not even a hint of the auroras.  After giving up and going to bed, a fortuitous bathroom break revealed that the sky was dancing while we were dreaming.  If you have the flexibility, and you want the best chances of seeing the lights, wait for a solar storm, the storms create the most intense auroras.

Getting Around

A campervan in front of Skogafoss

There’s a reason campervan rentals have been taking off in Iceland.  First and foremost, many of the places that are the most incredible are quite remote and have little infrastructure around them.   We rented a camper van from Cozy Campers, and even though it was mid winter, the heater in the van was plenty strong to keep us warm.  Our mobility allowed us to be on location before the first tourists showed up in places like Skogafoss, and had we not been in the van, we may never have gone outside at midnight on the fortuitous night that we saw the Aurora.  As a bonus, the fact that we could cook for ourselves in the van saved us from the astronomical food prices in Iceland.

The Ice Caves

A self portrait in an Icelandic ice cave.

Everywhere you go in Iceland, adventure tour companies have plastered photos of empty ice caves.  This for me was one of the most exciting destinations on our list.  In my mind, the foot of the glacier had caves along it’s length, with enough space for us to meander around and find our own special spot.  In truth, we arrived to find a single cave filled with over 100 people.  All the tour companies were selling trips to the same exact spot.  The huge rigs they used to shuttle people up there made me think we couldn’t have driven up there ourselves, but we could have gotten within a quarter of a mile of the cave and walked the rest, saving about $400.   I nearly gave up before I even started shooting, but since we were there, I wandered around and photographed the cave, people and all.  At the very end of our time there as they were pushing everybody out of the cave to make room for the next group I ran into the very back and snapped off 3 photos with nobody else in them.  I guess my point is don’t expect to see the cave as they have advertised it, but if you are patient, it is possible to get a photo without a million people in it.

Up Close with the Glaciers

Walking through a crevasse in Skaftafell

We linked up with a company called Icelandic Mountain Guides for a day of hiking up the glacier in Vatnajökull National Park.  Originally I had thought that the ice caves were way cooler, and the hike would only scratch the surface of the glaciers, but in truth getting to hike up the glacier and descend into the crevasses was a highlight of the trip.  It’s incredibly rare to stand on a glacier like this, so the photographs are uncommon and really quite interesting.  If I return, I’ll skip the ice cave and spend more time photographing in the crevasses.

Diamond Beach

A chunk of glacial ice on Diamond Beach

I expected a crowd at Diamond Beach, where chunks of glacier have washed out of the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon into the sea and have been pushed up onto the black sand beach.  The beach is quite long though, and most of the people are condensed to one small area.  It’s not hard to find your own iceberg to photograph.  The ice seems to light up more when the sun is low in the sky, and the ability to slow down your shutter speed and shoot with a more artistic bent leads to more interesting images.

Bring a drone

A drone selfie on an Icelandic Glacier

My DJI Mavic Pro fits in my camera bag and takes up hardly any space at all,  so it’s a no-brainer to bring it with me.  I’m glad I did, as it can be the only way to get a unique shot of the more photographed landscapes.  A few times, I would arrive at a location and see hundreds of people standing in the way of “my” shot.  Sometimes, it’s the limiting factors that lead to the best images though, and I’m finding my drone is moving from a backup plan to my main piece of kit for new and interesting imagery.

Skogafoss

A self portrait at Skogafoss.

Skogafoss is probably the most photographed location in Iceland, it’s incredibly beautiful, and I found myself just staring at it at times instead of working with my camera to find the best angle.  The problem, is everybody is after the same image.  How many photos have we seen of a tiny person in the foreground standing below the waterfall?  I was in the parking lot in the dark, and at the first hint of light walked out to the falls.  Three photographers had already lined up and were taking that tiny person shot.  Good for me though, I had already planned to skip it.  What I hadn’t realized is just how many other angles there are of Skogafoss. It’s even possible to get above the waterfall and shoot straight down.  With a fisheye, the mountains around it stand out nicely.  Leave the postcard image to the masses and find your own angle here.  It’s worth it.

Get Away from Ordinary

Amber Arbucci paddle boarding in a glacial lagoon.

Capturing lanscapes on their own leads to beautiful photographs, but including a person gives perspective, and lets the viewer imagine themselves there.  When we were in the glacier lagoon, I was struggling to find an interesting image that wasn’t just a snapshot of the incredible location.  I had an inflatable Surftech paddle board with me though, and this was the perfect opportunity to get something unique.  Not only was I super happy with how my photos turned out, paddling around the lagoon offered some really unique perspectives.  I just wish I was a good enough paddle boarder to feel comfortable taking my camera out there with me!

Bonus advice for shooting in Winter

Photographer photographing an iceberg on diamond beach.

Winter presents it’s own unique set of challenges, and I’m not talking about framing and exposures.  Shooting in the cold can be a very frustrating experience if it’s not something you’re used to.  Here are a few things I’ve learned that are invaluable for shooting in places like Iceland.  1.  Going from cold environments to warm ones like a hotel or camper van can lead to condensation forming in and on your lenses.  The trick is to put the camera in a gallon ziplock bag when changing environments until it’s warmed up to the ambient temperature.  This minimizes the amount of moisture that can build up.  2.  Keep a spare battery in a warm “inside” pocket on your jacket.  Cold batteries die faster and having a warm replacement is key.   3.  Take an intervalometer, sometimes the only subject around is yourself, so precompose the image on a tripod, set the intervalometer, and go walk around the scene.  Adding a person almost always makes the photo more interesting.  3.  Definitely experiment with a drone, but be ready for the environment to change really quickly and bring that drone back quickly!

1 Comment

    Bring hand warmers for your lenses, keeps condensation off.

    bring a water/rain cover for the waterfall shots, to keep mist off your gear.

    We did the van, it was great!

    If you go in the winter, most campgrounds will be closed. Call ahead to see which one is open.

    Bring your GPS with Europe maps on it. However, it was extra helpful to know where you want to go (at least the main spots). The trick is, your US (or any other GPS) will have a US type address input, which doesn’t work with Icelandic language or format. Work ahead and get all the GPS coordinates to the locations into a spreadsheet. Input them where you want to go.

    You will learn to love gas station food. Its not as bad as it sounds.

    Whatever your food budget is, double it.

    I second the glacier hike being worth it. One of the highlights for us.

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