I often come across articles by photographers or photo-bloggers listing the most exciting places to capture landscape photos. The articles usually list sites that are already popular among photographers and tourists alike. More often than not, every single place is miles away from other places on the list, in different regions, states, countries, or even continents. Of course, the places are, without exception, unique and enjoyable for photographers, but to visit them all, you need to travel extensively. For example, if you want to photograph hot springs and glaciers in the US, you need to travel to Yosemite in California and then to Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. However, if you wish to photograph a hot spring and a glacier in Iceland, you need to drive for five hours between Geysir and Jökulsárlón. For those who don’t want to be in the most touristy places, there are many other geothermal photo locations and impressive glaciers, outlet glaciers, and glacier tongues in Iceland. The same also applies to many other natural wonders like waterfalls, canyons, or interesting basalt column sites. The short distance between impressive natural wonders in Iceland is only one factor of many that should put Iceland on your list for a photographic tour. Another one is the wide variety of colorful landforms and places to visit.
Why are there so many places for photo opportunities in Iceland?
Landscape photography is not simply about the gear and configuration of the camera. It is more about conveying your experience in front of a beautiful natural wonder and how you capture it with your camera. So, when you devote the time and resources and travel to focus on landscape photography, you want to ensure that you have many places of interest to choose from. And you can rest assured that you will find that in Iceland.
Iceland is often described as the land of ice and fire. This is actually an old slogan aimed at tourists in the past and a very successful one. I always think of my country as an island of magma, water, wind, and ocean forces—a small volcanic island up north by the Arctic Circle, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and its destructive forces. Regarding size, the island is similar to Kentucky in the US and a bit larger than Portugal in Europe, which makes it easy to travel from one region to another in a short time. Geologically, it is one of the youngest landforms on the planet. As a volcanic island, it is continuously reformed and reshaped by the forces below the crust: magma and water. Above the surface, the wind and the ocean play a significant role. For thousands of years, the magma has been regularly crawling to the surface (every five years or so) as an eruption, lava, or tephra. Water appears through rain, steam, snow, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and glaciers throughout the island.
Throughout its short geological history (16 million years or so), this small island has formed and produced some fascinating landforms of infinite complexity. The terrain is highly interesting for photographers in every corner, from the shoreline to mountain tops, from boiling angry mud pools to white glaciers that live and breathe deep in the highland—marvels that are often quite different from one place to another and clustered into a spectacular natural wonder. The interaction between these forces has created a variety of beautiful, colorful, exotic, and unusual landscapes that are highly interesting to photograph. The possibilities are endless if you know where to look and how to go there. So, what kind of places are we talking about?
What kind of natural wonders and landforms for photography do you find in Iceland?
When you visit the landscape section of any online photo community, you get to witness some spectacular work by talented photographers—photos of mountains, shoreline, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and cliffs, to name a few themes. Often, the pictures are enhanced with stunning foreground items or contributions from calm wind or interesting weather. Sometimes, you see a combination of interesting things, like a mountain with a waterfall in the foreground or a large peak reflected in a calm lake. In many populated areas, interesting places for landscape photography nearby are often scarce and many photographers concentrate on the same locations and limited variety of landforms. But this does not apply to Iceland, as you will see if you visit my personal photographic website.
The small island offers a great variety of places and interesting landforms. It has been estimated that Iceland has more than 1600 waterfalls of all shapes and forms that are higher than two meters. You will find interesting calderas and hundreds of craters around the island with colorful rock formations, some with turquoise blue lakes at the bottom—craters that erupted thousands of years ago and those that erupted less than a decade ago. Accordingly, the island houses large carpets of lava fields from various eruptions spanning from new, raw, edgy, and sharp rocks to soft lava fields covered with green, brown, and yellow moss. If you like glaciers, you will find many spreading and stunning outlet glaciers attached to the main ice cap, glacier tongues falling down more than 1600 meters and breaking apart along the way often with lagoons filled with icebergs at the bottom. There are many exciting high-temperature and colorful geothermal places around the island, some that surprisingly few people visit. An infinitive number of small and large canyons, ravines, and fissures can be found in every region of the island. Large basalt column stacks placed in spectacular landform contexts are more than you can count on the fingers of your hands. The same goes for colorful rhyolite mountains. I could also add the unique black sand by the beaches and large areas of “black deserts” in the highland. Here, we also have lava caves, ice caves, glacial rivers, spring-fed rivers, creeks, fjords, mountains, spectacular shoreline, interesting cliffs, sea stacks, and lakes. The opportunities are endless, and here, you will find almost every type of landform deemed attractive for landscape photography. The only major exception is a forest or expanses of trees. Iceland is more about vast open space. So, when you combine the short distance between places with an enormous variety of places to photograph, the island starts to sound irresistible for photographers. But believe it or not, there is more that makes Iceland appealing for photographers.
The natural light and the many different versions of the golden hour in Iceland
The term “golden hour” among photographers and its relevance to photography is a reminder of the role of the sun in landscape photography. Many photographers organize all their photography around the morning light at sunrise and evening light at sunset. This is when the sunrays are more horizontal than vertical, the shadows are long, the rays are softer, and the color is yellow or pink. In most populated places in the south part of the northern hemisphere, the morning and the afternoon golden hours occur more or less at a similar time throughout the year and the sun rises and sets in a similar place on the horizon. This is not the case in Iceland where we have golden hours rather than the golden hour.
In summer, at the end of June, sunrise is in the north, around 12:30 AM and slightly to the east, and sunset is also in the north, a bit to the west, about 23 hours later. In some places up north, the sun doesn’t even dip below the horizon and only swings down to the horizon and up again. On the other hand, in winter at the end of December, sunrise is in the much farther to the east, around 10:00 AM, and sunset is about 6 hours later around 4:00 PM, slightly southwest. This may be confusing for most people, so I will explain it in greater detail as it is crucial for photographers visiting Iceland.
Let’s consider the Skógafoss waterfall. It is located near the south shore in Iceland and its position is useful to explain the changeable nature of the golden hour in Iceland. When you stand in front of the waterfall, you stand south of Skógafoss, facing north. The waterfall is a beautiful square form and on its right is the east cliff or shoulder and on the left is the west shoulder. In summer, sunrise is in front of you, behind the waterfall, slightly to the east, and sunset, 23 hours later, somewhat to the west. Around 2:00 PM, when the sun shines straight on the waterfall, it is very high behind you casting a vertical bright light on the waterfall. Consequently, the golden hour at this time of year is around 11:00 PM to 2:00 AM or around midnight behind the waterfall. And just like in the north, the golden hour at sunrise and at sunset merge into a period of three to four hours of spectacular light, forming the golden hours.
In winter, specifically in December, sunrise is behind you, casting a horizontal light on the waterfall and the cliffs on both sides, often creating stunning colors at an almost continuous golden hour from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Around 2:00 PM, the sun is relatively low, pointing its rays straight at the waterfall, often creating beautiful colors and a rainbow in the drizzle from the falling water.
This irregularity of the golden hour in Iceland is in every respect complicated for photographers but extremely important. Continuing with the Skógafoss waterfall, you might, as a photographer, plan to take a photo similar to something you saw in a photo community. When you arrive, the golden hour might be nowhere to be found and you might realize that it would appear in the middle of the night when you are supposed to be sleeping in your next hotel about 100 miles from Skógafoss. You might also discover that the light is different from what you anticipated. The upside though is that the golden hour lasts much longer in Iceland than in most other places farther south in the northern hemisphere. Both sunrise and sunset are slower, giving photographers more elbow space when working on their shot. Accordingly, when you plan a photo tour to Iceland, you need to look carefully into the time of sunrise and sunset around the location you have chosen. In summer, you might have to stay awake during the bright night and take a nap during the day; in winter, you only have about six hours, but every minute more or less would fit within the definition of the golden hour.
The downside, and to make matters more complicated, is that everything is also seriously affected by the sharp difference between seasons and the unpredictable weather.
How are the seasons important factors in photography in Iceland?
Like most places on the planet, Iceland has four seasons and each season has its distinct character. Compared to many other places, there is a considerable difference between seasons regarding temperature and precipitation. Factors that affect nature and natural wonders change the momentum of many places from one month to the next. For photography, this means that any location of interest in Iceland is quite different from one season to another. Consequently, when you aim for a particular place when organizing your photo tour, it is vital to choose the right season depending on the outcome you aim for.
The most extreme difference regarding seasons for photography is seen in the Highland. This is important as the Highland covers almost one-third of the island and has many unique places within its boundaries, like the colorful rhyolite mountains at Landmannalaugar or the geothermal high-temperature wonderland at Hveradalir valley. It is a significant part of the country and being developed into the largest national park in Europe. Many writers with limited knowledge of Iceland tend to name this area “Highlands,” confusing with the term that describes the Highlands in Scotland. However, Icelanders have always, without exception, used the term “Highland.” There is only one Highland in Iceland. In summer, both Landmannalaugar and Hveradalir are places of a feast for photographers due to the variety in color, vegetation, snowflakes, steam, light, and alternative subjects in landform. In winter, everything is white, covered with a thick layer of snow. This applies to every corner of the Highland in Iceland. It is more or less only accessible in summer and into early autumn and only from the end of June to the end of September. If you intend to take beautiful photos of places in the Highland, your window is only about four months. You need a right 4X4 vehicle as most of the roads are rough dirt roads, which makes the tour more exciting and adventurous.
To better understand all the four seasons in Iceland and how they affect photography, we can consider an example of an interesting place, Gjáin, a small valley at the edge of the Icelandic Highland. It is a beautiful place often referred to as an oasis and is loaded with photo opportunities. It is a typical product of magma, spring-fed water, and severe weather throughout thousands of years and where you can spend hours to take interesting photos. At the same time, it is highly sensitive to minor changes between seasons.
As you can see in the photos above, Gjáin flourishes with color, vegetation, clean springs, and small beautiful waterfalls during summer. In autumn, the small valley changes color, and some of the flowers fade. The trees enhance the photogenic nature of Gjáin as autumn ushers in new colors. In winter, everything is frozen and most of the time covered with snow. As spring kicks in and the snow from winter starts to melt, everything kind of becomes muddy, brownish, and dirty. From the end of March to the beginning of May, the early spring in Iceland is probably the least interesting time to visit Iceland and a time of limited value to photographers.
So, when you plan a photo tour to Iceland, you need to be aware of how the different seasons affect the landscape and places you plan to photograph. It dramatically affects all areas and subjects you plan to shoot and how accessible the sites are. It is a crucial factor when it comes to determining how beautiful your photos will be.
The weather is in control and cannot be ignored
In Iceland, the weather is an essential factor in not only landscape photography but also the daily life of all Icelanders. It is a force that continually molds and shapes the landform and sits in the heart and mind of every Icelander from an early age. It is one of the first things we see in the morning and the last thing we think about before we go to bed. It is also the most common conversational topic in Iceland. So, if you ever find yourself in an embarrassing moment with an Icelander with nothing to talk about, just ask if they know how the weather is going to be tomorrow and you are in for a long conversation. For landscape photography, the weather is essential. The reason is that the weather is a bulky and unpredictable force.
One aspect that surprises many visitors, though, is how narrow the temperature spectrum is. The temperature rarely drops below - 5°Celsius (23°F) in Reykjavík or by the shoreline around the island in winter. In summer, the temperature seldom goes above 16°Celsius (60°F). But it is not the temperature that dominates the climate conditions but the wind. In winter, chilly winds often make - 5°Celsius (23°F) feel like - 15°Celsius (5°F). The wind also affects the temperature in summer in a similar way, although it is always warmer in summer than in winter.
Therefore, in addition to temperature, the speed of the wind is essential for landscape photography and photo tours. A regular spectrum of the wind speed in all seasons in Iceland varies from 0 m/s (meters per second) or 0 mph (miles per hour) to high winds of 24 m/s (52 mph).
What does this mean for photography? The wind always drops the temperature and makes outdoor activities inconvenient, which everyone needs to be aware of. Moreover, most places are convenient for photography when the wind speed does not exceed 8 m/s or 18 mph. Wind speed that is 9 to 18 m/s or 20 to 40 mph makes photography a bit difficult and anything above that makes it almost impossible. To make things worse, the wind is never steady but fluctuates most of the time from constant speed to hectic high gusts.
The wind speed also affects the photo if the subject is a lake with a spectacular reflection or any item like flowers or trees that move when using long exposure. When you arrive in Iceland, you need to check the weather in the morning and the next day. You can find fair and relatively accurate information about the weather in Iceland and the wind speed and direction at the Icelandic Met Office.
Clothing and shoes, be prepared
Needless to say, considering the unpredictable nature of the weather in Iceland, the right clothing is essential. There is no season in Iceland when you can don shorts and a t-shirt, except occasionally on random days during summer. If landscape photography is your primary purpose, you invariably need suitable clothing. If you plan to take photos in the Highland in the summer, you need to bear in mind that the altitude in the Highland is much higher than that by the coastline and the temperature is lower. To be secure and prepared for the unpredictable weather, you need to dress like you are going on a hike. You need at least two layers of clothing and reasonably good hiking shoes in summer and three layers plus a good, warm winter coat in autumn and winter. You always want to have an excellent rain-resistant coat handy. Crampons are also something you don’t want to forget in winter. Many places, especially those around waterfalls, become too slippery from late autumn through winter.
Hiking is often required to visit interesting places
It isn’t easy to take full advantage of all the great selections of landscape photography in Iceland unless you can walk with your gear a distance of at least 2–3 kilometers (1–2 miles). Good physical condition greatly enhances your selection of places to photograph because there are many fascinating natural wonders with no possibility of any motor vehicle transportation. This doesn’t mean that you need to be specifically athletic, but being in an average healthy condition for moderate walks and hikes increases your selection of interesting places.
I could consider the example of Múlagljúfur canyon, which is an excellent place for photography with great foreground, background, and small waterfalls and a place that requires a hike of 3–4 miles, about 5 kilometers, and an elevation of 200 meters. A similar walk is needed when you visit Landmannalaugar and Hveradalir or a beautiful waterfall like Hengifoss.
If you can’t opt for the short hikes, you still have a lot of options in Iceland, but mostly in the most common touristy places—places where you can take a photo almost when you step out of the car. If we observe the most popular photo communities like 500PX and Flickr, the largest number of pictures of any given place in Iceland is from one that does not require hiking. This includes places like Mt. Kirkjufell, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Gullfoss, and Seljalandsfoss.
This also means that there is a large selection of spectacular options for those who want to devote the extra time and effort to find spectacular places on the beaten path.
Popular places in Iceland for landscape photography
It is undoubtedly unique for a small island to have such a large selection of places to visit for photography. It is especially true when you add the short distance between many breathtaking locations and the variety of natural wonders available. Many of the most exciting places are also easily accessible, which is one reason they are popular. Most photographers that have published a list of interesting places to visit and photograph in Iceland limit their selection to those places. Places like Gullfoss (approximately 6000 photos on 500PX), Kirkjufell waterfall (approximately 9000 photos on 500PX), Seljalandsfoss (approximately 6000 photos on 500PX), and Skógafoss (approximately 9000 photos on 500PX) are probably the most renowned waterfalls in Iceland and almost always appear on such lists. They are within a comfortable driving range from Reykjavík, the capital, and part of a convenient day tour. All of them are spectacular natural wonders and a joy to visit and photograph. The waterfalls are part of two of the most popular day tours from Reykjavík, the Golden Circle, and the south shore. Other interesting places on these routes are the geyser Strokkur that erupts every 10 to 15 minutes and Þingvellir National Park, part of the Golden Circle and the Reynisfjara beach, Dyrhólaey arch, and Sólheimajökull glacier tongue, part of the south shore drive. Almost none of them requires any walking or hiking and you can start taking spectacular photos minutes after you step out of the car. These places also have multiple angles, as inventive and good photographers have shown. Although highly popular and often crowded with people, all of them have one thing in common: they are unique and spectacular and a good and creative photographer always delivers excellent shots. So, even for those who have limited time and resources, the most popular and touristy places are a good option. Here, you must remember that, in summer, we have daylight almost for 24 hours and the golden hour is between 11 PM and 1 AM, at a time when you can potentially have the most popular attractions to yourself. For photographers with time and resources, visiting many of the spectacular and unique places that few people visit is of course rewarding. But here is where your choice of season plays an important part when you visit Iceland for photography.
Spring photography in Iceland
Of all the four seasons, spring is probably the least interesting time to visit Iceland. This is the time from the end of March to the beginning of June when the temperature rises and snow from winter melts. Access to the Highland is closed and most dirt roads and gravel roads are muddy and difficult to drive along. The whole terrain soaks in water with the color of the landscape a monotonous brownish and gray. Despite all the downsides, there are many places you can visit and take interesting photos during spring. This is where the diversity of the Icelandic landscape kicks in. In addition to the Golden Circle and the south shore, which are available places to visit in spring and all year round, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Reykjanes Peninsula are both areas that offer a good selection of natural wonders during spring.
You have a selection of waterfalls, spectacular places by the shoreline, towns and villages, glacier lagoons, glacier tongues, icebergs, geothermal hot springs, sometimes eruptions, and scenic drives in spring. Spring is when the golden hour befalls at a manageable time, early morning and early evening, and coincides with what most people would define as a regular 24-hour cycle. For example, there are many interesting places by the coast, both the south shore and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, where you can take incredible sunrise and sunset photos and fantastic long exposure shots. The weather is usually more stable with fewer storms and high winds. It is an overall convenient time to travel and take photos and more attractive compared to many places to visit for photography outside Iceland but less impressive than other seasons.
Summer photography in Iceland
All regions in Iceland around the coastline start blooming at the end of May as the days get longer and the weather warmer. The Highland, the spectacular center of the island, begins to open up with the highland roads opening up one after another from the middle of June to the middle of July. Summer is always an exciting time of year for landscape photographers in Iceland and remains highly rewarding until the end of August. The selection and diversity of places to visit and photograph and spots to enjoy nature are almost unlimited. The colors appear in a broad spectrum where nature offers almost all available hues in mountains, vegetation, rocks, lava, water, or any other form in the terrain. The sun adds to the light, the golden hours as described above open up great opportunities, overall weather conditions are much better, and all the roads are in good condition. You can easily travel between interesting places for 15 hours a day and always find a lot of interesting places to photograph for days and even weeks. It is a time when photographers hate to go to sleep. You can drive the spectacular scenic drive in the Westfjords and the East fjords. This is the time to visit places like Landmannalaugar, Hveradalir, Laki, Langisjór lake, and Askja in the Highland, places that offer unlimited photo opportunities, and many other unique sites that few people visit. It is a time when the positive effects of the season, the weather, the light, the long hours, and the road access are not only an adventure but also a challenge. It is a season of an overflow of opportunities and an enriching time of year for photographers to visit Iceland. The only downside is the intense light during the day that can best be overcome with filters or merely turning the night into day and vice versa.
Autumn photography in Iceland
I personally think autumn, the time between the end of August and the beginning of November, is the most interesting time for photography in Iceland. When a slight drop in temperature makes the sky much clearer, everything becomes crisp and the color contrast is more intense. Like spring, you have a manageable golden hour in the evening and early morning, making it an excellent time for sunrise and sunset photos. In many vegetated areas, the beautiful autumn colors enhance many sites in late September and October, adding to the color intensity. All fascinating places are easily accessible and even the most popular areas are not as crowded compared to summer.
Most importantly, many interesting and beautiful places in the Highland are simply stunning in autumn, not to mention the thin layer of snow that appears on the mountaintops. It is a very photogenic period in Iceland and therefore a perfect time for photographers. Besides, other things make this time of year adventurous. From late August to September, we experience some of the most fascinating and powerful Northern Lights. Over many years, I have taken some of my favorite photos in the Highland at this time of the year. Anyone who is seriously aiming at photography in Iceland should visit the island in autumn.
Winter photography in Iceland
Several aspects make winter an attractive option for photographers to visit Iceland for a photo tour. First, if you live in a country or an area where you never experienced winter with snow, storms, and challenging weather, Iceland is the perfect place where you can find out how this feels and looks. Accordingly, a considerable portion of the photo work will deliver photos that are a bit dark and gloomy. Winter is not the time where shining, colorful images can be expected. It would help if you also remember that the days are short and the weather utterly unpredictable. It is even possible for you to get locked up in a hotel somewhere in any region for a few days without being able to take a single shot. But there is an advantage, although not flourishing with opportunities like summer.
In winter, you have the possibility to see the spectacular Northern Lights, shoot many fascinating frozen waterfalls with out-of-this-world icicle formation, take a walk into unique ice caves to photograph, and explore the bottom of glaciers and frozen lakes. From late November to early February, the sun only shines for a few hours and crawls very low over the horizon, casting a phenomenal light on the landform. In some ways, it is an advantage as the light is quite colorful with yellows, purples, and pinks. This is particularly interesting if there is a layer of snow. If you plan to visit Iceland for a photo tour or photography work in the middle of the winter, you need to fully understand what to expect in daylight and in that weather. Otherwise, you are most likely up for major disappointment.
Best photo gear for overall preparation, lenses, configuration, and filters
Landscape photography is basically the art of combining a spectacular landform into “the rule of thirds” and adding an item in the foreground. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Most of the time when taking a landscape photo, you want to get close to the subject. At the same time, you want to capture an image with depth and sharpness. You want to place some exciting item in the foreground as a starting point for the eye. So, a good option when it comes to gear is a wide-angle lens of 14 mm to 18 mm. It is also convenient to have the opportunity to narrow the angle to 35 mm when maneuvering the shot. Besides, you also want to have your gear as light as possible as landscape photographers often hike or do a bit of walking to capture a particular subject. My recommendation for the best lens to put on your camera for overall landscape photography is a zoom lens of 14–24 mm or 16–35 mm (like the Nikon lens that is my favorite and probably the best lens Nikon has ever made). The lens aperture doesn’t necessarily need to be larger than f3.5 or f4 since you don’t need a fast lens in landscape photography. If you are shooting at a 125 or slower speed, try to use a tripod to enhance the sharpness. To capture a sharp photo, put the aperture at f/16 to f/22 and shoot on a tripod. You can set the configuration on aperture priority and shoot.
Preferably use a manual setting and take several photos from s1/15 to s2 to 4 seconds. Most cameras and lenses would deliver good sharp images with this configuration. However, you might require a tripod and sometimes a three-stop filter, especially when you are in strong sunlight, less when in low light. You can go back home from a photo tour in Iceland with many great photos by only using any good camera by brands like Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, or others, a 14–35 mm lens, a tripod, and a three- and a six-stop filleter. This applies to landscape photography and those who want to keep things simple or light and inspiring results beyond the average photographer. Many landscape photographers prefer the 24–70 mm lenses, but I always feel the need for a bit wider than 24 mm when standing in front of a spectacular landscape. The more I embrace with the lens, the better the story. Sometimes you see interesting things that require a better zoom than 35 mm or even 70 mm. So the other lens you should carry is 70 mm to 200 mm. Since photography in Iceland often requires hiking, fitting your gear in a 20–30-liter backpack is a good choice. With this gear, you can go a long way by taking great landscape photos in every corner of Iceland.
Organizing your landscape photography tour is important
Although a small island, Iceland is probably the most exciting country in the world for landscape photographers. Even though the weather is unpredictable, the sunlight often unavailable, and seasons might prevent you from visiting places of interest, the variety and number of natural wonders surpass those of all other countries. If you are interested in landscape photography, Iceland is probably already on your bucket list or at least on your radar. As you can see from this article, when organizing a photographic tour to Iceland, it is vital to understand all the forces that wake over the natural wonders and beautiful places, that affect your visit and how they define your options.
One of the main premises is understanding the seasons and how each season defines and affects access to places you wish to visit. Another is to prepare for a different kind of weather and temperature. Studying the sites you want to visit and how to get there is also a good plan, especially since each stop for photography takes more time than just stepping out and taking a selfie like a regular tourist. A stop for a photographer usually takes about 30–60 minutes, deciding the angle, configuration, setting up a tripod, etc. The bottom line is that the better you organize your photographic tour in Iceland, the better the results will be.