Landscape photography and photo tours in Iceland and what you need to know from a local expert
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
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.