A Photographers Travel Guide To Iceland

If you’re looking at visiting Iceland to photograph the incredible landscapes and waterfalls here is my basic guide to photography in Iceland. When I first visited Iceland in the winter of 2007 there were very few tourists and at most locations we were the only people. Now even in winter you can expect Iceland to be full of tourists especially around the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is definitely worth seeing but from a photographers point of view you might have to be creative to get shots void of other tourists. Reykjavik itself has some nice areas to photograph but for the more unique photo opportunities it is best to explore further afield such as the North & East of the island and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to the North West of Reykjavik. There will be fewer tourists although it can still get busy.

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What Camera Equipment & Lenses to Take to Iceland

Firstly take a good tripod! I try to travel light with just a couple of lenses like my Nikon 24-70mm f2.8 and Nikon 70-200mm f2.8. These are also handy because they are the same thread size so my polarising filter and Lee Filters fit on both lenses. If you have a wide angle lens like the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 that is great for the Ice Caves and Northern Lights but not a necessity. I would recommend a trigger release cable as well so you don’t risk shaking the camera when you press the shutter release and filters if you have them. A set of Lee filters will be very useful but if you don’t have that then I would recommend a circular polarising filter as this will help with glare and give you a few extra seconds of exposure on waterfalls for those nice blurred waterfall photos. If you’re going out on the whale watching trips or you’re there in summer to see the birds and other wildlife then I would also recommend a 200mm or 300mm and TC. If you are going in winter don’t forget to take extra Batteries! Long exposure shots and cold weather will drain your battery life during the day and even more at night when you’re out looking for the Aurora.

Organised Tours vs Exploring on Your Own In Iceland

The roads in Iceland are particularly hazardous, especially in winter you can expect to see numerous cars in ditches and snow drifts but if you have the money and are confident and experienced with driving on icy roads and in sudden blizzard conditions then exploring on your own is probably the way to go as you will be able to visit places outside the peak times and spend as much time there as you want to get the shots you want. Some of the organised tours can have up to 60 people at a time out searching for the lights so if you go on an organised trip be careful to check group sizes. The smaller the better so I’d recommend trips with groups of 16 people and under.

Standard Tours vs Photography Tours in Iceland

Whether you need tuition or not, ideally you want to book on a photography tour as this will get you to the prime locations for photos and give you a good amount of time there. They also tend to be smaller groups. The only down side is obviously the cost. They can be much more expensive. For this trip I went with Extreme Iceland who do standard tours and photography tours. This time I booked a standard tour as it took me to all the places I wanted to see but it does mean you only have about 30/45mins at each location which can be a rush when you’re setting up with tripods and filters and taking long exposure images. It is achievable but you need to think quick and make the most of the photos opportunities you get.

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Northern Lights In Iceland

Undoubtedly the reason most people visit Iceland but I wouldn’t make this your only goal as you could come away disappointed if you don’t see them. There is a lot to see and do in Iceland so it is best to just go and enjoy the experience and if you get the lights as well then that is the icing on the cake! There will be a good chance of seeing them but aurora activity and weather can vary a lot. However if it looks like clear skies at 3am then it’s worth waking up and just having a look. To stand the best chance I would recommend a week there as this should give you at least one or two clear nights.

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Weather In Iceland

Everything in Iceland depends on the weather and the weather can change in an instant. This can be a problem for the photos you’ve planned. Wind is the main issue especially for long exposure shots. Even with my solid Manfrotto tripod in a strong wind it will still shake your camera. It can also make photographing the waterfalls tricky as it will blow the freezing spray onto your lenses and filters which will mean a mind numbing amount of editing for each image. Personally I prefer getting the image right on camera whenever possible so I always try find an angle out of the wind or use a larger lens so I can keep well away from the freezing water spray. Even when it’s sunny it can create problems as a lot of the waterfalls are in gorges which don’t get the sun in winter. This means very bright sunlit landscape with very shaded areas. Again I would recommend a week in Iceland if possible as you can lose a day or two to bad weather during winter trips.

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Clothing To Take To Iceland

Take a lot of warm clothes in winter. The temperature can vary a lot and it depends what activities your doing. Generally I would say a good pair of Ski trousers and 2 or 3 top layers under a good wind and waterproof jacket. But even if the forecast is only for -3°C it can feel a lot colder with the wind chill, especially when you are stood around trying to photograph the Northern Lights you will probably want a thermal layer on under everything else. If you are on a guided tour they usually supply you with Ice Cleats or Crampons but if you’re exploring yourself you should definitely take some with you.

Accommodation In Iceland

There are plenty of hotels and guest houses in Reykjavik and around Iceland. It really just depends on your budget. I usually try and stay somewhere cheaper so I can spend longer in Iceland. But if you stay in a hostel type guesthouse be aware that Reykjavik is now quite popular for stag and hen weekends and if you stay somewhere cheap in the city there’s a chance there will also be other guests who just came to Reykjavik to party. If you are on an organised trip the accommodation will usually be part of it but you might need a hotel the night before or after the trip.

Food & Meal Costs In Iceland

Firstly all Icelandic tap water is drinkable glacial water and is the same water that you buy in the bottles so you really only need to buy one bottle and just re-fill it at any tap. Food in Iceland varies in price. In Reykjavik there are numerous cafes and restaurants as well as supermarkets if you just want to make your own food. On the tours your breakfasts are usually included. For lunch the price can vary. If you stop at a small service station cafe you might get a full meal for 1500 ISK but some of the visitor centres like the one at Gulfoss it might cost you 3000 ISK for lunch. The dinners are usually the most expensive and if you are staying in one of the small guesthouses dotted around Iceland then the on site restaurant will be the only place to eat and it usually costs between 4000 & 5000 ISK for two courses not including alcoholic drinks.

As a rough guide I would allow the following:
Breakfast: up to 1000 ISK
Lunch: 1500 - 4000 ISK
Dinner: 2000 - 5000 ISK

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