Photography & Iceland

In Europe, How-to, Iceland, Our Journeys, Photography, World Travel by GaryLeave a Comment

The challenges you may face

And tips on how to overcome them

I'll be the first to admit I'm not a professional photographer, but I have a professional camera - All the gear, and no idea - I hope not, but read on to find out more.

The beautiful Seydisfjordur in the east of Iceland

The beautiful Seydisfjordur in the east, Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/6.3  - Shutter: 1/5000s - Zoom: 35mm

This post is based on two trips to Iceland, but mainly focusing on our 2018 road trip around the country following Route One and a bit more. 

It was a trip of changeable conditions, however, I captured some great shots, but then there was also some disappointments too. 

I'll share the successes, failures and as much knowledge as I can. 

If you've any questions, then don't forget to leave a comment.

Quick Links

I will touch on photographing the Northern lights, but I wrote a whole post on the subject, which will contain more detail.

But without any further ado, let's get this party started.

The kit bag

As I said, I have a pretty nice, high-end Canon camera.  An EOS 1Dx MkII to be precise and my fifth EOS camera, and my fourth digital.  Over the years I have collected a range of lenses from Canon's L series.

The dramatic south-east coast of Iceland near Djúpivogur

The dramatic south-east coast of Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/22  - Shutter: 1/160s - Zoom: 24mm

Is it essential to have the best kit - No, Iceland is beautiful, and you'll be able to capture some amazing footage with your cell/mobile - I'm not a camera snob.  You may understand after reading this post why I have gone the DSLR route, but the world is an ever changing technological landscape, so I aim to keep advice generic and help you decide what's best for you.

So in simple terms a camera that can shoot from wide angle (24mm) through to a telephoto (300-400mm).

Some form of protection from rain/mist/spray - you're gonna be photographing waterfalls - that goes without saying.  You can find rain sleeves online to protect your kit.

Iceland is incredible, and you're going to be snapping away - have you got plenty of memory cards?  You're going to need them.  

You may also consider an external Hard Drive with integrated SD reader to back your images up.  LaCie has just the ticket in a rugged package, and at 4TB is probably enough for your needs.

A tripod would be a good shout too, something lightweight, yet sturdy. 

Again, this will depend on the camera it's supporting, but for my kit, I have a Manfrotto, and I swear by it.

As always I invest in the long term, so my tripod has travelled with me around the world.  

You can also take the camera bean bag route as a form of support.  It's not something I use, but I know it works in a limited set of scenarios.

Öndverðarnes lighthouse
Öndverðarnes lighthouse, Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/10  - Shutter: 1/640s - Zoom: 50mm

The RAW truth

So, before you head off I have one question; if you're able to shoot in Camera Raw?  And if you are, do you?

All points from Saxhólar Crater
All points from Saxhólar Crater, Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/4.0  - Shutter: 1/4000s - Zoom: 35mm

I have written a post on the benefits, and I think in Iceland you're gonna want to get the best from your shots so why not check out 'Shooting Raw' - Of course any questions, please ask.

So where are you headed?

I know the vast majority of folks head for the Golden Circle, and in 2007 that was our choice.  It's an easy three-day mini-break, and you can visit the following without too much difficulty;

Some of the tours may squeeze in more for you, but time at a location might be curtailed.  It's really your choice.

Gullfoss with Ice and Snow
Gullfoss with Ice and snow - 2018, Iceland

ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/11  - Shutter: 1/160s - Zoom: 35mm

So where are you headed?

I know the vast majority of folks head for the Golden Circle, and in 2007 that was our choice.  It's an easy three-day mini-break, and you can visit the following without too much difficulty;


Haukadalur – Home of the Geysers

Kerið volcanic crater

Faxi Waterfall:


Þingvellir National Park

Blue Lagoon

Plus a few hours in Reykjavik

Some of the tours may squeeze in more for you, but time at a location might be curtailed.  It's really your choice.

Gullfoss with Ice and Snow
Gullfoss with Ice and snow - 2018, Iceland

ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/11  - Shutter: 1/160s - Zoom: 35mm

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If you're heading further afield.

The Golden Circle is an excellent introduction to Iceland but can be busy at peak times, so prepare to be patient.  Self-drive was our choice, and Etta, our little SsangYong Korando hired from SIXT at Keflavík International Airport, was our companion for the Ring Road trip.  The benefit of Self-Drive is it's done at your pace.

Your choices are to either follow the Southern coastline of the country or alternatively head north towards Arnarstapi.  

The coastline Just outside of Arnarstapi
The coastline Just outside of Arnarstapi, Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/11  - Shutter: 1/500s - Zoom: 30mm

I would guess 95% of folks take the southern option, and there's a good reason - there's so much to see & experience, and also home to some of your more significant challenges - Waterfalls

Ice scattered on Diamond Beach, Iceland
Scattered on Diamond Beach, Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/4.0  - Shutter: 1/4000s - Zoom: 35mm

Don't go chasing waterfalls - Actually, do.

Okay, naff '90's music reference, and with Iceland, you're going to be chasing waterfalls.  There's plenty to choose from, and some of the higher falls such as Seljalandsfoss & Skógafoss present a challenge.  That challenge is spray, and you're gonna want to keep your camera dry.  

Up close to Skógafoss and the spray

ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/8.0  - Shutter: 1/100s - Zoom: 24mm

So there's a couple of options, a cover, or shoot from a distance with a longer lens. 

Even with protection, you're going to get water across the lens so you'll need a cloth to keep it dry. 

If you've a lens cover, put it in place when you're not shooting.

Too close to Skógafoss
Too close to Skógafoss, Iceland

ISO: 800 -  Aperture: f/4.0
Shutter: 1/4000s - Zoom: 35mm

Again timing is everything, these spots can get busy as minibuses ferry people in and out, sometimes patience can yield results, and sometime you'll want people in a shot to give the scale. 

A tripod can be used with a long exposure to create a beautiful flowing shot.

I went for that approach at Faxi on the Golden Circle.

With the camera mounted on a tripod, and an ND (Neutral Density) filter attached to the lenses I aimed to capture the flow of water - did it work?

ND Filter

A Neutral Density blocks a certain amount of light from hitting the sensor, thereby allowing a longer exposure. An exposure of a few seconds allows the water flows to be blurred.

They come in varying degrees of strength, and it's also possible to get variable ones.

The faxi waterfall
The faxi waterfall, Iceland

ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/22  - Shutter 2s - Zoom: 24mm

Depending on the time of year, and the weather condition, access may differ.  In 2007 we could walk around the back of Seljalandsfoss, on this trip, it was solid ice, so access was prohibited. 

Dealing with the Wind

Now come on, you're better than that!  I'm talking about the climatic conditions, and boy can Iceland get windy.  One driving tip we add is always to try to park into the wind.  Okay, it may be a bit more challenging to open the door, but it'll save you an expensive bill when you return the car to the hire company.

I have to be honest we faced some pretty stiff wind.  Two of the worse places was at Gullfoss, so we had two problems to face, spray and strong wind.  The other was Dyrhólaey, and it's beautiful view across the black beach.

The black beaches of southern Iceland on a blustery day

ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/11  - Shutter 1/125s - Zoom: 24mm

So it's a choice of handheld, or a decent tripod with the ability to hang something substantial, like your loaded camera bag, off the central support: my Manfrotto does - if you're looking to buy it's worth checking that feature. 

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If Lady Luck smiles on you - The Northern Lights

When we planned our trip we hoped we might get to see the Northern Lights, it's why we chose to go in mid-March,  and we got lucky, but only on one night out of our 2-week adventure.  I know other people who have gone for a 3-day mini break and seen it, and others who have been for longer and not seem them.  You have to consider very much it the 'cherry on the cake' of your trip.

The Northern Lights trailing across the sky at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland
The Northern Lights trailing across the sky at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/4.5  - Shutter 5s - Zoom: 24mm

Now I have written a whole post on 'Photographing the Northern Lights', which gives details on checking the environmental conditions and my experience. 

Swirling Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland
Swirling Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/4.0 - Shutter 30s - Zoom: 24mm

However, in summary, it requires a tripod, a shutter release and a long exposure.  

Please be Safe

Now, I'm gonna sound like an old fart, but please take your safety seriously.  If there's a barrier it's there for a reason, I  was incredibly frustrated by the tourist who stepped over the boundary at Arnarstapi to get the perfect Instagram selfie - Arrrgh.

Gatklettur at Arnarstapi
Gatklettur at Arnarstapi, Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/11 - Shutter 1/1600s - Zoom: 24mm

As I mentioned earlier, the wind can be strong, and it can whip up pretty quickly too!  You're going to be walking along cliff faces, the edge of waterfalls and you're gonna want to get that road shot.

Just outside Breiðdalsvík
Just outside Breiðdalsvík, Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/13 - Shutter 1/500s - Zoom: 24mm

Make sure you are entirely aware of your surroundings.  If there's ice & snow on the ground take extra care, especially when taking your shots.  We almost lost Janis twice, once at Grjótagjá cave, just outside Myvatn where snow on the ground covered a fissure that was about 2 metres deep, another was the Goðafoss where snow covered the water flowing across the fall - that drop significantly more than 2 metres.

The tricky path around Goðafoss, Iceland
The tricky path around Goðafoss, Iceland

ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/11 - Shutter 1/80s - Zoom: 24mm

Take to the air - flying your drone

Iceland has some stunning landscape, and some of the views from the air will take your breath away.  

So should you take you drone - hell, yes!  However, there are a few things you need to be aware of.  

Here's something from our YouTube channel from the trip.

Why not subscribe and get the latest clips as we post them?

Most of the sites you visit will be on private land, and as such the landowner can prohibit drone flights over their territory.  We saw numerous signs stating the drone flights were prohibited including at Skógafoss, Kirkjufellsfoss & Londrangar Cliffs, and that situation is likely to get worse.

The next big issue is that darn wind again! 

Most consumer drones can handle wind speeds of up to 10 m/s, and believe me it can get a lot more blustery than that.  

Now you can buy a handheld Anemometer (or wind speed gauge to you and I), but I would suggest the wind varies massively with height and can gust significantly.

My experience with DJI drones is they will report if there are issues and will attempt to manage the situation, but if in doubt don't fly, unless you fancy a stop off on the Faroe Islands to collect the broken pieces of your drone.

Another issue I encountered, and I wasn't aware it was a problem, was low battery temperatures.  With my DJI Phantom, it required the batteries to be above a certain temperature to fly.  So on one occasion, I had to wait 5-10 minutes while the cells warmed up.  It is covered in the user manual, but who reads that?

One final word, while visiting the seals basking off Illugastadhir a group of tourists were flying their drones over the seals.  They were pleased with their efforts and believed the seals were enjoying the experience - now I must admit I'm not a Marine Biologist, and I wasn't sure if any of them were, but I wasn't as convinced the seals were enjoying it. 

Seals just laying around
Seals just laying around, Iceland

ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/5.6 - Shutter 1/640s - Zoom: 400mm

Later in the year, I read the following article on the BBC - 'Fears over protected wildlife disturbed by drones'  So I'm just saying, be a responsible drone pilot - please.

A useful guide to Iceland

If you're tempted to tour the Land of Fire and Ice and would love to discover the whole country, then take a look at this  DK Eyewitness book. This Top 10 Pocket Travel Guide is invaluable, I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into searching for more.

You can now grab the revised copy.

DK Iceland Cover

So that's it.

So I'm going to wrap up by saying Iceland is a fabulous country, with the most fantastic landscape, and you're gonna want to be on your 'A' game photographically.  I hope this post has some useful information, I've shared a little knowledge, or I've inspired you to plan your trip to this country.  You won't regret it. 

A few good ideas for your Icelandic trip

Here's a few things we picked up ahead of our trip to make things a little smoother for us.

From the low tech traditional foldout paper map, a cigarette USB charger, and a USB chargeable torch.  

All simple stuff that may be helpful on your travels.

  • Fold-out paper map

  • Mini Dual USB Car Adapter

  • USB rechargeable LED Flashlight

Inspired to visit Iceland?

It's one amazing country, with so much to offer the traveller.

Don't forget there's the full story of our 2018 Icelandic Road Trip here too.

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