Photography in IcelandPublished: 30. September 2020
Iceland has emerged as one of the hottest travel destinations in the last five years and for a good reason. Most people travel to Iceland for the beautiful nature which consists of vast lava fields, majestic waterfalls, steaming geysers, huge glaciers and so much more. The awesome thing about the Icelandic landscape is the variety. You can drive around the country in a few days and see all kinds of different landscapes ! At the same time it’s one of the safest countries in the world and the locals are typically friendly and fluent in English.
If you prefer the city life, Reykjavik is becoming one of the most exciting cities in the world with vibrant culture, awesome music scene and a great selection of food, bars and entertainment. This makes Iceland a dream destination for most, but especially for photographers. However there are some drawbacks. Iceland can be quite expensive and driving around the country in winter can be tricky if you don’t know what you are doing. Finally due to the increased popularity it can be tricky to get the perfect shots without fellow tourists walking into your shot. Don’t worry though, with this guide you will get the knowledge you need to maximize your trip to Iceland and come home with some jaw dropping photographs.
The first thing you need to think about is how to get around the country. You will have a few options, but I think only two of them really make sense, at least in my experience.
Renting a car and staying at guesthouses or camping
This is the traditional option. Picking up a rental car is critical when traveling in Iceland. Public transportation outside of Reykjavík is pretty limited and for photography, you’re gonna want the freedom that comes with having your own vehicle. At the end of the day you will have 2 options, sleeping at a guesthouse or tenting at a nearby campsite. The downside to this option, is that you’re usually going to need to book the guesthouses with a good advance, and they can be pretty expensive, especially if you are already renting a car. Putting up your tent every night in the Icelandic weather can also be pretty tiresome. However renting a 4wd car and staying at guesthouses is what I would possibly recommend during the coldest winter months, since the added warmth at night and the 4x4 vehicle will come in handy.
Renting a campervan
This is obviously my personal favorite as a Happy Campers team member. Traveling the country in a camper is becoming much more popular in recent years and there are quite a few campervan rentals in Iceland today. Happy Campers is a family run campervan rental with awesome customer service and sweet campers so if you are seriously considering a camper, check out our website. Here you get the best of both worlds as you save a lot of money compared to the rental car and guesthouse option and you don’t need to put up your tent at night, just pop down the bed and you are ready to drift into dreamland. This makes the camper the best choice for photographers who need the freedom to chase the weather and light for that perfect shot and despise putting up tents in the howling wind.
What to pack into your camera bag ?
You will need to take your camera, duh. Of course a full frame DSLR camera would be the best option, but not everyone has one of those (me included) so don’t worry. The next best thing would be a good cropped sensor camera, whether it’s a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. It’s best if it has an interchangeable lens system as well as a high dynamic range and resolution. If you haven’t bought a camera yet, there are plenty of resources out there to help you pick but my favorite camera brands are Canon, Nikon, Sony and Fujifilm.
Although not my specialty, a good point and shoot camera or even a phone with a good quality camera are great to have for those spontaneous moments where you might not have your larger camera at hand. Finally for the videographers, extreme athletes and hipsters (just kidding), a GoPro will suit you well, however this is not my strong suit so this blog will be focused on the amateur photographer.
Lenses are both the most important piece of your camera gear, but also the most subjective so take all advice with a grain of salt and base it around your current lens collection. A good wide angle lens is the most common when shooting landscapes in Iceland. There are many awesome options on the market right now and you could use either a zoom lens or a good prime lens. If you are planning on taking photos of the northern lights, a wide angle lens with high aperture like f/2.8 will be preferable.
The lenses you decide to bring along with your wide angle lens will depend greatly on your shooting style but generally I would recommend bringing a good telephoto zoom lens for shooting wildlife and the landscapes at other focal lengths. Finally I would never leave without a sturdy fast portrait lens, but that’s simply because I love portraits. Take into account that weather sealing and light weight are awesome features to have on your travel gear, especially in locations like Iceland.
If you are serious about landscape photography, a good sturdy tripod is an absolute must. If you already have a tripod, it will probably be sufficient, although I really love having a lightweight but sturdy carbon fiber tripod. Just remember you will probably be hiking to the best spots, so the weight of a tripod is an important factor as well. I would stick with well known brands such as Manfrotto or Gitzo but if you are in the market for one, there are loads of resources online to help you select the best one for your needs.
An optical filter is a piece of glass that goes in front of your lens to protect the lens, help in tough lighting conditions, reduce reflections or simply allowing you to use a longer exposure and much more. Filters serve many different purposes in photography, and for many they are not necessary at all, especially if you are good at using Lightroom or Photoshop. However in landscape photography I am a strong believer in filters, the results speak for themselves. There are many different types of filters and ways of using them and I won’t go into too much detail, but these are the filters I would recommend bringing to Iceland:
Neutral density filter
In Iceland, you will be shooting a lot of waterfalls almost guaranteed. To get that silky smooth effect on them you need a long exposure, this can be tough in bright conditions and resulting in an overexposed image. ND filters fix this problem by decreasing the amount of light the camera takes in. I suggest bringing a 6 and 10 stop ND filter.
Graduated neutral density filter
These work the same as ND filters, but they are graduated (duh!). It’s awesome to use them in situations where the sky is a lot brighter than the foreground. I recommend a 2 or 3 stop GND.
Circular polarizing filter
CPL filters reduce reflections and glares in your image, this is especially noticeable on water. They also tend to increase saturation and contrast resulting in a more punchy image.
There are a few other things that come in handy when doing landscape photography, especially when it’s not in your backyard.
There is nothing more disappointing than viewing an awesome potential composition and realizing your battery is dead. To ensure that doesn’t happen I’d recommend bringing a few extra batteries on your trip. The total amount isn’t set in stone since it always depends on how reliably you will be able to charge them as well as the power requirements of your camera and the capacity of your batteries. If you are staying in Hotels each night, then you should be able to charge your batteries every night. If you are traveling by a car or a camper, you can find a way to charge them while you drive, but it’s not as reliable as a standard wall plug for an entire night. Therefore it’s important that you think about it, and bring as many batteries as you need.
Extra memory cards
Running out of storage space is almost just as annoying as running out of power. If you don’t think about it until it’s too late you will be forced to either delete some of your precious shots before you get home or simply stop taking photos. I typically take with me at least two 64GB memory cards and my laptop, so if I start running out of storage I simply import the files onto my hard drive. Your storage needs might be different, for example if you mainly shoot stills in JPEG you probably won’t need that much storage but if you are shooting in RAW and expect to shoot a lot you will need more. Also if you are shooting time lapse or videos, you will definitely need much more storage space.
A shutter release can be very useful when you are taking longer exposures and want to make sure the camera isn’t affected by you pressing the shutter. However for most amateur photographers this isn’t absolutely necessary since using the 2 second timer instead can get the job done.
Other small accessories
There are an endless amount of other accessories that photographers use, most of them are not necessary for the average amateur photographer and if they are for you, you probably already know about them and aren’t reading this blog. A few more extras that might come in handy are things like a rain cover for your camera if it isn’t weather sealed, a Speedlight and a power bank for charging emergencies.
The weather in Iceland can be quite unpredictable and unforgiving at times, at other times it can actually be quite mild. This can make packing for the trip a bit confusing but hopefully this guide will help you decide on what to bring with you on your adventure.
The general rule and the most important thing to keep in mind when traveling to Iceland is bringing a lot of layers. I like to use many layers since it gives me a lot more flexibility as I can simply remove a layer when I start getting warm. For my base layer I like to use merino wool, however other materials like polyester or nylon work as well but I try to stay away from cotton. Then you will need a good middle layer like a warm fleece sweater or something similar and finally an outer shell layer to protect you from the wind and rain. For more information about layers check out this awesome blog post or jump back to our winger camping guide mentioned above.
I think it’s also quite important to wear more than one layer of pants, I like to use my merino wool long underwear as my base layer with my jeans on milder days and with my ski pants on cold winter days.
Shoes are extremely important when traveling in a country like Iceland, especially in the winter time. You’ll want a good pair of insulated hiking shoes for general use, I wouldn’t skimp on quality here since a good pair of hiking boots can last you a long time.
I always bring my rubber boots with me as well but to save space I know some people like to bring overshoes instead which is perfect as well. The waterproof boots are so great because they give you the confidence you need to go looking for different compositions. I use them a lot when shooting at the beach or in shallow rivers and lakes.
Ice crampons are often overlooked by people exploring Iceland. If you are traveling in the winter, the paths you’ll walk will often be covered in ice. Even if you have the best hiking boots they won’t come close to the grip you get when wearing ice crampons so stay safe, get the ice crampons.
Other important clothes to bring
There is a reason why one of the most popular gifts in Iceland are winter socks. The socks keep your feet warm and dry without having to wear many layers of socks. The best in my experience are wool socks, but there are some other materials like fleece that work as well.
A good hat is also vital unless your name is Chuck Norris. It keeps your head and ears warm, and if you have a decent amount of hair it also keeps it in place, since it’s usually pretty windy in Iceland. In addition to a good hat I’d recommend a good neckwear like a Buff or a balaclava, it covers those small open areas around your neck and face and therefore keeps you warmer.
Finally having good gloves is very important but can be a bit tricky for photographers. I tend to use pretty thin but warm gloves that let me operate the camera for the most part, but sometimes I’m forced to take them off for some more fine tuning. There are other solutions as well like fingerless mittens, but I don’t have any experience with those but they sound like a good solution. For a more detailed blog about what to pack for Iceland, check out our official packing list post.
Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, so I shouldn’t be worried right ? Well no, even though Iceland is a super safe country when you look at the crime rate, the Icelandic nature can be very unforgiving and dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. It’s especially important during the winter to be aware of all the dangers you might encounter while in Iceland.
Weather and road conditions
The most important thing to always be aware of is the weather forecast and the condition of the roads. Although it can be hard to predict the weather in Iceland the short term forecast is usually surprisingly accurate. The Icelandic Met Office is very reliable and experienced and the best source for the weather forecast is directly at their website. The weather is only one part of the equation though, since you also need to know about the road conditions when you are driving around the island. The best source of information is on the website of The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration. This website is absolutely awesome and shows you live road conditions on almost every road in the country, it also tells you a lot of information about how many people are on the roads, gives you warnings about the weather and has live webcams of the roads all over the country. We devote an entire chapter to safety in our winter camping guide. There are many things to consider when you are traveling in Iceland during the winter, and safety should always be a priority.
When to shoot
As a photographer, our goal is always to capture dynamic and beautiful photographs. One way to achieve this is shooting a lot of your photos during the twilight hours. For me this is the absolutely best time to shoot, you get this beautiful soft lighting which makes your photos stand out. Another advantage of shooting during the twilight hours is that typically fewer people are out and about, especially in the morning except for some other fellow photographers. There are a lot of different apps available that make this easy and tell you exactly when the golden hour starts and ends and etc. The only hard part is waking up early but for me it’s my favorite part of the day. For more information on understanding these hours of the day check out this awesome blog post from Petapixel.
Photography techniques to master before the trip
Now you should be pretty much ready for your photography adventure to Iceland. There is still one thing left to talk about, actually taking the pictures! With the help of this blog you should have a good clue about what to bring on your trip, the next step would be using Google to find out which parts of the country you want to visit and what locations you want to shoot. Finally you need to be sure that you have good knowledge on photography and your camera. I won’t go into all that in too much detail since it could fill up a whole book, however I want to tell you about what photography techniques to learn before your trip to Iceland, especially if you are not a very experienced photographer.
Northern Lights photography
If you are coming to Iceland in the winter, getting good photos of the northern lights is a thrilling experience. There are plenty of good resources online for you to look up, but I’m going to give you a quick explanation so you get the idea.
First of all you are going to need to find a good composition. Taking a picture of nothing but the sky with the northern lights isn’t a very exciting picture. Check the northern light forecast and find a good place away from the cities and other possible light pollution. Once you’ve got good composition then you need to get your camera on a stable tripod and start messing with the settings.
The first thing to do is setting everything on your camera to manual, including the focus on your lens. You won’t need any image stabilization so turn that off as well. Set your ISO to about 1600 to start, use a low aperture like f2.8 and finally use a shutter speed from somewhere between 5-10 seconds when the aurora are bright and moving quickly, but between 10-25 seconds when the aurora are weaker and moving slower. Adjust your focus to infinity and start shooting. You might realize you need to change the settings a few times, and even adjust the focus a tiny bit. It will take some practice but hopefully it will end with some great photos that you cherish for a long time. For a more detailed guide check out Dave Morrow’s detailed blog about northern lights photography.
Long exposure photography
Iceland has a lot of waterfalls, they are basically everywhere. Therefore I’d recommend you understand how to take long exposure photographs of waterfalls and water in general, for example at the black sand beach and other locations. Fortunately it’s not very hard or complicated to take a long exposure, you will only need your camera and lens, a sturdy tripod and most likely a ND filter. The most important thing as always is the composition. I’m not going to teach that here but just keep in mind that even though you get a beautiful buttery smooth effect on your waterfall, the picture will still suck if the composition is bad. So with that in mind let’s dive into the settings.
You are going to want the ISO to be as low as possible, for most cameras that is either 100 or 200. Then use a typical landscape aperture, I like to use something between f/8-f/13. Finally you will need a slower shutter speed. This depends entirely on what kind of effect you are looking for and the conditions you are working with. Typically something between 1-20 seconds is very usable. If you don’t have an ND filter to help with the long exposure, a good tip is then doing your long exposures right after the sun sets, even if it means you need to use an aperture of f/22 to get a decent shutter speed, you might still end up with a great picture.
Like with everything related to photography it takes practice to get good, you need mistakes to learn from them, so try it out and have fun while doing so.
General Landscape photography
This is pretty obvious, but if you are not used to shooting a lot of landscapes before coming to Iceland, I’d recommend you do some research about landscape photography. Of course if you are here mainly to shoot portraits, wildlife or street photography then that’s perfectly fine, but I assume that the majority of amateur photographers traveling to Iceland are going to shoot a lot of landscapes and here are a few tips for shooting landscapes.
Since landscape photography can be incredibly diverse, so can the settings. These settings are a generalization to help you understand what works for most situations, but don’t hesitate to change it up and experiment. When shooting landscapes typically I have the camera in manual mode, since I’m not in a big hurry, although sometimes it can be useful to set it on aperture or shutter priority mode depending on the situation. The best aperture setting depends on your lens and the situation, but a rule of thumb is to go with an aperture of f/8-f/13, but sometimes I go as high as f/22 and sometimes as low as f/2.8. In most situations I like to use a low ISO like 100 or 200 to get the highest quality image. Unless you are trying to imply motion or freezing a quick moment, the shutter is not as important and I often just leave the camera in aperture priority mode, but this varies of course. Also don’t hesitate to use the lens manual focus, especially if your camera has focus peaking, I feel it’s often better to use the manual focus lens when shooting landscapes and I’m not in a hurry.
Work with what you got
Don’t let bad weather stop you from going out to shoot. I personally prefer cloudy days over sunny clear skies. For me it’s an opportunity, the clouds and bad weather can add drama and depth into the photos. So embrace the weather and work with what you’ve got since you can’t change it anyway, just remember to stay safe if the weather is really bad.
Composition is always the key
Like I previously mentioned, even with the perfect settings on the best camera and a beautiful landscape in front of you, if the composition is bad the image will inevitably be bad as well. So how can you improve your compositions ? Well there is no one right answer, mostly it comes from experience and practise. You should also read up on the rule of thirds and how to utilize foreground and leading lines to draw the viewer into the image. A good resource to learn more about composition rules is this blog from Photographymad.com.
Finally don’t be afraid to break all of the rules and recommendations I’ve made so far and have fun, it’s a big part of growing as a photographer. I hope this guide helped you to get ready for your photography adventure to Iceland, now only the fun part remains.