Iceland, a Photographer’s Dream
Iceland is a photographer’s dream complete with waterfalls, glaciers, hot springs, volcanoes, geysers, whale watching, and wild puffins that you can easily get within two feet of, if not closer.
In the summer of 2015 my wife Liz and I had a glorious trip. We spent 15 nights (16 days) on the island.
Icelandair has nonstop flights from Boston and Chicago.
Planning a Trip to Iceland
We planned our trip starting with an eBook Forever Light: Landscape Photographers Guide to Iceland.
I had the first edition. The above links to the revised edition.
If you are planning a trip to Iceland, get the book.
Forever Light contains:
- Information on more than 30 of the best Iceland photography locations, with detailed directions and GPS coordinates for each.
- Each location description contains sample photographs, seasonal considerations, and advice on how to approach and photograph the subject.
- Over 90 high-quality photographs to both inform and inspire. Technical information (including exposure settings) is included for every photo.
- Basic travel information, including lodging and transportation, seasonal variations, weather, and hazards to help you in getting started in planning your trip.
- Tips for choosing when to visit Iceland for a landscape photography trip.
- Recommended gear and gear considerations.
- 96 full-size high resolution pages, ready for viewing on your tablet, computer monitor, or phone.
I also recommend
The above two publications cover hotels and restaurants, and some locations not picked up by Forever Light. In particular, I highly recommend whale watching in Husavik, seeing puffins and other sea birds at the Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs in Breiðavík, Westfjords, and visiting Seydisfjordur, a scenic fishing village in the East Fjords.
Iceland Full Ring Tour
We circled the island on the outer ring in a counterclockwise direction, with our self-made itinerary, over 16 days. There are shorter or longer trips one could take. Our itinerary is listed below.
We did not go to the Blue Lagoon. It was on our initial list, but we selected other places instead. The Blue Lagoon is highly commercialized. That said, Forever Light has some dramatic images of the area, so you can escape the crowds if you so desire.
Although we spent 3 nights in Rejkavik, most of that time was actually spent on “Golden Circle Tour” sights such as the Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir, and the Brúarfoss Waterfall. The latter is a beautiful site that we would not have found directions given in Forever Light.
The eBook says they are not aware of anyone finding Brúarfoss on their first attempt, even with their detailed instructions. We were successful.
Nearly all of the images in our 16-day trip were taken between 10:00 PM and 4:00 AM, definitely not hours most are used to.
If you go on a guided tour (as opposed to a photography workshop tour), you will hardly ever be in the right place at the right time for the best photography.
Outdoor temperatures are seldom, if ever, hot in Iceland. During our trip, the highest temperature we experienced was 73-74 degrees Fahrenheit, about 23 degrees Celsius. Temperatures, even mid-summer can easily drop in the 40s.
Be prepared for rain and wind. The weather can be remarkably different 20 miles away from wherever you are. Iceland has one rainy season. It lasts from January through December, yes the whole year. That said, during out trip we had only a couple of days where it was cloudy the entire day.
Summer and Winter Solstice
Summer solstice is June 21, winter solstice is December 21. Sunrise and sunset will be close together at such times.
Near the summer solstice, the sun will rise and set close to due north. Near the winter solstice, the sun will rise and set close to due south.
In summer it is never dark. You can watch sunset, and depending on where you are, wait a short while and watch sunrise. We did this frequently.
From mid-June to mid-July the best light for photography is 10:00PM to 3:00 AM or so.
On June 21, in Northern Iceland, sunset and sunrise are about 30 minutes apart, with another hour or two of beautiful light on each side.
For 2017, Time and Date shows the June 21 Akureyri sunrise is 1:30AM and sunset is 31 minutes earlier at 12:59 AM. So, you actually see sunset then sunrise, otherwise sunset is the next day.
You will not see Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in the summer. It is simply too bright.
Also, avoid full moons. Check a lunar schedule as well, if seeing Northern Lights is the purpose of your visit.
I highly recommend the phone app PhotoPills for tracking the sun, moon, and position of the milky way. The app will let you visualize astronomical positions in advance.
The króna (sign: kr; code: ISK) is the currency of Iceland. You will not need to exchange your currency for krónas. We charged everything. Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Gasoline stations are widely available.
N1 has the most stations. Unlike in the US, gas stations can and do close early. After hours, the only way you may be able to get gas is with a prepaid card, or a credit or debit card with both a PIN and a chip.
I was stuck one morning because I had a credit card with a chip but no PIN, and a debit card with a PIN but no chip. When the station opened at 9:00 AM I was able to use my credit card inside, to buy a gas card to use outside. Credit cards generally must have a chip for any use.
Buy a prepaid gas card at your first chance. Fill up often.
Buy a Garmin or other travel aid, and pre-load it with maps of Iceland. Also make sure you install the Icelandic Alphabet.
We brought our Garmin, loaded with maps, but could not get the alphabet to display. We ended up renting a Garmin. You can easily buy one for the cost of a long rental.
Curiously, the Icelandic alphabet loaded the first time we used the Garmin back home. We still have the Icelandic alphabet up. It’s the same, with some extra characters, 32 characters in all. Google maps on a phone might work, once again providing you can type the extra Icelandic characters.
The food ranged from quite good to horrible. The word “poor” describes most but not all evening meals. For those on the run, some of the full service gas stations have a variety of acceptable items. Hot breakfast at some of the places we stayed was often the best meal of the day.
Camper Vans vs. Rental Cars and Hotels
From a purely photographic standpoint, it would likely be better to rent a camper van. If the weather is bad in one location you can always move, and in any case, campers allow a more flexible schedule.
We booked our hotels, well in advance, hoped for the best, and generally got it. In summers, hotels fill up. Book early.
I cover all the places we went to on our circle tour of Iceland, one day at a time, shown below. This is a very demanding schedule.
My top recommendation would be a full frame sensor camera accompanied with a 16-35 MM lens and a 24-105 MM lens. A set of neutral density filters will be extremely handy for making waterfalls look silky smooth.
Please check out My Equipment List.
If you go whale watching, and expect to capture nice images, you will need a long lens. I have a Canon Canon 100-400MM L II 1:4.5-5.6 lens that I used for whales, terns and other wildlife, but most of my images from the trip were taken with the first two lenses.
Every image on the trip was taken with a Canon EOS 6D.
Grand Tour Itinerary
|17-Jun||Depart Boston 9:00PM||Arrive Reykavik June 18 6:00AM|
|18-Jun||Vik||Icelandair Hotel Vik||http://www.icelandairhotels.com||South Region, Skógafoss Waterfall, Seljalandsfoss Waterfall , Reyniskirkja Church, Vik Church|
|19-Jun||Skalafell||Smyrlabjörg||iceland farm holidays / email@example.com / http://www.farmholidays.is||Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, Glacier, Ice Beach, Arctic Tern Nesting Site|
|20-Jun||Hofn||Hotel Hofnfirstname.lastname@example.org hotelhofn.is||Folaldafoss við Öxi (Foal Waterfall)|
|21-Jun||Seydisfjordur||Hotel Aldan||http://www.booking.com||East Fjords – Seydisfjordur – Scenic Fishing Village|
|22-Jun||Bakkegerdi||Guesthouse Borg – Njardvik||http://www.booking.com||East Fjords – Bakkagerði|
|23-Jun||Reykjahlid (Lake Myvaten)||Hotel Reynihlio||http://www.booking.com||North Iceland, Hverir Geothermal Area, Selfoss Waterfall, Dettifoss Waterfall, Goðafoss Waterfall|
|25-Jun||Husavik||Fosshotel-husavik||http://www.fosshotel.is||North Iceland, Husavik, Whale Watching|
|26-Jun||Akureyri||Icelandair Hotel Akureyri||http://www.icelandairhotels.com||North Iceland, Whale Watching|
|27-Jun||Saudarkrokur||Hotel Tindastoll||http://www.booking.com||North Iceland, Skagafjörður, Glaumbær Heritage Site|
|28-Jun||Isafjordur||Hotel Edda Isafjordur||http://www.hoteledda.is||Westfjords, Ísafjörður|
|29-Jun||Patreksfjorder||Breidavik Guesthouse||http://www.booking.com||Westfjords, Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs, Breiðavík, Magnificant Bird Colonies, Puffins|
|30-Jun||Stykkisholmur||Hotel Egilsen||http://www.booking.com||West Region, Snæfellsnes peninsula, Kirkjufell Mountain|
|1-Jul||Rejkavik||Icelandair Hotel Reykavik Marina||http://www.icelandairhotels.com||Golden Circle Tour, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir, Brúarfoss Waterfall, Blue Lagoon, Sun Voyager Monument, Harpa Concert Hall|
|4-Jul||Depart Reyk 10:30am||Arrive O’hare Sat Jul 4 at noon|
Possible Itinerary Changes
If I had to do this over again, in the same amount of time, I would stay two nights near the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, skipping Hofn. We ended up backtracking from Hofn for a second sunset-sunrise combination.
Ideally, I would have liked one more day in the Hverir Geothermal Area and one more day at the Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs. I’m not quite sure what I would give up to fit that in. But rather than spending three nights in Rejkavik, I would spend only the last night there, with two elsewhere, perhaps one of them somewhere on the “Golden Circle”.
Whale watching was much better in Husavik than Akureyri.
Once again, this was a very demanding schedule. We switched hotels 11 times in the course of 12 days in one stretch.
We were out at sunset and sunrise, and frequently checked into hotels as late as 3:00 AM, scheduled in advance. The smaller hotels may not accommodate. We phoned when we were going to be late.
Driving distances may appear short, but it can take a long time to get from point A to point B, especially in the fjord areas. If you visit the Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs, schedule the ferry. It will save you a huge amount of driving time.
I often got a mere 4 hours of sleep. That’s what it takes to get images at sunrise and sunset, scramble back to the hotel, then get up and drive to the next location, stopping to take pictures along the way. This is another reason to consider a camper van.
Don’t copy this itinerary without heading the above warnings. Three weeks would be a more reasonable timeframe for our “grand tour” itinerary. Alternatively, once could skip the east and west fjord areas, skip Akureyri, and have a very nice leisurely trip in the same 16 days.
Only Have One Week?
For a leisurely week, consider a self-guided 3-day Golden Ring Tour coupled with a few days in the Reykjahlid (Lake Myvaten) area.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock