Travel Guide Iceland - Page 1

1. What photographers need to know - some basic knowledge

Iceland is a very special country. Beautiful on the one hand side with tons of spots where to take amazing pictures, and rough on the other one as the weather is always extreme regardless when you go there (see section on weather). Here are some basic advices to photographers planning their trip to Iceland.


I have noticed a huge increase in tourists going to Iceland recently. Facebook is full of images of professional and amateur photographers showing their great work of Iceland. One of the reasons is that Iceland became affordable in the recent years due to the financial crisis, fortunately not being too cheap to keep away the crowds you clearly don't want to run across. Tourism is the second-most important business for Iceland, but hotel space is still limited, this means you have to book your hotels and rental car well in advance. I normally book my travel to Iceland 6 months in advance, especially the rental car is important to book when you e.g. need something special like a 4x4. 


Iceland offers a very special light to your photos. Starting in spring when the sun stays on almost all the time, sunrise and sunsets last a lot longer than they do e.g. at the equator or in Germany. The sun goes down in a wider angle so the amazing colors last longer - this is photographic heaven! 

The first time I have been to Iceland was in May, sunrise was at about 2.30 am and sunset at about 11.30 pm, depending on where you are in Iceland. If you want to capture northern lights, May, spring and summer in particular, are the wrong months as it doesn't get dark enough. Below is an example how it looked when I took a photo with my iPhone at 1 am in the morning in May. For Northern Lights you have to be there between October to March.

It's not getting completely dark in May at night (iPhone shot)

The issue I personally had was that the hotel rooms didn't have the capability to darken the room completely, there was always some light coming in somewhere which hindered me to sleep perfectly. Keep this in mind and pack some blindfolds if this is an issue for you as well.


As I said in the introduction Iceland has a very rough climate. First there is heavy wind, so heavy that you sometimes can't open the door of your car. Then there's rain, which sometimes comes vertically. Third you can encounter snow and hail from time to time. If you pair this with sand and salty water from the ocean, your equipment will always suffer. Especially the black sand we saw a lot is very persistent. I always had to clean my whole equipment every night (for about an hour), removing salt and sand and cleaning the tripod. Together with a glass of whiskey this can be fun, though, but if you just took photos of the sunset - remember, this was 11.30 pm - it will be a looong night. Pack enough cleaning utilities and maybe some backup equipment, you might need it!

This black sand is very aggressive to your equipment (iPhone shot)


When I arrived in Iceland and drove up my route I planned before, I needed to stop almost everywhere. Nature was so beautiful, so different to what I have seen before, that it took ages to get to the spots I marked on my map. The first days you will notice that you will take way longer for a certain distance than you calculated before. At the end of your trip this can look a bit different as some of the nature is repetitive and you have seen it before. And even if not, you have been so overwhelmed of what you have seen before that you simply cannot save more, you are saturated. I would recommend to plan enough time for everything and let things last in your head, don't rush too fast to see everything of Iceland, simply come back if you liked it in the first place. 


Often you have planned to drive to a certain point to take photos, but then you spot something in the corner of your eye and you need to stop and explore. In Iceland, everything is passable, no fences or signs telling you that you should not enter. You can go wherever you want, with all the pros and cons this means. I found myself between horses when wandering around, and they were not so amused. I was standing next to a 200 meters cliff, one wrong step and I would have been history (see below). Or I was walking to a rotten boat I saw from my car, realizing that it was simply impossible to get there as the way was infested with swamps. This happens all the time, and it always takes time to get to these points you have spotted. Take your time, and allow yourself to do it, chances are high nobody else did this before in Iceland and you will discover some great spots.

You can make photos wherever you want even if it's dangerous


The typical animals you will spot in Iceland are sheep, horses, puffins, wales and seals, and a lot of birds. That's basically it. Sheep and horses you will see en masse, don't worry if you haven't taken a photo at the beginning of your trip, there are always sheep and horses.

With puffins, wales and seals it's different, though. If you spot them you should stop and take photos immediately, as chances are very limited to see them again. Sometimes you even see others stopping on the street because they spotted something in the water, have a look what it was, maybe you are lucky and it's a whale. 

When it comes to puffins, they are extremely fast and smaller than I thought they would be. When I saw them I used my 400mm lense with high ISO and wide-open aperture to be able to catch one of them sharp enough. If I remember correctly, 2 out of 300 photos were great, the other ones I could simply delete. Below is one of my best shots of a puffin. My recommendation would be to try to capture them when they start or land, that's when they are slower.

Bear with me as I am not familiar with the names of all birds, there are some very interesting ones making loud noises like boomerangs, and of course a lot of sea gulls. This list of Iceland's animals is not complete!

A puffin, captured with 400mm


I have seen strange people in Iceland, I have to admit. Strange tourists. As a photographer you spend a lot of time finding the right spot for your photos. This takes time, you stop somewhere, explore, take some test shots, maybe come back to a different point in time, or simply ignore the spot. Some tourists however spot you, stop by, take a photo and leave. I have seen so many people stopping next to my car, unpacking their expensive camera equipment (which they never leverage to the full), saying hello, taking one (one!) photo and leaving immediately afterwards. Or I remember an Asian tourist positioning his tripod 2 meters next to mine, not knowing what he should do next, so he was playing around with it. Unfolding, putting the camera on top, removing the camera, try with a different lense, but never taking a single shot. That's funny, too, and I am glad I captured a video of that guy. ;)

Generally speaken there are tourists in Iceland, but not as many as you would expect. It got worse in recent years, though, you are definitely not the only person taking photos at known places (like Jokulsarlon or the crashed airplane**). I will monitor this closely, if there are too many tourists I would look for other places in the world. 

** Update: The way to the crashed airplane unfortunately has been closed in 2016 as too many tourists drove there not taking care of their surroundings. You can still go there by foot (about 1.5-2 hrs hiking time) but the path is closed for any vehicles. It makes me sad how people play around with nature.

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