One Photographers big trip around the Island
Welcome, to my several years in the making, rough guide to traveling, camping and shooting in Iceland. It’s by no means comprehensive but it covers my experiences and thoughts so far.
This sprawling country of black and white. This brutal, unforgiving country. This land of absolute and complete solitude. There is nowhere quite as beautiful, bewitching or humbling as Iceland.
This post covers a photographic journey that started a few years ago when I first discovered this land of fire and ice. I wanted a quick break, some time away and a little solitude. What I found took my breath away. With all the snow, I found myself looking at an alien landscape, windswept and archaic but immensely beautiful at the same time.
On my first trip I arrived in late November, collected my car from Keflavik Airport and headed to the apartment in Reykjavik (I used Apartment K) and settled down for the night before my drive to Vik beach the next day.
The drive seemed quite straight forward, although the temperature was -8 outside and I caught Vik near sunset, it was incredibly windy and the clouds were dancing all over the sky, blocking and releasing the sunlight before it finally set.
I was the only person I saw on the beach that day and this is very much how Iceland is in the winter.
This is where the fun ends though, the following day I decided to revisit the beach and go further than before but the weather had changed, it was AWFUL. I experienced my first ever whiteout, there was a wall of snow and I couldn’t see past my dashboard. Cars were off the road everywhere and abandoned. The weather in Iceland is brutal and shows you no mercy…..and my car broke down….(please don’t go cheap with your hire company)!
Five hours later my replacement car arrived and on driving home (it was too late to go to the beach or do anything else for that matter) I was happily pootling along at around 15km per hour when I found a part of the highway completely frozen over and slid directly in the line of oncoming traffic which consisted of a fuel tanker and a convoy of eight cars.
It didn’t get any better from then on, the wheels got traction but only enough so that my 4×4 turned 180 degrees. I was now sliding backwards towards certain death instead…. only to slide off the road just in time for the convoy to pass.
The remainder of my trip I spent a little bit closer to home, I found a lot of personal reflection time around the Strandarkirkja peninsula near(ish) to the airport and I did come back a different person from this trip. Iceland changes you.
I tend to have this thing where I go away on my own somewhere and then absolutely insist my wife Laura comes with me to see what I saw, so we made another trip together, with a decent hire car this time and with the roads clear did a lot more sightseeing. (It was June)
We made it all the way along the South coast to Jokulsarlon this time, the iceberg lagoon. And got there via Selfoss, Vik (again), Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss and Glymur.
Mostly these are waterfalls and all are accessible via the road, except Glymur, Icelands highest waterfall. At almost 200 metres it’s a good 1-2 hour walk from the main road. Something I wouldn’t of done (except Laura insisted). It was fun but the slope is poorly guided, there is no health and safety in Iceland. Common sense prevails and getting back down was tricky.
When you reach near the top of Glymur, there are a few ledges for photos and a great view across the southern coast. There are also little run offs like steps pooling water that go off the edge into the abyss. Don’t investigate those. You might fall over into one like I did and almost die for the second time.
It was at this point I started to think Iceland had it in for me.
Iceland is the home of waterfalls, if you like them, you’ll love it here. There is serious hardcore triple x rated wall to wall waterfall action going on here.
That was a couple of years ago – Since then I made a promise to myself that I’d do the whole Island in one trip, the ring road in it’s entirety starting and ending at the airport.
This happened in mid June. I had a 12 day window in my calendar so booked the flights, hire car and paid for an extra case so I could bring my camping gear.
The view was to make it a total landscape photography smorgasboard, and it was.
So I’m about to take you on that journey (with pictures) and while this is a semi cathartic blog post it’s also going to serve as an advisory for anyone planning to do this as part of a group or solo, as it’s the small things that cause the biggest problems and maybe my experience will help out your experience should you go.
Tip #1 – The Icelandic weather
In Greek mythology, the head honcho and bad boy in charge of parting the clouds or causing a storm was Theoi Meteoroi – You aren’t that guy. You never will be, so be prepared to be disappointed by the weather from time to time.
The reason I say this as my first tip is that I built myself up for this journey. I wanted amazing photos – of everything, without compromise. But the thing with landscapes is that the quality of the light is REALLY important for most things. Otherwise your photos can get really ‘meh’ really quickly.
When I hit the airport, my cases were in the car and I set off along the south coast. It was just well, bland. The sky was a dank misty grey. This was a problem for me because I couldn’t wait it out, I had to keep going in order to complete the trip.
As this was my third trip I didn’t let it bother me too much as I’d shot some of the hot spots before. So I carried on to Seljalandsfoss, about 3 hours from the airport and pitched my tent there for the night. It’s a very decent campsite and you are right in front of the waterfalls.
The campsites in Iceland are all pretty well serviced. Don’t expect hot water to be available in some, but you’ve loos and showers in all of them. Pitching for the night is a highly agreeable £9 average and even though it rained all night I did sleep. A big tip if camping though is that you might not get the full 8 hours. The wind, rain and temperatures can get to you.
For me my general solution is to have a beer as a nightcap but with strict alcohol regulations in Iceland being what they are you cannot buy spirits anywhere other than in certain towns (of which there are few) and the strongest beer you will find is 2% – So you need 2 cans for that nightcap and this ‘can’ be a problem first thing in the morning the next day as you need to get dressed to go to the loo. In hindsight I would of bought a small bottle of spirits on arrival at the airport.
Day two the weather wasn’t much better. Ok it was the same. but windy. This is mid June too so I was hoping to catch a break at some point but it wasn’t going to be today.
My main mission while down in the south was to find something that had been avoiding me for the last two trips. The wreck of a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3. It isn’t exactly signposted and is 2km into a lava field. You won’t see it from the road.
This guide here: How to find the Plane will help you find it. This is what I used anyway.
Interestingly there is a right way and a wrong way to get to the wreck. When you cross into the lava field from the main road FOR THE LOVE OF GOD TURN RIGHT – because going straight ahead or left like I did (I was following another car who seemed to know where they were going) takes you into soft pebble like lava and then you have to stop and help three guys in a Honda get unstuck.
I always had these visions that I’d find the plane and it would be like a beacon for me to approach but in reality it’s like an attraction at Disney World with tours and a constant stream of traffic going to it at all hours. It did seem a bit wrong that some folk chose to climb all over it and I had to wonder how much longer it will remain there. It’s quite a surreal experience to see so many people around it.
After this I carried on to Jokulsarlon and did some midnight photography. The sun never truly sets in June. 1am it becomes fairly dark. It’s hard to describe the midnight sun, around four times as bright as moonlight maybe.
The best thing about shooting so late / so early is that there isn’t really anyone about. You do see people from time to time but only a couple here, someone over there, but you feel like you have the island all to yourself around this time.
There’s also the beach across from the Lagoon. That’s actually quite a scary place when it’s dark. The waves are brutal and the icebergs from the lagoon land themselves where the sea meets the beach and rock back and forth. It adds unnatural life to an otherwise desolate beach. Like an unnerving feeling of footsteps behind you on a dark path.
I almost lost a flash unit while on the beach. I thought it would be cool to light up the icebergs with flash. Great idea. Not 30 seconds after I took the photos said Iceberg broke in two and went off into the sea!
Tip #2 – Learn to love the other tourists
If you want to see herd mentality in action then Iceland is the place to be. Whenever I pulled over to take photos on an otherwise empty spot. Three cars or more would pull in behind me in the space of a few minutes. I kid you not. One time I pulled over for no reason other than to test the theory, ran out of the car with my camera in hand and had a crowd pull up looking to see what they were missing.
It was frustrating with so many people being about, waterfall watchers in particular and well, other photographers…um, like me. So I can’t really complain.
In the end I learned to love the tourists as the reality is they make up the Icelandic experience almost as much as the landscape does. The beauty and tragedy of Iceland is that it’s the place to go to remind yourself just how small we are in the universe and you need to show this in at least some of your photos. It took three trips to realise this and I feel a bit silly that it took so long.
Also tip #2b – I saw a couple of accidents while out there where one tourist had pulled over on the road (there aren’t many lay-by’s) and someone from behind had clipped them because they were looking at the same thing the guy who pulled over was. This seems really common. Be careful. I was taking the above picture when I was almost taken out by an 18 wheeler who had to mount the verge to avoid another tourist who was looking elsewhere than the road and drifted in the oncoming lane. It’s an easy trap to fall into, the roads are long and usually quiet.
There is some respite though because the south coast and golden circle routes are by far the most popular for tourists. Beyond Jokulsarlon there’s a dramatic fall-off in traffic and subsequently, people.
Seven shades of Awesome – The Eastern Fjords
Past Jokulsarlon there’s a lot of driving through nothing before you get to the Eastern Fjords – but they are soooo worth it. Visually breathtaking, topaz blue and silver topped, still waters around them always and an exceptionally peaceful place to settle for any period of time. The roads are long in this part, you can go at a decent speed but they wind around the fjords and this takes time to navigate. What seems a short distance on the map takes a long time to cover.
The first signs things are going to be interesting is when you get near Djúpivogur – The scenery changes completely. It’s also around here you’ll find beaches covered in millions of mussel shells.
Tip #3 – Take wellies
If there was one thing I wish I’d packed it was wellington boots. The amount of times I would of liked to of gone further into the water, but couldn’t were numerous, most of the rivers and run off from waterfalls are quite shallow and I could of got some unique shots if I was able to venture further in.
The road from the West leads to Vatnajokull National Park and the cute town of Reykjahlio where I stayed the night. The road there however is tough. Even though it’s the main road this is the part that gets closed in winter. It goes right up into the mountains where there is still snow even at this time of year.
I was in a 4×4, but some folks go in campers and mobile homes which considering the route I was taking made me glad I didn’t have anything bigger to maneuver. You are properly in the badlands here and some things you see have NOPE written all over them:
I found a lot of peace in this part of the island. It was the prettiest and most interesting part I’d been to so far (the West Fjords are lovely but this was more complex). Here you’ll find Dettifoss, a waterfall in Vatnajökull National Park which is called the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
This is the part of my trip where things just got better all the time. I did some serious photography here, so many angles to shoot I spent a good few hours here. The whole area is quite dramatic and on a huge scale which is difficult to photograph.
After staying in Reykjahlio the night I decided to explore around Lake Mývatn, the Hofdl nature reserve is beautiful, with expired calderas, lava fields and natural underwater springs in caves if you know where to look (and these are easily missed). The experience was a little dented because of tip #4…
Tip #4 – Protect yourself from flies in Iceland
I kid you not the flies are the worst thing to experience in Iceland.
As my friends often remind me ‘they don’t bite’ which they don’t. They’re just the burrowing kind that fly up your nose, into your ears and your eyes when they have the chance. That’s all. And they get worse the longer you stay in one place, like you would do making long exposures on a tripod. I got one stuck in my eye near a glacier and had to use a mirror to find it and remove it.
So my absolute must follow tip is this. Get some kind to hat and mesh protection. The bugs aren’t there continuously and no different from if you are in the Isle of Skye in the summer, the bugs will be there as it’s their time to dance – they just want to party with your face that’s all.
If you are at a certain altitude they don’t appear and are only around areas of water. But there were swarms of them at this point in my trip and I really did feel for the couple on push bikes riding through a fog of them one morning. Literally, a cloud of flies 50 metres long.
So wellies and fly nets okay? Maybe a flamethrower too. Just to be sure.
Leaving, at some speed I headed towards Akureyri on the Northern coast and on the way greatness awaited with the epic waterfall Godafoss.
This was quite an open falls and it was also fairly high up (so no flies) and I risked a few bones to get into position for the right shots. You can go right to the waters edge here as well.
When I reached Akureyri I found it to be the nicest looking town I’d been to (and will of visited) on Iceland. It’s like Reykjavik but smaller and more colourful. I didn’t stop and even now I kinda regret not doing so but I was worried about timings as according to the map I had a huge amount of driving to do yet with not much in between. On the map Westfjords Peninsula looked massive.
On my way to Hvitserkur I spotted some trees and spent a little while there. It was one of those gifts you get given. The light was right, it was very quiet and I had a nice break.
The next day was Hvitserkur. I’d always wanted to shoot this Jurassic formation but as it was so far North I never got to do so. The photos online can be misleading. It’s not an easy beach to get down to, the slope is VERY steep, the sand is fine and on a windy day (most days) it gets everywhere.
Hvitserkur is worth the visit, it’s tricky to get to and as such most people stay at the top and avoid climbing down to the beach. It’s very broad but also really slim. I had this impression it would be a solid mound of rock but at the right angle it seems quite fragile.
It’s certainly imposing to be in the presence of. There were a lot of birds about too but they left me alone (some birds are very offensive, they do not fear humans on Iceland as we’re in the minority). Cue Hitchcock moment.
Tip #5 – There isn’t much in the Westfjords Peninsula relative to the rest of the island
And it shows. I spent 4 hours by the roadside one weekday morning and didn’t see a single person. You are truly isolated here (but ironically have a good 3G signal so can scream ‘I’m so lonely’ to your friends on Facebook). It isn’t a bad area really, but on reflection I could of spent my time better elsewhere.
There was an interesting beach I found along the way with some ace rock formations that I spent some time with.
I did get some really good photos of Fjallfoss / Dynjandi. A waterfall so massive that you can see it for miles away. It took me a long time to reach it with not much in-between.
And that for me, was the Westfjords Peninsula.
Now this may sound like I’m being overly harsh about the Westfjords, but I’m not intending to sound that way. En route through and on to my final stop, The Snæfellsnes Peninsula, I stopped off several places…..
…and took in some landscapes unique to what I had seen so far:
It was just the drive was quite arduous, it seemed to take forever to get anywhere.
In contrast though, the shining beacon on this trip was yet to come. The Snaefellsnes / Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
This western most part of Iceland is reasonably close to Reykjavik at 150km away and I really recommend going there.
It’s like going to a funfair and all the best rides are in one place. It’s easy to drive, has a huge variety in the landscape and if I could spend a week in one part of Iceland it would be here.
The Berserkjahraun lava field is your first stop but only if you don’t stop to take in the gorgeous sunset views across the North coast first. A misty midnight lava field is a nice spot to be with a camera.
But, if there is one place you need to see it’s this:
The Kirkjufellfoss waterfall is actually easy to miss. When you drive by it doesn’t face the road and doesn’t look like much. But walk up to it and the stars align and it fits beautifully with the Kirkjufell mountain which makes up one of photographic wonders of the world.
You can spend a lot of time here and focusing on just Kirkjufell alone would be a huge disservice. The town of Grundarfjörður is epic to visit and camp at. The stone beach is ideal for star and sunset / sunrise watching and there were no bugs when I was there.
Further along there is the Snæfellsjökull National Park, another very quiet place to roam with lots or of interesting rock formations and a stunning coastline.
Tip #6 – When traveling in summer don’t expect to get much sleep
When camping out it’s real easy to have a rough nights sleep. Even if you are technically ‘comfortable’ the noise of rain, wind buffeting your tent or the temps being ‘a bit arctic’ can really screw with you. I found that I was shooting a lot late at night and the end result was a case of serious jetlag that haunted me the whole time.
A good snooze helped a lot though. I slept in the car three or four times and this is a common sight to see. But by the end of the trip I felt I had shot 10 weddings back to back. I was battered by the experience. In a good way, but battered nonetheless.
After the Snaefellsnes Peninsula I landed in Reykjavik and went to the pub, found an awesome retro video game arcade and glamorously spent the night in the car again..
The last day I had spare so went back along the south coast towards Vik one last time. There was something I felt I had missed and when I got there I realised what it was. There were two entrances to the landmarks. I had overshot the turning before and gone to the south easterly beach near the town. If you turn sooner you have a huge beach to look at and a different view of the famous cliffs.
This was the end of the trip for me.
The whole Iceland experience was a strange one. When I first visited in 2011 I found myself needing solitude and time alone but by the time I went in 2015 I found I actually felt lonely quite often. It left me reflecting why the difference was. Maybe when I first went I needed to get away from things but since then I’ve been married, solidified my business and am in a much better place personally. The need for solitude isn’t there anymore.
I think Iceland gives you back something or is profound enough a place to instill a change in you. It’s life without the rules or clutter of modern living.
I’ve kept the camera / travel prep part out of the main post for a reason, it can bore the pants off of people who aren’t into photography, so here it is.
Part 1: Foreword
Here, right here, is my massive disclaimer. The blog post above was the result of three trips to Iceland. In that time I used pretty much everything I owned to shoot these pictures. The Canon 5D3, the Canon 1Ds3, The Pentax 645z and the Sony A7ii with Canon glass (non r model) – I used a mixture of lenses, techniques, filters and so on.
But rarely did I ever feel any one of these cameras wasn’t good enough for the job at hand. It’s all about YOU. If you have the worlds most expensive camera but your framing or choice of exposure sucks then it doesn’t matter what camera you use.
Part 2: Minimum useful photographic kit for an Iceland trip
Let’s face it, the luggage rules scare us photographers. We don’t want to put anything in the hold for fear of damage and the 7kg bag restrictions can feel hugely limiting once you add a few essential non camera based things.
So for sure, two camera bodies are a must if it’s a big trip. I deliberately put off going to Iceland as I wanted to take a medium format camera and didn’t trust the reliability of my H4D50, but couldn’t just go out and buy two and honestly I wouldn’t trust the one. The Pentax 645z came along and saved the day. I could buy it from new and had the A7ii as backup.
Next is lens choice. A wide angle solution and a long telephoto will do you right. You could realistically do an amazing job with a 24-70 and 70-200 lens. That’s two bodies and two lenses. Some of you reading this will be commenting on how primes are better, which they are but if you are shooting landscapes you’ll be shooting at F8 most of the time and differences between lenses fall away and even out around there.
You do need a tripod, carbon fibre is good, a big sturdy one is better. Something like the Manfrotto 190B is good. Don’t spend too much, Hvitsurkur beach will trash it with the wind and sand. Also, it makes a great walking stick and support when moving to a photo op on foot.
I’ve never found any benefit from graduated filters, but the Lee Big stopper and the Lee Circular Polariser I used LOTS.
Part 3: What I took on my last trip to Iceland and how to get it over without losing your mind:
I took a Pentax 645z camera, 55mm, 75mm, 150mm and 300mm (manual) lens. I didn’t want to spend 4k on the wide angle (tbh it’s not wide enough for me and I can stitch) so I took my Sony A7ii, metabones and Canon 16-35mm 2.8 mkii as a way of having a backup and a wide angle option. CP and Big Stopper filters and two tripods (one CF and one aluminium).
You might see on some of my A7 shots that the edges of the frame are distorted. That’s the 16-35 2.8, even when stopped down. I was a bit disappointed and wish I’d bought the Canon F4 version with IS as I have that now and it’s corner to corner sharp and flawless. I also wish I’d had a 5Dsr instead of the A7 like I do now but it wasn’t available last June.
In order to get all this stuff over (as well as my camping gear) it was a fairly painless process. I went with Icelandair and for £25 each way you can take another 20kg case over. That solved a lot of problems.
So clothing and essentials in one case as normal, the other carried my tent, crash mat, sleeping bag and tripods. Also my cheaper lenses too. Dangerous? Well, I don’t consider wrapping a 300mm (£400) manual focus lens in a 1/2 ft deep sleeping bag risky as that’s what I ended up doing.
The 645z and A7 body and two lenses went in my hand luggage with the 2 remaining heaviest lenses in either side of my jacket pocket. Voila, I beat the weight restrictions and got everything on board.
Part 4: Techniques, pitfalls and issues to look out for and avoid
There are three things that will really mess with your photographic Chi either directly or by proxy and those are Tourists, the Weather, Google images and flies.
When the weather is stinking, it’s really bad to shoot in. Iceland’s landscapes are a mix of luminous green, muddy browns and orange. When there is snow the contrast is high and can mess with your ability to visualise a scene. Without good light and broken cloud scenes can appear flat and downright morbid. You can get highly disappointed if you want to create your best work. It’s a picture postcard land that gives you gifts from time to time but otherwise it’s hard work.
The tourists are a liability in that even though you are one too they can ruin a shot. Long exposures are your friend for the busier landmarks unless that is, you have someone sitting in the same spot watching a waterfall for 20 minutes but hey, clone them out in photoshop. More worrying is their stop / start not paying attention to the road that you really need to be aware of and to not make the same mistake yourself.
If you use Google Images as an example of what to expect in Iceland you are setting yourself up for a fall. A lot of those amazing shots you see promoting the island have skies dropped into the background and are usually heavily manipulated. Don’t beat yourself up if in June you can’t get Hvitsurkur at sunset with the northern lights overhead with a Death Star in the background. Some of the worlds best landscape photographers are happy if they take 300 images in a day and get ONE they like. I took 4000 images over three trips and have around 150 I edited of which only 60 I’m really pleased with.
Protect yourself from flies in the lowlands and near water / moist and rich soils. There’s nothing more comical than to run screaming from your kit only to have to go back and get it later on. Flies love to sit on a Lee big stopper and wait for you to come back.
Part 5: Iceland travel options, Maps used and smaller things
When I booked my last trip I thought I would try and find a 4×4 which had a decent enough boot space so I could at least lie down diagonally at a push so I ordered the Suzuki Grand Vitara. This was a great 4×4 and it was the second time I’d had one. Although it turned out the boot was smaller than I’d researched. (sadface). Regardless, it was a great 4×4 and I would say to get one of those at a minimum. It feels like a proper 4×4 rather than an upgraded consumer vehicle.
DO NOT go cheap on your hire car ever. Expect to pay around 100 GBP / 150 USD / 120 Euro per day for a car. Always keep your tank topped up if at half a tank, especially in the northern parts of the island.
If you get a hire car and it has built in sat nav it isn’t the bonus you think it will be so always take your own. Tomtom do not support Iceland at the time of writing but Garmin do and it’s excellent. The problem with in car sat nav’s in Iceland is that most places you go have symbols in. Like Snæfellsnes – try typing that into an English keyboard and you won’t be able to. The Sat Nav will just blink at you in return. Sure, you can get the Icelandic keyboard up, but then the whole Sat Nav is unreadable. Catch 22. The Garmin is a bit better in that you can find landmarks easier. In car route planners always seem to be a law unto themselves so take responsibility of the Sat Nav. That being said, there is only one main road around Iceland.
Know that 3G is pretty much everywhere and all is good with the world when you have it but places to poo are harder to find. If you have to go au naturel it’ll be the only time that day someone drives past you.
Always have a map in hardcopy to hand, I went with the (Drum rolls) INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER the world through a viewfinder ICELAND MAP – which was very good. It had a lot of highlighted places on it and helped me to plan my route and cross reference with my Garmin.
There were some places on the map where it looked like I was going to be on a main road when it fact it was an exceptionally rough F road and it’s really disappointing when you’ve driven an F road for an hour to Thjofafoss only to find that 100 metres along the track heading away was a nice smooth piece of tarmac.
I would recommend everyone should go, at least once, to Iceland. It’s a humbling country that makes you appreciate the world we live in. Do the landmarks, the golden circle, the Blue Lagoon even and have that massive breakfast in Prikid.
But get off the beaten track and walk some of the treks into the country. It’s one of my regrets as roadside tourism only really scratches the surface of the Island. I’m unsure if I’ll be back here or if other parts of the world like Norway are calling me now, I’d like to go to Japan in May, it’s a big planet we’re on. Travel, before life gets in the way.
But if I was to go back I’d probably spend much longer in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. there’s some real beauty there and I’m bored of the South now and I’d want to take the ferry to Heimaey too.
I’d also go at a different time as well. The midnight sun isn’t truly useful and it just stretches your day out and tires you. I would say Late April, very early May and mid October should be a lovely time to visit.
Back to real life…..
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