Where To Go For Photography In Iceland
Ok, so I want to write this blog in hopes of saving some photographer out there a lot of time. I went to Iceland and I ended up spending a TON of time researching endless shit websites that gave me clickbait information on tourist hotspots in Iceland. These are all the spots I suggest you visit if you're looking at going to Iceland. I will warn you, this blog is long and comprehensive, but hopefully it helps.
For this blog I will break Iceland down to:
- How to get there
- When to go
- How to plan out your trip
- What clothes to bring
- What camera equipment to bring
- How to stay
- What to eat
- Where to photograph
I promise each section will have some solid nuggets of gold but if you are just looking for places to photograph start scrolling to the bottom.
How To Get There
In 2016 an estimated 2 million tourists visited Iceland. Keep in mind the population of Iceland is around 334,000. Because there are so many tourists, air travel prices have dropped significantly and it's not uncommon to find tickets for $200-300 round trip. If you are traveling from the US, Iceland Air has direct flights to a number of key cities. I ended up traveling to Norway then doing Iceland Air's Stopover where you book a flight from a European City (I chose Oslo) and then have a long layover in Iceland before continuing on to your US destination. Under this system you can stay up to 7 nights in Iceland. My airfare was $122 for the one way (yes you read that right). I even paid for the barter upgrade where you tell them how much you'd be willing to pay for an upgrade and if you beat the other cheap bastards on the flight you get your own bougie first class seat.
Another solid option is WOW Air which is kind of like the Spirit Airlines of Iceland. If you don't mind tight seats, add-on charges for baggage and window seats and you can suck it up, I'd recommend taking a look at them.
In addition to WOW and Icelandair, United, Delta and now American Airlines all have service to Iceland. However, the US carriers tend to run seasonal routes so be sure to check them out for exact dates.
When To Go
Because Iceland is so far North, when you go can matter a lot. There isn't necessarily a better time to go because it really depends on what you're looking to do when you get there. If you're going for photography I'd suggest going sometime after October to around April. If you go during the summer you will be battling some annoying ass crowds, tour bus trains and random people who just park their car in the middle of the highway, get out and then take a shit photo of nothing important. You will hardly see any sunsets because the sun will be in the sky throughout the day and night. You also wont be able to see the Northern Lights during the summer.
I went in October and had some great luck with weather and lighting. Because of the angle of Iceland in relation to the sun there were sunrises and sunsets that lasted for hours. Also, the weather wasn't too bad and we had some great cloud cover that made for some amazing light and photos. I haven't been in the spring so I can't speak too much on that time of year but I hear it's equally as nice.
How To Plan Your Trip:
So obviously this one is a big one that could take more than just a paragraph in a blog. However, I do have a few recommendations.
When my sister and I went we decided to drive the entire Highway 1 that circumnavigates the island. If you choose to do this I would strongly recommend taking more than 7 days like we did. We ended up spending a ton of time in the car and we weren't able to spend enough time at the places we really liked. If you have 5-7 days I would suggest driving the southern part of the island, all the way to the Jokulsarlon Ice Beach (also known as Diamond Beach.) On that drive you will hit a ton of waterfalls, the famous crashed airplane and the Ice Beach. Skogafoss, Vik and Hofn are all great places to stay as well. The drive from Reykjavik to Höfn will take you around 5-6 hours so spaced out over a few days isn't too bad. You can always turn around and make the drive back or there are flights from Höfn back to the main airport.
If you have a few days check out the west tip where the star above is labeled Kirkjufellsfoss. The entire peninsula is absolutely gorgeous and you won't be disappointed with the amount of great photography spots.
I would avoid going to the Blue Lagoon which is about 30 min south of Reykjavik. You have to make a reservation to get in, usually a week or two in advance and the entire thing is a giant tourist trap. If you want to hit a hot springs you can be rest assured there are plenty of other ones that are way less expensive and off the beaten path.
If you want a real fun day trip consider diving Silfra. This is a fresh water lake that has a point where you can dive down and touch the Eurasian/American contents at the same time. It is a dry suit dive and cold as balls but still one of the most memorable parts of my trip.
If you have 10 days or more I would certainly recommend driving the entire ring road. Iceland is one of those places that no matter where you go you will find something absolutely amazing. If you're not sure what something is, look for the word Foss which means waterfall. The entire country is littered with waterfalls and by the time you leave you will never give two shits about another waterfall again because they wont be better than what you saw in Iceland. Waterfalls that people travel hours to visit in the US are literally on the side of the road and people pass them like they a no big deal.
What To Wear:
I know this may be a give-me but I definitely didn't pack the right clothes. When I went in October it wasn't super cold but it was a wet cold. I took a puff jacket with me that did a decent job but I'd strongly recommend getting a good windbreaker, puff jacket, rain jacket, waterproof gloves and waterproof boots. Also, if you really want to get fancy with it I'd recommend bringing some waders for Jokulsarlon because you will be standing super close to the waves to get the shots you want and if you're like me you will get soaked up to your waist in ice cold water. Another pro tip is to bring enough shirts, socks and underwear with you that you don't have to do laundry because there aren't a ton of laundry facilities on the Island, especially outside of Reykjavik.
What Camera Equipment To Bring:
Ok, in this section I am going to nerd out a little bit, mainly because there are some things I wish I would have done differently.
First and foremost, bring a good camera. If you can't afford a good camera, rent one. I actually ended up renting the Canon 5D Mark IV on this trip and later I bought it. I knew I'd be pissed if missed the photo of a lifetime because I didn't have the right camera. You can rent the Canon 5D Mark IV for around $250 for a seven day trip, I promise you it's worth it. I used lensrentals.com but there are a bunch of other great websites out there that have great deals. If you want a couple of recommendations of a good travel option consider the Sony a6500. I just bought this camera and I think it would have been an awesome back-up/travel camera for the trip.
Bring a remote shutter release. You can use the timer on your camera but if you get lucky enough to see the northern lights you will want to be able to quickly snap away because it changes so quickly.
Bring the right lenses. I would suggest bringing a good 24-70mm, a fast wide angle (really good for the northern lights), and a 70-200mm or better lens. You will go from shooting wildlife to big wide angle shots all in the same area.
Bring an adapter. Iceland uses a 220v system. I would recommend picking up a multi-plug outlet that can charge your batteries and phones all at once. I found a lot of the hotel rooms would only have one or two outlets and my sister and I would have to plan dinner and other events around coming back and charging our different accessories. If you lose your adapter or forget one go ask the hotel staff if they have any. We did that one night and the dude behind the counter pulled out a giant box of adapters that had been left behind by other guests.
Bring extra batteries. If you're like me you will get to an amazing spot and start losing your mind and snap a million photos. I started crushing my battery life and I am really happy I brought extra batteries and battery chargers.
Bring extra SD Cards. If you don't bring a computer and hard-drive to off-load your photos onto, bring a lot of SD Cards. Make sure the card has a U3 on it so it can handle you snapping a million photos at once (important for the Northern Lights).
Bring protective covers. Depending on when you go you could experience some heavy rain. I'd recommend bringing some good rain covers for you and your equipment. This is also important if you photograph any of the waterfalls closely.
Where To Stay:
I am going to make this one brief because it really depends on where you go, how long you're there for and what you want to accomplish. I booked all my hotels with points/money through United and through Kayak.com. The hotels there are not cheap so I'd recommend looking at renting an RV, getting a sleeper car or looking at a VRBO/AIRBNB option. All of the hotels I stayed in were nice, well looked after and offered all the basic amenities.
What To Eat:
I know you might be wondering why I am going to tell you what to eat, but just hear me out. Food in Iceland is unbelievably expensive and for the most part it sucks (sorry if you're Icelandic and reading this.... Make better food.) The entire time I didn't have one meal where I sat there and thought "wow, that was good." We went to a lot of gas stations (a lot of which have diners in them), hotel restaurants and even recommended restaurants and all of them were pretty much an overall let down. My recommendation? Bring your own food. There isn't much in the way of restrictions on food items and you could get away with bringing soups, noodle bowls, protein bars and other stuff pretty easily. Can't be that bad you say? My sister and I ate at a restaurant, had two bowls of soup, two potato cakes and water and our bill was $45. Want to eat something more substantial? Then be prepared to shell out some cash. The other thing to consider is there aren't a lot of shops and supermarkets once you get outside of Reykjavik so if you plan on doing lots of hiking and photography pay to bring an extra bag on the plane and fill it full of some good fat kid snacks.
What To Photograph:
The moment we have all been waiting for. The golden nuggets of wisdom of where to shoot those photos that your friends will like the shit out of on your Instagram account and tell you you're amazing and you say "no Vikki, you're amazing" with some emoji heart next to it.
The map at the top of the page is my recommended places to go so as I go through these locations with photos you can go back and see what I am talking about.
This is the first of many waterfalls (see that foss which means waterfall?) along HW 1 that is a 1.5hr drive from Reykjavik and is absolutely stunning. Note this one is not shown above because my sister reminded me of it later and I am too lazy to go back and change the image. This one is full of tourists because of how easy it is to get there but it's worth the stop. My suggestion, along with a lot of these places is to arrive super early or late to avoid the crowds.
Skogafoss is about 20-30 minutes past Seljalandsfoss and equally as crowded. However, it's a great place to spend the night and of all the meals I ate in Iceland that place was on the better-ish side. This is a great place to catch a nice sunrise waterfall shot since the sun comes up to the east of the falls and kind of behind it.
Sólheimasandur Plane Crash
In 1973 a US Navy DC3 crashed onto the beach at Sólheimasandur. All of the crew walked away but the wreckage remained and has since become one of the most iconic photography spots in Iceland and another tourist hotbed. There is no designated spot for the trail to the plane other than a ton of cars on the side of the road. There is a path that leads up to the plane that looked more like a pilgrimage when we were there. This is one spot that you should only go to on the off season, on an off day at an off time. By the time I left I wanted to kill any one of the hundred tourists there flipping peace signs to selfie sticks in front of the airplane. Trying to get a good shot of the plane on its own was almost impossible. On top of that it was about a mile walk to the plane, both ways and I hate walking, it's boring. However, I did manage to get a few cool pics and I'm sure at the right time it could make for some amazing shots for someone else.
We ended up just driving through Vik but I wish we had more time to stop there. I have seen some photographers take some incredible shots from Vik and the surrounding areas. A good option is to stay in Vik which is one of the larger towns in Iceland and then travel from there for photography. From Vik you can reach almost all of the solid photography spots within a couple of hours.
Jökulsárlón beach and glacier are probably one of the most stunning things I have seen and photographed in my life. It's a 100% must see item. If you're a photographer I would suggest going here if you can only go one place. I actually had this one on my bucketlist and I ended up writing a full blog just on the spot. The beach is a solid 4.5-5 hour drive so don't be afraid to take a puddle jumper to Höfn if you want to save some time. For a pro-tip consider getting a 4-wheel drive car that you can use to drive down the beach away from some of the crowds.
Dettifoss is absolutely amazing and considered the most powerful waterfall in Europe. This massive waterfall drops 150 feet and is 100 yards wide and was featured in the movie Prometheus. Depending on where you approach the waterfall from you can literally walk up to the very edge of it. I would suggest going to the waterfall off of road 864 from the East, I personally believe it's a much better view and it had a lot less tourists.
Another good option while you are at Dettifoss is to head North down the river along the path. There are some spectacular views. This is especially amazing for sunset since you will be looking west as the sun sets over the river and waterfalls.
Myvatn is another "larger" town and has some pretty incredible views. We ended up staying at the Laxá Hotel which looks like something out of a James Bond film. The surrounding areas have hot springs, waterfalls and a gorgeous lake. There is also a small cave that houses some intensely hot water that is great to checkout but not recommended for swimming since the water is too hot. In this part of Iceland the climate becomes very dry making for some intense desert shots. There is little to no vegetation and it's a lot of driving between scenic places but if you have the time it's worth the trip.
Aldeyjarfoss is 1.5 hour drive from Myvatn and includes some fairly sketchy roads towards the end. You should be able to get there in most rental cars unless there is bad weather but be careful when your driving. The waterfall offers a stark contrast against the Black Basalt Rocks. It's also far enough off the beaten path that you shouldn't have too many crowds. This was actually one of my favorite places to go.
This is arguably one of the most photographed spots in Iceland. This waterfall and area is located in west Iceland and requires you to get off highway 1. The town of Grundarfjörður is about 10 min away from the waterfall and has hotels, restaurants and anything you would need to stay for awhile. The waterfall itself is full of tourists and it's difficult to get a shot where someone isn't in it. My sister was able to brave the crowds and rain while I sat in the car and had a half assed attempt at getting good shots with my zoom lens from the parking lot. That being said, the waterfall isn't the only amazing place to photograph there. The entire peninsula is covered in drastic mountains and gorgeous terrain.
The above is where we spent the majority of our time so those are the spots that I can best advise on. However, on my next trip these are the spots I'd like to go back to:
- Puffin boat tour- those little orange billed bastards would be awesome to photograph. Apparently this is a seasonal thing but certainly on the bucketlist
- Aerial tour- All of the aerial photos I have seen of Iceland have been absolutely stunning. I will be splurging on this one next time.
- Vestrahorn- This is on the southern part of Iceland but features some incredible landscapes and beaches.
Landmannalaugar- These are the southern highlands of Iceland and apparently fairly difficult to get to. They feature drastic mountains, glaciers and stunning sunsets/sunrises.