Photographing Iceland – What You Need to Know (Part One)


We’ve had several requests from inspired fellow photographers for suggested itineraries and locations when planning a trip to Iceland after seeing our Facebook and website galleries – which is, of course, one of the greatest compliments we could ever receive!  As with any photographic holiday, preparation and planning goes a long way towards making the trip a success.  There are plans to write an article on planning photographic holidays in general, but for this one we will concentrate specifically on this amazing country that we have come to know reasonably well.

The intention is to divide this topic into 3 parts – the first (this post) to go through some basic logistics (when to visit, where to stay, how to get there), then a second article to concentrate on what to photograph (how long to spend at the locations, what to bring along), and a third to summarise the key points.

Why are you going (and what do you want to photograph)?

This has to be one of the first questions asked for any photographic trip.  You need to be clear on what you are going to photograph as this will influence where you spend the majority of your time and effort, and helps with planning your route as well as the time of year to go.  In any photographic endeavour the greatest enemy is time.  By pinpointing several locations that you want to visit, you can concentrate on a smaller region and thus make the most of your holiday.

One of the ways we decide where to visit is to look online and in bookshops or newsagencies.  Flickr and other photosharing websites can be a good first stop, and so can the official tourist websites.  Once in the country, we generally like to look for coffee table books or postcards, which give us an idea of vantage points, composition and places that may be more off the beaten track.

We visited Iceland twice over two years.  The first time we really didn’t have much of a clue and so a return trip was planned to revisit some of the locations that we felt deserved a better effort.  Over three weeks in late April/early May 2009 we spent a lot of time driving long distances trying to cover the entire country.  Our second trip was planned for August-September 2010 and this time we had specific locations and activities in mind, which meant that we managed a better percentage of “keeper” images.

We planned to hike the Laugavegur Trail on our second visit

When should you visit?

Both trips produced very different photographs.  In late spring (April-May) we found that a lot of the landscape was still covered with snow, and waterfalls were abundant as the snows melted.  The season also meant that the colours of the landscapes tended towards earthy colours (browns, yellows and grey skies).  At that time of year many of the interior roads are inaccessible, which means the central highlands and other interior locations will not be on your list of photography locations, including possibly Dynjandi and Dettifoss (two waterfalls NOT to be missed!).

Dylan photographing Dettifoss

The focus of our second trip was to hike the Laugavegur Trail, to visit both the West Fjords and interior highlands, and to spend more time at Jökulsárlón.  The Laugavegur Trail can only be hiked in the summer months, but we didn’t want to be too much a part of the tourist crowd, so we opted for as late as possible in summer to go such that as the weeks went by the crowds would slowly disappear.  By this time, the waterfalls don’t have as much water, but there are blue skies and green shrubbery, and the magic light of dusk lasts for several hours.

Either way, be prepared with plenty of warm clothing.  In late spring the day temperatures hover around 5 degrees Celsius, and I remember pulling on 3 layers of pants and 4 layers of tops (including outerwear).  In summer it is possible to walk around in a t-shirt but the nights can get bitterly cold, especially if you are planning to catch an aurora at 1am in the central highlands.  Waterproof, windproof outerwear is essential; it is rarely still in Iceland, and in the highlands the winds are so strong that you will need to crouch as low as possible to take a photo.

How will you get around?

Depending on where you live it can take almost 2 days to reach Iceland.  From Adelaide, Australia, it took approximately 35 hours, including all transit times.  IcelandAir will jetty you to and from Reykjavík via Heathrow.  Once in Iceland, we recommend hiring a 4WD vehicle, especially if you are planning to use the interior routes.  There are plenty of bumpy dirt roads and more than a few river crossings through the highlands.  If you only plan to use the Main Ring Road 1 that encircles the country, it is sealed and kept clear all year round (except when volcanoes erupt and glaciers melt), so you can get by without a 4WD.  Car hire was one of the most expensive commodities, which was also part of the reason we tried to go during the “shoulder” season (“low” season) – the difference in price between “peak” and “shoulder” season was at least 150%.  A very good map comes with car hire, though it is rather large and clumsy to handle.

You'll need a 4WD to access Landmannalaugar and other interior highland locations

Where can you stay?

The hostels in Iceland are a cheap and efficient way to get around the country if you don’t require more than a bed and you are happy to self-cater.  Almost all the hostels offer 2-bed (“private”) rooms, but if you wanted to save even more, dormitory-style rooms are also available.  During low season it is possible you may be the only occupant of a hostel (we had a 70-bed hostel all to ourselves at Hvoll in 2009!).  As with anything, dorms come with their own disadvantages – sharing bathroom facilities, snoring occupants, late sleepers, reduced privacy – and your own pre-dawn outings may not be appreciated by others either!  Hostels can be booked through the Iceland Hostelling International website (http://www.hostel.is/).  Beware not all have laundry facilities.  The hostels range from modern and swish at Hvoll and Reykjavík, to cosy and homey facilities at Húsey and Kopasker.

For some locations the hostels are not in close proximity, especially as you move away from Reykjavík.  To photograph Jökulsárlón, for example, we stayed in accommodation run by the “Icelandic Farm Holidays” association (http://www.farmholidays.is/).  It is slightly more expensive than a private hostel room.  There are approximately 160 farms around Iceland that may be more suitable to your travel plans than the hostel locations.  If you plan to hike the Laugavegur Trail and want to stay in the mountain huts, you need to book well in advance through the Ferðafélag Íslands website (http://www.fi.is/en/huts/), or else carry a tent.

We can’t advise on 5-star accommodation as that isn’t our style of travel, but there will certainly be hotels to cater for those that like a bit more luxury.

Camping at Hrafntinnusker on the Laugavegur Trail

How will you handle food supplies?

We self-catered for almost the entire time we spent in Iceland.  It was easier as we did not have to rely on finding food outlets if we stayed out late for a sunset shoot, or if we wanted a midnight snack while waiting for auroras, or a nibble on a cold pre-dawn session at a secluded beach.  Spring temperatures are cold enough during the day to transport dairy foods and cold meats in the boot of the car whilst heading from one hostel to another.  During summer a little more care should be taken, perhaps using an esky or icepack and packing all the cold foods together.

Our favourite supermarket haunt was the Bonus Supermarket chain (http://www.bonus.is/) but they are rare as you head east of Reykjavik.  Look for the slightly ugly pink pig on a yellow banner.  Other supermarkets include 10-11, Krónan, and of course the various ones attached to petrol stations.

Our mascots Twiggy & Chip at a Bonus supermarket!

There is a booklet available in Reykjavík’s Tourist Information Centre that lists all the fine dining options around the country if you are so inclined.  As with accommodation however, we are not particular about our food, so we can only recommend one restaurant in Reykjavik – Geysir Bar and Bistro (the salted cod was AWESOME).  Other than that, the hot dogs stands received our custom for lunches and mid-afternoon snacks.

How much does it cost?

The global financial crisis had a large impact on Iceland’s economy.  As a result, the exchange rate went from 40 Icelandic krona (ISK) to over 100 ISK to the Australian dollar on our last visit; currently the Aussie dollar gets you just under 122 ISK.    This means that store-bought food and drink is very affordable, if not even cheaper than your local supermarket.

The cost of flights has also dropped in recent times.  Our first trip cost approximately $3500 for two people departing Adelaide, including return flights and the ‘domestic’ flights between Heathrow and Reykjavík.  The second time we visited on a round-the-world ticket.

As a rough guide to expenditure on accommodation and car hire, for our 5-week trip last year it cost approximately $8000.  The inclusions:

  • Standard car hire (1 week, peak season)
  • 4WD car hire (4 weeks, low season)
  • Hostel accommodation (majority of nights)
  • Farm Holidays accommodation (5 nights)
  • Mountain Hut accommodation on the Laugavegur Trail (5 nights)

Car rentals can be booked through the Hostelling International website when you book your accommodation (http://www.hostel.is/).  We did not take out the volcanic ash insurance when hiring a vehicle.

Driving through the interior highlands

Well, I think that covers the basics!  A long post, I know, but next up will be suggested itineraries that will hopefully help you decide where you want to visit, whether you have just a few days, or a few weeks.  We’ll also list our favourite locations and give you an idea of how long you might want to spend there.

If you have any particular questions, feel free to post in comments and we’ll do our best to answer them!

-M

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Posted on August 4, 2011, in How we..., Iceland, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Excellent photographs !!! and Great Post.. Going to Iceland is a Dream to be… I guess someday i will Fulfill that dream

  2. these are some pretty amazing shots. iceland is on my bucket list

  3. Looking forward to part 2, would love to go and the UK is not too far away -small problem in that being deaf I don’t / cannot drive:-(

  4. Thank you so much for making this a blog-entry! I will go to Iceland end of August 2012 finally.
    Your blog is such a big source of inspiration, I am always excited when you have a new entry! 🙂
    I watched your movies and realized that you “imprived” very much in the last 2 years, I am really impressed! I think I am doing photos like in your 2009 Iceland-Video, the colors are not so punchy and sometimes I miss the right perspective / foreground interrest. How did you improve that much in that short amount of time? Any hints for me? I mean perspective wise you improved a lot, the newer images are just punchy! And then there are the colors, you really have a nice way to photoshop your photos! I do really like it. Did you just play around, have some tutorials or even visited a workshop? Any hint is most appreciated 🙂 As always keep your impressing work up and coming! Cheers Chris

    • Hi Chris – I think the key to improving in all aspects of photography is to never sit idle and being happy with where you’re at or the current images which you have. Look for a gold standard that you aspire to, and if you feel you’ve reached it, look again! Emulate, and keep shooting, keep working on processing, keep posting for critique on forums until you’ve get the look that you want without compromise 🙂 I think many people either believe they can’t get to a certain standard, or are content where they are and don’t look to try new things – both of those lead to a state of complacency I reckon. That’s our approach and we know we have a long way to go yet in photography ! Marianne wrote a little about it here : Self Progression for Photographers

  5. Good one, I will plan my trip again base on your advice. Thank You 🙂

  6. Great post M & D. I based my trip this year on a lot of Dylan’s advice. I did something similar to your 2009 trip and used a standard hire car to go anticlockwise around the country in May. Hoping to go back in the next year or two in the (slightly) warmer season and capture some different colours. Should work out a little better with a bit more insight and experience under my belt.
    Also kudos to you for your open sharing attitude and passion about your photography – truly something others can aspire to.
    I miss those hotdogs… 😀

    • No worries at all Matt 🙂 We’ll probably look to go back at some stage too – either in the middle of winter or summer (so we can get at those puffins!) – We both miss those hotdogs too – and in the stand next door, the ‘small’ fries packed a punch lol

  7. Hi, thanks for the post.
    Do you think you could do a similar trip but several days sleeping in tents? it will be in later spring or summer. Obviously will be better to camp in summer because the weather; but its ‘s a much cheaper option? because the car will be more expensive in summer (peak season).
    Apart from the wind and cold, it tends to rain?
    In summer, do you think the landscape will be less spectacular?
    Thanks!!!!!

    • Hi, not too sure about the tents as we stayed in the huts along the way. The trail does not open until summer, which would be the beginning of June, but we have not been there at that time. In early May it was still quite rainy and there was still snow cover around. In late summer it tends to be greener but I personally don’t think it is any less spectacular, just different.
      The car hire is definitely much more expensive in the peak season, which is why we tried to go towards the end of summer. Unfortunately if you are looking to do this trek it can only be done in summer so what you can do is time your visit to either begin with the trek at the end of summer (late August, which is what we did), or to finish with the trek (early June). This way your car hire will be lessened as you will be hiring outside of the summer peak season. Buses will transport you to and from the start and end points of the trek. Hope that makes sense! -M.

  8. Andrew Burgess

    Absolutely beautiful pics guys and great info. Iceland as well as Greenland has been on my todo list for over 15 years. One day.

    I asume you have sent your pics to the Iceland Tourist Board and all things Iceland?

    Regards

  9. Really nice blog and cool video i really like it. I am read many blog regular bases but your blog is really different like blog information and blog design i really like it. Thanks for sharing this blog.

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