If you are into photography, you have to visit Iceland. Here’s a quick photographer’s guide to Iceland.
Iceland is like Disneyland for Photographers with gorgeous and breathtaking scenery at every single turn. There is so much to see and photograph: Glaciers, Snow capped Mountains, Beaches, Cliffs, Lava Fields, Fjords, Tunnels, Waterfalls, Bleak Landscapes, Lush Landscapes, Reflections Pools, Gushing Rivers, Geysers, Craters, Lakes, Lava Formations.
Iceland probably has the highest number of Landscape shots packed into a square inch than any other place I have been to (and I suspect in the whole wide world). So there is no question of whether you will go, the question is only when. I got a lot of useful advice from many different peoples blogs on preparing for Iceland and I wanted to add some more information in the hope that it is hopeful.
A trip to Iceland might seem daunting, but with a little bit of planning, you should be able to easily make the best of any situation and have a great time shooting this wonderful place.
As in many other blogs I will add some general comments initially followed by more detailed itinerary information that we followed.
Iceland’s weather was changing every 5 minutes. We saw everything from heavy downpours, slight drizzles, blustery and windy, clear blue skies and everything in between. So the best plan is to prepare for it accordingly. With the right gear and the mindset you will be able to make the best of most situations. You will need to wear clothes that protect you completely head to toe from the elements.
What to Bring
You need to start with layers. A base layer (like thermals etc), followed by regular shirt or t-shirt and then another warm layer like fleece finally a layer to protect against the rain and wind. It is incredibly important to have all these layers so you can mix and match accordingly depending upon the weather you encounter.
Make sure to get waterproof protection for your legs in the form of rain pants or similar.
Shoes are required of course, hiking shoes offer good grip when scampering around trails or slippery rocks near Waterfalls. In a pinch a regular shoe used for running or walking shoes might suffice. You might also consider getting Waterproof socks that can be used if it rains a lot.
Gloves are needed. Lowepro sells gloves for photographers and this might work for you. If you are sensitive to cold you might need better gloves but it will impact you working with your equipment.
Headgear is important as well. We got Balaclavas and these worked wonderfully in all kinds of crazy conditions. Everything else will expose some parts of your face and make it uncomfortable to stay out in the cold for extended periods of time.
The days are pretty long from 3 AM sunrise to 12 AM sunset, so get a eye mask for sleeping as rooms can be pretty bright even with the shades closed.
A swimsuit is also recommended if you are plan to go to the hot baths.
Bring a sleeping mask, you will need it. The sun never sets and it is never completely dark outside so a sleeping mask cuts out the brightness and snoozing is much easier.
Roads in Iceland are particularly great for driving around with minimal traffic. Rules are just like the US and all signs are in English. Hiring a rental car and driving around is the best way to do what you want to do. We used Blue Car Rental and had a great experience with them, but there are lots of smaller car companies as well as the usual companies. If you are planning to drive around the ring road only, you will be fine with a 2WD car. If you want to drive on the F-Roads, you might want to consider getting a 4WD. Although we had a 4WD SUV, we could have driven around perfectly fine with a 2WD.
When hiring a car rental, skip the GPS and get a 3G router/modem. Blue car rental offers this as part of the booking and it was incredibly useful all through the ring road. You get great speed and coverage almost everywhere and using Google Maps for navigation beats entering tough Icelandic names into the GPS. Its also great to stream music on the road from spotify or youtube.
At the airport, convenience grocery stores allow you to buy a cheap SIM card for your stay that you can use to make local calls (as long as you have a unlocked phone). Get one and it can be invaluable.
On the ring road, food can be a challenge because towns are sparse and the hours might not line up with your plans. Restaurants typically close by 10 PM, so plan accordingly to be at someplace for dinner, otherwise you might have to eat Hot Dogs at a gas station or go hungry.
Here’s some recommendations:
– Iceland has some stunning landscapes and it can be hard to fit it all in. So a Wide Angle and an Ultra Wide Angle lens are recommended. A 35mm equivalent 17mm Wide is required. An even wider lens like a 12mm (Sigma etc) is really nice to have to get some great perspectives.
– A full frame DSLR is recommended, because anything else will not get you the real wide angles you will need.
– A long telephoto lens is required. I used a 70-200mm lens and it was invaluable in many many situations, so definitely get one.
– A Circular Polarizer is required
– A neutral density filter (6x and 10x) are required when shooting in IceLand because of the huge number of waterfalls and rivers and lakes that abound.
– A sturdy tripod is required. Don’t travel without one.
– Keep many lens cleaning cloths handy. You will be using it in every shoot.
Driving the Ring Road
The ring road (or Highway 1) goes completely around Iceland and is the best place to see stunning scenery everywhere you look. We drove around the ring road and also did the golden circle and it was approximately 2000 KM or 1200 Miles.
There are two options to drive the ring road once you land at Reykjavik, either clockwise or counter-clockwise. We took the counter clockwise route based on many other recommendations on the internet and in retrospect that turned out to be the best option.
Here’s an overview map of our road trip in Iceland.
This was our rough itinerary
Day 1: Reach Reykjavik, Night at Kirkjubæjarklaustur
Day 2: Night at Hofn
Day 3: Night at Lake Myvatn Area
Day 4: Night at Lake Myvatn Area
Day 5: Night at Stykkisholmur
Day 6: Night at Reykjavik
Day 7: Night at Reykjavik
Day 8: Depart back
Day 1: Reykavik to Kirkjubæjarklaustur
We landed in Keflavik International Airport early in the morning, breezed through Iceland immigration and then picked up bags. Unfortunately, the airline missed one of our party members checked-in luggage and so we had to make arrangements with the airline desk to get them forwarded to our place of stay when it arrived the next day. That took more time than anything else at the airport.
We picked up a sim card for our (make sure your phone is unlocked) GSM cell phone which was quite handy to make calls during the trip. We also picked up our rental car at Blue Car Rental right across the terminal and were on our way.
Heading out of Keflavik, we saw some lava filled landscapes before reaching Reykjavik. Reykjavik gave us the opportunity to load up on groceries and have a nice Breakfast at the Laundromat Café.
Driving out, we first saw our first landscape which got us all excited, leading us to stop and do a 1 hour stop. Little did we know that this was hardly worth a stop.
We stopped and said hello to one of our customers based out of Selfoss which was a reasonably large town on the way.
We stopped at Urridafoss, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss.
Dinner was at Vik and then we explored the wonderful and impressive black sand beach with the basalt colums and the sea stacks. This still remains one of the most beautiful places in Iceland that I remember from our trip.
We drove to Kirkjubæjarklaustur for the night.
Day 2: Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Hofn
After a quick breakfast at the Hotel, we headed to Skaftafell National Park to go on the Guided Glacier walk (http://www.glacierguides.is/GlacierTripsFromSkaftafell/GlacierWonders). It was an out of the world experience traipsing around the glacier. Highly recommended if you are ever in Iceland.
After lunch, we stopped at Fjallsarlon then spectacular Jokulsarlon.
Dinner was at Hofn, after which we spent the night at the beautiful Apartments by the Sea.
Day 3: Hofn to Lake Myvatn
The next day was spent driving from Hofn to Lake Myvatn and this was just a wonderful drive filled with jaw dropping scenery, waterfalls and landscapes.
A small waterfall (Folaldafoss) on unpaved Rte 939 way was just beautiful with the backdrop of the mountains. Even though driving 939 was adventurous it was a wonderful drive.
We stopped for a nice Lunch at Egilsstadir’s Cafe Nielsen.
We kept driving till we reached Myvatn around 8 PM. We visited the Myvatn Nature Baths which was just wonderful and relaxing after the long day of driving.
Day 4: Lake Myvatn
The lake Myvatn is a unique geo thermal area with a beautiful lake and many attractions around that area.
We visited the Krafla area (Viti Crater) and then the Hverir Geo thermal area. The Hverir geo thermal area has some out-of-the world features like bubbling mud-holes and steaming fumaroles.
After lunch at a small pizza place we hiked up the desolate Hverfell Crater, followed by a tour of the Dimmuborgir Lava field and then the Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.
Day 5: Myvatn to Stykkisholmur
The next day was spent driving from Myvatn all the way to the quaint sea side town of Stykkisholmur which is the gateway to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Instead of just taking the direct route, we took a detour to explore the Tröllaskagi peninsula via Route 82 and then Route 76. This goes via Dalvik, Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður (which was known as the Herring capital of the world).
A nice lunch at Torgid Restaurant at Siglufjordur.
This was a tremendously scenic area and at this point we might be running out of adjectives to describe landscapes so we would let the photos do the talking.
After a really long drive, we finally reached Stykkisholmur late but managed to get in before dinner time closed at the Sjavarpakkhusid restaurant.
Day 6: Stykkisholmur
The Snaefellsnes peninsula is a microcosm of Iceland. It has everything: glaciers, beaches, lava fields and towering mountains. Jules Verne immortalized snæfellsjökull volcano glacier as the starting point to the center of the earth in his book “Journey to the center of the earth”.
We drove back to Reykjavik for the night.
Day 7: Reykjavik
At our last day in Iceland, we did the most quintessential touristy thing in Iceland, ie driving the Golden Circle. In our previous day we saw some tourists at the attractions but nothing like what we saw at the Golden circle which involves three main attractions Pingvellir, Geysir and Gulfoss. These attractions were just slammed with bus loads of tourists. Pingvellir was interesting as the area where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. But Geysir was really the big highlight of the tour and worth visiting.
We ended our week long trip with a visit to the Blue Lagoon which felt the most manufactured experience but still unique.
The next morning, we boarded our flight back to Austin, Texas, coming back to Earth after a week in one of the most amazing places in the world.
The question is not if I will go back, but only when.
If I had to plan differently, I would have spent more time at Vik and Hofn (maybe an extra day) and skipped the Snaefullsnes peninsula. If you only have a 3 to 4 days, we would recommend the golden circle and driving up to Vik.
There are a bunch of wonderful resources on driving the ring road and visiting Iceland in general