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Immersing in jaw-dropping contrasts and otherworldly landscapes in Iceland will leave you awestruck. Prepare yourself for roaring waterfalls, glittering icebergs, and mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets.
Living up to the hype, the Land of Fire and Ice will boggle your mind with its unexpected surprises.
Camping maximizes flexibility, allowing you to chase the light. Living like a vampire, sleeping during the day and photographing at night, is best. It optimizes your chances for mind-blowing light and minimizes crowds.
Experiencing Midnight Sun and “golden hour” conditions for six hours is a photographers’ dream. Despite an 11:30PM sunset and 3:30AM sunrise, the sun never dips below Iceland’s horizon, providing a stunning kaleidoscope of colors.
Chasing magical waterfalls in Iceland
The size, variety, and beauty of Iceland’s waterfalls is astounding. Heading east from Reykjavik, Oxararfoss waterfall is a nice introduction. It’s part of the Thingviller National Park. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet here.
In addition to photographing the main waterfall, changing up your perspective and capturing the water moving over the boulders and the pathway leading down the horizon provides for some interesting options.
TIP: Experiment with a polarizer to remove the glare from the rocks and/or an ND filter to slow the shutter speed to .5-4 seconds. This will allow you to achieve an ethereal cotton candy effect.
Feeling adventurous? Consider diving or snorkeling the nearby Silfra Fissure. While visibility is fantastic [330 feet (110 meters)], temperatures are frigid [35-39 degrees Farenheit (2-4 degrees Celsius)]. You will need a dry suit to dive here.
Gullfoss (Golden) waterfall
Watching water from this arrow-shaped waterfall cascade over two levels and empty into the canyon 100 feet (32 meters) below is lovely.
TIP: After capturing the iconic panoramic perspective from the upper viewpoint, moving to the lower viewpoint allows you to experiment with interesting water abstracts.
Photographing one of Iceland’s photogenic churches
Perusing Iceland photos, you’ve seen pictures of the eerie Budakirkja Black Church.
Sitting atop a lava field, the Budir Black church is a lone sentinel in the stark, dream-like landscape. Glancing around, you’ll feel as if elves might emerge from the waterfall strewn hills. After a massive storm wiped out this village from the 1800s, only a small hotel and this church remain.
TIP: To achieve this ghostly look, use a 10-16 stop filter + a remote release. Using the PhotoPills app, input your aperture and ISO to calculate the exposure.
The most iconic mountain in Iceland does not disappoint
Pulling into the parking lot, the famous Kirkjufellsfoss might initially underwhelm you. While the waterfalls seem less impressive at first glance, positioning properly will provide you with the famous image you are seeking.
Using a wide-angle lens and experimenting with shutter speed and perspective, this icon will endear you. Seeing this during the Northern Lights would be the icing on the cake.
Standing 1500 feet (463 meters) high, it looms over the tiny nearby village of Grundarfjordur (population 900) on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.
TIP: After getting the iconic image, move to the area above the three waterfalls. Shooting the cascading water provides interesting leading lines towards Kirkjufell. Experimenting with shutter speeds of .5 – 2 seconds will vary the falls’ look.
Photographing reflections in the lake is a meditative perspective.
Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods)
This spectacular horse-shoe shaped waterfall is a sight to behold. It derives its name from an event in 1000 AD where heathen statues were thrown into the waterfall, signifying the conversion from heathendom to Christianity.
Capturing some of the more interesting shots (water flowing over outcroppings) is scary for those who fear heights. Fortunately, Colby Brown provided me with both moral support and tripod positioning on the precarious ledges.
TIP: Given the water volume at this site, .5 to 2 seconds was the optimal exposure to capture the detail.
Aldeyjarfoss – an Iceland highlight
Laying eyes on this Iceland jewel for the first time was incredible. It was the trip’s greatest sight and most spectacular surprise.
As our van and trailer were careening along gravel roads, we kept imploring Colby to stop so we could photograph the sky’s amazing colors. Telling us to trust him, he promised we’d get to the perfect spot to photograph this crazy light.
Arriving in the small parking lot and quickly hiking down the trail, we immediately understood this location’s appeal. Epic fiery skies provided the perfect backdrop for the falls thundering between the basalt columns. The contrast between the grey and black gradations and the turquoise water splashing into the cauldron below was stunning.
Epitomizing “Fire & Ice,” this awe-inspiring waterfall and night will remain emblazoned on my memory forever.
TIP: After you finish photographing, dangle your feet over the edge and watch and listen to this amazing site. It’s a truly indelible memory. Despite my acrophobia, I relished sitting on the edge and taking it all in.
Iceland’s serendipitous surprises
To avoid torrential rains and raging winds in Southern Iceland, Colby recommended camping in Eastern Iceland for an extra evening. After indulging in a tasty dinner, we set out to find interesting reflections.
Inspiring us with its magic, the sky lit up in glorious reds, pinks and oranges. Photographing sunrise sheep silhouettes, lake reflections and a flowing creek occupied us from 1-3 AM.
Shimmering diamonds on the beach
Jokulsarlon Lagoon held its own against the prior two nights’ amazing light. Watching the sunset illuminate brilliant blue icebergs and listening to them calve was enchanting. With limitless and ever-changing compositions, you can spend days here photographing.
After the sun shifted to the horizon, moving to the black sand beach and watching receding waves tumble shimmering diamond bits was alluring.
Gorgeous photos from this beach served as my inspiration to visit Iceland.
Be careful as this is Iceland’s leading injury and camera damage location. As distracted photographers’ capture the perfect shot, relentless “sneaker waves” snatch their camera equipment. And, as people run from the waves, they often trip amongst the ice obstacle course. Since I had waves splash my camera and stumbled over the ice, I can attest to the hazards.
TIP: Using a wide angle lens with a shutter speed of 1.0 second at F11 will provide you with mystical, ethereal photos. Time the waves and capture your image as the water is receding. Make sure to wipe down your tripod and camera after shooting here as salt water is extremely corrosive.
To simplify your shot, look for separation amongst the ice pieces. Bring knee high neoprene boots to keep your feet warm and dry.
Capturing famous (and less famous) waterfalls
Stopping at a roadside waterfall en route to the famous waterfalls in Southern Iceland was an awesome surprise. Colby accurately predicted the “Yellowstone Effect” would occur once we pulled over. Others immediately stopped to check out what we were photographing.
Capturing this mini Godafoss was another one of my favorites. Using the .5-.7 shutter speed sweet spot that Colby recommended + my variable ND filter dialed to 6 allowed me to capture the wave action and variations in the blue.
Arriving here later allows you to miss the crowds. Although we hoped for Mother Nature to treat us to spectacular light above the falls, it didn’t appear.
Shockingly, they allow camping in Skogafoss’ parking lot. If you visit during the day, prepare for massive crowds. Since it produces a lot of spray, single or double rainbows are common on sunny days.
Photographing the elusive puffins in Iceland
Heading south, we were in for another great surprise.
As we were setting up for wide-angle landscape shots, Colby spotted two puffins on a cliff edge. After excitedly signaling us to be quiet and backup, we quickly switched to zoom lenses.
Since it was midnight and no one else was around, they were very calm and inquisitive. Striking the perfect poses, hopping around and flapping their wings, they provided us with a number of interesting compositions.
Capturing the “Hill Island with the Door Hole” was fun. Looking as if it were part of the Game of Thrones Iron Islands or Dragonstone, it was picture perfect.
Wanting to make a moody, meditative shot, I bracketed my exposures at 15, 20 and 30 seconds, to expose for the archway, sky and water. And, repositioning allowed for separation between the archway and sea stacks
Vik i Myrdal Church
Vik’s white church, surrounded by purple lupines, is another iconic Iceland shot. Although you’ll see many lupines while driving, this provides a very picturesque composition.
TIP: Bracketing is important here to expose for the foreground lupines, white church and sky. Hopefully, you’ll get luckier with dramatic skies.
Reynisfjara – a stunning black sand beach
The hexagonal, stepping stone basalt columns are fascinating. Climbing up these pillars, formed after lava quickly cooled, provides an interesting perspective.
TIP: Be very careful at this black sand beach. Despite appearing calm, tourists have died after being pulled out to sea by strong and unpredictable sneaker waves.
A beautiful, secret waterfall
I loved this hidden waterfall’s delicacy and serenity.
Reminding me of Horsetail Falls outside of Portland, I enjoyed watching and listening as the waterfall cascaded over the rock at the bottom. The water rushing over the rocks downstream made for a lovely composition. The green and yellow colors and cauldron-like shape reminded me of Lord of the Rings.
TIP: For the most interesting compositions, shoot from the middle of the stream by wearing knee high neoprene boots or waders. Exposing for 1.5 seconds allows you to capture the waterfall’s curve and ethereal spray.
Seljalandsfoss aka Selfiefoss
After hearing a workshop friend referring to this waterfall as “Selfiefoss,” I definitely agreed.
Venturing behind the waterfall was a unique experience. Wearing waterproof pants/jacket or a poncho will keep you dry. Viewing the landscape through the waterfall’s veil and listening to the waterfall’s roar is surreal.
Given the heavy spray, a beautiful single or double rainbow often appears in front of this iconic waterfall.
TIP: If you photograph sunrise or sunset, walk up the hill and capture the waterfall’s profile with the lovely light.
Admiring the punk rocker Icelandic horses
As you are driving throughout Iceland, you will see gorgeous Icelandic horses in a variety of colors. 40 different colors and 100 variations exist.
With their manes stylishly falling over their eyes, they always seem to be coyly peeking out. Running over as soon as you approach, they are easy to photograph. Capturing the interaction between mother and foals is adorable.
To preserve Icelandic horse genes and minimize disease introduction, exported Icelandic horses can never return. And, no horses can be imported to Iceland. Most horses have four gaits (walk, trot, cantor, gallop). Icelandic horses have two additional gaits, the tolt and flying pace.
Discovering Reykjavik’s architectural beauty
Spend a day exploring Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. The Hallgrimskirkja Church, which resembles Iceland’s unique basalt columns, is interesting. Housing a beautiful pipe organ and uniquely shaped ceilings, it’s worth checking out.
The Harpa Concert Hall’s hexagonal patterns and alternating exterior color blocks provide fascinating abstract perspectives. Shifting ceiling shapes, designs and colors inside resemble undulating sand dunes and ocean waves at sunset.
Venturing down the walkway to the Sun Voyager Sculpture provides a view of an iconic Reykjavik sculpture. Capturing it during winter dusk or summer golden hour provides the most dramatic lighting.
Putting a dent in your wallet with Icelandic food
Indulging in spicy hot chocolate at Eldur Og Is is delicious. Splurging and opting for it with marshmallows and cream is worth the extra calories. Be prepared for the $7 USD price. Ice cream and crepes are also popular options.
If you’re searching for a tasty lunch or dinner option, try the Arctic Char or Sweet Potato dish at Isafold. Iceland is expensive. Plan to spend $40-$50USD for most sit down meals with a glass of wine.
When traveling around Iceland, shopping at grocery stores or grabbing hot dogs or veggie burgers at gas stations is your best bet. The gas stations offer a variety of tasty options.
Do yourself a favor and buy McVitie’s Caramels Digestives. They are so delicious that I cleared out a shelf to bring them back as presents.
The gorgeous Blue Lagoon
Spending time lounging and photographing the Blue Lagoon‘s waters is the perfect ending.
TIP: Book appointments well in advance as they fill up.
Iceland Logistics Tips:
- If you rent a car/camper van, protect yourself and get the Iceland car insurance with the Gravel & Glass coverage. Strong winds ripping doors off, sandstorms stripping paint, and gravel cracking windshields can lead to expensive repairs.
- If you are going to the highlands, rent a 4WD car. Only accessible late June to early September.
- Make sure to budget for the VERY expensive gas. $7.50 gallon (194 Icelandic Kroner/1.64 Euro per liter
- If staying overnight in Reykjavik, opt for the Grayline Airport shuttle bus. The cost is 2900 Krona (27 $USD) one way. It takes 40-50 minutes and will drop you directly at your hotel
- Best timing for Northern Lights: September – mid April.
- Best timing for Midnight Sun: June – July. Make sure to bring an eye mask if you are sensitive to light. See my favorite travel accessories post for additional suggestions.
- Join Colby Brown photography for a photo workshop in the winter or summer. Having been to Iceland 25 times, he has a wealth of knowledge about the sights, weather and best times to shoot!
- If booking WOW Air, be aware that extra charges for choosing seats, checking luggage and carry-on baggage add up. The direct flights from many U.S. cities are convenient.
- Photography: A wide angle will be your go to lens. 70-200mm is needed for puffins, Icelandic horses and glacier abstracts. A sturdy tripod, polarizer & 6 and 10 stop ND filters are key.