Iceland is world-renowned for its stunning nature. Tourists arrive in their millions every year, from every corner of the world to experience the huge glaciers, cascading waterfalls and shimmering aurora borealis. Our natural wonders also draw in many photography enthusiasts; those who wish to capture their experience on camera and take it home with them.
Many of us will be happy to whip out our smartphones and snap some quick shots for our trip to Iceland. Others will want to know the best photography locations or the best method to capture the northern lights. Photography experts think about the optimum lens and shooting mode to utilize their camera to the fullest while traveling to Iceland. So, here is your ultimate guide to taking photographs in Iceland.
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
The northern lights are one of the main reasons tourists travel to Iceland in the winter. They certainly are one of the best things to do in Iceland, no winter trip would be complete without them. Sure, just seeing them is incredible, but why not try to take a great picture for a lasting memory? Firstly, keep in mind that your settings will depend on the strength of the aurora borealis. Having said that, here are a few tips to increase your chances of a great shot:
- You generally want to keep the aperture (the size of the lens opening) as low as possible.
- If you have a tripod, try to keep the ISO (the sensitivity of your camera to light) low and raise the exposure time. If you don’t have a tripod, use a higher ISO and a lower exposure time.
- In terms of locations, you’re going to have a clearer aurora show if you’re away from artificial lighting, and on a new moon night.
There are guided northern lights tours that take you out of the city in the evening, to the places the lights are most likely to appear. These tours generally run from September to April, when the lights can be seen from Iceland. If you’re hunting for the aurora yourself, use the app ‘My Aurora Forecast’ to help you plan where and when to go. Keep an eye on the Kp index; the number system that tells you the strength of the aurora in an area. The lowest is 0, meaning a weak aurora, and 9 is the highest, meaning an aurora ‘storm’. If the Kp index is lower than 2, you’re not likely to see much of the lights.
Drone Photography in Iceland
Drone photography has soared in popularity over the last few years. Drones are allowing us to take shots we would previously have had to be in a helicopter to take. Not long ago, if you wanted to take aerial shots with a drone, you had to mount it and install the camera yourself. This required the user to have some knowledge of welding, radio control, electricity, and circuits, etc. That's the reason why RTF (ready-to-fly) is now so popular. The camera, stabilizer, video transmission system, and everything you need to start taking pictures comes built-in and ready to go!
However, their use is heavily regulated because it’s not always safe to use a drone, depending on where you are. It is then important to know the drone law and regulation in Iceland.
Rules to flying a drone in Iceland
There are some areas in Iceland where drone use is strictly prohibited, i.e. no-fly zones. It is strongly advised to not fly in these zones. These include:
- Anywhere near airports or government buildings, over or near crowds of people, and above the height of any buildings in Reykjavík.
- Iceland's National parks are also a completely no-fly zone. And as a general rule for politeness, it’s best not to fly your drone near other people at all. If they are trying to have a serene moment of connection with the Icelandic landscape, your drone zooming past them is going to interrupt that.
If you are found to be flying a drone in a prohibited area, the fines are heavy, so don’t risk it. All of this may sound restrictive, but there are plenty of places you can still use your drone. Everywhere is beautiful here.
On a side note, keep in mind that Iceland can become very windy, especially in the winter months. Your drone may not be able to handle strong winds, so exercise caution.
Where to go in Iceland for photography
Depending on how long you are planning to visit Iceland for, I would recommend either driving around the whole Ring road or just along the south coast. The ring road, or Route 1, follows the coastline around the whole of Iceland and features breath-taking scenery along the way. The south coast (so just the portion of the ring road along the bottom of the country) arguably has the best locations in Iceland to photograph.
Stop after stop on the south coast you have fantastic photo opportunities. First off is Vík, a small village on the seafront of the south coast. It’s right next to Reynisfjara, a black sand beach with basalt columns and wonderful natural rock formations. A little further along and you come to the Eldhraun lava fields, west of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. The highway actually passes through the lava field so when you see a wide stretch of black lava mostly covered over by bright green moss, you’re there.
On a side note, please don’t walk on the moss. It is very delicate and takes years to grow. Past Eldhraun you come to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, an area famous for many reasons. Here you will find another black sand beach, but amongst the black sand, there are large chunks of ice, broken off from the nearby glacier. It is these chunks off ice that gave this place its name: Diamond Beach. You can take guided boat tours in the lagoon and get up close to the glacier, and even go ice caving here. The photo opportunities are surely in abundance.
If you don’t have enough time for a south coast photography tour, the Golden Circle lies in wait not far from the capital. It’s a fairly short route, only taking you a few hours to drive around. The three most popular stops in the Golden Circle are Gullfoss waterfall, Þingvellir National Park, and the Geysir Geothermal Area. They are some of the most photographed features in Iceland and people spend a long time at each one capturing the perfect shot. For this reason, these spots can become fairly crowded, so you may have to be patient to wait for the scene to be clear.
Iceland Photography Tips
For general photography, it’s recommended to have both a zoom lens and a wide-angle lens. They cover the range of possible conditions you’ll encounter whilst in Iceland. An important notice is to be safe, and don’t take unnecessary risks. Iceland’s landscape can be treacherous, with strong winds, storms of various varieties and sharp, jagged volcanic rocks everywhere.
If you’re driving into a remote area it’s best to never go alone. On the note of driving, Iceland's traffic laws prohibit off-road driving. It’s to protect Icelandic nature, and if caught driving off-road you face heavy fines. And it’s worth remembering that, because of the occasionally severe weather, not all places in Iceland will be accessible at all times of the year. If you’re hoping to catch that perfect snowy, winter wonderland shot, keep in mind that your plans may have to change.
If there has been a large amount of snow or if a storm is on its way, the Icelandic Meteorological Office can close roads for short periods. Some roads are not accessible at all in the winter months. The highland roads, or F roads, are only open between June and September. These roads give access to the interior, so you’ll only be able to access the coastal areas of Iceland from October to May. Keep an eye on the weather forecast and avoid going out for a drive during heavy storms. The Icelandic Meteorological Office’s website regularly posts forecasts and weather warnings.
Be sure to keep off of the private property and remember you can only photograph people with their permission. If you are driving along a highway and spot something you want to take a picture of, don’t stop on the side of the road. Wait until you reach one of the many lay-bys and rest areas along the road; Route 1 is full of them.
Waterproof/Weather Resistant Cameras
Because Iceland is so full of thermal pools and experiences unpredictable, extreme weather, it would be a great idea to bring a hardy camera here. Only a camera that can withstand the harshest of conditions will survive an Iceland adventure unscathed.
A waterproof camera will come in handy for when you’re climbing in and out of hot springs; who knows how many phones have been destroyed by dropping them in. Keep in mind also that your battery life will be affected by the weather. Even lithium-ion batteries will suffer from reduced performance in the cold. Play it safe and always bring two fully charged batteries out with you.
Because Iceland looks so different in the summer than in the winter, why not visit at different times of the year? You will capture completely new photos. The lakes will unfreeze in the summer, the snow will melt, and birds and other wildlife will appear. Iceland is a country of extremes waiting to be photographed. It is the land of fire and ice, after all. You will not run out of opportunities to snap the perfect shot!