My start in photography began when I booked my fall trip to Iceland in Spring 2016. I bought my DSLR with the intention of learning the basics so I can capture some high quality photos during my trip. I did so much to prepare for the trip but, as it turned out, I still did not prepare enough.
My thirst for learning photography overshadowed my desire to research the more logistical parts of my trip. Those details, however, became just as important as my knowledge of my camera or my understanding of exposure, in getting the shots I wanted. And while I came back from Iceland with a handful of photos that I like, there were none that captured the true beauty of such a majestic country.
Of course, looking back now, it is clear what I should've done differently. Hopefully these lessons can help other photographers get the best shots from the Land of Fire and Ice.
1. Bring Extra Warm, Waterproof Clothing
I looked up the weather in Iceland for November in advance – 30 to 40 degrees F. I didn't think anything of it since it gets far colder than that during the average New York winter. Well, 30 degrees in Iceland is not equivalent to 30 degrees in New York. And while the weather did stay true to the forecast during my time there, we got a combination of snow, hail, rain and tremendously strong winds over a four day period. Join that together with visiting massive waterfalls, and you've got an experience similar to going to a water park during a snow storm.
With that in mind, it is profoundly important that the clothes you pack are very warm AND waterproof. I wore jeans during my visit to the very popular Seljalandsfoss waterfall. As photographers do, I got as close as possible to the waterfall to shoot it and left drenched from head to toe. Even people who stayed further away got wet due to the high winds. In case you've never experienced walking around in wet jeans, let me just tell you, it's not fun. So throw your fashion sense out the door and join the rest of us Michelin men in looking obnoxious (though warm and comfortable) in Iceland.
Probably some of the most important pieces of clothing you'll want to have with you is a nice pair of waterproof gloves, ear muffs or a hat that covers your ears, and some neoprene socks if you plan to come close to or go into the water at Diamond Beach (that's where those magical shots of giant chunks of glacier ice happens).
2. Prepare for the Worst Weather Conditions
This goes hand-in-hand with packing the right clothes. But in addition to that is ensuring your camera is protected from rain, snow and wind. That means bringing a camera cover in case you're in wet conditions and having a sturdy tripod to keep your camera from toppling over when the next gust of wind comes around. Speaking of wind, there were times in Iceland when it was so windy that small rocks from the ground were actually flying through the air, smacking into both my camera and my face – so make sure your camera is protected.
The second piece to being aware of and planning for bad weather is the fact that it could make it difficult or even impossible for you to get the shots you want. For example, a shot that would usually take 15 minutes in dry weather, could take an hour in the rain. Make sure you have the time to invest in these spots so you can get the shot you want. Moreover, the weather can mess with lighting and may even deter you from certain areas if roads are closed, or if it's too dangerous for you to be driving in those conditions. As the saying goes, hope for the best but plan for the worst. (Side note: You can never have enough microfiber cloths. Trust me, you will be wiping your lens A LOT)
3. Rent a Car
I did not rent a car during my trip and I regret this more than anything. I did a two-day tour of the southern coast and a Golden Circle tour. Did these tours allow me to see everything I wanted to see? Yes. Did these tours give me enough time to get the photos I wanted? Absolutely not. 20 - 40 minutes per stop is not nearly enough time for you to walk through these grand landscapes, find the right composition, set up your camera, get the perfect shot, and make it back to your tour bus on time. Photography just doesn't work like that.
The lack of time was very much detrimental to the quality of images I got from Iceland. It almost kills me to think about it. That's why I plan to go back sometime within the next year or two and I will definitely be renting a car the next time around. The roads in Iceland are pretty straight forward. The primary thing to be aware of are the weather conditions. In the winter, roads can get very icy and may even get shut down. We experienced high winds in the fall that nearly pushed our tour bus off the road.
In addition to the weather, Iceland has these odd one-way bridges that were pretty much built that way because they couldn't afford to build two-way bridges at the time. When encountering one of these bridges, if you see an oncoming car, either you or the other driver needs to pull to the side to let the other car drive through the bridge first. The main lesson here is to just be a cautious, well-informed driver and you should be fine to wander Iceland's roads and capture the landscapes on your own schedule.
4. Grocery Shop and Eat In More
Iceland is very expensive. And living in Manhattan, I know expensive. Iceland is significantly more expensive than New York. Here's an example, I spent $25 on a White Russian in a dive bar. That said, If I could go back, I would've eaten out much less and grocery shopped a lot more.
More specifically, I probably would've allowed myself one decent restaurant meal the entire trip. For my other meals, I would've gone to the grocery store for snacks, noodles and items to make my own sandwiches. Don't get me wrong. I love food. Most of my travels revolve around food. But I wasn't in Iceland for the food, I was there for the gorgeous natural scenery. And being able to get to those spots and shoot is where I want to invest my money.
Pro tip: The Bonus Supermarket is a lot cheaper than the other grocery stores but they close very early!
Pro tip 2: Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is a hot dog stand in Reykjavik that serves up cheap but delicious hot dogs. Worth the money!
5. Stay Longer
This tip sounds ridiculous, I know. I mean, if we all had the money and time, we'd make all of our vacations longer, right? Well, what if I told you staying an extra day or two would allow you to get amazing images, as opposed to average? What if I told you staying a bit longer would enable you to see the northern lights as opposed to not? Could you then find the time and money to stay a few more days?
For some, the answer may still be no. For me, the answer would've been yes. Because what happened was that I did come from the trip with average images and due to weather conditions, I did not get to see the northern lights. Now when I think about the cost of going back in order to get all of the things I missed during that first trip, it would come out to be significantly more than if I had just stayed a little bit longer the first time.
Though you should keep in mind that staying longer will not guarantee that you will see the lights. The stars really need to align for that to happen (clear skies, no full moon, being far away from the city's light pollution, etc.). However, spending more time there, with the addition of having a car rental, can increase your chances by a lot.
I did several northern lights tours during my trip to Iceland and I had no luck on any of them. What those tours typically mean when they say "hunt" for the lights is to drive you to one of a few parking lots (depending on the forecast for the night) and hope that you get enough of an opening in the sky for you to see the lights. During one night, we saw the lights briefly from a way's away but the tour buses would not move toward that location, that's just not how they operate. Could I have seen the lights if I had my own car and driven in that direction? It's hard to say. But I feel like I could've increased my chances had I done that.
Iceland is a magical country with a beauty that is truly unmatched. Even though there are certain aspects of my trip that I could've done better, I don't regret my visit for a second. I learned so much about the people, animals and natural resources of this unspoiled island and I can't wait to go back. I hope these tips can help you make the most of your trip.
Do you still have questions? Leave them below!