Iceland Travel Photography Tips
Iceland has become a hotspot travel destination over the last few years due to its beautiful landscapes and very instagrammable locations. What makes it great for landscape photographers is the variety and proximity of mountains, waterfalls, basalt cliffs, fjords, and other uniquely Scandinavian terrain. A photographer visiting the same locations at different times of the year will walk away with shots that bear little resemblance to each other making it a great place for repeat trips. All this goes without mention of the famous Northern Lights which alone would be a draw for those adventurous seekers of beauty.
I visited Iceland in March which is around the end of the Aurora season unfortunately but I still came away with amazing images and vastly improved my photography skills. This will be a guide to locations I personally visited and can speak to but there’s many more known locations and with a creative eye one can find unique compositions even in what isn’t considered a hotspot. What I found from flying my drone around the mountains is there are many many unnamed and hidden waterfalls so anyone could be the discoverer of the next iconic shot.
I will briefly touch on the basics of food, lodging and transportation in Iceland but this guide will primarily be location specific photography advice. In the future if there is interest in these topics I can elaborate. Getting around Iceland is quite easy as there are paved roads that circumvent the entire outside of the island which are the inhabited regions. My recommended method would be to rent a 4x4 vehicle or camper van as opposed to taking bus tours because it will dramatically increase the flexibility of time and scheduling if you plan to shoot these locations at early or odd hours. Cars are cheapest at the airport and although most people can get by with the rental car insurance offered by their credit card company in regular countries, in Iceland it is required to get one of two levels of insurance depending if you plan to check out off road trails. For lodging there are options for every budget but I settled for booking hostels although as I explain later there is a better technique than the one I did during my trip. Food is also prohibitively expensive. I tend to lean to more budget oriented methods when it comes to my travels so my food habits comprised of batch cooking at the hostel which is cheaper than eating at restaurants but still not as cheap as one would think because most supplies are shipped in. Additionally I ate an obscene amount of home made sandwiches while out and about. Driving around Iceland is relatively easy during most of the year with the exception of winter. Ring road somewhat circles the entire island excluding some of the east and West Fjords and Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Theoretically one could drive it in about 16 hours but that’s of course without making any stops. The most popular route taken by tourists is The Golden Circle which leaves Reykjavik and passes by a few National parks as well as the Geysir and the Gullfoss waterfall. When I was in Iceland I personally based out of a hostel in Reykjavik for a few days as I drove out to the locations in the south then moved to a hostel on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula for the next few days while I visited that area as well as a trip up to the Westfjords. In hindsight and what I plan for my return trip in October is I should have either rented out a camper van and occasionally stayed in AirBnbs or hostels along the way every few days and mostly slept in the car while touring the entire island. Although I tried to plan my drives as efficiently as I could there was still a lot of long drives because I would return to the hostel every night which resulted in two to four hour trips each way and in the case of my visit to Diamond beach I left at 12 am in order to drive 6 hours non stop through the night and arrive for sunrise. To be honest I was so excited about the location I didn’t tire at all and was greatly rewarded with amazing sunrise shots. Now, on with the locations:
The geyser known simply as “Geysir” is an hour and a half drive from Reykjavik. Being a rather open area this is a great spot for sunrise or sunset photos. Some classic shots include getting the sun behind the spray as the geyser explodes as well as close up shots with a fast shutter to catch the water bubbling upwards. Drones are prohibited here and there are signs warning against flying. Nearby is a waterfall known as Bruarfoss. It’s also an hour and a half from Reykjavik but only 15 mins from Geysir. Bruarfoss is a tricky one. Apparently in the months since I visited Iceland the path, which lies on private property, has been closed to public access. Alternatively there is the nearby Godafoss which is a large very popular one to visit. Somehow in my research I failed to include it in my plans and so I did not personally photograph it although from what I hear it’s great at sunrise, sunset, and especially when the Northern Lights are out.
Moving on to the southern coast of the country we find some of the most well known and visited locations. Skogafoss is an almost 200 foot tall magnificent waterfall. It lies about 2 hours from Reykjavik and is a great spot to hit at sunrise before the crowds arrive. There are some shots to be made at the base of the waterfall as well as at the top. Some classic angles are a wide shot with the rainbow as the sun reflects in the spray and also using a lens with a long focal length to shoot yourself at the base of the waterfall with the water filling the entire frame. I also found a nice composition low to the ground using the rocks and stream to lead up to the waterfall. Drones are prohibited here unfortunately. There is also another hidden waterfall nearby called Kvernufoss. Next to the museum there is a small path that leads to a river which can be followed all the way up to Kvernufoss. I’ve seen creative compositions made here using the river as a leading line but when I made the hike the wind was so strong it could practically blow you off your feet. The cool feature of this waterfall is the ability to take a photo from behind the water. Depending on the time of year I’ve seen shots of the sun setting and the golden light shining through.
On the way to Skogafoss are a couple of other famous waterfalls worth seeing. Seljalandsfoss is a large waterfall that you can also walk behind. It’s a little more wet than Kvernufoss so taking photos is tricky and a weather sealed camera is definitely necessary. Here you can get a similar shot with the sun setting through the waterfall depending on the time of year. A short walk away is Gljufrabui, a hidden waterfall that I must admit I missed when I was there. From the outside you can’t really see it but there is apparently a trail to the top or you can wade through the water to reach the base of the waterfall. While driving to Diamond Beach at night I noticed that Seljalandsfoss has a large light shining on it and with the proper exposure one can get a perfectly lit nighttime waterfall shot with reasonable exposure settings.
DC3 PLANE WRECK
Continuing along the main road eastwards the next iconic location is the DC3 Plane Wreck also known as Solheimasandur. This is definitely something you might have seen on instagram. You will see a small parking lot with a path leading off into the distance. Depending on how many vehicles in the parking lot one can gauge how busy the site will be. When the tour buses pull up you can guarantee that getting a clean shot of the plane sitting alone will be difficult. It is obviously busier during the day but makes for a great photo at sunrise, sunset or during the auroras. Keep in mind that the walk can take up to one hour even if you try to run it which I did in order to make sunset. You won’t be able to see anything in the distance until you are upon it. If you are arriving before dawn or leaving after sunset there are reflective markers along the path to guide you. Climbing on top of the plane is allowed but I believe it’s just a matter of time before someone hurts themselves and it becomes prohibited.
BLACK SAND BEACH
Reynisfjara is also known as Black Sand Beach due to the fact it has black volcanic sand. This beach is right before the town of Vik and has two sides to it separated by a cliff face that can sometimes be crossed if the tide is low and the waves not too powerful. Key features here are the sea stacks slightly off shore, a cave, and the beautiful basalt cliffs. On windy days this can be a challenging location to shoot as the wind will send stinging sand flying and it can be quite painful not to mention damaging to camera gear. There are opportunities for great sunset and sunrise shots here as well as drone footage. On the side of the beach next to Vik there will be mostly sharp cliff faces however there is a beach at Vik from where the sea stacks are visible. On this beach are some interesting compositions to be found using the grass that grows along the water as foreground elements.
Diamond Beach is also known as Jökulsárlón and as mentioned before lies about 6 hours drive from Reykjavik. It is once you start making your way to these locations closer to the east coast of the island that it becomes more convenient to travel by campervan or find lodging nearby. This was the location I was most excited about having seen the iconic long exposure shots of the receding water on a chunk of ice at golden hour sunrise. Diamond Beach has 3 parts to it. After crossing the bridge there will be a parking lot to your left where there’s a lagoon filled with icebergs and reportedly sea lions. These icebergs break off and are washed out to sea where they break into smaller chunks and wash up on the beaches before and after the bridge. Depending on the time of year and ocean conditions you might have more luck with one verses the other but I found the beach after the bridge was less densely crowded with ice blocks and thus I was able to get my desired shot. This is definitely a sunrise location as it faces east but I have seen creative shots during the aurora on the beach and over the lagoon.
There are many more beautiful locations to be found continuing along to the eastern fjords as well as ice caves nearby but apparently March was the end of ice cave season and I was not able to book a tour. Instead I headed back to Reykjavik and northwards to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, home to amazing locations like the famous Kirkjufell.
My first stop on the south eastern side of the peninsula was the small town of Arnarstapi. This is a beautiful area with basalt cliffs, a troll statue, and of course the arch. There’s a platform from where you can shoot the arch as well as a small path leading to the edge of the water. I found a better angle here. This is a great sunrise location and also good for drone footage just watch out with the flocks of seagulls. Nearby there is a well known black church called Budir that makes for great long exposures or minimalist type shots. I mistakenly thought the church was in the West Fjords instead and failed to visit it. At the eastern tip you’ll find the national park Snæfellsjökull. While it seems like there is potential for many locations here I personally did only a days worth of exploring and got some drone footage of a couple of sea stacks which I was too lazy to hike to. There are definitely some interesting landscapes and also a large crater you can hike up to.
Moving on to the most famous landmark of the peninsula and perhaps the country itself we reach the mountain of Kirkjufell. Kirkjufell is located near the town of Grundarfjordur on the north coast. Depending on the time of year it makes for a great sunrise or sunset shot, and especially for aurora shots. This is why it’s useful to research ahead and use tools like Google maps, the Photographer’s Ephemeris, or apps like Sunseeker to see at what angle the sun will be setting. Scouting locations ahead of time also helps. Kirkjufell is one of the most visited spots and you will find many many tourists and amateur photographers lining up to the same vantage point and getting the same angle with the waterfall in the foreground. By all means get the iconic shot but realize that there are so many compositions to be found. Getting closer to the water, climbing down to the base of the waterfall, along the river bank, even the opposite side of the mountain from the adjacent peninsula are just a few ideas.
The final location I visited was the remote West Fjords. From my hostel in Stykkishólmur on the north coast of the peninsula this was a 4 hour and a half drive. Two locations I planned to check out were the giant majestic waterfall Dynjandi which is the largest waterfall in the West Fjords at 328 feet tall and the shipwreck Gardar BA 64. While driving up to Dynjandi I encountered increasingly snowy conditions until I reached a point where it was deeper than the height of the SUV. Given the extremely remote nature of the area I decided not to continue further at the risk of getting stuck and also to bring a shovel for next time in order to dig out snow if I found myself in a similar situation. I resigned to continue on to my next planned destination in the area and headed towards the shipwreck. The benefit of visiting these more remote areas of course is the utter lack of tourists and I had the location all to myself. From what I determined this area makes for a great sunset shot due to its facing west and had there been auroras that night it would have also been epic. After shooting the sunset I explored a few more areas nearby but since it had gotten dark decided to make the drive back. Caution should be taken when driving in this area because I made my way through dark, steep, and snowy conditions for more than four hours and it truly required ones full attention.
This concludes my guide to epic locations in the great country of Iceland. I plan to visit at least once a year with my next trip set for October which, although will be winter and slightly more snowed over, I will be guaranteed to see some of the beautiful Northern Lights. Linked below are the behind the scenes vlog of the trip as well as the cinematic travel film.