An Icelandic Photography Road Trip

June 07, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

It’s little wonder that Iceland has fast developed into a ‘must see’ place for photographers over the last three years or so. The beautiful landscape offers you superb photographic opportunities, and where ever you travel you will be met by friendly locals who can switch instantly from speaking their native tongue to flawless English (often with an America twang!). Although it puts those of us who can only speak one language to shame, if you can make the effort to give the locals a “takk fyrir” in response, you will always receive a smile of appreciation in return. Craggy snow capped mountains, crashing surfs, deserted beaches, sea stacks , picturesque valleys and innumerable waterfalls - there's something to photograph at every turn in this mesmerising country.

Getting your bearings in Keflavik:

Arriving in Iceland after an air journey will invariably mean landing at Keflavik Airport – Keflavik handles all international flights, Reykjavik Airport deals with internal arrival and departures. If you are hiring a car for the duration of your stay, and I think this is a necessity if photography is the main reason for your trip to Iceland, then I highly recommend that you use the services of Blue Car Rental, a local company based in Keflavik. Paperwork can be completed either at their office next to the airport, or in your hotel lobby if you prefer. Without prompting, they offered me a 10% returning customer discount on my second visit, a nice touch.

If you opt to stay in Keflavik for one night (it’s probably not worth spending any more than a day here), then I can recommend the Hotel Berg, a small, family run boutique hotel on the edge of town overlooking a tiny harbour. The hotel is very comfortable and beautifully furnished, and it’s only a casual 10 minute stroll into town if you want to pass some time or grab something for dinner.  They provide a great buffet breakfast in the morning that will set you up for the rest of the day. And don’t forget the free airport transfer that they offer 24 hours a day, just let them know your requirements before you arrive - it’s literally a five minute car journey to/from the airport. On my most recent visit (May 2015) I regretted not booking in here for my final night before travelling home – for some unfathomable reason I opted to stay at the Smari Airport Hotel. Nice as it was, it just wasn’t worth paying double the price for a similar high level of comfort over the rate at the Hotel Berg.

It’s easy to underestimate how big Iceland actually is. The drive north to Akureyri from the airport at Keflavik is a comfortable five hour trip - factor in some stops for refreshments and to take some photographs, for example at Hvítserkur to photograph the Sea Troll, then you can be easily talking about a seven hour journey. So, something worth thinking about - instead of travelling north by car to Akureyri, why not fly there instead? When I visit again I’ll probably opt to connect to an internal flight from Reykjavik to Akureyri. There’s five to seven connecting flights per day, each one taking only 45 minutes, so you’re bound to find a departure time that will fit your schedule and it will mean that you will arrive much more refreshed and ready to start your adventures. Travelling to Reykjavik Airport from Keflavik by road will only take about 30 minutes. A bit of research on the web and you will find car hire companies that operate out of Akureyri – they may even allow you to drop off at Keflavik Airport on your journey home, and you can then use your final day stopping off to take pictures as you make your journey back to the airport.

The Sea Troll, Hvitserkur & boats at Húsavík

Base Camp Akureyri:

Akureyri is a great place to spend a few days and to use as a base as there’s so many wonderful places to visit in close proximity: the majestic waterfalls of Godafoss, Dettifoss, Selfoss & Aldeyjarfoss; the geothermal fields at Hverir; and the nature reserve at Myvatn. Surrounded by beautiful scenery, you will be offered innumerable photo opportunities and will find yourself constantly pulling over to the side of the road to take advantage of them. I stayed for 5 nights at the Icelandair Hotel in Akureyri - the rooms are all clean, spacious and modern, and it's very nicely decorated throughout. Although the the breakfast buffet was wonderful, the only downside was that it was not included in the cost so be aware when making your reservation.   

Saurbæjarkirkja turf church, 1858

It’s little wonder that I felt so at home on the north coast as the landscape is so similar to that found in north-west Scotland. Huge mountains with rocky outcrops dominate the landscape – throw in snow capped peaks, a beautiful coastline and rough terrain, and you would be forgiven to think that you were in Assynt & Torridon, or even the Isle of Skye. You’ll be accompanied by an ever present strong wind wherever you go, but if you’re fortunate enough to visit when blue skies dominate and when there’s a proliferation of white, fluffy clouds, it’s a truly exhilarating place to be. Of course for landscape photographers this is ideal conditions, and it’s worth thinking about bringing a polarizer filter for your trip if you don’t already have one.  

God's Waterfall

Godafoss is only a short 30 minute car ride from Akureyri. If you’re unlucky with the weather on your first day, it’s quick and easy to re-visit on another day. When you get there, make sure you take some time to cross the pedestrian footbridge and photograph the falls from the other side of the Baròardalur river. Once on the other side you can either stay high up or you can make the short scramble down the hillside and photograph the falls from down below – you’ll be surprised about the number of people who don’t bother to make the short walk to the other side for a different view of the waterfall. I spent a lot of time at Godafoss on each of my three days (you’ll probably pass it on your way to other locations) and each time the weather conditions varied greatly.

Although I made the trip north in mid May, it’s worth pointing out that the F-road that leads to Dettifoss & Selfoss had only recently opened, and access to both waterfalls on foot from the car park was still hazardous due to the amount of snow that still remained. Disappointingly I was unable to get into a suitable position to capture the grandeur of either of these waterfalls as access was still so difficult. Still, I was grateful to see what I did given the conditions - I’ve subsequently been advised that it’s only between the months of July-September that you will be guaranteed to get really close to the waterfalls.

Aside from the many opportunities that you’ll encounter for landscape photography, you’ll also routinely encounter picturesque churches, sprawling lava fields, and the ubiquitous Icelandic horses that play such a key role in the traditions of the country. They are remarkably friendly and inquisitive beasts, and each time you pull over to get a close look they will immediately amble towards you in the hope of getting some attention.

Taking a detour back to Keflavik:

Although I was desperately keen to pay a visit to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, I knew when organizing this trip that I wouldn’t have time to fit in the couple of days I would require. However on making my way back to the airport the weather was truly glorious, and as time was one my side, I decided to turn right just outside Borgarnes and make an unplanned whistle stop tour of the region.

I’m glad that I did as the scenery is even more magnificent in Snæfellsnes, and even more reminiscent of the rocky landscape found on Scotland’s north west coast. I was particularly keen to see the black church at Budir as well as the magnificent Kirkjufell mountain. Again the extremes of Iceland were evident; a bright, glorious day offered great views and photo opportunities on the coast at Budir, but making my way over the mountain pass at Fróòarheiòi to get to Kirkjufell, the conditions quickly turned to resemble an Alpine scene, ice and snow everywhere. Descending the pass on the other side – beautiful sunshine, no snow in sight!

    

The remote church at Búdir, 1848

Although delighted that I found the time to make this whirlwind tour of Snæfellsnes, I wouldn’t recommend the rushed visit that I undertook. There’s just so many photographic opportunities as you travel around, each deserving a little of your time. If you base yourself in the picturesque town of Stykkishólmur for three days, this will probably be long enough to do the surrounding scenery justice, should the weather Gods smile benevolently upon you. Returning to Keflavik Airport from Snæfellsnes is a two hour drive via the impressive Borgarnes tunnel which goes under Hvalfjöröur. Have 1000 kroner (£5) ready to pay the toll, it beats the extra hour of driving that you will otherwise have to take.

The magnificent Kirkjufell

Along the South Coast:

The south coast offers a slightly different experience for the photographer. For a start, depending on the time of year that you visit, you will have no alternative but to stick to using the Ring Road as it winds its way around the island. The F-roads that head inland towards the glaciers are only accessible for a small part of the year, and even then you’ll have to check your insurance cover on your hired car – only the large 4x4’s are permitted to use these roads, even in the summer months. When I visited the south coast in the month of April, all the F-roads were still closed.

Skogafoss

There’s plenty to see on the south coast, and a five day trip will generally prove adequate to fit it all in. I based myself at Hotel Anna in the small hamlet of Moldnupur, just two minutes off the ring road and perfectly situated halfway between the two stunning waterfalls of Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss. Both were a short twenty minute drive away from the hotel. This makes it ideal for visiting the two waterfalls, as you can time your trip perfectly to avoid the crowds that make their way from Reykjavik on the tour coaches.

Skip breakfast, make the short journey to Skogafoss anytime between 7am-9am and I’ll guarantee that you will have the place to yourself, even in the summer months. You can then return to the hotel and have a nice leisurely breakfast knowing that your day has got off to an ideal start with some great images in hand. Even off-season, don’t underestimate the number of tours that ply their trade along the south coast. Similarly, you can visit anytime after 7pm and you’ll once again have plenty of opportunities to get the shots you want without lots of other tourists vying for the same shot. On the road to Vik there’s great opportunities to capture sea stacks and rolling waves as they thunder onto deserted beaches. Make sure you visit Dryholaey and Reynisdranger for this very reason and you won’t be disappointed. Vik itself offers more sea stack views (it’s the same one that you saw at Reynisdranger, but offers a totally different perspective) and it also has a pretty church that sits high on the hill overlooking the town. If you visit in late spring, the fields around the church are covered on Lupines, making a really colourful sight.

 

Fjadrargljufur Canyon and innumerable lava fields can all be visited beyond Vik as you travel towards Kirkjubaerjaklauster. Further east from Vik, about a 4 hour drive away (including stops for refreshment breaks and photographic needs!) you’ll come to the ice lagoon and ice beach at Jokulsarlon. You will be amazed as you watch huge chunks of ice break off from the glacier and make their way down to the sea, and the giant bits of ice are then washed up onto the beach, offering you the chance to get some great shots of monolithic ice stranded on the beach.                                                                                                                                                         

Fjadrargljufur Canyon and innumerable lava fields can all be visited beyond Vik as you travel towards Kirkjubaerjaklauster. Further east from Vik, about a 4 hour drive away (including stops for refreshment breaks and photographic needs!) you’ll come to the ice lagoon and ice beach at Jokulsarlon. You will be amazed as you watch huge chunks of ice break off from the glacier and make their way down to the sea, and the giant bits of ice are then washed up onto the beach, offering you the chance to get some great shots of monolithic ice stranded on the beach. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fjadrargljufur canyon & lava field

What to bring with you:

Unless you visit in the summer months (June to August), you really should be wearing a thermal base layer. For the visit to the south coast in April I required my Canterbury insulated leggings and top, good waterproof trousers, a fleece, padded jacket and wooly hat. Ideally you should also be wearing a good pair of hill-walking boots – at the very least a pair of study Caterpillar (or similar) boots are a necessity as you will frequently find yourself clambering over rocks or lava fields, and walking over rough terrain and boggy fields.

I’m not going to detail all the camera equipment that you should take, you’ll know far better than me what you like to shoot. However be aware that everywhere you go, regardless of rain or shine, you will be accompanied by a very strong wind which will vary between mildly strong to gale force. A sturdy tripod is a necessity, and even then there were occasions when I often found myself holding onto it in order to provide extra stability, especially in coastal areas.  I’m afraid that the relatively cheaper travel tripods just won’t suffice. And always remember the usual health warning about using your tripod close to sea water and sand – give it good soaking in the shower cubicle once you get back to your hotel, it will thank you later!

Jokulsarlon ice lagoon

Daily expenses:

We’ve all heard the stories about how Iceland can be an expensive place to visit. Yes, hotels can cost a lot of money, however I found the off-season prices to be very reasonable. And yes, if like to eat in hotel restaurants every night, have a glass of Scotland’s finest to warm you up, followed by couple of beers, then you will be looking at a bill upwards of £40 just for dinner each night

All over Iceland, petrol stations have American style diners attached and you can easily gorge yourself on life’s more staple items for a similar cost as back home (cheeseburger and chips, hot dog and chips, lasagne etc. for about £10). If you base yourself somewhere like Akureyri then there are plenty of lovely restaurants charging more realistic prices. For lunch, I tend to have the same thing everyday: packet of pre-made sandwiches, yoghurt, packet of crisps and a can of juice for a little over 1000 kroner (£5). And breakfast? Fill your boots at the hotel breakfast buffet and you will be set up for the day.

Not forgetting petrol - on both trips I hired the same car, a Kia Sorrento. Petrol appeared to be on a par with UK prices: 10,000 Kronor to fill the tank (£50), and I only had to do this three times for my 5 day stay (tank was full on pick up and had to be returned full).  Payment is usually made at the pump prior to filling up via your credit card, and many petrol stations also sell pre-paid petrol cards – purchase one for whatever value you like and use it continuously until it runs out.

My reason for being in Iceland is photography, so aside from the last night when I’ll have a celebratory meal followed by a beer, I find it easy to forgo the demon drink for a few days, eschew all other unnecessary expenses, and live relatively frugally once there. Your own mileage may vary!

Moldnupur Church

So, where to go next time?

Well, I feel that there’s some unfinished business in Akureyri! I’d love to re-visit in the summer months and try to capture Dettifoss and Selfoss. Having the chance to see these majestic waterfalls was great, but with conditions underfoot dangerous due to the ice and snow, I was unable to get close enough to take the style of photographs that I would like. I would also like to go on a whale watching trip as well – apparently the trips that run from both Akureyri and Husavik get very close to the whales, so this also offers some good photo opportunities as well. However the Westfjords, that vast, remote, peninsula on Iceland’s extreme north-west corner, will be my next destination when I hopefully return to Iceland. I will also plan to spend some more time in Snæfellsnes that I did on this visit, which was very much of a whirlwind nature, and as it’s on the way to the Westfjords it should be easy to fit in. 

If you feel inspired to embark on your own photographic expedition in this wonderful land, I heartily recommend that you purchase 'Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer's Guide to Iceland' by Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa. Not only is it packed full of locations, gear guides, GPS co-ordinates & suggested itineraries, but you will also be inspired by the fantastic images on show from their travels around the country.

I hope that these ramblings have been helpful to you  - I would love to hear about your own experiences when visiting this fantastic country so please leave your comments below. Please visit my Iceland gallery for more photos from this wonderful country

Thanks for reading and happy travels!

David


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