Iceland Photography Planning Tips No One Tells You
If you are planning your first dream photography trip to Iceland in 2024, you may be vulnerable to a few surprises caused by new rules that no one tells you about, not to mention the endless outdated information on the web or inclement weather that affects your plans.
For as much research as you do before boarding your maiden flight to the land of fire and ice, you never really know what to expect until you have your boots on the ground.
This is what I discovered during my recent two-week trip to Iceland with my wife in July 2023, so in the spirit of paying it forward, I will share with you some exclusive insights on what to expect during your upcoming Icelandic photo tour, and tips that you will not find anywhere else.
Please know that this article is not designed to dissuade you from visiting this amazing country, in fact, quite the opposite. You absolutely should go, because Iceland is one of the most incredible photography destinations on the planet. The advice I have for you here will hopefully make your trip an even bigger success.
The Benefits Of A Campervan
As landscape photographers, we know it is all about the light, so being as mobile as possible is crucial when you have a big list of locations to shoot with limited time. In my opinion for a country like Iceland, campervans offer the ultimate in flexibility for a variety of reasons.
First, you will be off the ground and dry. If you are on a budget and prefer to rent a smaller vehicle and use a ground tent instead, be aware that this option may be cheaper but comes with extra challenges.
These include setup, teardown, and cooking outside everyday which will burn a lot of time, not to mention that heavy winds and frequent rain could bring some discomfort. Alternatively, we did see a number of small SUV's with the rooftop tent option, which flips open and is accessed with an attached ladder. These also looked very efficient.
Our "Happy 2" van from Happy Campers had a sink with running water, stovetop with two burners (gas bottles that you light with a BBQ lighter), an electric cooler, an excellent heater, and a table that drops down in seconds to convert into a large bed. They also included all of the bedding, pillows, cookware, dishware, and many other extras.
Many vehicle rentals will offer an option to get a tablet that acts as a WiFi hotspot, which I highly recommend so you will have internet access anywhere in the country. Ours came with a suction cup windshield mount and was loaded with a GPS map, a campground location map, and the weather app which was surprisingly accurate.
Campgrounds are abundant in Iceland, with nearly 200 of them scattered around the country, and no reservations are needed. Most are just a huge patch of grass with no designated stalls, so you can pull in at any time of day and park almost anywhere. The majority have bathrooms available, some have showers, and the odd ones have power outlets for an extra fee.
Payment options vary wildly, but as long as you have your credit card you will be fine. Some campgrounds have an owner or steward that will come around with a wireless POS machine, while others can be paid for on your phone through the Parka app. We found the average campground fee to be around 1700 ISK per person, which translates to ~ $13 USD, or ~$17 CAD. Some are slightly more or less depending on the amenities.
Finally, our Happy Camper rental came with other perks like discounts on fuel as well as attractions like some of the geothermal pools and spas which we enjoyed.
So, You've Done Your Research...
As a landscape photographer, going to Iceland had been a dream of mine for years. And if you are anything like me, you are a planner. I booked my flights, campervan, and hotel six months in advance and started my research immediately to choose all of the places I wanted to shoot.
I created a custom Google map with all of my locations, along with the campgrounds, gas stations, and grocery stores along the route of the ring road. I also poured over thousands of photographs to get inspiration for new compositions. For me, it was all about efficiency and coming home with as many new images for my portfolio as possible.
With a plan to head east and travel the ring road counter-clockwise, the very first day gave me continued rain at the first three locations on my itinerary. It became clear that this was going to be a bigger challenge than I had imagined. We know that we can control all aspects of our photography except for the weather, and nowhere is that more true than in Iceland, where the weather constantly changes.
I checked the forecast from the Icelandic Meteorological Office which showed solid rain along the entire south coast for the next four days, so we made the decision to turn around and do the whole tour in the opposite direction which had a better forecast.
Next, the many photographs you can find on the web are useful to give you compositional ideas, but be aware that the tourist influx is causing rapid change. Many popular locations are getting so beat up that ropes and out-of-bounds signs are now very common, limiting 'closeup' access and possibly ruining the opportunity for that exact shot you had in your mind.
This is something you cannot research ahead of time, so be prepared to have other compositional ideas as a backup plan. An example with such a limitation includes Kirkjufellfoss, where standing right up to the water's edge around both of the falls is roped off and no longer possible, and limited to the main path.
The land that extends past the upper eastern viewing area at Goðafoss is also roped off so you can't get right up to the river's edge anymore, although the lower area below is still open. And at Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, most areas are roped off except for a couple of metal viewing platforms that have been installed. These are but a few examples I encountered.
And finally, do your research if you intend to fly your drone. It will be best to start by reading the current Iceland drone laws to familiarize yourself with the rules, including having your name, address, and phone number on your drone.
Many areas where you could fly in recent years are now forbidden, so those aerial shots you wanted from Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Dettifoss, Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, Diamond Beach, or any national park, along with many others are no longer permitted.
The lesson here is that no matter how much planning you have done, you may be reading outdated blog posts or looking at older photos where that perfect composition is no longer possible. Make sure your research is current, and consider reaching out to other photographers who have visited recently for better information.
Prepare to be flexible with your itinerary if the weather is not cooperating, and plan to get more creative with your compositions in case you run into barriers.
Avoiding The Crowds in Summer
With approximately 1.7 million visitors to Iceland in 2022, it goes without saying that you will encounter throngs of tourists, especially on the south coast from June to September. And just like anywhere in the world, locations are always busiest from mid morning until mid afternoon.
The good news is that there is an easy way to avoid the crowds entirely, by simply adjusting your hours and shooting in the late evening and early morning when everyone else is asleep in their hotels.
It makes complete sense, as the golden hours are long (four to five hours) and generally have the best light, and it does not get dark overnight in mid summer. During my visit, I slept in the van from four o'clock in the morning until noon, and photographed from late afternoon through the night everyday.
Popular waterfalls like Dettifoss and Skogafoss which are normally crawling with thousands of people during the day were virtually deserted at one o'clock in the morning. Providing the weather cooperates, shooting overnight allows more efficiency to shoot quickly with softer light, avoid people, and move on to the next location with very little traffic on the highways.
Route 1 is the main 'Ring Road' around Iceland, which conveniently gives you easy access to many of the most popular destinations. Although narrow without any shoulders, it is fully paved except for a small section in the east around Berufjörður. The maximum speed limit is 90 km/h, and yes, they drive on the right.
Expect constant river crossings in Iceland, where the vast majority are one-lane bridges where the speed limit falls quickly to 50 km/h, and the rule is whomever gets there first, crosses first.
Some rural areas are sparsely populated with long distances between towns, so always be sure to check your fuel level and use bathrooms when you get the chance.
Many sites are only accessible by gravel road, which can be extremely rough and pothole-filled in places, so expect slower driving depending on the weather. Heavy fog and rain is common which reduces visibility so you may want to adjust your route if you are not comfortable driving in such conditions.
The worst conditions I experienced were in the east on the Öxi Pass (Road 939), and on Road 953 into Mjóifjörður. Both are mountainous, gravel roads with hairpin turns and were socked in with rain and fog so thick that I could not see any more than a few yards in front of our vehicle, which almost brought us to a crawl.
Many of the unpaved roads in the interior or 'highlands' are designated as 'F-roads', marked with the prefix 'F', followed by a number. These roads are open from roughly mid-June to mid-September, are not well maintained, and often contain challenging terrain and possible river crossings. As such, they are for four-wheel-drive vehicles only. It is forbidden to travel F-roads with a two-wheel drive vehicle, which can result in fines if you are caught.
Finally, off-road driving in unmarked areas can damage fragile vegetation and is strictly prohibited.
Charging Your Batteries
As a photographer you will have a lot of gear that needs to be charged, so it is important to plan accordingly. I had five camera batteries, four drone batteries, my drone controller, a vlogging camera and microphone, a GoPro, as well as my cellphone and a laptop. Keeping everything charged was a small job in itself.
The best thing I can recommend is to bring your own power inverter to use in your rental vehicle. It can plug into a power outlet in your dashboard and if you use a splitter, it enables you to charge multiple devices at the same time.
Once I hit the road I discovered the power inverter supplied by our campervan rental was damaged and did not work, so I was thankful that I had brought my own. It is a simple 175 watt unit with a single outlet (above). I used an inexpensive three-way splitter to charge multiple batteries at the same time and it worked flawlessly. More powerful inverters are also available which will help decrease charging times.
The main rule I adopted early was that whenever we were travelling between locations, I was charging batteries in the front seat and never had a problem. An extra USB outlet in our dashboard also allowed me to keep the tablet charged at all times.
Just How Expensive Is Iceland?
Iceland ranks near the top of the list for the most expensive countries in the world to visit because they are isolated, have very few natural resources, and almost everything has to be imported. Although there are measures you can take to mitigate your expenses, the reality is that you will have to prepare for an expensive trip.
In no particular order, here are the four things I found to take the biggest bite out of my wallet...
Vehicle rentals. Although the campervan offered the ultimate in convenience as a photographer travelling the country, it was not cheap. Our camper cost approximately ~$446 CAD or ~$333 USD per day, and that included a 20% multi-day discount (I had it for ten nights). It should be noted that I added a full insurance package for piece of mind which was included in this price.
There are many other options for rentals, so do your research to find something that suits your needs and budget.
Fuel. Filling your tank in Iceland is a real eye-opener. Our campervan was a diesel, and in June/July 2023 I paid ~$3.08 CAD per litre, equivalent to about ~$8.50 USD per gallon. Ouch. It did help that our van was very fuel efficient, as I travelled over 2700 kilometres (1680 miles) and only had to fill it three times.
Hotels. We spent the last three nights of our trip in a suite at the Reykjavik Residence Hotel, mostly to rejuvenate and sleep in a real bed after ten nights in a van. We were only one block from the main shopping district of Laugavegur, which was super convenient for walking.
Our suite included a fresh loaf of artisan bread hanging on our doorknob each morning, as well as a tray of breakfast foods in the fridge which was restocked daily and helped cut down on the grocery bill. The price per night came to ~$492 CAD or ~$366 USD.
There are many options for accommodations in Reykjavik and Iceland in general, but be aware that they are often booked solid in the summer so it is wise to make your reservations well in advance.
Dining out. Although the food was amazing and we did not have a single bad meal in Iceland, dining out is extremely expensive.
We found the cheapest entrées priced at ~$40 to $50 CAD, or ~$30 to $38 USD per plate. Or if you want something fancier, like a nice steak, think along the lines of ~$65 to $85 CAD, or ~$48 to $64 USD each. The tiny apple pie with a little dollop of ice-cream (above) cost $28 CAD or $21 USD. Yikes.
We did not drink any alcoholic beverages at all, yet every meal out cost anywhere from ~$140 to $220 CAD, or ~$104 to $164 USD which usually included two entrees, two desserts, and a small appetizer.
Although it is expensive, I do recommend budgeting to have a few meals out to add some fun and great food to your trip. In Reykjavik, one of the simpler but tasty meals we loved was at Svarta Kaffid for their soup in a bread bowl (yes, we ate the bowls too!) and for an afternoon treat, Ísbúðin litla Valdís ice cream shop was amazing. Out on the ring road, we enjoyed some great pizza at Black Crust Pizzeria in Vik, which was one of our favourites.
With great restaurants in almost every town around the country, and seemingly hundreds in Reykjavik, you will never go hungry, although you can count on it being much more expensive, and often with smaller portions than we are used to in North America.
My Best Advice
A photography trip to Iceland is an experience of a lifetime, where you are sure to capture unique and beautiful photographs to add to your portfolio. With thorough research of the country beforehand, your efficiency will be greatly increased so you can make the most of your time and increase your productivity.
In summary, here are some of my tips, advice, and things to remember that are sure to make your trip more successful and enjoyable.
• Consider renting a campervan. Preferably one with a heater, as it can get cold at night. Research all of your options to find a company that fits your needs and budget. I also recommend getting a Wi-Fi hotspot to keep connected, and extra insurance to cover gravel damage for peace of mind.
• Ask your rental company if they can store your suitcases. We packed all of our clothing into smaller duffle bags, then put them into our large hard-shell suitcases along with other gear for our flights. When we arrived, we emptied the contents into our van and let Happy Campers store our suitcases for us, which saved a lot of room inside the camper.
• Buy your own groceries to save money. The most common grocery stores are Bonus and Krónan. We kept the cooler in our van stocked with simple items to eat on the fly, like cereal, milk, yogurt, apples, drinks, and snacks. The prices are reasonable but the selection is limited compared to North American stores, especially with produce.
• If you prefer Starbucks coffee, bring your own. They do not have Starbucks in Iceland. We brought the 'Via' instant packs which are palatable enough. I did find the Starbucks Mocha cold coffee drinks in one single gas station.
• Fast food chains are virtually non-existent. The only franchises that have invaded Iceland are Subway and KFC, while there is one Costco in Reykjavik. Everything else is local only.
• Be flexible with your itinerary. Bad weather may necessitate a change in plans or direction to chase the light. Use the Icelandic Meteorological Office website to monitor the weather, as it proved to be quite accurate. Even in the summer, overcast skies at night can make it just dark enough to inhibit your results.
• Try Hafnarhólmi in the northeast to photograph puffins. This location is said to be the most reliable, and as these quirky birds fish at sea during the day, be sure to go very early in the morning or late at night. We went at 11:00pm and saw thousands, and because they are very used to humans, and you can get within feet of them for a fun experience. Bring your telephoto lens like a 70-200mm to zoom in close.
• Keep your gas tank full and use the bathrooms when you can. The next facility may be a long distance away, especially in the northern parts of the country where it is less populated.
• Prepare for restrictions. Some of the more iconic locations now have ropes and out-of-bounds areas that may limit your compositions.
• Consider reaching out to other photographers in your research. Anyone who has been to Iceland recently can give you a good idea of the current state of certain locations instead of relying on outdated information from the web.
• Research the drone laws. Although you are still allowed to fly your drone in most areas of the country, some of the busier locations do not allow them anymore.
• Download the 'Parka' app on your phone. This Icelandic app can be used in many locations to pay for campsites and parking.
• Some popular locations now charge for parking. We had to pay at Kirkjufellfoss, Hverir, Diamond Beach/Jökulsárlón, and Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon to name but a few. The fees ranged around 700-1000 krona, which translates to ~$7-$10 CAD, or ~$5-$7 USD.
• Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere.
• Tipping is not expected or required. Most restaurants have a 'VAT' (value added tax) already added onto your bill. We did see the odd tip jar in restaurants (they seem to be catching on to North American culture), but do not feel obligated.
• Cash (Icelandic Krona) does actually come in handy. Despite all the blogs that say you will not need it, we did run into a couple of cash-only campgrounds. You may want to get a small amount at a bank or ATM. Cash in your leftover currency at the airport before you leave.
• Make sure you have a PIN number for your credit card. YOU WILL NEED ONE at fuel stations.
• Pack warm clothing and raingear. It does not get hot in Iceland, it can get very windy, and it rains frequently. In June/July we saw average daily temperatures of 12-14ºC, or 53-57ºF. Our warmest day was 20ºC or 68ºF.
• Dress in layers. We practically lived in our merino wool base layers. Over top of them bring hiking pants, a warm fleece mid-layer, a puffy coat, rain pants, rain jacket, and a toque or beanie for your head. Avoid cotton clothing. If it gets wet, it takes forever to dry and you will be cold.
• Pack waterproof hiking boots and rubber boots. You will encounter wet and uneven terrain everywhere, and knee-high rubber boots allow you to get into rivers for more compositional opportunities. I used mine frequently.
• Bring a rain cover for your camera.
• Bring appropriate lens filters. I normally shoot at 1/4 second exposure to get nice texture around moving water, which can be impossible in bright sunlight without the right filter to slow your exposure time.
• You can still get a sunburn without hot days; I did. Bring sunscreen if you burn easily.
• Bug repellent or a net for your face can be useful. Although most areas were free of annoying insects, we were relentlessly swarmed by midges at Hjálparfoss and Gjáin, which are both in the same general area inland in valleys. They did not bite, but will crawl all over any exposed skin, in your nose, ears, and mouth. I even got one stuck in my eye which was nasty, and they invaded the inside of our van. Literally thousands of them. Be prepared to power through it if the location is important enough to you.
• Avoid the crowds by shooting mostly in the evenings and overnight. You will have softer light and less hassle.
• Bring your own power inverter with a splitter. Some rental companies will offer one for an extra charge, but mine was broken. Thankfully I brought my own which worked perfectly for all of my charging needs.
• Leave your dress clothes at home. If you insist on being stylish out on the town, fine, maybe bring one nice outfit. We did not see any dress codes. Most people are tourists like you, and dress like a hike is about to break out.
• Almost everyone speaks English.
• You will not see the northern lights in the summer. It doesn't get dark enough. Take your trip in September through April if you want a chance to see them.
A Final Note
Embarking on a photography trip to Iceland promises an unparalleled experience that very few destinations can rival. With its ethereal landscapes, Iceland offers a diverse mixture of contrasts, like rugged volcanic terrain, glacial lagoons, cascading waterfalls, and steaming geothermal hotspots.
The ever-changing weather conditions create dynamic lighting scenarios over the already mesmerizing landscapes. Time slows down with the long golden hours of summer, while the vibrant hues of the midnight sun are a photographer's dream.
Researching your plans thoroughly and well in advance is important to make the most of any photographic opportunity, and hopefully my experiences will help you in planning your trip to this incredible country, which is sure to ignite your creativity at every turn.