Travel photography in Iceland during the winter
How I came to photograph Iceland in the winter
Iceland is one of those countries that is a mecca for travel and landscape photographers. I have been looking at photos of Iceland for years and wishing to just get there and see, firsthand, the locations of those iconic images, let alone be given the freedom to photograph them myself. So I must start with a massive thanks to Brendan Van Son and Ivan Thor without whom I would never have been given this amazing opportunity. Let me set the stage for you. I am part of a fantastic photography group on Facebook that was set up by Brendan (I encourage you all to join if you are not already part of it!). Recently Brendan reached 100K followers on his YouTube channel, and to celebrate, he did a give-away every day for 10 days. On the 9th day, the short notice give-away was to go to Iceland and assist Ivan with scouting for future Iceland photography trips. Lo and behold, it was my name that was chosen! I couldn’t believe it! I spent about 10 minutes just walking around in a little circle not knowing what to think! I was floored!
And away we go, Dublin to Iceland
I left Dublin in the afternoon and because Iceland is so close to Ireland, it was a very easy and short flight, only about 2 hours and 10 minutes or so. I had been in touch with Ivan before I left and he had arranged to collect me from the airport which was very kind of him. As I walked through the arrival gate I was greeted with a warm smile and a firm handshake from Ivan. I think it is safe to say that we hit it off right away. We had plenty in common and LOADS to talk about. Ivan is also a professional photographer, so it was great to be able to talk shop and geek out over gear etc. Ivan’s two kids were there too, his eldest son and daughter. These two were such a pleasure to meet and spend time with!
Photographing right off the plane
Ivan had talked about the kind of itinerary we had planned and I must say it all sounded amazing! Spoiler alert...it was! On the way to the cabin that Ivan had booked for us we stopped at a well known Instagram favourite, Strankarkirkja Church. The sky was ablaze with golden light as the sun set behind it. If this was the standard of things to come, then I was in my happy place!
This scene had such a big dynamic range that I decided to shoot three bracketed exposures. Being a commercial/architectural photographer in Dublin, I was naturally drawn to put the church in the center of the frame and keep the lines straight. The contrast between the cold blue of the foreground and the golden hue of the sky, when blended together, created this striking image.
The start of something beautiful in Iceland
We continued on to our destination and got to know each other more. When we arrived, I was blown away at the location of the cabin. Tucked under the sheltered embrace of a mountain, it was a perfect place of peace and tranquility. Oh, and it had a hot tub filled with geothermal spring water! We used this every evening to relax and enjoy the clear, starry sky above us.
Pushing through the cold and ice to Hjalparfoss
The following day, Ivan had planned an adventure for us that would involve driving into the highlands a bit. First things first though, we got the car totally stuck in the snow. It was pretty funny and fair play to the two Lithuanian lads that were working on a nearby cabin, who rolled in with their beast of a jeep and pulled our own out of the trench we found ourselves in. Having been rescued, we headed to Hjalparfoss waterfall and it was a beauty. This partially frozen hidden gem was truly a sight to behold. Travelling to Iceland in the winter is beset by its own challenges and the cold is the biggest. The day was cold anyway but when the wind blew, Holy Moly, I thought I was going to be cut in two.
Even as prepared as I was, with layers of clothes, the cold still found its way to penetrate my armour. Remember when I said it can get cold while photographing Dublin? Well, I had no idea how cold things could truly get. The walk from the car was simple enough but the wind was blowing and the cold air battered every inch of me as we pushed through. Taking a shortcut, we headed downhill and we saw it then, frozen in time, and surrounded by ice and snow. It was such a fantastic experience to get the chance to see a waterfall not too many people get to see while on their trips to Iceland.
For me, there was a natural composition for this image and that was using the fallen trees in the foreground and framing the waterfall in the back. I had a very limited filter system - all I had was a screw-in 10-stop ND filter. I popped this on and gave myself a long enough exposure at 2.5 seconds to smooth out the water, both in the river, and the waterfall itself.
The walk back to the car was tough to say the least. As I climbed the hill I felt my lungs burn with the cold. I had never felt anything like it. As we have said on so many blog posts here, we are not the fittest fiddles under the sun, so I found this a challenge. Thankfully the hard part was over and the last leg of the walk was on the flat but walking in snow is like walking in sand. It just saps the energy spent in every step. Needless to say we were all pretty bushwhacked after this excursion so we thought we would head back to the cabin to relax for the day, and of course, soak in the hot tub. Just even getting to drive around Iceland in winter is amazing. The landscape has something majestic to show you around every corner.
Photographing some of the Icons of Iceland
The following day we awoke good early so we could make the most of the day, and what a day it was. Ivan’s thinking was, “You can’t come to Iceland without seeing Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss”. To which I responded “That’s okay with me Ivan, you lead the way!” These two waterfalls are very famous and very close to each other so it makes for very easy viewing.
The first main stop along the South Coast road is Seljalandsfoss. This waterfall offers visitors a very unique perspective with an accessible trail behind it. Its best times for viewing are early in the morning and at sunset. The sun rises from behind the mountain and casts its light on the landscape beyond. Being behind the waterfall in the morning is ideal, while sunset provides the golden light on the falls themselves. Unfortunately, with the snow and ice, the path behind was closed but we made the most of it any way. This location has a second waterfall, Gljúfrafoss, within walking distance, and is less crowded. The epicness of it is, is that you have to walk up stream into a cave to get to it. It's not too far but in freezing conditions, the “stepping stones” were sometimes iced over as the rushing torrent of water flowed fast. Each step must be carefully calculated or else you are going to have a cold, wet rest of your day. When you make it through the ice water you are greeted with a magnificent waterfall. There is a very iconic shot to be taken here but the big rock was covered in ice so we braved the spray and stood in front of the waterfall to capture some great shots! #doitforthegram
This waterfall, being so high, I shot it vertically. Using a ND filter, we were able to slow down the shutter enough to smooth out the water, but give us a fast enough shutter speed, so the subject matter, me, was still sharp. We got soaked but it was such fun and worth every second.
After we tentatively made our way back out of the mouth of the cave we stopped to take a few shots of the main attraction. There can be lots of tourists here at the best of times so the clone stamp will be your friend if you come here to photograph it.
A journey to find a hidden waterfall
After this waterfall we headed for Ivan’s secret waterfall (he really likes waterfalls!). I can’t divulge the location or the name of it as it’s on private property and you have to be in the know to be allowed go here. You have to hike your way in through the canyon. During the winter, this can prove to be a bit difficult but lucky for me, I had a pair of boots on that are awesome. After we hiked and slid on our bums down the slippy hills we came across the waterfall.
While this waterfall is narrow, it’s tall and the location of it offers you some great shots, as it cascades over the top of the canyon. Oh yeah, I also lost the little foot on my tripod here so that was great. I wasn't able to fully extend it until i got back to the cabin and poked at the hole with a knife, so a new tripod is on the shopping list!
When I found the composition I wanted to shoot, I set up a long exposure selfie. Setting the camera to F16 to slow down the shutter enough to smooth out the water, I set the camera to a 10-second self timer, pressed the button and legged it!
Humbled by the mighty Skógafoss
After we made our way back out of the canyon we headed for the iconic and very popular Skógafoss. This location is shot to death but for very good reason. It’s magnificent! Armed with my broken tripod every shot was gonna have to be taken at a very low angle or hand held. This waterfall was basking in light from the sun and, as a result, a rainbow could be seen through the mist and haze. Simply magic.
Ivan, being the good sport that he is, wandered off closer to the waterfall for some selfie fun times. I managed to get one shot of him standing next to the falls before the battery died. Ivan standing under the thundering waterfall gives epic scale to it and really shows how big it is. You must always keep in mind that while photographing in the winter time the cold really drains the power out of your batteries. I did take lots of extra ones with me, but like a newbie I left them in the car.
Frozen in motion
After the battery died we hopped back into the van and on the way back to the cabin we made a pit-stop at Gluggafoss. This waterfall, like the very first, was pretty much frozen over but incredible to see. There is a hike that will take you to the higher waterfall but it being the end of January and frozen over, the path would have been too dangerous for us to tackle. Next time, I’ll come back in warmer weather to explore it. By this stage, the evening was drawing in and we didn't linger too long but of course we stayed long enough to capture some nice images.
Being a tourist in Iceland and missing the shot
The following day cast its light over the land and we decided to take in one of the biggest tourist spots in Iceland, simply called, Geysir.
This area is a famous geothermal area in Iceland and every few minutes the big geyser blows its top. Me, being in landscape photography mode, had my camera set all over the place and totally missed the shot of it blowing. This will have to be added to the list for when we return. I laughed at my lack of readiness and sure, you can see for yourself.
But, there were some cool chairs that had some great ice on them I just snapped with my phone.
A photography location that will live with me forever
This is where things start to heat up (figuratively speaking). On the way to the geyser, we had pulled into another waterfall called Faxafoss. This particular spot will prove to be one of the greatest places I have ever had the pleasure of being at on both occasions. This powerful waterfall may not be super tall but its wide which offers you a fantastic range of photography opportunities.
Needless to say, Ivan and myself took full advantage of the shimmering light that danced across the top of the rapids, before falling into the blissful sleep of the lake below. Ivan took a chance and headed to a spot that gave us fantastic views of the falls with the human element.
We packed up feeling very happy with the images that we had created and we both agreed that this would be a great spot to shoot with the stars and, fingers crossed, the aurora above it. We made a tentative plan to head back there that evening. After some food and a nap, it was a go. We gathered our gear and loaded up.
An explosion of colour and light, the Aurora put on a great show
While driving through the night I couldn't help but be disappointed by the amount of light pollution that surrounded me but we drove on and all the while, hoping we would get to see some clear skies for the stars above the waterfall. As the lights faded and we drew ever closer to the falls, the skies seemed to open up for us and the constellation Orion was in plain sight. I was delighted at the chance to photograph the stars again (my last astrophotography adventure was back home in Ireland). We pulled into the little car park, turned off the lights and Ivan looked out the window. “That's the northern lights!”, and, excuse my French here but, “Holy Shit, that IS the northern lights”! We stayed for over an hour, battling the cold but, my God, was it worth every second! Me and Orla were lucky enough to see the northern lights while in Canada but this display was like nothing I had ever seen! Shimmering and dancing in the sky, the green, magenta and purple melted into one seamless gradient and made for one of the brightest displays in the last 3 years or so. It was truly incredible to watch. Ivan and myself, once again, found ourselves in our element and the results….well, they speak for themselves.
As the northern lights began to bloom in full colour, me and Ivan couldn’t help but think to ourselves, “God, I wish it would move just slightly to the right”, to offer a better leading line into the image. Lo and behold, it must have heard our pleas, and it did just that!
Setting the camera up on the tripod and shooting with my wide-angle lens, I set the aperture to F2.8 and set my shutter speed from 25 to 30 seconds, taking into account the “Rule of 500”. This exposed the sensor long enough to keep the stars still sharp and expose for the waterfall and the lights themselves. Having the Batis 18mm, 2.8 enabled me to keep my ISO low enough to not introduce too much noise, which I was thrilled about. Please Sony, send me free stuff!
I couldn’t help but hear Orla in the back of my mind talking about pins so I intentionally shot the scene vertically, for her sake, and she was delighted! Turned out to be a smashing shot! :)
This particular image is a real winner as far as I’m concerned, as it incorporates the epic landscape, the gorgeous glow of the northern lights, and the human element. This Australian couple were there taking pictures, and without thinking, I planted my tripod in the snow, set the exposure to 25 seconds at F2.8, and hoped that they wouldn’t move!
Some final thoughts and what I learned
On a final note, this was one of those adventures that will live with me forever and was one of my greatest adventures, so far. I found myself, at times, stuck in the moment and, with an unwavering want for more, had to pull myself out of the daze I was in. Iceland far exceeded any expectations I had about it, and I only scratched the surface. There were times during the last week that was like getting slapped in the face with how much photography really means to me and has solidified the path I’ve chosen to follow. Specifically, a travel and landscape photographer. Working in the commercial photography world in Ireland is great because I get to do what I love, but that call, the draw to the wild, and to adventure, is strong. This last week has only strengthened its place in my heart. From this point on, I am no longer a commercial food and architectural photographer that also takes travel and landscape images. I am now a travel and landscape photographer that also takes commercial images.
Until next time Iceland, cheers! :)