The Photographer’s Guide to Iceland
Note about this article: I will update this article with images once they come back from retouching and we begin to share them.
Iceland is a country full of beautiful landscapes, gorgeous skies, and beautiful people. It’s no wonder why every photographer you seem to know has made or planned a trip there in the last few years.
Iceland has seen a massive tourism boost in the last few years that has likely been the result of all of the beautiful photos that have been taken there by the photography community, and this week I finally got my stripes when Jen and I traveled there with friends and fellow wedding photographers Sal Cincotta and Alissa Zimmerman.
You can say that this one was one for our bucket list, but as always happens with travel we learned things along the way of this incredible journey that will make our inevitable visit back to the country that much better.
We originally were going to spend 10 days split between Iceland, Ireland, and Scotland, however we opted to focus on the sights to be seen here in the land of fire and ice exclusively this trip, and it turned out 10 days isn’t enough time to do everything. We know many of you are planning to make this trip at some point, so I wanted to make a blog post to help anyone who is considering planning a photography excursion to Iceland.
Tip 1: Figure out The Purpose of Your Trip
I know this seems obvious right? But it may not be. If you are looking for R&R, enjoying local cuisine, and cramming all of your photography into a day or two while using the rest of your trip for vacation, Iceland will disappoint you. In order to make sure that you meet your expectations, you have to understand what your clear purpose is in going to Iceland, and from there you can work backwards to figure out your itinerary.
For us, we came to Iceland for three reasons. First, to re-inspire our love for wedding photography by creating images in some of the most beautiful settings we have ever witnessed. Second, to recompose (pun intended) our portfolio which is in need of major refinement over the next year and a half. And finally, to focus on becoming a better photographer by creating images that we will ultimately enter into competition next year.
If you have followed our journey in the past, you will know that print competition is something that we use to refocus our attention on the details in our images and become better storytellers. In 10 days I can probably say that I have improved more as a photographer than I have in almost a year. The reason for this can come down to something my old drill instructor in the police academy used to say to me, “Practice doesn’t make perfect….Perfect Practice makes perfect.” When creating images for your clients, the slight difference in hand position usually isn’t going to make them want to buy a particular image from you, however in competition every single detail matters, and it has been a mission of mine to get to the point where I notice the details subconsciously by focusing our imagery on cinematic story-telling on a 2 dimensional medium without motion or words.
Knowing that this was the purpose beforehand, Jennifer and I understood that this trip would be more work then we have ever done on a portfolio building trip before. We photographed 10-12 hours a day and logged over 1700 miles driven (more on that in a minute). We wanted to do Iceland in a way that it hasn’t been done before, and because we were traveling with one of the best photographers in the world, it made it that much harder to create images that were unique in places that are instafamous by searching the hashtag #iceland.
Tip 2: Determine Where to Stay
Once you know what the purpose of your trip is, it will help you determine where to stay. Iceland’s most photographed locations are without a doubt located on the Southern Coast, this includes Skogafoss and Sejulandfoss waterfalls, the famous plane wreck, the glacier lagoon, the black sand beach, and more friendly, goofy Icelandic horses than you can shake a stick at.
Now, even though these are all located on the Southern part of the Island, the Country really only has one population center, which is located on the western peninsula, Reykjavik. This is about a 3 1/2 hour drive one way from Vik, which is the closest town to most of those locations on the Southern Coast. This means that your models that you hire will have to make that drive down to your locations to shoot with you, which could make it hard to find models in the first place. On the flip side, food and lodging are very hard to find outside of Reykjavik, however once you know what your purpose behind your trip is, you may opt to forgo the typical amenities you find on vacation in order to have better access to your shooting locations. Vik and Hof will give you the best access to the Southern Ring, and Reykjavik would be a better choice if you are looking to travel to Kirkjufell. You may also opt to do a few days in each part, which would be your best bet if you want to see all of Iceland and will likely be how we do Iceland next time we come.
Also you will want to determine when to visit Iceland. Summer time will give you near 24 hours of shootable light on a clear day, with the sun really only setting to dusk-like light levels between 11pm-3am. However because of this you can’t see the northern lights. On the flip side, if you travel there in the wintertime, you will not have much shooting time. Late spring-early fall will give you a good balance and you might even see the Northern Lights if you come at the right time, we didn’t get a chance this trip.
Tip 3: Plan your Costs
Iceland is expensive, no getting around that…..Our daily gas station runs to stock up on snacks for the long drives would run 40-60 USD. That would be in line with what you may spend at home, but keep in mind that this is terrible gas station junk food. I swear I won’t eat another bag of Doritos for a year…….We sat down for a meal of lamb and fish (Iceland’s only two choices in restaurants aside from pizza and hot dogs) and that meal for four people came out to $250 with no alcohol. Reykjavik does have some American chains like Hard Rock Cafe and such, so if you are staying there you might have more options for food.
Before you start planning, I recommend creating a spreadsheet with the costs incurred for every aspect of the trip, that would include airfare, lodging, rental car, baggage fees, airport transfers, meals, gas, models, makeup and hair, gown rentals, editing, etc
More on the food in a minute…..
Furthermore, in the summertime, your car rental is not cheap, we spent nearly $150 a day for our car, a diesel Dacia Duster with a manual transmission. Get the gravel/sand insurance as rock and gravel damage is common here and a rock broke our windshield the day before we left, that would have been a $600 had we not opted for it.
Also, gas here is expensive, about $2 a litre ($6 a gallon)…Did I mention we drove 1700 miles on this 10 day trip? Get a diesel to make your fuel more efficient.
Now if you are traveling with your camera gear, wardrobe for your models, and grip, understand that many planes charge a lot of money for overweight baggage, however these fees can be reduced or waived if you get yourself a media pass, which you can make at home in photoshop and put on your phone, Google the F-Stoppers article about this for more info but it worked like a charm for us this time reducing our baggage fees from $200 down to $70 per overweight bag.
Now if you are planning shoots with models, understand that nobody is driving 7 hours for a trade job, you will have to pay them, and it won’t be cheap to do so, expect to pay between $600-$1000 per day for your models and additional $$$ for your hair and makeup people. If you are traveling with clients I HIGHLY encourage you to help them plan out your day trips so they know exactly how much car time they will be enduring.
Tip 4: Plan your meals
I will say it flat out, Iceland has the worst food options I have experienced in a foreign country. Thankfully, Sal is just as good as a chef as he is a photographer, and was able to walk into a gas station and buy ingredients that can make a 5-star meal……but when you are traveling all day, there isn’t really an option for cooking, so the majority of the time we were relegated to gas station cuisine, and in the gas stations, you have a limited selection on what you can eat, especially for picky eaters like Jen. Furthermore, on the days where you have some time to stop and eat, the restaurants were not good at all.
Keep in mind if you are staying in the city, you will have more options to choose from, but out in the highlands, where you will most likely be shooting, you won’t have too many options.
Tip 5: Plan your shoots in advance
Iceland is tough to plan for, because none of the locations we wanted to shoot at are easily remembered by name (try pronouncing Sejulandlossfoss three times fast). In addition, because the country is so beautiful, impromptu shoots are more than likely to happen, which is ultimately why we opted to shoot in the summertime. Here are some of the places we visited that I definitely think are worth checking out.
Eldhraun Lava Fields
The Town of Vik
Sólheimasandur Plane Crash (the walk down here is no joke after the farmers closed off the roads because of tourists driving like jerks and defacing the property, it’s 6 miles round trip.
Here are some of the locations that we wanted to visit but didn’t have the time for this trip….
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
Höfrungur Ship Wreck
When handling these shoots it’s best to determine your end time and work backwards to fit everything in, just like you would with a wedding day timeline. You need to make sure that you are accounting for all variables. Had we not done research, we would not have padded the timeline enough on the day we photographed at the plane wreck, which turned out to be one of our most successful days.
Also understand that in these dramatic locations, you will run into problems with tourists and crowds. It’s best to shoot on a tripod to have the ability to remove them later in post production if you suck at the clone tool like I do.
Make sure you pad your shoot time, and then you can go off the path a bit if you wish.
Tip 6: Plan for the weather
The weather in Iceland is unpredictably good or bad. I have never seen a country or place with such dramatic and beautiful skyscapes before. We spent a good portion of our morning photographing skies to use in composites in the future as we don’t get many good clouds in California. However while clouds are good, they can bring rain. Jen and I planned a day excursions to shoot the third day in Iceland and we ran into a lot of problems fighting the rain, which wasn’t on the forecast. The wind is another unpredictable element, because oftentimes it doesn’t work with the light. I absolutely love photographing in the wind, but oftentimes you have to add your own lighting or alter your composition if the wind isn’t working in your favor.
The walk to the plane wreck had such high speed winds that made it difficult to walk in a straight line. That wind was necessary for the shot we wanted but didn’t play nice wth the composition or the light.
While you can bundle up in cold weather, your subjects likely will have issue with the cold. If you are paying a model, they may be able to suck it up for you, but you want to make sure that you warn your clients beforehand so they know what they are getting into. We had our subjects wear pants underneath their wedding gowns to keep their legs warm as even in August temperatures reached near freezing levels on some days with the wind chill.