Iceland is a visual paradise. The allure of this island nation comes from its unrivaled landscapes — the sprawling countrysides that seem to consume you, the humbling mountains and volcanoes that rise from the lush landscapes, the cascading waterfalls and snow-covered glaciers. A photo will never do justice to these serene sprawls — they won’t capture the crispness of the air or tranquility of mind you’ll experience as you breathe it in — but you’ll still want to make sure you’re heading home with some unforgettable shots.
Iceland’s capital, and the island’s largest city, feels less like a major metropolis and more a quaint harbor town, offering equal opportunities for architectural and natural photography. Those looking to capture the city’s buildings and unique structures have plenty of options. Make your way to the harbor to photograph Harpa, the humbling conference and concert hall featuring unique angles and glass panels in a variety of colors. Nearby you’ll find the Sun Voyager, a picturesque sculpture designed as an ode to the sun. Also notable is Hallgrímskirkja Church, a spectacularly ominous structure with a central tower that rises 239.5 feet (73 meters) from the ground below.
Those who want to escape the bustle of the city should head to the scenic Tjörnin Pond downtown. Numerous ducks, swans, and geese call the pond home and, since it’s surrounded by beautiful, multicolored houses, it also provides a perfect foreground for shots of the city beyond. Additionally, the Einar Jónsson sculpture garden offers a hidden oasis free of charge to visitors. Jónsson was Iceland’s first prominent sculpture artist, and he donated all of his works to the people of his nation. Walk through and grab shots of his masterpieces with Hallgrímskirkja towering in the background.
In Iceland, it feels like every few feet there’s a waterfall more spectacular than the last. You’ll definitely want to head home with some shots to remember these staggering cascades. While you won’t struggle finding one to choose from, we recommend planning time to see Kirkjufellsfoss (situated at the foot of the tremendous Mount Kirkjufell), Seljalandsfoss on the southern Coast, which, with its 206.7-foot (63-meter) drop, allows you to walk behind it, and Skógafoss, a dramatic waterfall whose spray often produces a double rainbow on particularly sunny days. Make sure to keep your aperture fairly small, and try experimenting with shutter speeds to produce more detailed shots — fast shutter speeds will freeze the spurts of water as they tumble down, but longer shutter speeds will capture the constant flow of the water in a pleasant blur.
Isolated in the north Atlantic, Iceland lacks many of the animals common to mainland Europe. However, plenty of unique mammals call the island nation home, and patient photographers can capture much of the island’s diverse and beautiful wildlife.
Avian enthusiasts should head to the Látrabjarg bird-watching cliffs in the Westfjords, where some brave puffins will allow you to get within just a few meters for staggering close-ups. During the summer, these migratory birds flock to the island’s shores to nest, providing the perfect opportunity to zoom in and photograph the details of their charming, colorful beaks and emotive facial features.
Experienced wildlife photographers can search for the Arctic fox, Iceland’s sole native land mammal. With their white coats and savvy camouflage skills, spotting the foxes against winter’s icy landscapes is unlikely, so instead, head to the Westfjords and explore the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve — where they are most abundant — in the summer to snap a shot of one of these furry creatures.
With its blue waters and awe-inspiring coastline, Iceland is home to plenty of marine life as well. The town of Húsavík in the north, for instance, is considered Europe’s whale-watching capital, so book a tour to capture images of humpbacks and dolphins breaching majestically against the backdrop of the island’s landscapes. Along the beaches, you’ll be able to spot some other blubbery creatures — seals can be seen laying out on the shores and beside the glacial lagoons.
Other animals to keep an eye out for include reindeer, sheep, cows, and Icelandic horses. When photographing wildlife, it’s always best to use faster shutter speeds to catch them in action. Otherwise, they might just be a blur in your images.
The Northern Lights
Iceland is already a world of divine landscapes, but if you’re able to shoot the countryside beneath the humbling aurora borealis, you’ll capture a truly ethereal sight. Visit from late August to the beginning of May, when the long hours of darkness allow for plentiful chances to spot the otherworldly phenomenon.
There are no guaranteed ways to see the Northern Lights, but you’ll have the best chance when there is as little light as possible — aim to be far away from any cities (to minimize light pollution) and try for a night without a full moon. Make sure to bring a tripod with you, as you’ll want to shoot long exposure shots of the stunning streaks in the sky.
In contrast to the nighttime glory of the aurora borealis is Iceland’s other nocturnal phenomenon: the Midnight Sun. During the two weeks of the summer equinox in June, the sun never sets in Iceland, instead making a loop in the sky and bouncing off the southern horizon. This never-ending day allows you to photograph any part of the island, which is basked in a mystical twilight.
The Ring Road
For those looking to discover Iceland beyond the tourist havens of Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, the scenic Ring Road is a great choice. This 827.7-mile (1,332-kilometer) highway circumnavigates the country and can be traversed in a few days or a few weeks — depending on how often you plan to stop and gawk at the sights along the way! And because the highway system is so simple (the Ring Road is, notably, highway #1), you most likely won’t have to worry about getting lost. Just pack up your car, hit the gas, and follow the road ahead!
There are countless waterfalls, volcanoes, and geysers to photograph along the way , but some highlights include Myvatn Lake, Kirkjufell Mountain, and, for fans of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the tongue-twisting Eyjafjallajökull. Always make sure to pull off the road completely before stopping to take photos!
Let’s be honest — you’re probably not headed to Iceland in search of luxury hotels or a beach to sunbathe upon. While exploring this island nation, every turn will reveal new landscapes to disappear into, new natural spectacles to discover. In addition to the popular spots like Kirkjufell, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss, you’ll want to keep an eye out for other natural wonders, such as geysers and hot springs (including the great Geysir in Haukadalur Valley), the Blue Lagoon southwest of Reykjavik, the ice caves and glacial lagoons of Jokulsarlon, and the black-sand beaches and basalt columns of Reynisfjara.
One of the best ways to capture Iceland’s seemingly never-ending landscapes is from above. With a drone, even the most mild Icelandic countrysides will transform into something amazing and surreal, so, if you own one, we definitely recommend bringing it along to document your explorations.
Keep in mind that, earlier this year, the Icelandic Transport Authority issued new rules regarding the use of aerial drones. You’re prohibited from flying a drone within 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) of commercial airports, meaning that you can’t fly in downtown Reykjavik or over the old harbor. And, wherever you fly, you have to keep the drone below an altitude of 427 feet (130 meters).
There isn’t really a bad time to photograph Iceland — the dramatic landscapes look equally spectacular when bathed in summer sunlight as they do when caked in ice and frost during the winter. However, keep in mind that with Iceland’s diverse seasons, the time of year you choose to visit will have a major effect on the lighting you have to work with. In the summer, for instance, the sun never completely sets, so golden hour extends throughout the night. In the winter, on the other hand, the sun barely rises above the horizon, meaning all day is golden hour.
When photographing wildlife, make sure to use quick shutter speeds for animals in motion, and a large aperture for stationary animals. Try to use as wide an angle as possible to capture the vastness of the landscape.
Situated in the northern Atlantic, Iceland experiences turbulent, unpredictable weather. You could be basking in rays of sun at one moment only to be caught in a thunderstorm minutes later. Plan accordingly. Make sure to bring plenty of layers and rain jackets, as well as anything you need to waterproof your camera (a waterproof body case, a plastic camera bag, etc.) and gear. If you don’t want to risk ruining your expensive equipment, consider buying a small clip-on lens to attach to your smartphone’s camera instead. And always make sure to pack extra batteries!
Header photo by Pierre Bouillot