Gunnar Freyr is an Iceland-based photographer exploring the country one picture at a time. He was born in Denmark to Icelandic parents, and lived in Copenhagen until 2014, when he quit his corporate job and bought a one-way ticket to Iceland. Here, he shares some of his secrets to taking beautiful photos in Iceland.
It’s no secret that Iceland is on every travel photographers’ “to-shoot” list, either to visit for the first time, or to return for that next Icelandic fix. It’s a country made of adventure, and the circular-shaped island makes it the perfect destination for a trip around the country.
So how do you make sure that your photos from a place like Iceland — where so many epic photographs have already been taken, and packed tour-busses arrive at every hour of the day — stand out? As a travel and landscape photographer in Iceland, I am frequently faced with this challenge and, in this article, I attempt to help you make your Iceland photos not only epic, but also different from the thousands of other photos taken there every day.
The First Step
It might not be the most exciting advice to come first — and it might sound a bit different from that “anything-goes-because-there-are-no-people” mentality some organizations try to promote — but in order to really succeed as a travel photographer in Iceland it is important to both understand and respect Icelandic nature. You need to appreciate it for both its fragileness as well as for its brutal and unforgiving nature. It is not without reason that tourists end up losing their lives every year and that pristine nature is being worn down.
Avoid driving off-road, walking on the moss, going too close to big waves, or venturing off into the highlands in a regular sedan. If you show respect for the nature, it’s certain to reflect in your photography. You will start seeing and appreciating things in a different way and that will set you apart from the average photographer taking photos in Iceland.
Because Iceland is an island and has a national road that circles the country, it’s perfect for road trips. But make sure you leave sufficient time to really explore the areas you visit instead of simply driving from one highlight to the next.
Or, maybe forget about the Ring Road for a while and figure out a way to visit some of the more remote places found in Iceland. Even better, try to do it this off-season. After all, the isolation and emptiness are what make Iceland so unique. Places like Thorsmork, West-Fjords, and East Iceland will give you that original Icelandic feeling of vast emptiness. Just remember to do your research in advance and consider working with a local.
The animals in Iceland are beautiful, both on their own as well as when blending into the environment. No animal is more Icelandic than the Arctic Fox, which is the only terrestrial mammal in Iceland — and on top of that, they are incredibly photogenic. Spotting an arctic fox will most likely happen in very remote places such as Þórsmörk or the Westfjords, where there is an Arctic Fox center.
On the contrary to the fox, sheep and horses were brought to Iceland by the first settlers around the ninth century. But it is the way in which the sheep and horses have been kept pure-bred since the Vikings first arrived that makes these animals incredibly unique. Consider planning your trip around one of the horse or sheep roundups in the fall for more interesting shots of these creatures.
Changing the Point of View
Iceland is perfect for taking pictures with a drone, as the country offers incredible textures and patterns you can only begin to comprehend when you see them from above. My advice is to go all in and buy yourself that drone you’ve been dreaming about. Take advantage of the chance while regulation is liberal and get some stunning perspectives on the Icelandic landscape. Just avoid flying too close to any birds or helicopters.
Other things to consider include planning your shots in advance and thinking about how you can differentiate your photography with a new angle on a landscape that has been photographed thousands of times. Changing the point of view and capturing things in a new way might require a bit of luck, like being in the right place at the right time. This might seem impossible to do in a place you’ve never been to before, but there are plenty of tools that can help you figure out when the sunset will be best at a certain spot or even when that full moon will be just above your point of interest.
Searching for the Light
Getting the light right might seem like an easy task in a country with almost 24 hours of daylight during the summer, but there are many things to consider when utilizing the light in Iceland. In the summer months, the sun is at a high angle throughout much of the day and, if the sky is clear, it will produce harsh highlights and ugly shadows in your photographs. If you’re here in the summertime and your main priority is to get amazing photos, I would say the best (but also not the easiest) thing you can do is change your schedule and sleep during the day and stay awake from the evening until early morning. This will help you get the best light possible and produce smoother and less-saturated colours, together with pleasant shadows and highlights that will look great for your landscape photography. If you aren’t much of a night-owl, keep in mind that rainy and cloudy days might just be your best friend. The clouds help soften the light, which will not only make your photos more pleasing, but also give you those moody vibes everyone loves — for good reason…
In the winter however, the situation is quite different. The light quality is often great, but the main problem is that there just isn’t enough of it. With a day that only lasts around four hours in December, things can get a bit stressful if you want to cover a lot of ground, so be sure to plan your photos in advance.
On the flip side, you might get lucky and see the Northern Lights during the winter season — from September to April. Outside of that period, you need to be really lucky, as the night is simply too bright. The Northern lights are beautiful, and it’s an amazing thing to experience for the first time, but they also might just be one of the most cliché things you can photograph in Iceland. So, my advice to you is to think about the location (aurora normally goes from east to west) and try to make your photos interesting, i.e. by including a waterfall, canyon, other people, car, or even some horses.
One Last Piece of Advice
I normally have a saying that goes something like this — “When the weather is good, the photos are bad, but when the weather is bad the photos are great.” This might serve as consolidation in case you end up spending seven straight days bad weather days in Iceland. Also, don’t forget that there is no better way to finish off a cold and rainy day than with a trip to one of Iceland’s outdoor swimming pools.