Road number one leads you around Iceland’s epic natural formations. These scenic locations, often the subject of landscape photographs, have seen a dramatic rise in tourism recently. So what is it about these subjects that attract people from all over the world? And when is the light at its best to shoot a memorable image yourself here? These are the Icelandic icons of landscape photography.
Reynisdrangar and the Black Sand Beach
Near the fishing village of Vík in Southern Iceland, a couple of craggy rock formations dominate the shoreline. Poking out from behind the black sand at Reynisfjara beach, these pillars are one of the coolest backdrops you could find in Iceland if you’re into photographing seascapes. But on the other side of Vík, there’s also a great place to capture them which isn’t that busy.
During blue hour, preferably when it’s raining, there’s an unrivaled atmosphere here. As gulls and gannets soar from the cliffs and out to sea to catch their breakfast, you would do well to dial in a faster exposure time to catch the waves crashing into the rocks that look like a shipwreck. The story goes that a couple of trolls tried pulling the ship out from the Atlantic, but their efforts were foiled by the rising sun, turning these poor guys and their prized ship into stone.
Let’s start with one of the reasons photographers book a flight to Iceland. This iconic glacier lagoon is the setting of icebergs breaking off from the Breiðamerkur glacier and drifting out to sea, only to wash up again on “diamond beach.” The best time to visit the lagoon is all the way through the night in summer, because twilight lasts from around 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. When the light is low, you won’t need a neutral density filter to visually slow the waves crashing into the ice.
On the other hand, when you’re looking to catch a bright orange rim around the blue ice, it’s best to have your tripod set up at golden hour. This can last the entire night in the height of June, with the sun just dipping below the horizon, only to come back up again shortly after.
A bit northeast from the glacier lagoon you’ll find the small community of Hoffell. It’s about 10 homes, a farm, and a church. A very typical town in the land of ice and fire. A bumpy track leads you to an outlet glacier that’s part of the Vatnajökull, the largest (in volume) glacier in Europe. Here, I have found the effects of climate change to have left a profound impression on me.
There’s this sign which tells you that in just 70 years time, this glacier has receded more than a kilometer. In the photo above, the ice would have reached the bush in the foreground. Coming here in autumn is the best time of year, because those bushes are brimming with fall colors ranging from burgundy to bright yellow.
Stokksnes and Vestrahorn
Since we’re very close to a graphic mountain now, we might as well stop in the black sand dunes of Stokksnes. The military base here is home to tall yellow grass growing in fertile volcanic sand. It’s also the foreground of the much photographed Vestrahorn mountain. And there’s definitely some cloning to do if you come here thinking to shoot the sunset in late summer. When I was here shooting the sunset last year, this place was packed with people carrying tripods. While early in the morning, there’s not a soul to be found. The first human I spotted the next morning, was a man walking his dog.
This austere-looking waterfall isn’t the most spectacular one in itself. The reason you should visit this one, is because of where the water has found its way. Horizontal lines of deep red, volcanic basalt create a very graphic image if you balance the hard rock with a long exposure splash of water.
To accentuate the red in these spectacular rock formations, it’s best to come here either at sunrise or sunset in autumn. But in the morning, the light perfectly hits the waterfall and the basalt while there’s absolutely no one at the end of this two kilometer hike up the mountain.
So far, we’ve covered much of the south coast, but I really urge you to visit the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west. It adds another two or three days to your journey, but “Church Mountain” is the travel photographer’s hotspot for a reason. The mountain seriously looks like a lone wizard’s hat rising from the sea, but what really makes this the perfect backdrop for a grand composition, is the waterfall in front of it. As with all of these locations, the place is crawling with photographers during golden hour and even on clear nights, when people flock here in the hope to see the northern lights silhouetted against the black triangle that is Kirkjufell.
The real challenge here is to break the mold and come up with a new composition yourself instead of sticking your tripod feet in the deep holes left by everyone who has gone before you and me. I didn't succeed because I was too distracted by this amazing view. You'd have to come here often to start exploring the nooks and crannies of the area.
This last epic location was a bit of a surprise to me. From the car park, you’re just looking at a massive cliff face that practically spans the center of the entire peninsula. But in some areas, the cliffs have little openings in them. Sometimes eroded by lava during its formation, other times eroded by water plunging down from the snow and ice above them. Either way, these gorges are home to spectacular photo opportunities in the bright daylight as well as on overcast days. The deepest reaches of the unpronounceable Rauðfeldsgjá gorge are perpetually sheltered from direct sunlight. Haze and fog can create really moody conditions; a perfect fit for a shoot into the nether regions of the Earth.
Once you start to link the road signs displaying “curly hashtags” to scenic locations, you’ll want to explore them all. But the thing with these parking lots is: Once a car is parked there, others will follow. Within no time at all, even the smallest crevice has a bunch of people in it. This is exactly why the Icelandic government is taking action to prevent overcrowding in their fantastic and rugged landscape, which we discussed in Part 1 of this series.
We did stop by some of the most visited locations here, but the goal is to illustrate that there’s much more to explore than just these well-imaged hotspots. These are just a handful magnets that attract millions of visitors annually. Come on and take that bumpy track into the backcountry and try pointing the camera in a different direction. Then again, taking an image home that’s unique because it’s yours could well be the reason that Iceland is on your bucket list.
Let me know what you think about Iceland as the bucket list item for photography in the comments.