Monday, 16 October 2017

Photoblog: Iceland

Poking out of the gulf stream in the North Atlantic is Iceland, an island country with such varied terrrain that it provides a wonderland for photographers. This September, I spent a week travelling mostly around the southern part of the island, and would like to share some thoughts on what it’s like to travel and photograph there.

First of all, a note about Icelandic seasons. I was forewarned that September is a time of transition, weatherwise. Regardless, I thought it the best time for me to go, because I needed some dark skies if I was going to see the Aurora Borealis. It takes a while for the glow of the sun to disappear in the evening, though, because the sun doesn’t go very far below the horizon at that time of year.
Glimpse of the Northern Lights at Budir

The reality, however, was that the entire week was forecast at or nearly 100% chance of rain, and did it deliver! Only one evening was relatively clear and pleasant, but rain was forecast to roll back in later. That gave me only a narrow window to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, but it was somewhat weak at that time in the evening. Bottom line –for night skies, go in fall, winter or early spring, but expect to be shut out by the weather.

In order to see the variety of volcanoes, icebergs, black sand beaches and ocean wildlife that Iceland offers, you’re better off renting a car than taking a bus trip. Highway 1 is the ring road that encircles the entire country, and is well maintained. From there, a number of major and secondary (ie. rough gravel) roads go inland. Some roads are closed in winter as they become treacherous or unpassable.

One thing to keep in mind is that there are long stretches along the ring road where nary a gas station can be seen. Filling the tank and grabbing snacks should be done at every opportunity.

Speaking of snacks, or food in general, be prepared for sticker shock when in Iceland. A typical simple meal, such as burger and fries is going to set you back $20-$25. All of the guesthouses I stayed at that included a breakfast in the price provided a generous buffet each morning. If you fill up on breakfast, you can probably save some money at lunchtime by getting by with a prepackaged sandwich at a gas station.

My rental Skoda Octavia
Gas pumps at chain stations like N1 are generally pay-at-the-pump types, as in Canada. There are some notable differences, however. The first time I re-fuelled, I made the mistake of selecting ‘fill tank’ rather than the fixed authorized amounts. That evening, I checked my Visa statement. To my horror, a pre-authorized amount of $298 CDN appeared. I phoned N1 the next morning, and I was told that choosing ‘fill tank’ automatically results in a 25,000 ISK (Icelandic kroner) authorization. I was assured that this amount would disappear and the true amount would be posted to my account, which it eventually did.

Another oddity is that the pump doesn’t automatically print you a receipt. You have to insert your credit card again or you will have no record of the transaction. Some pumps also refuse to allow transactions from some bank-issued cards, so take several with you. And, as with food, be prepared to pay double for gas.

If you have an unlocked cell phone, you might also consider buying a SIM card. I purchased a Vodaphone Premium Starter Pack on the Icelandair flight for about $35 CDN. This gives you 2 GB of data, 50 minutes of overseas calls and unlimited talk and text within Iceland. I found coverage to be excellent on my travels. Emergency services in Iceland, by the way, can be reached at 112.

My Photographic Destinations
Still on the subject of driving: they drive on the right hand side, but when in cities with traffic lights, remember that you cannot make a right turn on a red light. Luckily, a cop wasn’t behind me when I did so in Reykjavik - just a friendly no-no honk from a motorist.

Now – the photography. I downloaded and read ‘Photo Guide to Iceland’, a free e-book, long before the trip. Written by two Icelandic photographers, I found it extremely useful in planning out where to photograph, and therefore where to pre-book guesthouses.

Once at the various sites, I was pleased to find that nobody was there collecting an entrance fee. The only time I had to pay at these sites was to use the washroom, which is generally 100 ISK (about $1.10 CDN). Keep loose change handy!


By far, the most plentiful photogenic sites are waterfalls (“foss” in Icelandic). It’s like the whole country is leaking out of every pore! To photograph them with best effect, a tripod and remote shutter release are mandatory. I took the column out of the legs and removed the handles of my tripod to allow it to pack nicely in my checked baggage, so don’t worry about taking it with you. Then, if you want the water to look creamy as it tumbles over the waterfall, you will need to use a neutral density filter of at least 5 to 6 stops. Stop your lens down to f/18 or smaller, set ISO to 100, and aim for about a 1 second exposure. Anything longer won’t improve the effect, and in fact will increase the risk that you will get a slightly blurred shot if the wind moves it (and it does blow strongly there). Variable ND filters will do the trick, but beware that at higher density settings (ie. more stops) you will start to see a cross-like pattern resulting in dark patches. I’m going to ditch the variable in future and carry a fixed 5 or 6 stop filter instead.

Mount Hekla Volcano in Cloud

It’s not hard to find mountains, glaciers and volcanoes brooding in clouds. In order to capture the full range of tones in such scenes (particularly if sunshine is breaking through the clouds) I resort to exposure bracketing. This involves taking three shots rapidly in sequence; one normal exposure, one underexposed by two stops and one overexposed by 2 stops. This is easily done with the camera’s AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) setting. Then, I like to use High Dynamic Range software like Photomatix to produce a final image that exhibits a tonal range not achievable with a single exposure.

Of course, there are a lot more subjects for the photographer to capture than the ones I have mentioned, including geysers, geothermal areas and moss-covered lava rock formations. In the meantime, you can see what I have photographed in my online gallery at

At the risk of sounding like I have lots of things in Iceland to moan about (including rain!), I have to say something about Keflavik airport, and then I’ll zip it. In defence of the designers of the terminal, the plans were probably cast before annual tourist traffic reached the 1.5 million mark. Today, though, it can sometimes be nothing short of chaotic.

In North America, most airport terminals have a wide corridor and gate areas with ample places where people waiting to board can sit. At Keflavik, a ‘gate’ more or less consists of a door to buses that take you to the plane. If you want to sit, there are usually seats in the middle of the corridor and not necessarily near your gate. When one or more gates get called, you end up in a massive crowd that blocks the corridor. You’re not even sure if you’re in the right lineup at times! To make things worse, arriving passengers have to  barge their way across the boarding lineups. End of rant.
All that said, Iceland is a beautiful place to visit and photograph. Just about everyone speaks English, and eloquently. People are helpful and welcoming. The terrain is stunning. Reykjavik is charming. What’s not to like? Just go –you won’t regret it.

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