Guest article by Alister Benn
Isolated in the North Atlantic, just on the tip of the Arctic Circle, the island of Iceland seems an unlikely candidate for landscape photography stardom. It is remote, cold, bleak, windswept and ravaged by extreme seas and the occasional volcanic eruption or two. It’s also expensive, especially if you like a cold beer at the end of a day’s effort.
The above statement perfectly reflects first impressions and the extent of most of the queries I get prior to tours. Having spent months in Iceland over the past few years, I would concur that most of the above are true – in part; but rarely all at once! Let us start by myth-busting some of them at least.
Is Iceland really remote?
In terms of flight times from most of North America and Europe, Iceland is relatively accessible. New York to Reykjavik is 5 hours, whereas London is closer still, at less than 3 hours. Icelandair runs an extensive network of flights, and Iceland has become a popular stop over location between the US and Europe, especially due to its relatively relaxed Visa requirements. Compared to most landscape photography icons, Iceland is in fact quite convenient.
Is Iceland cold?
In fairness, bits of it are – it is home to Europe’s largest glacier, and the interior is essentially a cold desert. However, thanks to the Gulf Stream, warm water gets pushed very far north in the Atlantic and much of the islands maritime climate is far less hostile than winter in the continental US/Canada and Europe.
Average temperatures during the winter months are a relatively balmy 28°F (-2°C), whereas in summer, with its 24 hours of daylight 56°F (13°C) is normal. Of course, if you are standing around for hours making images, being properly equipped with down gear and good boots is essential.
Iceland’s landscape is incredibly diverse. The island is circumnavigated by the 831-mile ring road, and for most of its length, it passes through cultivated farmland. This civilized fringe is however narrow, and as one moves inland, the farmland fades quickly and a volcanic wasteland prevails. Think dinosaur movie sets!
For a relatively small island however, it is very diverse. Massive waterfalls are the norm, spilling over vertical escarpments at every turn. So many of them are nameless and ignored, but if they were elsewhere in the world they would be icons in their own right.
The black sand beaches are incongruous too, especially juxtaposed with gleaming icebergs.
It can be windswept, and it is often ravaged by huge waves – but I’d use the words dramatic and awe-inspiring rather than bleak.
Is Iceland Expensive?
This one is always relative and depends on your baseline experience and budget. Car hire can be and food is definitely so, but bear in mind that more or less everything is imported. Iceland is self-sustained for heating and energy due to geothermal hot springs – they pump the water straight into the houses, which are always comfortably hot in winter, although the showers do smell of sulfur!
TOP TEN LANDSCAPE HOTSPOTS
This list leaves out some very famous locations,but in my defense, there are more than 10 brilliant locations on the island, so something had to be left out. These are my favorites, taken from the numerous icons.
The glaciers of central Iceland feed some of the greatest rivers in the northern hemisphere. The sheer volume of water that flows over the escarpments is vast.
It was perfectly logical to me that a full moon would create the same effect and I enjoyed my time there alone making this “moonbow” image. There are lots of imaginative images to be made here, especially if using a 10 stop ND and rendering the images in black and white.
Once you leave the capitol of Reykjavik, most settlements are small – little more than villages. Vik is small and surrounded by superb scenery, but notably the incongruous sea stacks that lie just off shore. Icelandic folklore is rich and the sea stacks are believed to be frozen trolls.
The black sand, white surf and the incredible seascape are some of the best ingredients anywhere in the world.
There are half a dozen great outlooks within a small area and huge image-making potential. Probably the hardest thing however, is making images without the trolls in the shot? – They are difficult to ignore.
A truly unique area in the south of Iceland and pretty much top of most photographers’ lists, as it was mine before my first visit. Europe’s largest glacier lies to the north and where it calves a giant lake has formed (over 800 feet deep).
A narrow inlet drains the lake to the sea and a daily flow of ice bergs leave the lagoon for the ocean, where the tides wash them up on the nearby black sand beaches.
The area is both compact and extensive, with almost limitless photographic possibilities. The beauty of it is it is constantly changing and you have great opportunities to make unique images. Find some cool ice; make your images before it melts!
One word of warning is needed; the surf here can be ferocious, if a big wave is coming pick up your gear and retreat, do not leave it there to finish the image. I have seen too many cameras destroyed here by people who run from a wave and leave their gear!
The lagoon is far more serene and calm compared to the rushing energy of the beach – especially at night.
Continuing east we reach the small fishing village of Höfn and the jutting peninsular of Stokksnes.
This is another wildly incongruous area; black sand dunes capped with rugged grasses flank a shallow lagoon and the sea. Jagged mountains drop vertically to the ocean creating a superb backdrop.
It is also a location that is equally as good at sunrise or sunset and at any phase of the tide.
Covering a surprisingly large area and less regularly visited than the nearby ice lagoon, it is often possible to shoot this area alone.
Continuing our anticlockwise navigation of the island, we sadly have to ignore a large chunk of landscape until we get round to the north. This is another massive waterfall that drains the interior; an insane aqueous amphitheater as the river spills over some volcanic cliffs.
Time for our second crazy troll! This one is in the remote far north and far less frequently visited than its southern cousins. Words often fail me when trying to describe this location, as they do in this case – I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
This distinctive peak and its nearby waterfall is rightly one of the most iconic locations in the world. It simply screams, “Photograph me!”
Any season, any light, I love the place, and rarely leave without a memorable image or experience. The western fjords of Iceland have a totally different feel and the landscape again is unique. I don’t believe I have ever visited and experienced it looking the same twice.
For our next stop on the tour we visit a sea cliff on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Again, I have to highlight one location from a coast of superlatives – but in this case the mix of red cliffs, nesting sea birds (Feb/Sept) and the unique volcanic castle all come together to make such a unique landscape. Another place with massive untapped potential for those willing to explore.
Most definitely off the beaten track this double waterfall near to the volcano of Hekla, is truly stupendous. Some 4×4 roads are necessary to access it, but the journey is so worthwhile. A real remote, wilderness feel and yet another unique landscape. On all my visits here I have always been alone – paradise.
No, up is not the name of some obscure Icelandic village, I mean literally “up.”
Iceland is one of the best places to view the aurora borealis – the northern lights. From September – March there are usually some displays to a greater or lesser extent. On my last visit we were fortunate enough to have some really monster displays and they were simply breathtaking.
Shooting the aurora is quite easy once some of the fundamental mistakes have been ironed out.
Many of the locations mentioned above are excellent for aurora photography, and with the winter nights being long, you don’t even have to stay out all night.
I feel almost guilty for missing out many of my other favorite locations – perhaps I need to do a Part II as well – The Hidden Icons of Iceland!
I am truly grateful of the opportunity to spend a couple of months every year leading tours and workshops on this incredible island. Every time I go I am humbled by the scale and majesty of the landscape, and thrilled by the reactions of those who are seeing and experiencing it for the first time.
Wester Ross, Scotland
Alister Benn is a full time professional landscape photographer and author living in the remote NW Highlands of Scotland.
If you would like to join Alister on an Iceland Landscape Photography Adventure, please check his current schedules and availability on http://availablelightimages.com