Our friend and visual storyteller, Leonardo Carrizo, toured the beautiful and wild country of Iceland with Canon gear in this travelogue for Mpex-Experience.
Iceland is a great travel destination if you are looking for glaciers, volcanoes, icebergs, waterfalls, ice caves, lava fields, geothermal energy, the original geyser and Viking history. For these reasons, and many more, Iceland is a great destination for travelers and photographers alike. This summer, I had the amazing opportunity to lead a National Geographic Student Expeditions trip to Iceland for two weeks! Coming from experience, here are a few travel and photo tips that can help you prepare for your Icelandic adventure.
The summer months are the most popular time to visit Iceland, it’s always great to go somewhere cool in the summer time and there is a good reason for the country’s name! Nonetheless, there is a push to do more travel to Iceland during the winter; it’s a completely different experience with some unique advantages. If your goal is to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) don’t expect to see them if you travel during the summer. Likewise, traveling in the summer means that you’ll get about 20 hours of daylight (aka midnight sun). The weather is always a challenge, not an excuse just something you can’t control and you have to be ready for what it brings. During my most recent visit we had unexpected cold and rainy weather on our two weeks, but that was not normal. Nonetheless, I suggest you bring rain gear for yourself and your equipment this should include rain pants, jackets, waterproof hiking shoes, camera rain cover and a waterproof backpack. I took with me a Canon 5D III, Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM lens, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, 3 Legged Thing Punks Brian Travel Tripod with Airhead Neo Ball Head, Vu graduated filters and circular-polarizing filters.
There are so many places to explore in Iceland and each one is wonderfully unique. The South and North of the country have a completely different feel to them. The most popular tour in Iceland is the Golden Circle. This southern route hits the most iconic destinations which include the Blue Lagoon, Thingvellir National Park, Great Geyser and Gullfoss waterfall. This works nicely if you are taking advantage of Icelandic Air’s “free” stopover on your way to another European country. If you are planning a longer stay in Iceland then you’ll want to plan your trip around the Ring Road. It’s an 800 mile road trip where you can experience some of the most spectacular locations in the south and north of Iceland.
If you plan to go to the Blue Lagoon be sure to buy the tickets before you go or you are not getting in. Yes, it is that popular and the tour buses keep coming all day long. Also, when you get the tickets they tell you what time to arrive which is part of the crowd control. The Blue Lagoon is about one hour from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. The Blue Lagoon is not a natural hot spring , it’s a geothermal pool but jumping into a natural hot spring is an Icelandic cultural pastime. You should plan to do this several times during your trip. Once you are inside the Blue Lagoon you can relax and get a mud mask. I highly recommend it, and I guarantee it will make you look 10 years younger! At least that’s what the nice lady told me :-).
Getting into any large body of water with your expensive camera and lens is always a risk IF you don’t have proper protection. Also, your movement will be limited and you might not really enjoy your time there if you are worrying about accidentally slipping. This is one of those classic teaching moments of “do as I say and not as I do.”
Thingvellir National Park is one of the stops on the Golden Circle and it’s well worth the stop. You can walk where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet (this is actually where the plates are drifting apart). Go early and take your time exploring the wonderful views all around. Set your tripod and use a graduated filter if the day is too bright to balance your exposure or for capturing a more dramatic sky.
Without a doubt one of the most impressive experiences of Iceland are its glaciers. One of the stops on the southern part of the Ring Road is Vatnajökull National Park. It is the home of Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest in Iceland and Europe. This is a great spot to go glacier hiking and to try ice-climbing. You’ll need to hire a tour guide to drive you in an all-wheel drive vehicle near to the glacier. Once you are there the walk is not long but with all the waterproof clothes, crampon, ice axes and backpack you’ll feel any extra camera gear you have on, so my suggestion is to pack light.
While on the Vatnajökull Glacier hike you’ll cross crevasses and learn tons about how glaciers changed the landscape and how climate changes are affecting Iceland glaciers every day.
Pro Tip: Never pass the opportunity to capture portraits. Here are a few of our great guides. Get close and use a large aperture. The Canon 24mm f/1.4 L series lens is perfect for this style of portraiture.
Vatnajökull National Park also includes the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach which are just off the road. This is an easy stop on the ring road for great photos of icebergs.
From the walking path around Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon you can set up your tripod and take some amazing long-exposure images. For the image below, I used a my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens; the exposure was 10 second at f/22 using a Vu 10-Stop Neutral Density filter.
To get a closer view and photos of the icebergs on Glacier Lagoon you can take a kayak tour around them. The beautiful icebergs formations are more impressive the closer you get like gigantic floating ice cathedrals. This was one of the few days we had blue skies which was perfect and I was able to use my circular polarizing filter to maximize the color.
It can take years for the icebergs to break down to smaller chunks, small enough to float out to sea creating the Diamond Beach. This black sand beach is full of small and still large pieces from the icebergs.
I know that because I’m from Ohio I shouldn’t really be impressed by ice but on Diamond Beach you can lick (yes, I said lick) a hundred maybe thousands of year old ice because they are pieces that broke from the glaciers. You can’t do that in Ohio.
Another iconic subject to photograph while visiting Iceland are their Icelandic horses. These are short horses able to deal with the cold weather and are a very important part the culture. So much so that once an Icelandic horse is exported it can never return back to Iceland to protect the other horses from any foreign disease or crossbreeding. Another noticeable characteristic is their awesome hair that blows in the wind!
Let’s be honest, there are droves of people traveling to Iceland and you’ll have people in your photos in most of the popular destinations. Especially around the many beautiful waterfalls. You might be lucky if you stay in location long enough to see a gap in the tourism traffic or you might be lucky to find yourself alone to capture that perfect image with nobody around but it’s not easy. Renting a car is the best way to beat the tourist buses on the Golden Circle. Having a car allows you to stay as long as you want at any destination. Furthermore, you can walk around and find your perfect view point. This image of Seljalandsfoss waterfall is not great but it shows people even with a long exposure. The best thing about this destination is that you can actually walk behind the waterfall-just make sure you have you rain gear because you will get wet.
Husavik is a small town in the north of Iceland. From this location you can take a whale watching tour. They also have a whale museum that’s very good and worth the entrance fee. You can see images and videos about Iceland’s whaling history.
Another wonderful activity you can do in Iceland is to go ice caving. The image below is only showing you the entrance to a cave near Lofthellir Lake Myvatn in the north of the country. Keeping your gear dry again is a challenge. Movement is also challenging if you have to crawl through small cave chambers with your backpack. Pro Tip: Pack the widest angle lens you have. A tripod is a luxury but also an obstruction. Talk to your guides about what can you carry into the caves as you may not be allowed to take a tripod.
If you like nature, hiking and landscape photography and you can deal with a bit of cold weather then Iceland is for you. It is truly a beautiful and unique destination for any traveler. It can get expensive very quickly but the experience and the adventure is worth it. Jump in a hot spring or on top of a small iceberg and enjoy it!!
Also, check out this interview of Leonardo from the MPEX Blog!