Winter Photography in Iceland December 30 2017 - January 6 2018

This is a blog about my photographic experience in Iceland over a one week period in the winter with my family. We clearly didn't cover all of Iceland but I can offer some thoughts on the sites we did visit and on photography in Iceland's winter. I'll begin with some high level comments, then I'll cover various locations and I'll end with my gear.

I had high expectations for Iceland (given all of the hype) and I was a bit worried that they were too high. However, we were lucky with the weather and I can confirm that the photographic opportunities in Iceland are bountiful and truly amazing.

Why winter? I can't speak to what Iceland is like in the summer, but I can highly recommend, somewhat counterintuitively, visiting in the winter. Ironically, it was warmer in Iceland than most of the east coast of the U.S. That said, it is still cold (think 23 to 32 F) and windy (think up to 25 mph). And the most notable feature of their winter is the light. The sun rises in early January around 10:50am, never gets more than 3 degrees into the sky, and sets around 3:20pm. That is only 4.5 hours of direct sunlight (assuming the sky isn't completely overcast). However, the "blue hour" is really an hour both in the morning and in the evening. So you actually have light to work with from about 9:45am to 4:15pm, which is 6.5 hours. That said, 6.5 hours of light per day is not a lot to work with. But it is essentially sunrise/sunset quality light throughout the entire day. One strategy for maximizing the available light is to eat a hearty breakfast around 9am and then skip lunch, or as my family insisted, at least grab a light/quick lunch.

Aurora. Another reason to visit Iceland in the winter is for the aurora. But don't bet on it. You need to be lucky. There needs to be solar activity (check the KP index on http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ ) and you need dark, clear skies. More on this later.

Cost. Iceland isn't too expensive to fly to, but be prepare for major sticker shock when you are there. I didn't do the math (for fear of the answer) but it might have been the most expensive week of travel (not including airfare) that we ever experienced.

Tourists. We were shocked at the number of people in Iceland even during winter. Cram all of those people into a select few sites, in the few hours of the day, and with few opportunities to walk where others won't venture, and you will need to deal with crowds. Sometimes it can work to your advantage (people can give perspective to a photo), and sometimes it is fun (like when a tourist gets soaked in a wave on the beach), but most of the time it is frustrating.

Cliché vs creativity. I had a list of shots that I wanted to get, mostly based on what I had seen on the web. Let's call those the "cliché" shots. Show one of those photos to somebody who hasn't seen the clichés and they will go "wow", which is why we seek them. But spend too much of the limited time trying to get the cliché and you are not spending time thinking creatively about the unique shots that are your own. Worse, you might be disappointed in the setting or light that you have, which causes you to not think creatively, thereby missing out on an opportunity to do something different. Getting this balance right is hard, especially in a place like Iceland. My suggestion is to be aware of this tension so that you don't find yourself leaning too much one way or the other.


Reykjavik is a beautiful city, but very crowded. We first went to the Sun Voyager statue and I was immediately frustrated by the people, but patience can still leave with a photo worth recording the experience.

20mm. F14. 1/20 sec. ISO 100

There are many opportunities for street photography.

The Hallgrimskirkja church is a must see. The low sun left the church and the background mountains in light with the city in dark, creating a nice contrast. This was taken with a drone, which I highly recommend (and more on that at the bottom on equipment).

Panorama taken with a drone.

From our hotel we enjoyed a spectacular sunset (at ) and then a gorgeous moonrise. We were treated to these pinks, purples and peaches throughout the week, both in the morning and in the evening.

200mm. F8. 1/25. ISO 100. 3:30pm.
200mm. F6.3. 1/40. ISO 250. 3:57pm.

We rested at the hotel to get ready for the highlight of the "day", which was the New Year's Eve fireworks in Reykjavik. We have seen many fireworks shows, but none of them compare to what we witnessed in Reykjavik. The entire city is ablaze in fireworks from 11:30pm to 12:30am. Imagine the finale of your favorite show lasting for one hour and spread over twenty miles. We watched the display from the balcony of the Perlan, a museum just to south of the city.

150mm. F8. 8sec. ISO 100. 11:38pm
70mm. F8. 8.3 sec. ISO 100. 12:07pm.


The "Golden Circle" is often done as a day trip. It would be a very long day trip, too long for the winter months. As such we skipped Pingvellir and went directly to Brúarfoss, which is hard to find and small, but may be the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland, especially in winter. This falls into the cliché category, but it was worth it. I only wish I had more time to explore ideas.

35mm. F16. 1/20 sec. ISO 100. 1:01pm.
120mm. F13. 20sec. ISO 50. 1:35pm


We stopped here for lunch (which was quite good). I don't recommend spending too much time here. After Yellowstone, it is hard to get excited about geothermal areas. And it is super packed with people.


This is an impressive waterfall. It is large, noisy and beautiful. But before we saw the waterfall, we were treated to the light on a mountain range visible from the parking lot.

100mm. F8. 1/13 sec. ISO 50. 3:35pm.

The photo doesn't fully capture the grandeur of this waterfall.

35mm. F8. 0.4sec. ISO 50. 3:49pm.
50mm. F11. 13sec. ISO50. 4:20pm.


As mentioned above, you need to be lucky to see the aurora. You need a dark, clear sky. Unfortunately, we were in Iceland during a supermoon. In fact, it was so bright that we easily saw our shadows even in the middle of the night. You also need solar activity. I rented a 14mm Sigma F1.8 primarily to be used for taking pictures of the aurora. While hunting for the aurora with the 14mm, I noticed a small area just over the mountain that looked like it would produce light. But with the 14mm it was tiny in the frame. So I switched to my 50mm f1.8 (from a $1600 lens to a $150 lens). It actually worked to frame the one decent enough shot I got of the aurora.

50mm. F1.8. 0.8 sec. ISO 1250. 10:17pm.

Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss

Seljalandsfoss is a famous waterfall, but most of the eye-catching images are taken either from behind the waterfall or above and to the side of it. In the winter there is no hope of getting to any of those places - it is too icy. And the amount of water is naturally lower. Still, it is basically on the main road, so you have to stop, especially if (unlike us), you have some nice color in the sky. Skógafoss is certainly more impressive, but I found it too to be frustrating to shoot, especially with the throngs of people. The climb to the top of Skógafoss requires some effort, especially if the wind is howling (as it was), but the view from the top is spectacular, even if not ideal for a photo.

Seljalandsfoss: 35mm. F13. 5sec. ISO 250. 1:30pm.
Skógafoss: 21mm. F16. 5 sec. ISO 50. 4:22 pm.
Skógafoss: 16mm. F8.0. 1/80 sec. ISO 800. 4:00p.m. Stitched from 4 vertical shots.
The base of Skógafoss: 70mm. F4.0. 1/640 sec. ISO 2500. 2:30pm. It was dark, but I wanted to stop the water motion, so I cranked up the ISO.

Skógar Museum

This is a collection of many, many Icelandic artifacts. The outdoor portion has recreations of Icelandic buildings. It is worth a stop.


You reach this waterfall on a 20min trail that begins behind the Skógar museum. It is not nearly as massive or as impressive as its neighbor, Skógafoss. But we had the canyon and waterfall to ourselves, which makes this a worthwhile visit. Apparently in the summer you can go behind the falls, but no such luck in the winter (unless you are crazy and have spikes on your shoes).

Kvernufoss with a drone: 4.73mm. F2.2. 1/200 sec. ISO 100
Kvernufoss from the ground: 14mm. F8. 1.3 sec. ISO50. 11:55am.


A beautiful overlook and light house. The wind was something fierce (look for the spray off the waves), making it extra hard to take photos. In particular, I didn't think there was a chance to get a decent long exposure. If the wind weren't such an issue and if we weren't hungry, we could have spent more time here. Even though the view is grand from this point, I liked the tighter framing from the 50mm.

Dyrhólaey: 50mm. F9. 1/30 sec. ISO 100. 3:04pm.


The sea stacks of Vik are famous. There are two ways to see them, from the beach at Vik or from Reynisfjara Beach, which is a 15 minute drive from Vik. We did the Vik beach first because everyone was hungry, so my family ate at a cafe while I ran to the beach to try to get the last light of the day. Then we went to Reynisfjara Beach. With the right lighting Reynisfjara Beach could be wonderful.

Vik sea stacks as viewed from the Vik beach: 190mm. F6.3. 1/400 sec. ISO 640. 3:35pm.
Vik beach. Last day. 35mm. F14. 1/80sec. ISO 100. 2:58pm.
Reynisfjara Beach: 16mm. F4. 1/200 sec. ISO 3200. 4:29pm.

The church and cemetery of Vik provide additional nice subjects.

Vik: 35mm. F4. 1/8 sec. ISO 3200. 5:01pm.
Vik church. 100mm. F11. 1/50 sec. ISO 200. 3:02pm.
Vik cemetery. 22mm. F16. 10sec. ISO400. 5:06pm.

Icelandic Horses

The Icelandic horse is no doubt a contended for the cutest creature on the planet. They are adorable, but a bit of a challenge to photograph. One strategy is to go close, avoiding distractions around the horse. The other is to try to place them into the context of their surroundings.

200mm. F4. 1/100 sec. ISO 250. 1:46pm
35mm. F4. 1/60 sec. ISO 100. 2:43pm.
200mm. F4. 1/125 sec. ISO 125. 12:38pm.
200mm. F10. 1/3200 sec. ISO 100. 12:36pm.

Ice caves

Ice caves can only be seen in the winter. The cost of the tour can be crazy high ($250 per person) but it is an all day event. (Arrive at 9am, return at 3:30pm.) They are fascinating, but hard to photograph, primarily because of the huge dynamic range and the challenges to convey scale. They are the other reason I brought the Sigma 14mm F1.8 and this is where I got the most mileage from this lens.

I was surprised by the amount of "black" in the caves. And while I thought the blue light would be the key attraction, I found the scalloped shapes in the ice to be captivating.

14mm. F16. 1.3 sec. ISO 400. 1:57pm.
14mm. F9. 1/13sec. ISO 2500. 1:44pm.
14mm. F6.3. 1/6 sec. ISO 1000. 12:21 pm.


Jökulsárlón is a must, especially if you are lucky like we were to arrive in the morning with stunning light and not a lick of wind. In the winter you cannot take a boat onto the lagoon, but this is not a big limitation. There are seals in the lagoon, which you can see from the shore (and in particular if you have a drone). And on the ocean side is a black sand beach filled with beautiful pieces of ice that sparkle like diamonds - and the reason why it is called "diamond" beach.

Jökulsárlón lagoon. Panorama from 12 vertical shots. 70mm. F11. 1/60 sec. ISO 640. 11:08am.
Jökulsárlón lagoon. 35mm. F10. 2sec. ISO 50. 10:29am
Jökulsárlón lagoon. 200mm. F8. 1/250 sec. ISO 640. 11:33 am.
Jökulsárlón lagoon. 4.73mm. F2.2. 1/160sec. ISO 100. 11:20am
Jökulsárlón beach. 21mm. F5.6. 0.8sec. ISO100. 12:33pm.
Jökulsárlón beach. 16mm. F16. 1.3 sec. ISO125. 12:23pm.
Jökulsárlón from above. 4.73mm. F2.2. 1/640sec. ISO 100. 1:00pm.

We returned the next day to a completely different lagoon and beach. It was rainy and windy. The lesson - take the condition you have in Iceland and never assume it will last. That said, the terrible weather, which kept my family in the car while my winter coat became soaked, gave me an entirely different picture of the ice on the beach.

Jökulsárlón beach. 29mm. F10. 3.2 sec. ISO 50. 11:14pm.


This was the furthest east we would go. The images you see online of the Vestrahorn are stunning. Remarkably, they don't do it justice. This mountain emerges nearly vertically from a black sand beach and seems to stand completely on its own. Again, we were lucky enough to arrive when the sky turned into magical pinks and purples. This is one of the few examples in which I believe what we saw was even more impressive that the colors in the photo, which is hard to believe.

I took most of my photos from the beach. I felt like I had to work quickly because the light was changing rapidly. The opening shot of the blog is taken from the sand dunes, which also provide many opportunities. I wish I arrived earlier, which would have allowed me to scout out the various positions. But when you try to pack so much into one week, you don't always have that luxury.

Vestrahorn: 16mm. F13. 1/5 sec. ISO 400. 3:41pm.
Vestrahorn. 16mm. F5.6. 1/30 sec. ISO 500. 3:23pm.
Me at work. Photo credit to my daughter and her iPhone.


Clothing. Go warm with lots of layers. I had waterproof duck boots with furry linings (for standing in shallow water), and long john underwear for my legs. I also used lined snow pants for the evenings, when it was especially cold. Three layers under my coat kept me warm, include a Smartwool turtleneck shirt - Smartwool is expensive, but I have been impressed at how warm and comfortable it is. Obviously you want a hat. I had mittens with liners. The liners kept my fingers from freezing while working with the camera.

Camera. I have been shooting landscapes with a Canon 6D for a long time and I loved it. But I recently upgraded to the Canon 5D Mark IV, and I glad I did. I brought both bodies but took nearly all of the shots with the 5D. The touchscreen is fantastic. No need for a remote trigger - a gentle tap of the screen takes the pic and in bulb mode the time of the exposure is displayed.

Lens. My main lens is the 16-35mm F4L. I rented the Sigma 14mm F1.8 in the hope of getting an epic aurora shot. That didn't happen. The Sigma 14mm is definitely sharp, but I am not quite ready to add it to my kit. I love 16mm and I thought I would love 14mm even more. But to my surprise, I am more comfortable at 16mm. Of course, that could change with practice. I included the 50mm F1.8 because it is so light and small. It came in handy a few times. Finally, I brought my 70-200mm F4L. I didn't expect to use it as much as I did in Iceland. But there are many situations in which the narrower framing works. And I love using 70mm to stitch panoramas. My one regret is that I didn't carry my 100-400mm F5.6L. I really wanted that lens when shooting some of the moon pictures and definitely with the seals. I saw one photographer next to me at the lagoon with it and I almost got the courage to ask if I could borrow her lens for 5 minutes.

Drone. DJI Mavic. I am still learning how to use it, and the image quality isn't perfect, but this is a really fun camera.

Tripod. Don't leave home without it. I splurged at now have the Really Right Stuff TQC-14 and BH-30 ballhead. They are amazing.

Filters. I probably should be better at using GND filters, but I don't have any. I did use my ND6 and circular polarizer. I brought an ND10, but I don't think I used it. There were times that I think an ND3 would have helped.

Batteries. I expected to burn through batteries and so I brought 3 spares. I never needed to swap batteries during the day despite the fact that my camera was outside in subfreezing temperatures. I am impressed with the Canon batteries.

Created By
Gerard Cachon


Gerard Cachon

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