Over my years of travelling to Iceland, I've learnt a few lessons on what worked for me and didn't, and share them here.
Planning a photographic trip to Iceland can be good fun. For a typical 10-day trip, I spend some days planning my routes in advance. The first decision to be made is if I want to focus on a region or do a bigger road trip around the entire island. Most of my earlier trips included long distances so that I could get a sense of the entire island.
Once I've decided on my focus, I open my large paper map of Iceland and look at what sights are in the region. I consider what time of day each sight looks best - sunrise, midday or sunset. From there, I look at any route options - for example, if taking the ring road around the island, I consider options for going clockwise or anti-clockwise. Do I skip the golden circle, or include it? Do I take route 1 or side roads?
Next, I book hotels that offer short notice (1-2 day at most) cancellation along the possible routes. When booking hotels, remember to consider your expected arrival / departure times versus the front desk hours. I keep on refining the route options as I get closer to departure. I also book a rental car. After a hard lesson on my first trip, I always take a small to mid sized 4 wheel drive car - typically a Toyota RAV4 or BMW X1.
Around 1 to 2 days before I depart, I check the expected weather conditions and commit to a single route, cancelling all the hotels not on that route.
I pack the day before. I check I have sufficient memory cards (a typical trip for me is 300-500GB), that I have an empty SSD and portable hard drive, my laptop has all the software I want on it, and that my camera batteries are all charged. I ensure I have sufficient clothes to allow for unexpected changes of clothing, and that I have packed several Goretex trousers and jackets. I also pack a pair of waterproof hiking shoes.
On the day of departure, I triple check everything is ready, put on a set of waterproof boots and head for the airport.
I've bumped into countless other tourists who are surprised at how bad the weather can be in Iceland. It can be very bad - bad enough that there is no point in doing anything other than staying in your hotel room all day. In winter, roads can close at random. This can completely block your route. On one trip I've had to drive halfway around the island to avoid a closed road. On a trip in 2014, I had to completely change my route due to an active volcano. Things happen, and you just need to make the most of it. There's no point in arguing with police or being angry with anyone.
My Iceland gear recommendations are as follows:
- A very sturdy tripod. Lightweight tripods have no hope of stabilizing your camera in the windy conditions of Iceland; on one trip a wind gust blew a heavy tripod over a ledge when I wasn't paying attention.
- If you own two camera bodies, take them both. I've had both a camera body and a lens fail on trips in Iceland. When taking two bodies, I tend to leave a super wide angle lens on one body, and a standard zoom on another.
- Pack more storage than you think you will need. On at least five of my trips I've had an SD card fail (I only use freshly purchased SanDisk Extreme Pros yet still failures happen). I only use camera bodies with two card slots, and always have it set to write to both cards so that I have a real-time backup. This has saved me many lost photos over the years.
- I've never had much use for lenses beyond 200mm. On the years that I took 400mm lenses, the only place I used them was around the glaciers to pick out details from a distance. About 80% of my photos are in the 16-40mm range.
- I always misplace a lens cap. Every single trip. So I now buy extras and keep them in my camera bag.
- Unless I know I will be hiking, I don't take a camera backpack. A normal travel case works just fine.
- Take spare batteries. Cold weather can cause batteries to deplete faster than expected, and not all guest houses / hotels offer usable plugs.
- ND and Polarizer filters. ND Grads too, if you have them.
- European plug adapter. Don't get confused with the South Korean one as I have done in the past.
- Tripod repair kit. Gitzo provide this with their tripods, and I've had to use it twice on two different trips.
- Pack shower caps. They're super helpful around waterfalls or during light rain for keeping your lens and camera dry. When they're used & wet, I just throw them away.
- I've never used a flash in Iceland, although I focus purely on the landscape.
I recommend the following:
- Goretex or waterproof trousers and jackets are a must. Even if it's a sunny day and you visit a waterfall, it will be useful
- Waterproof shoes will help, even if you're staying away from water sources. If you're spending time on the beaches or hiking, I'd suggest taking a second pair
- Mobile reception is good, but there are places with limited reception. I download offline maps of the whole of Iceland in Google Maps on my phone. I then put in place markers for every part of my route. This simplifies travel day-to-day.
- Pack a small medical kit. I learnt this the hard way. I was photographing Aldeyjarfoss and through some freak accident managed to tear open a chunk of skin on my hand with my tripod. It didn't stop bleeding, and I had to drive back to Akureyri (about 1h 30min away) in order to get some bandages for it. I first tried a closer village, but the shop had no medical supplies.
- Also pack a small sewing kit. I tend to travel lightly, and on one trip managed to rip open two pairs of trousers on a single day. On that trip, I had to drive to the nearest big town to hunt down a sewing kit, wasting a couple hours.
- Download Photo Pills and the Photographer's Emphemeris apps. Photo Pills helps with calculations, star locations etc. The Photographer's Emphemeris helps understand where the sun will be at what time of the day.
- I tend to pack with packing cubes, with one for each day. Because I don't stay in hotels for anything more than sleeping, I leave my suitcase in the car and just go into the hotel with my camera gear and a packing cube. This keeps things simple and efficient when you're already tired, and want to leave the hotel at 4am the next day.
- Gas stations can be far apart, and are sometimes unmanned. Keep an eye on your car's fuel levels and plan ahead.
- Tourists in other cars can be a real hazard. I've had tourists driving on the wrong side of the road towards me on many trips. I've seen the entire road get blocked with cars because everyone is taking photos of a horse. I've seen downright reckless overtaking on the ring road. Just drive carefully, and don't be an ass to others on the road.
- There are many speed traps on route one. The speed limit is slow compared to most other countries; just take it into account when you plan your trip.
- Never drive on an F-road without a 4x4 capable car. And even then, very carefully consider the risks of taking any river crossings - I don't know of any car rental agency that has insurance that covers crossing rivers. I've seen so many city cars get stuck on F-roads over the years. It's very expensive and it takes hours to get towed in Iceland.
- You'll find a few international chains in the bigger cities and towns - for example KFC and Subway. Otherwise, I tend to eat at gas stations - they typically have perfectly acceptable diner style food. Some hotels have good food, although this can be expensive.
- Because I'm chasing the light, I tend to arrive late and depart very early from hotels. I stop by a Bonus or similar grocery on the first day of my trip (there are a few near Keflavik), and stock up on water, snacks and other supplies.
- Snacks are boring in Iceland. Sadly there isn't much unique to Iceland, unless you consider dried fish a snack. Expect to see typical American / Scandinavian snacks.
- If you're doing a trip of over 8 days, and you're travelling heavily, you're likely going to find yourself completely exhausted around day 7 or 8. Pace yourself, and take a relaxed day to recharge.