the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

Iceland Winter Lessons

GullfossGranted, spending five days in Reykjavík over Christmas does not make me an expert on Iceland in winter. Further, my vacation was a true family affair (besides Tanya, our son, Brooks, and Tanya’s mother, Maxine, joined us on the trip), making time for photography difficult. However, I did learn a few things, not the least of which is that I want to go back and spend a lot more time there. If you are thinking of going to Iceland in winter, here’s some things I learned.

  1. The light is incredible. The blue hour starts a full two hours before sunrise and lasts until two hours following sunset. And in between the blue hours, the entire time the sun is up, is the golden hours. When I was there, the sun was never above 3 degrees above the horizon. The light was magical.
  2. The light is short. Even with the long twilight hours, there isn’t a lot of time for photography. On Christmas day, for example, the sun rose in Reykjavík at 11:22 a.m. and set at 3:32 p.m. This is the perfect time to visit for photographers who like to sleep in.

    Swans, Geese and Church

    Swans and other waterfowl in Reykjavik

  3. Expect a lot of contrast. Even with the great light, there is still a lot of contrast. Iceland is made of volcanic rocks, which are black. There will be snow – it’s Iceland after all.
  4. Be ready for wind. Though it wasn’t windy every day, when it was windy, it was very windy. With the low light levels and the wind, a tripod is absolutely necessary.
  5. Don’t like the weather, wait a day. The weather seemed to be totally unpredictable. Our first full day in the country, the high was just above freezing, it was mostly cloudy, there were a few scattered rain and snow showers, and there was no wind. The second day, a day we decided to do a day trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it was below freezing, there was fog and low clouds, and even though it didn’t snow much, there were blizzard conditions with a steady wind over 30 mph (48 kph). The following day, Christmas, it was cold, a high of 16 degrees F (-9 C), but mostly clear with no wind. The day after Christmas had a high temperature a few degrees above freezing, with a partly cloudy skies and no wind. And our last day in the country, it was rainy with strong winds (strong enough to nearly blow our rental car off an icy road). The moral – keep your plans flexible as the weather.
  6. It’s expensive, but so what. Yes, prices are high, especially for food. But with a little prudence, you can keep to a budget. Try an off-brand rental car for instance; we paid about $280 for a 5-day rental of a mid-sided all-wheel drive SUV (a Ford Kuga) at Saga Car Rental (run by Thrifty, which, by the way, was at least $100 more), the equivalent at Hertz – about $700. Besides, chances are you are on vacation, worry about your bank account when you get home.
  7. Skip the tour and do it yourself. Rent a car (see above) and drive the Golden Circle by yourself. You’ll be on your own schedule, giving more time for photography. However, before doing so, critically consider your winter driving skills. On our trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we came upon one unprepared rental car drive who was blown off the road.
  8. It probably goes without saying, but dress warmly in layers. The wind chill can be brutal.
  9. If you speak English, don’t worry about the language; nearly everyone speaks English.
  10. Take your whole photography kit. You’ll find lots of opportunities to use your wide-angle as well as your telephoto lenses.
  11. Be prepared. Research before you go as well as when you are there. I recommend the photographer’s road map of Iceland by Michael Levy. Want to see the aurora, check out this website with real-time northern lights forecasts. The site also give temperature and wind forecasts.
Blue hour on the the road near Akranes, Iceland

Blue hour on the the road near Akranes, Iceland

20-minutes prior to sunrise over Þingvallavatn Lake

20-minutes prior to sunrise over Þingvallavatn Lake

Rift valley in Thingvellir (Þingvallir) National Park

Rift valley in Thingvellir (Þingvallir) National Park

Small Icelandic horses are found throughout the countryside

Small Icelandic horses are found throughout the countryside braving the winter temperatures

The Strokkur geyser starting an eruption at Geysir

At Geysir, you can see the Strokkur geyser erupting

16 responses

  1. Terrific! I was there in the summer, but winter makes it look like an entirely different place.

    January 3, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    • Agreed, which is why I want to go back when everything is green.

      January 4, 2016 at 12:29 pm

  2. Beautiful shots. Another country to add to my list.

    January 3, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    • Thank you. It certainly deserves to be on your list!

      January 4, 2016 at 12:29 pm

  3. Great Post.

    January 3, 2016 at 8:08 pm

  4. Iceland is amazing, even in winter! 🙂

    January 3, 2016 at 11:22 pm

    • Amazing anytime, I’d say. Thanks for commenting.

      January 4, 2016 at 12:30 pm

  5. Beautiful!

    January 4, 2016 at 1:50 am

  6. So beautiful! I love the last pic!!!

    January 4, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    • Thanks. It was a challenge getting the geyser shot just as it was going off. Luckily, it erupts every 5 to 10 minutes, allowing me to make many tries.

      January 4, 2016 at 12:31 pm

  7. Gilles

    Good post, I dream going to iceland one day. Nice photos.

    January 4, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    • Thanks. Well worth going if you can swing it.

      January 5, 2016 at 12:36 pm

  8. Wow Joe, these photos are incredible… Now this is how to spend and start the New Year 🙂 Can hardly wait to see what 2016 is going to bring.

    January 5, 2016 at 8:39 pm

    • Thanks. I’m hopefully the new year bring many wonderful images for all of us.

      January 6, 2016 at 12:20 pm

  9. Christian Hamélius

    Absolutely amazing photos!

    January 9, 2016 at 12:28 pm

  10. Wow! We would like to visit this mind blowing location.

    January 29, 2016 at 1:07 pm

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