Photographing the Otherworldly Landscapes of Iceland

Hvítserkur, a basalt rock formation at Húnafjörður.

Hvítserkur, a basalt rock formation at Húnafjörður.

I and five others joined Dee Ann Pederson for her photo tour of Iceland, June 22-July 5, 2013, operated by her company, Windows of Nature.

I had been to Iceland twice before, but each time it was only a day stop on a cruise. The three places that I had visited on the island were sufficient to pique my interest in an in-depth visit to this unusual country.

The Land

I thought long and hard about flying to Reykjavík, renting a 4×4 vehicle and touring on my own, but two different locals tried to talk me out of this plan once they found out some of the places that I wanted to visit. Now, as I reflect back on my trip, I am glad that I took their advice and joined Dee Ann’s tour.

It would not be complicated to circle the country in a week to 10 days on the Ring Road in a 4×4 SUV. However, off the main road, many of the unpaved roads are not marked and many of the great photo spots are not even listed on a map.

Atlantic Puffin

An Atlantic puffin at the Látrabjarg bird cliffs

In the backcountry, bridges do not exist, so you must ford all the creeks and rivers. Not just any 4×4 vehicle will get the job done.

Iceland is all about the landscape. There are mountains mixed with waterfalls, running streams and green moss. Some mountains are barren but present a variety of colors and shapes. When we were there, most of the mountains still had some snow in places, adding interest to the scene.

Iceland was formed by glaciers and volcanoes, and both are very much visible as you move about the country. It is home to one of the largest glaciers in Europe, Vatnajökull.

There must be more waterfalls in Iceland than in almost any country in the world. The waterfalls are so numerous that there are many majestic falls that do not even have names.

Other Sights

If you go to Iceland looking for mammals, you will be disappointed. However, seabirds are in abundance in a variety of places.

We visited the Látrabjarg bird cliffs in the western part of the country for close encounters with birds such as puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes, guillemots and Arctic terns. Long lenses are not required; a 50mm-200mm lens will work just fine. At the time of year that I visited, it never really got dark. We photographed birds until midnight, and I even photographed flying terns at 12:50 a.m. The sun was up again before 3 a.m.

If you go, be prepared for every kind of weather. In the span of two weeks we encountered sunny days, cloudy days, windy days, rainy days and a little snow and sleet. The temperatures averaged about 50°F, with highs never above the 60s.

I wore a light fleece or windbreaker at all times. Often, layering was required.

We had only one day on which rain was a real problem; strong winds were more of a concern. I forced myself to never leave my camera on a tripod unattended.

On most days I wore rain pants all of the time. By doing so, I could kneel down and not get my regular pants wet, as it was generally wet around the waterfalls and I found many opportunities to kneel down to photograph flowers.

The Tour

Haukur Snorrason was our local tour guide/driver. Haukur is a professional photographer, putting us in good hands when it came to knowing where to go for the best pictures. His wife, Hadda, operates Hrífunes Guesthouse, where we stayed a number of nights. Evening meals do not get any better than Hadda’s cooking.

Dramatic rhyolite mountains at Landmannalaugar.

Dramatic rhyolite mountains at Landmannalaugar.

Iceland is not a cheap destination. In fact, my guess is that you can expect to pay about twice what you would pay in the US for things in Iceland.

Haukur also leads his own tours. He has a custom-equipped 4×4 Ford van with 38-inch tires that can carry as many as 10 people. I don’t know how deep a river crossing he can make, but we went through some at least four feet deep.

Dee Ann Pederson is the most thorough trip leader that I ever have had. She thought of everything and left nothing to chance. She provided everything, including soft drinks, snacks, towels (for drying cameras), maps, handouts and preplanning guides that included things that I would never have thought of. I paid $6,535 for the 2-week tour, not including airfare.

Iceland is a very clean country. You can drink the water coming out of the mountain streams and, once off the main roads, you can go for hours without seeing another person.

Before this trip, I did not know that Iceland has one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, located in Ísafjörður. I was not prepared for the wonderful rhyolite mountains that resembled watercolor paintings. I did not know about the hundreds-of-years-old lava fields covered in moss.

I was in awe when we photographed streams lined with fountain apple moss running through black lava sand. We photographed one of Iceland’s six remaining churches with turf roofs.

Iceland is truly a great destination for any photographer. Make the effort, if you can.

For more photos from Iceland, you can view them at Iceland 2013 and Iceland.

Published in the October 2013 issue of International Travel News, pg. 34.