Iceland – A Photographer’s Dream or a Cliche?

by Andrew George | December 21, 2009

© Andrew GeorgeOnce I had heard about Iceland and seen some photos of the country I immediately wanted to go there. I do enjoy nature close to home in The Netherlands, but traveling to Iceland gave me another opportunity to photograph the basic elements of the earth and expand my landscape photography.

Photographic Goal

Another goal of mine was to photograph birds in the Iceland’s unique landscape. Three-hundred-seventy species of birds have been observed on the island, with about ninety species appearing year after year, seventy-five of which breed in the country. Iceland consists mostly of lava, geothermal areas, rocks, sand and ice or water with hardly any vegetation. When setting your photographic goals, make a plan of what you really want to visit and photograph and stick to it. I would recommend taking your time in one or two locations, because the weather conditions can be very changeable and if you want to photograph in good light, you will need some luck and persistence.

Krafla (Myvatn) in midnight sunlight © Andrew George

Krafla area (Myvatn) in midnight sunlight

Getting Around and When to Visit

In order to be able to get around the island, you must visit Iceland at the right time. The R1 (route 1) main road goes all around the island and is 1,339 kilometres (832 miles) long. At the end of May you can drive most of this road with a “normal” car. If you want to get off of the main road a 4×4 vehicle is necessary. Some areas of the road are very rough and rocky, and most of the time you can’t drive any faster than 80km/h (50 mph). Covering long distances may take more time than usual. Slow down and enjoy the scenery. Gas stations are limited along the R1 main road so fuel up when possible.

If you want to get off the R1 main road and drive through the inner country a 4×4 is a must, and you will have to cross rivers, so it is necessary to know how to safely due so in a 4×4 vehicle. During the winter most of these roads are closed and can only be reached with special transportation and a local guide. Unfortunately, car rentals are very expensive in Iceland and a 4×4 is double the price of a “normal” car.

Where to Stay

Hostels are ideal places to stay in Iceland. They are the closest to most nature reserves and are the cheapest option with all the accommodations you will need. Of course there are enough other options like hotels, B&B, houses, and camping. Free camping is available in Iceland as well, although it is forbidden in the nature reserves.

Krafla © Andrew George

Krafla area (Myvatn) in midnight sunlight

What to See

During my two week trip at the end of May and the start of June I concentrated on only two parts of Iceland. The first is the well known Jökulsárlón glacier lake in the South and the second one is the Myvatn area in the upper north-east. Both can be reached by the R1 main road.

Jokulsarlon black beach © Andrew George

Jökulsárlón black beach with stranded ice block


Jökulsárlón glacier lake lays in the Southern part of Iceland directly near the coast. It’s a very dynamic place as glacier ice melts and breaks down into the lake. Every time you visit the lake it can give new photographic opportunities. Sometimes huge blocks of glacier ice travel through the lake to the sea. Here, some ice chunks lay stranded on the black beach. Situated near the sea, the weather in this location is constantly changing. Within a short amount of time strong winds and dark clouds can change into bright sunny weather. Large numbers of Eider, Artic Terns, Great Skua, Arctic Skua and seals can be found on the lake and beach.


The Myvatn area consists of many lakes and the Krafla mountain area with geothermal activity. It’s also well known for it’s rich bird life. Along the rivier Laxa in the South of Myvatn, you can find small numbers of Harlequin ducks. Icelandic rivers are the only place in Europe where they breed. The best period to photograph these Harlequin ducks is at the end of May in their breeding season.

Hverir geothermal area is one of the largest geothermal areas of Iceland and is the easiest one to reach by car. It is a popular tourist location.

Here you can also visit the Godafoss waterfall near the Mytan area along the R1 road. It is one of Iceland’s most powerful and beautiful waterfalls.

Harlequin ducks © Andrew George

Two male and one female Harlequin along the Laxa river (Myvatn area)

When to Photograph

During the Icelandic Spring and Summer the sun just barely disappears below the horizon. On a clear day you will have 24 hours of light. A photographers dream, you can benefit from the midnight sunlight.

The sun will go down around 23:00u and will rise again somewhere at 3:30u. During this period you will have soft golden light. If it isn’t too cloudy, night is the best time to photograph. Knowing this I chose to sleep at daytime and photograph during the night. The best thing to do is to switch your bio rhythm right away and maintain your nocturnal habits throughout your visit to Iceland. Another advantage of doing this is that you avoid the tourism crowd at night, and you will have Iceland for your own without someone walking through your viewfinder all the time.

Ice crystals in Jokulsarlon glacier lake © Andrew George

Ice crystals in the Jökulsárlón glacier lake during midnight sunlight

Gear and Clothing


I photographed with my Nikon D300 body and D200 as a backup, using lenses from 12mm to 400mm and 1.4x extender. For landscape photography I used soft and hard Graduated Neutral Density filters as well.

A sturdy tripod can come in handy as the wind in Iceland can be very strong. Cleaning accessories are also necessary because of the dust, wind, rainfall and seawater common to the country. Bring plenty of storage for your digital images and keep in mind that Iceland uses 220V, so you might have to use adapters.


In spring, temperatures are as low as -5 C and as high as 15 C. Good outdoor clothing is essential as are boots. Weather changes quickly so be prepared for wind, rain, cold and warm weather. I used thermo underwear and thin layers of clothes under my Gore-tex coat and pants. Protect your eyes from the high UV radiation levels with good sunglasses with UV protection. Remember, as photographers our eyes are our most important “tools.”


In my opinion, visiting Iceland is not a cliché, but what you make of it yourself, for both nature and wildlife photography. It is a photographer’s dream, and if you’ve been there once, it is easy to become addicted to the low angle northern or midnight sunlight and rich, varied wilderness. I certainly plan to go back in the near future.

About the Author

Andrew George is a nature and Wildlife photographer from The Netherlands. To see more of his work, visit his webpage at

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