In recent years Iceland has become a popular travel destination for nature photographers. Whether you’re a landscape or bird photographer, there are many opportunities to capture some stunning scenery and amazing bird life. To take advantage of all the photographic opportunities that Iceland has to offer, here’s a list of photo gear that is absolutely essential to bring with you along with a few Iceland photography tips.
A tripod seems like an obvious item to bring along, however I can’t stress enough that a sturdy tripod is necessary. In the 200+ workshops I’ve lead, I have met a large number of workshop and tour participants who bring a “travel tripod” with them. Travel tripods tend to be very light and pack down very small which makes them convenient, but compromise in sturdiness—the one feature that is needed from a tripod. Having a sturdy tripod becomes even more important in Iceland as there are more windy days than any other location I’ve visited. In Iceland, I have experienced winds around 40mph with gusts of about 50mph. In such conditions it can be hard to stand, let alone set up a tripod! If you find a composition you would like to capture and you are by your vehicle, the best thing to do is set up where the vehicle protects you from the wind. While this is an extreme example, it is very likely you will experience windy days during a visit to Iceland.
Stability for Windy Days
When the wind is blowing around 10–20mph a sturdy tripod is necessary. If your tripod has a hook, consider adding some additional weight to the tripod. Another option is to simply press down on the tripod with consistent pressure during exposure. This will only work if your tripod is sturdy, as a flimsy tripod will move around when pressure is applied.
Most landscape photographers carry a wide-angle lens. If I know there will be landscape photography opportunities, a wide-angle lens is always in my bag. However, it is not a lens I use too much as quality compositions can be hard to come by because of the wide field of view it offers. Other than compositions including a lot of sky, there are two situations where wide-angle lenses are very useful.
First, in Iceland there are many large waterfalls and you can get very close to some of them. Trying to include the whole waterfall or most of it within a shot can be a challenge even with a wide-angle lens. I like to go as wide as possible but it is more important to find a spot to set up for the composition you are going for.
Second, rocky coasts are common in Iceland and in southern Iceland you can find small and large pieces of ice that wash up near a glacial lagoon. Getting close to the rocks or pieces of ice with a wide-angle lens can create a lot more drama than the normal point of view we get when standing up. Get low and close to your foreground to maximize the effect of the wide-angle perspective.
Neutral Density Filters
While in Iceland, Neutral Density (ND) filters can be used to extend your exposure and capture motion in water, clouds, and birds. I always carry a variable ND filter that provides a 2–8 stop density range to work with. Since this is a rather thick filter, I also carry slim versions of both 5 and 10 stop filters for times when I am using a wider lens and don’t want filter vignette on the edges of the photograph. This way I am covered for any situation I come across.
Try a Long Exposure
Long exposures are a fun way to interpret a scene. Most of time photographers stick to the max 30-second exposures that the camera can meter for. Exposures beyond a minute can give you a more unique look, though. Longer exposures work especially well with moving clouds because they get rendered as streaks in the sky.
500mm or 600mm Lens
Bird photography opportunities in Iceland are prolific. There are many species of birds that nest in the spring and often have chicks in the early summer. This can make for some great photo ops, but it is important to keep a distance from the chicks to avoid any disturbance or stress to the birds. I recommend bringing a long lens in the 500mm or 600mm range to capture good photos of bird families. Be patient, sit still, and wait for birds to get accustomed to you presence. Once they realize you are not a threat, they may get closer to you. You will also find yourself in situations that require a longer lens because you can’t get physically closer to the birds.
There are locations where birds are rather tame and will let you approach much closer than the birds with chicks. In these situations, you may not need a long lens to photograph the bird but the long lens will offer you a great perspective, allowing you to capture soft backgrounds and even soft foregrounds. Take advantage of your proximity to the bird to capture some cool close-ups, revealing details that will “wow” the viewer of the photo.
Rain Cover for Camera
Put succinctly, it rains quite a bit in Iceland. Not only will you need good rain gear for yourself, you need to be able to protect your camera gear also. While pouring rain is not ideal for photography, light rain should not stop you from photographing. Bad weather can often create great photos; it just requires preparation and patiently waiting for the right moment.
There are a variety of rain covers for cameras on the market. Get one that fits your camera and lens while allowing you access to the most important controls of the camera (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO). Sometimes getting a larger cover works but Iceland rain is usually combined with wind. Make sure the rain cover for your camera is not so large that it flaps around in the wind.
To keep the front element of your lens dry, keep the lens hood on and face away from the wind. Always keep a microfiber cloth handy to wipe off any raindrops that land on the front of the lens.
Laptop and External Hard Drive for Back-Up
I always take my laptop and at least one portable external hard drive with me when I travel. It is very important to download, review, and back-up your images at the end of the day. Reviewing your photos will allow you to learn from them and make immediate adjustments the next day. This process is extremely helpful when visiting a new location.
No matter how experienced a photographer you are, a new location/subject will present new challenges. Reviewing your images is the best way to know if you were successful in what you were trying to capture and if you want to try something different the next day. When taking an expensive trip to a beautiful location you don’t want to find out that you messed up or could have done something differently once you get back home!
Make Multiple Back-Ups for Peace of Mind
Another good idea is to make sure you have multiple copies of your images just in case of theft or if your computer’s hard drive crashes. At the very minimum always have two copies of your images; three copies are even better as you can keep each copy in a different bag in case one gets damaged or lost.
Enjoy the Scenery
When taking a photographic trip to Iceland, don’t forget to put the camera down and just look around you. You will appreciate the beauty of Iceland even more.
Experience everyday magic in Iceland this summer on Nikhil’s Iceland photography tour. The journey begins in Reykjavík and heads north to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula for fantastic seascapes. We will then progress by ferry to the small island of Flatey and what many call the best seabird cliffs on Earth at Látrabjarg. Next we travel south to the Flói Reserve for birds and afterwards to the Geysir area for geyser and waterfall photography. From there we’ll make our way across the south part of the island stopping at many locations including the world famous Laki Craters and the beautiful Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. Learn more and join Nikhil in Iceland →