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Iceland Photography Tips and Essential Gear for Better Photos

by Nikhil Bahl | March 28, 2017

Iceland photography tips © Nikhil BahlIn 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.

Sturdy Tripod

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.

Receding water exposure © Nikhil Bahl

A sturdy tripod allows for a 1.3 second exposure while placed in receding water.

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.

Windy conditions in Iceland © Nikhil Bahl

Windy conditions and a sturdy tripod let me take advantage of this opportunity with a 6 second exposure.

Wide-Angle Lens

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.

Large Waterfalls

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.

Rocky Coasts

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.

Wide angle sky infrared © Nikhil Bahl

A wide angle lens enhances the look of the sky; image captured with an infrared camera.

Foreground ice © Nikhil Bahl

Getting close to the foreground ice with a wide angle lens gave this scene a dramatic 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.

Moving and streaking clouds © Nikhil Bahl

A 10 stop ND filter helped extend the exposure to 267 seconds and capture the moving clouds streaking through the sky.

ND filter for smooth water © Nikhil Bahl

A 17mm focal length allows the scene to be captured from a closer vantage point and a 5 stop ND filter extends the exposure to smooth the water out.

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.

Black guillemot with butterfish © Nikhil Bahl

A focal length of 850mm gives a close-up look at a black guillemot with a butterfish (notice the shallow depth of field).

Atlantic puffin with soft foreground © Nikhil Bahl

A focal length of 500mm allowed for a close-up view of this peeking Atlantic puffin with a soft foreground.

Lower angle with soft background © Nikhil Bahl

A focal length of 850mm and a lower angle rendered a soft background to make the common redshank stand out.

Red-throated loon family in Iceland © Nikhil Bahl

Red-throated loon family photographed from a distance at 850mm after waiting for 30 minutes for the family to get accustomed to us.

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.

Iceland waterfall dramatic black and white © Nikhil Bahl

Persistent rain did not affect the capture of this dramatic scene thanks to the camera being protected by a rain cover.

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.

Safe travels!


Experience everyday magic in Iceland this coming March on Nikhil’s Iceland winter photography tour. March is a great time for you to experience the beauty and charm of Iceland’s natural wonders including ice caves, glaciers, frozen waterfalls, and of course the Aurora Borealis! Learn more →

About the Author

Nikhil Bahl is a full time professional photographer, author, educator, workshop instructor and environmentalist residing in the Washington D.C. area. Drawing inspiration from nature, Nikhil adopts novel approaches and seeks meaningful interpretations: to create photographs that transcend the commonplace, reflect deeper insights, and convey an enchantment of the subject's beauty.

An offshoot of Nikhil's fine art photography and love of nature is his documentation of wildlife behaviors and habitats. As a volunteer with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, his goal is to portray environmental stories with an artistic appeal, so his photographs educate and motivate about the imperative of conservation.

Each year Nikhil leads several photography tours and instructional workshops in the United States and abroad. His teaching encourages participants to advance beyond ordinary photos and develop their own style and vision. Nikhil is a regular speaker at photography clubs, expos and industry events. He authored the acclaimed eBook, Creative Interpretations and writes articles on the creative and technical aspects of photography.

Nikhil's work has been published in a number of print and electronic media and his fine art prints have been widely exhibited in the Washington metropolitan area, and are part of many private collections.

See more of Nikhil's work at www.nikhilbahl.com.

4 thoughts on “Iceland Photography Tips and Essential Gear for Better Photos

  1. Nice article Nikhil. Good introduction to some of the gear needed. Several of your captions indicate you used a focal length of 850mm. Just how did you do that (or is it perhaps a typo and should have been 840mm or 750mm)? Using a 600 with a 1.4x converter gets you to 840mm (FF), or using it on an APS-C body would give you an equivalent field of view of 900mm. Using a 500 with a 1.4x gets you to 700mm (FF), or using it on an APS-C body gives you a 750mm equivalent field of view.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article!

      850mm is what Lightroom shows me as the focal length when I use the new Nikon 600mm FL VR lens with the 1.4x teleconverter (ver. III). Anywhere you see 850mm in the article I have used the above lens and tc combo on a full frame camera body. Actually, all images above were photographed with full frame cameras.

      Cheers!
      Nikhil

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