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Why Every Photographer Needs To Go On A Photographic Expedition In Iceland

Iceland has long been a favourite destination for photographers, and with dramatic winter landscapes along with awe-inspiring waterfalls (and, of course, the Northern Lights), it's easy to see why this country is on the bucket list for many with their cameras.

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The Nordic island of Iceland is an incredibly popular location with photographers and when you take a look at the, almost, otherworldly images you can capture while you're there, it's no surprise really that many get incredibly excited about a visit to this dramatic and beautiful place. 


When you travel to Iceland and where you visit will change what type of images you capture, as Iceland is an island of extreme contrasts with freezing temperatures taking a grip of the landscape during the winter months but the thaw revealing vast expanses of water, bursts of colour and life later in the year. Of course, many want to capture the frozen landscapes, blankets of snow and glaciers in all of their splendour and that's exactly what we did during our February expedition to Iceland where we were fortunate enough to visit striking ice caves, black beaches glistening with ice diamonds and witness the incredible Northern Lights dancing above us in the night's sky. 

"Iceland gives photographers the opportunity to combine an incredible adventure with awe-inspiring photography experiences," Joshua Waller, ePHOTOzine Technical Editor.

We faced a lot of weather conditions and temperatures we've not experienced before, which might seem an obvious statement but when you're actually there, standing in a vast landscape with temperatures well below freezing (minus 10, plus wind-chill factor), reality soon sets home and you'll be very glad you did all of the right preparation and packed the correct kit before you boarded your plane. With this in mind, we've put together the below guide which gives handy tips, advice, and ideas on what to photograph on your own Iceland photographic expedition (we have some awesome insider knowledge) and there's also a fair few photos for you to take a look at for inspiration, too. 

So, come with us as we embark on the ultimate photographic expedition exploring the diverse landscape of Iceland. 

You can use the below bullet points to navigate our guide:


What To Pack 

Kit Bag


Photography Kit List For Your Iceland Expedition: 

  • Nikon D780

    Nikon D780 DSLR
  • Nikon Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G
  • Nikon Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E VR
  • Nikon Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/4G VR
  • Nikon Z 7 
  • Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4
  • Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4
  • ND & Grad Filters
  • Memory Cards & Memory Card Reader
  • Spare Batteries/Chargers
  • External Hard Drive (useful but not essential)


Temperatures and the weather not only differ from season-to-season, but they can also change from minute-to-minute so packing for all seasons is advised. We'll be focusing on winter when base layers and lots of warm, weatherproof clothing are essential. This includes wind/waterproof trousers, base layers, mid-layers such as a fleece, neck warmer, hat/gloves, walking/winter boots, good socks and spikes (for extra support when walking on icy surfaces). 


D780 in hand


A head torch is useful as daylight hours are limited at this time of year so you'll find yourself heading out/setting up under darkness. A little bonus tip: if you're planning on photographing the Northern Lights take a head torch with a 'red-light' mode. 

You'll probably be travelling around in 4x4's, or something similar, so space will be a premium. As a result, you want a bag that's got enough room for 2-3 lenses, your camera and accessories but you don't want it to be so big that it takes up another person's space. 


4x4 in Iceland


Kit-wise, you're going to need a sturdy tripod and you may be tempted to pack a travel tripod but, for the conditions/extreme locations you'll be visiting, you might want something with better specs. You're going to need a selection of lenses, such as a wide (14-30mm), standard (24-70mm) and a telephoto zoom (70-200mm) and don't forget the ND and Grad filters for balancing exposure/popular smooth water shots. 

Pack plenty of memory, spare batteries, and if you have room, an external hard drive will be handy. 


D780 on location in Iceland


Of course, you won't get very far without a camera, and ideally, one that can cope with extreme temperatures and offers a decent battery life (shots per charge). This will mean you don't have to keep changing batteries, in less than ideal conditions, and the cold won't affect the camera as much. We took the extremely reliable Nikon D780 with us as it has a tough exterior and long battery life. Plus, it has plenty of other useful features, such as excellent low light performance, reliable AF and good options for when we wanted to capture short movies as well as stills, but any weather-proof camera will be perfect for your trip. 

10 Top Features Of The Nikon D780 That Make It Perfect For An Iceland Expedition: 

  • Weather-Sealed
  • Wide ISO Range
  • Reliable AF & Tracking
  • Long Battery Life
  • Low Light AF
  • Focus Shift Shooting Mode
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • 4K Video
  • Good Range Of Lenses 
  • 24mp Full-Frame BSI CMOS sensor


Remember - Adverse Weather Can Occur

Car on a road in Iceland


I know we've said this already but it's worth saying again, because even though it's not always as cold as you think in Iceland (the Gulf Stream plays a big part) when temperatures drop they drop drastically, with temperatures at this time of year sitting between -10 and plus 5. You also have windchill factor to consider which will lower temperatures even more. As do later hours, when you could be searching for the Aurora Borealis, for example. 


Car on a road in Iceland


If adverse weather does occur, be prepared to change your plans as some locations can become inaccessible or another location may become more favourable for photography as a result of weather changes, so do be flexible. You may want to visit one location several times, too, as different types of weather will create a different feeling/mood in your photo. 

For guided tours, you'll be up-and-out early most of the time, so do remember to set the alarm nice-and-early to make the most of the day/few hours of light.


Top Places To Visit With Your Camera 

Ice Cave, Iceland


The beauty with Iceland is that within a matter of a few days, or even hours, you can photograph a wide variety of landscapes from coastal views with icebergs to mountain ranges, ice caves, glaciers and towns. 

Here are just some of the places we've visited and recommend: 

  1. Reykjavik 
  2. Kerio (volcanic crater lake) 
  3. Seljalandsfoss waterfall
  4. Gljufrabui waterfall
  5. Reynisfjara, black beach
  6. Vatnajokull National Park
  7. Skaftafell Glacier
  8. Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon
  9. Jokulsarlon Diamond Beach 
  10. Vestrahorn, Stokksnes


Photographing Glaciers & Ice Caves 

Ice Cave


More than 10% of Iceland is covered in glaciers, which means there are plenty of these giant ice structures to photograph but please don't venture onto them, or into them, without an experienced guide because, like icebergs, they're constantly moving/cracking which creates the crevasses/caves photographers want to explore but it also makes them unpredictable and dangerous. 


Ice Cave exploring


To capture the sheer size of glaciers from the outside, a 'glacierscape' if you like, you're going to need a wide-angle lens such as a 16-35mm f/4. For ultimate sharpness, apertures around f/11 should be fine with a low-ish ISO (50-200) and always use a tripod. If you have one, a remote release can be handy (you can even use your smartphone as one but operating a camera phone with gloves on can be tricky). 

If you want to visit an ice cave (who wouldn't?) you'll need to book a guided tour as it can be difficult to get to the caves. A guide will also have knowledge of the best spots for photography, as well as the safest routes to use. 


Nikon D780 in an ice cave


Once there, you'll need to be aware of other photographers and, when shooting into the cave, you'll need a tripod, ideally with spikes because it can be difficult to get a tripod to stay still if placed on ice. Watch your shutter speeds, and the ISO speed, as it can be VERY dark in the caves. In some of the photos we were looking at 25-second exposures! An alternative would be to use a torch to light the scene. As we were capturing images with the Nikon D780, we were also able to take advantage of low light AF (-5EV/ -7EV) when in the ice caves and other locations where light levels were low. 


Ice Cave


Ice Cave


Someone posing in the scene can add a sense of scale to the photograph and add some additional interest too, but the shapes alone you find in the cave can often be strong enough to stand on their own merit.

Shoot lots of photos and always shoot in RAW as you'll be able to correct any problems with exposure, colours etc. once you're back in the warmth with a cup of tea in front of your computer. 


Photographing Icebergs



Icebergs can be beautiful things with colours that change depending on how the light hits them and no two are the same. In Iceland you'll find icebergs with all sorts of colours, from clear to white, blue and black, or even a mix. The time of day and what weather you're facing will also change how they look. 




To hammer home how cold it is, capture your iceberg images on a less than ideal day when skies are bleak and use a manual white balance setting to further enhance the cool tones in your shot. At the other end of the scale, try setting up at sunrise/sunset when warmer shades will fill the sky which you can use to backlight your subject. 




Think about angles and your lens choices as a wide-angle shot of the sweeping Diamond Beach can make you go 'wow', but like-wise the black Icelandic sand will make an excellent contrasting background for close-up shots of smaller pieces of ice broken up on the shore.


Diamond Beach


Get even closer, if you can, for abstract shots of patterns in the ice. On a side note, we found the tilting LCD monitor on the D780 particularly useful at this location as we could get down low and work in slightly awkward angles but still see what was in the frame. 


Diamond Beach ice


One thing to remember is that icebergs move and they can move quite fast so selecting the right shutter speed is crucial for sharp shots that are framed right. A reliable AF system is also useful and we had no problem with the D780's tracking system when framing icebergs in the viewfinder. 


Bonus Tip: Focus Shift Shooting

Focus Stacked image

Focus Stacked images

For better depth of field in landscape shots, focus stacking is a brilliant tool and some cameras actually have a focus shift mode now built-in. In a nutshell, this mode (or you can do it manually in Photoshop) combines a  set of similar images where the focus is set at different points in each image, to effectively extend the depth of field. With the D780 we were able to choose the distance of each focus step and the focus-peaking feature helped us confirm focus at each layer.


Photographing Iceland's Waterfalls 

Waterfall in Iceland


Iceland has some very famous waterfalls which, when you stand next to, literally make your jaw drop to the floor. The sheer size of some of them is just incredible but you won't be the only photographer visiting them, unfortunately, so you'll need to be patient, or not be afraid to ask people to move to one side, so you can get the perfect shot. 


Skogafoss Waterfall


Waterfalls include Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss and generally there are two main types of shot you'll want to capture when in front of them - frozen with higher shutter speeds and the popular smooth-like-silk slow shutter speed shot. For images where you want to exaggerate the sheer force of the waterfall, shutter speeds around 1/250sec-1/640sec will be ideal whereas 1/8sec to 1/15sec should be a good starting point for adding more blur (you should be able to create motion without losing too much texture). If this doesn't work, change the shutter speed and take the shot again. For really milky shots, speeds as long as ten seconds could be needed. 


Skogafoss Waterfall


Do remember that experimentation is key when it comes to shutter speeds as the speed of the water, its volume, where you are stood and how much blur you want to create will all play a part in altering your shutter speed.

Take care when metering water as the large areas of light tones can fool the meter into underexposing, making the picture look dark. You'll probably find that it's worth bracketing your shot, perhaps shooting at plus and minus one stop. On the Nikon D780, we had options all the way down to -7EV which expanded our options.


Nikon D780 next to a waterfall


Bring a polariser to help reduce/enhance the reflections on the water, and if areas of the water begin to overexpose (appear too bright), you'll need to fit an ND filter to use the slower speeds you want without 'blown out' areas spoiling your shot. You'll also need to use a tripod, self-timer or a remote cable release as shots taken with longer shutter speeds are more prone to shake. 


Skogafoss Waterfall


Waterfall 'splash zone'


Depending on the season you travel, you might be advised to use "Crampons" to give grip in icy conditions and when venturing close to waterfalls, especially if the wind is blowing in an unfortunate direction - you will get drenched! Luckily, spray wasn't too much of a problem for us as we were wearing waterproof gear and using the weatherproof Nikon D780 DLSR. It's also important that the lenses you're using are weather-sealed, too.  


Skogafoss Waterfall rainbow


If possible, try and get a shot without anyone else in the scene or alternatively, use the other photographers to add a sense of scale to your shot as it's not until you have something to compare the waterfall's size to that you understand just how big it is. Rainbows are another feature that will appear at waterfalls when conditions allow so do look out for them. 


Look To The Sky - Photographing Patterns, Clouds & The Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis


A not-to-be-missed phenomenon of the Icelandic sky is the Aurora Borealis which can be very unpredictable but well-worth the chase. Weather permitting, you should have a pretty good chance at seeing this amazing natural wonder but be sure to have your tripod, fast lens and camera at the ready as you may need to drop everything you're doing and head outside at a moment's notice. 


Aurora Borealis


You're going to need to focus manually, use shutter speeds around 8-10 seconds and apertures from f/18 to f/4. ISO speeds will be high - 1600-3200 so using a camera with a wide ISO range will really help. Live View can also be useful if you're focusing at infinity. Remember to check your focus regularly and don't be disappointed if the dancing patterns don't stretch across the entire night's sky, they often don't, and you can still capture rather stunning images anyway. 


Aurora Borealis


In the day time, clouds can build and vanish within a couple of hours when you're visiting Iceland's national parks and mountains but you can add interest to your landscape shots by fixing an ND/ND Grad filter to your lens so you turn the cloud movement into streaks across the sky (note: this works best when they're moving towards you). If you're in front of water (the Snaefellsnes Peninsula could be a good place for this where you'll find Arrowhead Mountain) and have a static object to focus on, you can also blur the movement of the water, too. 

You'll need to set your camera up on a tripod, use an aperture around f/11 and then place your ND filter and hard Grad filter on your lens. Nikon recommends a 3 or 6 stop ND filter, with a 0.6 or 0.9 hard grad filter in front of the lens, to blur both the movement of the water and the clouds. 


Towns & Architecture



You'll be eager to head out into the wilderness to capture all of Iceland's landscape beauty but do take a moment to appreciate the towns and architecture which are just as important records of a trip. Reykjavik is full of interesting shops and streets that can guide the eye through an image while the Sun Voyager sculpture will give you a great viewpoint to capture some images from. There's also the impressive Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral and some incredible hotels with strong shapes that contrast against the landscape. 


Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral




Another place where civilisation is juxtaposed with the stark landscape is Vik where you can capture images of most of the buildings sitting against the rugged background of land and sea.




Do be careful when it comes to metering as brighter skies and dark buildings can be confusing for cameras but, shoot in RAW and you can always make adjustments afterwards. 


Don't Forget Video

Above: Nikon D780 5x Slow Motion video of a river in Iceland captured in FullHD


We're not Steven Spielberg by any means but we do know that modern cameras have some excellent video features nowadays and, as you're in such an amazing place, why not capture what you see in 4K/UHD. The Nikon D780 we took on our trip captures 4K footage at 30p/25p/24p and you can also record Full HD slow-motion footage in-camera at up to 120p, with audio, which is a great feature when you're stood in front of a fast-flowing waterfall.   

Combining video clips into impressive records of your trip can however take a while and is a whole new set of skills to learn, but the results can be very rewarding.


Above: Nikon D780 video of a river in Iceland captured in 4K UHD at 25fps with the 70-200mm lens


Final Thoughts

Mountain Iceland


If you get the opportunity to go to Iceland make sure you do as you won't be disappointed. There's so much to photograph and, depending on when you visit, you'll be able to capture a different image of the same scene so you most certainly won't get bored! There's so much natural beauty you'll struggle to see it all in one trip, which sounds like the perfect excuse for multiple visits! 

Once there, you'll visit so many locations that will make you stand back, take a deep breath and say 'wow'. You can really be 'in the moment' when visiting Iceland and isn't that something we're all striving to do more? 

Iceland - 'thank you', we will certainly be back and will take our trusty Nikon D780 with us!       

All images captured on the Nikon D780 - read our review


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Just Jas 19 26.3k 1 England
7 Mar 2020 9:32PM
Longing............ ! but at 85 I would a burden and possibly jeopardise the expedition. I just would not cope Sad
deanz333 10 7 United Kingdom
15 Mar 2020 8:54AM
Went a few yrs back,hired a camper van and travelled the south,just fantastic for a week.So much to photograph.157666_1584262419.jpg
15 Mar 2020 12:23PM
Why do I appear to need to change all my perfectly good existing equipment that has worked all over the world to Nikon equipment for a trip to Iceland? It would make the trip prohibitively expensive.

All my Canon stuff seemed to work OK in Iceland last time I went there. What has changed?
HenB 12 6
20 Mar 2020 8:56AM
Square peg has it right.!! Although the article has many good items of information, it was at the end sounding like a Nikon promo.

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