I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland; recently i had the chance to travel there for a few days with my Dad and it was absolutely amazing…
I never usually sleep on planes but i must have nodded off, i remember being woken by the captain announcing we were about to start our descent into Keflavik Airport, three hours had gone by pretty quick. I braced myself for the cold as the doors on the plane opened and we walked off, but it didn’t hit me as much as i thought it would, the airport was quiet and felt really remote, something i’ve not experienced before, but a feeling i’d become accustomed to over the next few days.
It didn’t take us long to grab our bags and collect our rental car, a trusty Nissan Qashqai 4×4, if you’re planning a trip to Iceland, it can be done without a car but based upon our experience i’d say having a car is an absolute must, especially if you want the freedom that having a car brings. I’ve never been one for organised bus tours or day trips but there did seem to be plenty of them if that takes your fancy. We were staying in Reykjavik at the Hilton which was a great base for our trip, although we barely spent any time there. The drive from the airport took around an hour and gave us a good chance to talk through some of our plans for the days ahead, we didn’t do loads of planning but made sure we had a list of must-see places to work through, that way we could be flexible with the rest of our time…
Before the trip I’d put loads of thought into my camera gear and what to take, i guessed there would be plenty of walking and perhaps some climbing / hiking so wanted to be as light as possible, i wasn’t sure if i should take the 24-70mm, which seems to be the lens of choice for most people heading out this way… In the end i decided to go with what’s now become my ‘go to’ set up, my 20mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.4, i can’t tell you how much i love and how highly i rate both of these lenses! I also added my 85mm f/1.8 to the bag, but to be honest i barely ever used it. In the end my 20mm accounted for 66% of the shots, my 50mm 22% and the final 12% from my 85mm which was pretty much all on the last day, we’ll get to that part in a bit.
We set an alarm nice and early on the first day and after a decent breakfast we jumped in the car and headed out. The road network in Iceland is fairly basic, the main road ‘Route 1’ circles the island and provides good access to most of the main attractions, we decided to head east out of Reykjavik, we were after one thing; waterfalls. As soon as we made it out of the city it became apparent just how spectacular the landscape here was, it was so peaceful yet you could truly appreciate the force of nature when looking at the mountains or the stretches of black sand beaches.
Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss which is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland, it drops around 200ft from the cliffs above, it was like nothing i’d ever seen before. As we got out of the car one of the first things we noticed was just how much snow and ice was on the ground. Pretty soon we realised that a relaxing time taking photos was completely out of the question, we could barely even stand up. I managed to grab a couple shots whilst literally sliding around all over the place, the snow and rocks gave great contrast to the images and makes them look really gritty which i like.
After Seljalandsfoss we visited Skogafoss which is an amazing waterfall, much more traditional looking than Seljalandsfoss, the sort of waterfall you’d expect to see on a postcard. The water falls from the cliff above in pretty spectacular fashion, it’s huge, much bigger than the photos make it look, you really feel tiny stood underneath it. It was a pretty similar story here though, the walk from the car park to the waterfall was literally sheet ice and about 400m worth of it. We grabbed a couple of shots and then agreed that we needed to retreat and find some spikes for our shoes, which proved to be the best £10 i’ve spent in a long time!
We made our way further down Route 1 towards Vik to the famous black sand beaches near Dyrhólae, by this time the weather was closing in and it poured with rain, the wind was so strong as well, taking photos here was out of the question. It didn’t stop us from exploring on foot though, the force of nature here was crazy, the waves crashing over the rocks like the world was about to end. We’d be back here for sure…
On day two we got up early again and the weather had a very different feel to it, calm and clear, we grabbed our gear and headed back out east towards the beach from yesterday, the roads here are amazing and as we drove out towards Dyrhólae for the second time we couldn’t resist pulling over and being in awe at how remote and peaceful the island felt, literally every 15 minutes we found ourselves jumping out of the car to have a look around and walk the deserted roads which look like something out of a movie.
By the time we got to the beach the weather had closed in a bit, but thankfully it wasn’t pouring down, which was the most important thing. We spent a few hours here exploring the rock formations and the beach which looked like it was covered in thousands of black marbles, i really couldn’t believe what i was seeing. The sea was still raging in parts and crashing over the rocks, i’d be lying if i said we didn’t get soaked a couple times whilst trying to reach a secluded part of the beach, it was totally worth it though, having the whole place to ourselves was a real treat, i especially liked the caves dotted around, which offered a brief respite from the biting cold wind.
After the beach we headed off to try and find something i was really excited about, the wreckage of an old US Navy plane, which has laid to rest here since crash landing in 1973. We found the turning off Route 1 and made our way across the beach, which, it’s worth noting, was covered solid in ice. A couple of squeamish looks from my Dad made me glad i wasn’t the one behind the wheel. After a good few miles of sliding around on the ice we made it to the crash site, it was really impressive and well worth the trip, i’ve read that it can get very busy here in summer but it was nice and quiet, only a handful of other people had dared take the trip across the frozen beach. I grabbed a good range of photos here and really wanted to show the gritty look of the plane so i’m pleased with how they came out.
Driving back towards Reykjavik we decided to pull into Skogafoss again and grab some photos in better light, armed with our new favourite accessory, shoe spikes! Skogafoss produces a huge amount of spray and the waterfall itself is enormous, like i said before, photos just don’t do it justice. As we walked closer to the bottom of the waterfall we started to see a beautiful rainbow form in the spray, something which i’ve read you can see here a lot of the time. It was so surreal standing here feeling like i could reach out and touch the rainbow, the spray was relentless though, i needed to improvise in order to get a photo so used a travel umbrella as a shield and grabbed what i could whilst timing the walls of spray, i got some great shots and then retreated, soaking wet! This might be my favourite photo from the trip…
One of the places i’d put on my personal list was Hvítserkur, a huge rock formation just off the coast on a peninsula in the north west of the island, this took up most of day 3 as it was such a long drive, the round trip took us about 7 hours in total, but the scenery was stunning as always and i even managed to grab a portrait of an Icelandic pony, who i couldn’t help but think looked a little cold and lonely.
Before we made the trip i did some research and had read that this was a pretty easy place to get to, however when we arrived, the road leading down to the car park was covered in a few feet of snow and had been closed. We were pretty disappointed but that wasn’t going to stop us, so we decided to have a quick look to make sure it was safe and actually accessible then grabbed our gear and set off. It took us about 10 minutes to walk down the road to the cliff top and then we had to walk along to find a safe way of getting down to the beach. Once we got to the beach it was totally worth the risk, we had the entire stretch of coastline to ourselves, literally miles and miles without a single person in sight, something I’ll never forget.
We spent a few hours here walking the beach and grabbing plenty of photos, it was a magical place, just us and a handful of seals swimming close to the shore, splashing about in the water and keeping an eye on proceedings. There are a few stories about Hvítserkur, my favourite is about a dragon drinking from the water who got caught in lava and turned to stone, it’s easy to see the resemblance when you’re stood here looking out at the rock. I’m pretty pleased with the photos i got from here and would love to come back and see it at night, i bet the stars here are amazing, it’s so remote. I had a Hoya ND filter with me which allowed me to limit the amount of light passing into my lens, i used this to get a long exposure of the rock, if you’re unfamiliar with ND filters you can read about them in a previous post, the exposure time was about 25 seconds which made the water look nice and smooth.
Day 4 we were a little tired and decided to stay a bit closer to home, we wanted to see the famous Geysir which is an erupting hot spring, it periodically shoots boiling water around 60-80m high in the air which is quite a spectacle. I’d never seen anything like this before so was pretty excited to see it in action. If you’re visiting here you don’t need to allow much time, we spent about half an hour watching Geysir which was plenty enough. i wanted to get a photo of it erupting without any people in the shot, which i managed to get, it’s pretty interesting to read about Geysir and it’s history, it erupts about once every 7-10 minutes and has been for thousands of years. Iceland relies heavily on geothermal energy so it’s no wonder they’re proud of these natural wonders which you can see dotted around the island.
After Geysir we made the trip to Gullfoss which was only a little further in the car, this is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland and probably the busiest because of it’s location. The volume of water here is crazy, it plunges down two or three different stages into the canyon below which is barely visible from the viewing points so it gives the appearance of water just disappearing. The water here doesn’t fall from a great height but the size of the waterfall and volume of water make it quite a sight, not to mention the sound it makes. It wasn’t easy to get a photo showing all of the waterfall so i grabbed a couple shots from different locations and used my ND filter on one of them too. I don’t have any words to describe how cold it was stood on the edge of this waterfall taking photos! It was so windy i could barely stand up, not to mention my hands and face turning to ice with all the spray, it was absolutely crazy. There was a lot of snow here too which made some of the paths very hard to walk on, we managed to get out of here in one piece though which was our main priority!
On our last day we decided to explore the city of Reykjavik, first off we stopped at the cathedral, or Hallgrímskirkja Church as it’s known locally. The building is actually quite new, i’m used to visiting older churches in Europe so this one felt very modern, construction was finished in 1986, it’s quite clear when you’re walking around the church and having a look inside that it’s very new, which i felt made it a little cold and empty. The structure is amazing though and it’s very imposing, clearly visible from most parts of the city as it reaches skywards at around 70m in height. There’s a viewing deck near the top of the spire, i was hoping for a couple hundred steps but there was a lift instead which was slightly disappointing but the views from the top were great. I grabbed a few photos from the top and merged them into an HDR image to pull out the colours of the buildings which worked pretty well, this was one of the rare times i used my 85mm lens.
After visiting Hallgrímskirkja we wandered around the city for a bit, it was nice and peaceful, to be honest it felt more like a small town than a capital city. After exploring on foot we headed out to fill up the car and then over to one of the many lighthouses in the area. Grotta is a lighthouse on the western edge of Reyjavik and is accessible on foot over a small sand bank, we didn’t know if the tide was coming or going so made our visit quick, the small island has a nice feel to it and there are great views out over the bay and back towards the city, I managed to get a nice photo of the lighthouse and it’s reflection in some ice at my feet, i can imagine it being pretty nice out here at sunset or maybe first thing in the morning, there are so many lighthouses dotted around the island, it would be great to visit more of them.
Once we’d finished up spending the morning in Reykjavik we headed back towards the airport, with a slight detour… We decided to visit the Blue Lagoon which is a man made spa on a lava field, not far from the city. You can swim and bathe in the water here which is heated and rich in minerals and sulphur, we didn’t swim but had lunch and walked around a smaller lagoon outside to look at the colours and volcanic rock which has some really nice textures. After this we headed to the Bridge Between Continents which represents the meeting point of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, there’s a small bridge here over the gorge where the two plates meet, it’s pretty cool to walk over the bridge and appreciate that you’re crossing such a major fault line, it’s not overly photogenic but well worth a visit on the way to the airport.
I had an amazing time in Iceland and will definitely look to return soon, we tried to see the northern lights too but got really unlucky with the weather each night, so missed them unfortunately. It would be great to return in summer and see what the landscape looks like without all the snow. If you have any questions about my trip or the photos just let me know. I hope you enjoyed the post.