Winter Photography in Iceland

Erez Marom | Pro Photography | Published Sep 19, 2012

Sunset in Breiðamerkurjökull 0.5sec, f/13, ISO 100
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Lee GND and ND filters, Heliopan CPL.

No matter where you live, the allure of travel to a locale quite different from your own is hard to resist for any  landscape photographer. And chances are, there are few places anywhere in the world as different from where you're sitting right now than Iceland. Put simply, it's a photographer's dream destination. The landscape is incredible, with pitch-black volcanic terrain, immense glaciers and towering volcanoes. And to top it off, airfare can be very reasonable and in-land travel is easy to arrange. With all this going for it, Iceland has long been on my list of places to photograph. And not long ago, I had the opportunity to explore this incredible terrain and create some memorable images.

In this four page article I'll share with you my experience of shooting with fellow photographers in Iceland, introduce you to some remarkable areas of the country to photograph and provide some behind the scenes info for two of my favorite images from the trip.

Planning ahead: season and location

The northern lights (Aurora Borealis) over Jökulsárlón lagoon 30sec, f/2.8, ISO3200
Canon 5D Mark II, Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED MC Aspherical.
The green columns shining above the snowy landscape is a spectacle seen only when it's cold.

As with any destination, the first question my colleagues and I had to consider was which season to travel. Iceland in winter offers a completely different photographic experience than in the summer. The green, lush scenery of the warmer months is replaced by a white, cold ice-desert. Temperatures drop to a bone-chilling sub-zero degrees Fahrenheit, winds howl and conditions are tough. But for us, this was all part of the adventure and a small price to pay for the most unique shooting experience we could imagine.

That's because no other season allows you to walk on frozen lagoons right up to a huge glacier. Only during the winter season of late September through March is it safe to venture into ice caves. It's never dark enough to witness the northern lights in the summer. And from autumn through spring sunrises and sunsets are relatively short, and the light is relatively harsh during the rest of the day. It's also certainly worth mentioning that winter airfare to Iceland can be as much as 50% lower than other times of the year! Given all of this, we knew that we were headed into an icy escapade.

Dormant volcano of Öræfajökull 10sec, f/16, ISO100
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Lee GND and ND filters, Heliopan CPL. 

The next big task was deciding which region of Iceland to visit. With only a two-week itinerary planned, we would need to concentrate on a specific area of the country to maximize the time spent shooting, versus traveling. After much research, which included consulting Icelandic photographers and friends who had visited the country, as well as looking at hundreds of published images, we concluded that southern Iceland was our best bet.

In the South you'll find glaciers, lagoons, waterfalls and beaches - all readily accessible by car. Crucially though, since Iceland is located so far north, the winter sun both rises and sets to the south, providing some very unique photographic opportunities. As a bonus, the sun maintains a low angle throughout the day, providing soft side-lighting that is great for landscape photography.

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Ice caves

One of the key features of Iceland's winter landscape is its ice caves. They are formed by glacial movement and melting ice, and continuously change year-round. They are simply awe-inspiring to behold, but when temperatures are above freezing, these wonders of nature can quickly turn into death traps. Never venture into an ice cave without a local expert! Fortunately, during the winter months, temperatures in Iceland are usually safe for ice caves, and with a professional guide, we explored two of them. 

3-shot manual HDR f/16, ISO 100
Canon 5D Mark II, Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED
In this shot looking out from the entrance of the cave, notice the low angle of the sun. This was at high noon!
3-shot manual HDR f/14, ISO 100
Canon 5D Mark II, Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED
This shot was taken from the same spot, but facing the cave's interior.

Ice caves present many photographic challenges. Huge global contrast (bright sky, very dark cave) means that you can't get the entire range of brightness in a single exposure. Forget about using filters - the irregular shapes that make ice caves so appealing also make filters useless when shooting them. The solution then is to exposure bracket images and blend them together via software; manual HDR. If you only associate HDR with hyper-stylized imagery, I hope the examples on this page show that blending highlights and shadows from multiple exposures can produce realistic-looking images as well.

Vatnajökull Ice Cave  3-shot manual HDR f/16, ISO 100
Canon 5D Mark II, Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED
What makes this shot stand out is the nautilus-shaped ice combined with the sky and yellow-tinted ice reflections in the foreground.

In the image below I included my fellow photographer in the scene to provide a sense of the immense size of this cave, found in Svínafellsjökull, Skaftafell national park. Giving viewers a sense of scale can be very effective in landscape images where we often have no reference point for size.

Ice Cave Interior 2-shot manual HDR f/14, ISO 100
Canon 5D Mark II, Samyang 14mm F2.8 IF ED

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My favorite location of all is definitely Jökulsárlón - Icelandic for 'glacier lagoon'. The lagoon is amazing year-round, and offers unparalleled photographic variety. What's more, with Iceland's unpredictable weather, the place can change in appearance in a matter on minutes - a never-ending treat for landscape photographers.

Dawn at Jökulsárlón 2.5sec, f/13, 2.5sec, ISO100, f/13
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Lee GND and ND filters, Heliopan CPL.
A lineup of beautiful glaciers was right on the lagoon's bank, as if they had decided to join us in watching the magic unravel. The shining moon added an unearthly feeling.

Right by the lagoon lies a pitch-black, volcanic beach, with literally millions of glaciers of all shapes and sizes adorning it, like diamonds on velvet.

Sunrise on glacier beach, Jökulsárlón 2sec, ISO100, f/22
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Singh-Ray reverse GND and Lee ND filters
The winter sun rises to the south-east because of Iceland's northern location - a huge advantage when shooting southward! The Canon 16-35mm displays one of its most attractive characteristics in this image: a beautiful sun-star created by shooting with a very small aperture.

Here's part of the magic of Iceland. Just a few hours after the sunrise image above was photographed, the sun sets; to the south!

Sunset on glacier beach, Jökulsárlón 3.2sec, f/22, ISO100
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Singh-Ray reverse GND and Lee ND filters.
As the sun set to the south-west, I got hit by an incredible stroke of luck. It was only when I looked at this image back home, that I realized that the curve of the water's edge fit the contour of the glacier perfectly!

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The village of Vik is very conveniently located right on Iceland's route 1, but venture out just a bit further, to the shore and you'll see the stacks of Reynisdrangar, a great photographic attraction. This group of huge spires adds significant interest to any shot of Vik's coastline.

Vik shoreline 20sec, f/16, ISO100
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Lee GND and ND filters, Heliopan CPL
The beautiful stacks of Reynisdrangar under ominous clouds. Just minutes later the entire beach (along with three cold photographers) was blasted by a terrible sleet storm.

The two images that follow are great examples of Iceland's rapidly-changing weather.

Sleet storm 5sec, f/16, ISO100
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Lee GND and ND filters, Heliopan CPL
During the sleet storm visibility was terrible, and my colleagues and I basically huddled like penguins, cursing the moment we had left the car. Yet the combination of the white sleet and black sand was truly unique, and seemed to have huge potential. I had never seen an image of Vik's coastline under such conditions, and was determined to get a good shot...
...and then, literally less than a minute later, the clouds had cleared just enough to allow a good view of the stacks. Another unimaginable stroke of luck hit when a passing wave swept some of the sleet into a zigzag pattern, ending exactly at a small rock, just inches from where I was standing. I quickly took aim, with the same camera settings as the shot above, and managed to capture the wave receding from the foreground.

In Iceland's winter, the sun barely rises a few degrees above the horizon. And when it is shining, it moves to the west very fast. So fast that if you want it aligned with another element of the image - as in the image below - you have to adjust your camera position after each and every shot to maintain alignment.

Reynisdrangar stacks 1/13sec, f/22, ISO100
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 70-200mm F4 L, Lee GND and ND filters
These Basalt stacks are great photographic subjects, and here I chose to shoot the sun peeking from behind one of them. Shooting into the sun with a not-so-clean filter (due to harsh weather), created a very strong flare, which actually enhances the mood of the image.
30sec, f/16, ISO100
Canon 5D Mark IICanon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS L, Lee GND and Big Stopper filters
Even on a very cloudy day, there are good photographs to be had. I chose a long exposure with a telephoto lens to get this framing of the stacks and the delicate patches of color above.

Getting the shots

Below are two of my favorite images from Iceland. I'll talk a bit about the circumstances involved in creating them.

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

Getting the shot you see below was as much a result of patience and fortitude as photographic know-how.

30sec, f/16, ISO 100
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Lee GND and ND filters, Heliopan CPL.

To create this composition, I had to stand inside a freezing-cold stream, and get the wide-angle lens really close to the icy crust. It wasn't long before I'd completely lost sensation in both my feet - wearing thermal fishing waders didn't help much. Yet getting close to the frozen crust enabled me to get a sense of depth in the image - an important aim in landscape photography. Using a circular polarizer enabled me to get rid of the reflection on the stream, revealing the rocks underneath, thus getting a better representation of the surroundings. The shot was well worth the pain of defrosting feet that followed!

Lake Thingvellir

The image you see below is actually a two-exposure composite. Unlike the HDR composites you saw earlier, the issue here was not one of dynamic range, but simply of timing.

Two-image composite, both exposures @ 120sec, f/11, ISO100
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Lee GND and Big Stopper filters, Heliopan CPL

The red vegetation makes for a fantastic foreground. Taking advantage of the natural shape of the snow-covered bank I made a composition that leads the viewer's eye right to the mountain in the background. Having three strong components: foreground, background and a midground creates a sense of depth and a well-balanced image.

I used an ultra-long, 2-minute exposure to get this dreamy look. This was made possible due to the use of a Lee 'Big Stopper' filter, which allows just 0.1% of the light to hit the sensor. I also blended two images, one for the foreground, and the other for the rest of the image, as I couldn't get the combination of a well-lit red plant in the foreground and pleasing light in the clouds in the same shot. Cheating? Perhaps for a purist, but never forget that photography is a creative endeavor.

The images you've seen here are but a tiny part of Iceland's photographic potential. It's a place I will definitely return to year after year, both to guide workshops and to shoot. I hope I have inspired you to visit this magical landscape.

Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer and photography instructor based in Israel. You can see more of Erez' work at Erezmarom.com and follow him on his Facebook page and deviantArt gallery. See Erez' Iceland gallery here.

In January 2013, Erez will lead his 'Land of Ice' Iceland winter landscape photography workshop, during which you will be able to experience and shoot south Iceland's most incredible sceneries under dedicated, professional guidance.