A travel photographer's ultimate guide to Iceland

A travel photographer's ultimate guide to Iceland

Cover photo by Paulo Rocha

Must-see locations to take photos in the ‘Land of Ice and Fire’

Everyone is going to Iceland again. Before the pandemic almost two million people were visiting the ‘Land of Ice and Fire’ every year, but in 2022 at least half that number will make the trip to one of the most photogenic places in Europe. While only a small fraction of those huge numbers will be landscape photographers on a mission, almost everyone who goes to Iceland comes back with the kind of photos they always dreamed of taking.

From gorgeous waterfalls and ice caves to glacial lagoons and, of course, the Northern Lights, there's so much to capture in this landscape photographer's dream destination. Here are some of our top tips to get you started… 

1 Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon

Iceland’s deepest lake, Jökulsárlón is very often photographed with the Northern Lights above it. As you approach it by road you actually drive over the Glacial River Bridge across the estuary as the lagoon tips out into the Atlantic Ocean, which takes large ghostly-looking blue glaciers with it. They move pretty quickly and it’s a weird sight! There are a lot of boat tours you can do here, and it's also possible to enter some incredible ice caves, depending on conditions. If you have issues with tourist numbers, head to the nearby Fjallsárlón glacial lagoon, which is a much quieter version.

Aurora (Northern Lights) over the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland. Photo by Martijn Kort
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A lot of people get confused about the Northern Lights. They happen constantly all day and all night around the Arctic Circle, which intersects Iceland. However, you can only see them at night. That makes the period from September through March the best time to go see the Northern Lights because that’s when the nights are dark and long. Go during the 10 days before a New Moon to avoid any moonlight and be prepared to stay up late. All you need then is clear skies. 

2 Diamond Beach

A long strip of black sand on the south coast of Iceland, this special shoreline very close to Jökulsárlón is covered in glacial debris. As those large icebergs drift out of Jökulsárlón and into the ocean they break into ever smaller pieces and get washed up onto this beach. It's an incredible sight. You can see icy sculptures all over the beach, most of them containing tiny bubbles of air trapped thousands of years ago in the glacier. Their bluish tone changes according to the light levels and the time of day.

Glittering clouds at Diamond Beach in Iceland with floating ice cubes at the black sand. Photo by Jón Hilmarsson
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Diamond Beach is a wild and windswept place. It can therefore be a very difficult location to stay for too long in winter, while in summer it can get incredibly busy. You're therefore likely to have a few problems taking some photos, including getting tourists out of your shots and keeping your lens free of rain. Take your time – and plenty of microfibre towels! 

3 Skógafoss

Another location on the Ring Road in southern Iceland, Skógafoss is a hugely powerful waterfall that pushes a lot of spray into the air. Cue frequent rainbows. The best vantage points will depend on what kind of photo you want to take, but know that while you can take photos from afar they will often include other tourists because it is also possible to walk up close to the bottom of the waterfall. There’s also a staircase on the right hand side of the waterfall that takes you up to a higher vantage point to look down on the torrent. Like a lot of places in southern Iceland, it pays to come early in the day.

Long exposure of the famous Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland. Photo by Nora Carol Sahinun
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Approach Skógafoss from the west and, just as it comes into view, there’s a fabulous opportunity to capture it reflected in water. However, if a bunch of you set-up a tripod close to the road then a lot of tourists will follow you and copy your every move. It's something you have to get used to if you're in Iceland during the busy tourist season.

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4 The Lava Falls

Icelandic for ‘Lava Falls’, Hraunfossar is yet another unique sight in Iceland. In West Iceland, but easily accessible, it’s the result of water from the nearby Langjökull glacier trickling through a lava field and into a fast-flowing river. Just upstream from Hraunfossar – and visited using the same car park – is Barnafoss, where water is forced through a narrow gorge with incredible force.

Hraunfossar waterfall. Photo by Ruzena
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Very close to Hraunfossar and Barnafoss is Húsafell, from where Into the Glacier (intotheglacier.is) runs tours to see a vast man-made ice cave inside the Langjökull glacier. It’s like being in Echo Base on the planet Hoth in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. It even includes a small ice-sculpted chapel that stages subterranean weddings. 

5 The Black Church

Although most people visiting Iceland for the first time tend to do the ‘Golden Circle’ tour of Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, those making their second trip to Iceland often head for the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. About two hours drive from Reykjavik, it’s where you’ll find lava tubes, the snow-capped Snaefellsjökull volcano and this beautiful black wooden church. It’s in danger of being over-photographed, but the striking wooden Búðakirkja on the south coast of Snaefellsnes remains a good way of getting something interesting in the foreground of photos of the Northern Lights.

Budakirkja, the famous black church in Budir, Snaefellsnes, Iceland. Photo by Paulo Rocha
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If you want to shoot Búðakirkja under the Northern Lights and you’ve got money to burn then the upscale Hótel Búðir is within easy walking distance. However, if you’d rather find your own lonely church then consider the less-visited Hvalsneskirkja at Sandgerdi, a black stone church with a crazy colourful steeple. It’s on Reykjanes Peninsula close to Keflavík International Airport.

6 Háifoss and Granni waterfalls

The fourth-tallest waterfall in Iceland, the 122m-high Háifoss is surely one of its most beautiful. Close to the Hekla in southern Iceland, it's a 10 minute drive a pair up an unpaved road, which just about puts it off the beaten track, although in recent years it's become incredibly popular. One of the reasons that this waterfall is so photogenic is that it often has rainbows in the mist at the bottom. You'll need a wide angle lens to capture it, but as you try to compose an image you'll almost certainly see the slightly smaller Granni waterfall close by.

A long exposure shot at Háifoss, the third highest waterfall in Iceland. Photo by Petr Kuklík
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About 80% of visitors to Iceland rent a car. Since there is a distinct lack of public transport away from Reykjavík, you really do need a car to get to see and photograph its finest sights. It is possible to take a guided tour of Iceland, but if you do that then be sure you book a dedicated photography tour. If you don't, you'll find yourself given far too short of time at some iconic destinations. However, if you drive yourself be careful because wintry conditions can make it challenging. 

7 Church Mountain

Another iconic place to take photographs is Mt. Kirkjufell – Church Mountain. As luck would have it this 463m high mountain on the Snaefellsnes peninsula can be captured with the foreground dominated by the beautiful Kirkjufellsfoss – Church Mountain Falls. In the winter the waterfall freezes, making it an even more incredible sight. However, this site has become popular in recent years partially due to its appearance on Game of Thrones. So it pays to get here very early in the morning to indulge in landscape photography or later at night if you want to capture the Northern Lights. That goes double because the path to the best vantage point to get the mountain and the waterfalls actually goes through the composition. Even worse is that if you go in mid-afternoon it can feel like a press conference, with tourists and photographers jostling to get the best vantage points.

Sunset at Kirkjufell, Snaefellsnes Iceland. Photo by Ævar Guðmundsson
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Iceland can often seem like an empty and lonely place while driving around, but stop at any honeypot photography site and you'll soon find yourself surrounded by other photographers and tourists in general. Select the destinations you're most excited about and get to them early in the day or late in the evening when they’ll both be relatively quiet and the light levels will be better suited for landscape photography.