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Travel Stories

Photographing Iceland - Planning the trip

Russell Whittemore (rosewood_ltd)

Keywords: photographing_iceland, rosewood_ltd, landscape, travel_photography, travel, iceland, russell_whittemore

This is the first part of a six part series on Photographing Iceland -- The next part will be published next week.

If you’re a lover of landscape photography, or just enjoy travel to far-flung, unique places, Iceland is quite possibly one of those destinations that reside somewhere within your bucket list.  Perhaps you lust for golden hours that last for three, or are addicted to waterfalls.  Possibly you’re consumed by bird photography and would love to be able to see puffins breeding “in the flesh,” so to speak.  Or maybe, like me, you have had a long time goal of seeing the aurora borealis. Iceland of course, is famous for offering all of this and more, making it a highly sought-after destination for photographers of all persuasions.

Jokusarlon Aurora
Click for an enlargement



Most of us visualize Iceland as a land of expansive, spectacular vistas, fiery volcanic eruptions, enormous glaciers and dramatic geothermal activity. This is all true, and more, but even more dramatic change is underway with the increased popularity of the island among tourists from all over the world.

Iceland is a volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, of about 100 000 km2 (40,000 sq. miles) in size.  It was formed about 16-18 million years ago over the plume of a hot spot in the earth’s crust.  It is diagonally bisected by the Mid-Atlantic ridge from southwest to northeast.  There are over 200 volcanoes.  The central highlands are heavily glaciated - about 10% of the total land mass is covered by ice.  The largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajokull, is on Iceland.  The island lies about 4 200km (2,600 miles) northeast of New York City and 1 800km (1,100 miles) northwest of London.  At 64 degrees north latitude, the capital of Reykjavik is one of the northernmost major cities in the world.  Its latitude is only slightly south of Fairbanks, AK and Murmansk, Russia.

With a total population of approximately 330,000, almost 2/3rds live in the Reykjavik metro area, half of those within the city limits proper.  The obvious implication is that the remainder of the island is sparsely populated.  In fact, the second-largest city of Akureyri claims only about 20,000 inhabitants.  In US-centric terms, it can be thought of this way:  first, depopulate the entire state of Kentucky.  Next, move everyone from St. Paul, MN there, putting two out of three people in one town.  That’s Iceland.


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Charlie hensel (Chensel31) on March 11, 2019

I am doing a two-month photo shoot in Iceland June 18- Aug. 13, 2019. This is my third major long-term shoot. This article very helpful...

Marsha Edmunds (meadowlark2) on March 9, 2019

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Russ, Reading this was like a step in preparing to visit Iceland myself - it is now a goal. I know I will turn back to this if ever I get the chance. Stunning photography and excellent information.

User on March 8, 2019

Thanks for this comprehensive article on your photography trip experience. I'm planning a trip to Iceland for next year and your comments have been very helpful in many ways. Great job!

John McGarry (jtmcg) on March 7, 2019

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Great article Russ. Looking forward to the remaining installments. I've been to Iceland three times in three years with the most recent being in 2015. I did tours on all three trips but can attest to the explosion of tourism. My last trip was to the eastern highlands. Most of the time we were well away from the tourist crowds but on occasion we did see tour buses in fairly remote locations. I was able to purchase the Siminn card for my phone on the Icelandair flight from Boston. It was very convenient and I was able to use it when I landed. I did have to book it about a week in advance of my flight on the Icelandair website. It was a lot cheaper than going through my carrier. Also it was good for two years. Since my first trip was in August, I was able to use it on my next two trips which were in June and July. All I did was go to the Siminn website to purchase a data and phone package. Since I was there during summer I didn't get to experience an aurora. I also diddn't get to Vestrahorn. Reasons to go back! Your comments on the weather are certainly accurate. It can change quickly even as you travel from place to place. We were at Jokulsarlon on my first trip and left to go to another glacier area a short distance away to eat our lunch. Jokulsarlon was calm but at the other area the wind was about 30 mph (guess). I had to hold on to my tripod to keep it from being blown over.

Frederic Hore (voyageurfred) on March 7, 2019

Thanks Russel for the good writeup. Sorry to hear about the icing on your ballhead clamp. Good to read that damage was minimal. I use a D700 too - it's a great cam! I travelled solo by bus, rental car, and plane for 32 days through Iceland in 2011. Permit me to add some details: Unless it has changed, at the Kaflavik airport terminal, after the baggage pickup area, and just before you exit to catch a taxi or bus to Reykjavik, is a well stocked and staffed Iceland tourist information kiosk. Do stop here to pick up maps, and pamphlets. One that was very helpful in my trip, was on farms stay, where you can stay with a family, to visit local sites. For example, I stayed at the Gerdi Guesthouse in Hofn for three days, using it as my base for trips to the Jokulsarlon Lagoon and coastal areas. If tourist kiosk is no longer at the airport, do visit the main tourist office in Reykjavik. There's info there not available on the internet. I travelled during the warmer summer months, to photograph the puffin colonies and other bird species that nest on the Latrabjarg cliffs in the West Fiords. The puffins are only there in the summer months, departing by mid-August. More here: I drove by rental car for this leg, north on Route 1 from Reykjavik, then on a loop circuit on Routes 60, 62, 612, 63 and 61, taking me through the delightful village of Hagi with its beautiful beach and arctic terns, and the fishing ports of Bildudalur and Isafjordur to name a couple. There are museums along the way, and even hostels with private rooms with breakfast included. I brought a tent with me and went camping in quite a few locations. Some of the roads are stone and mud, so you're car will get very dirty - literally a mud mobile! The good news is you can hose it down for free at the main gas station in Isafjordur, with powerful water jets. For my travels, I used the very detailed Lonely Planet guide book, supplemented with, as Russel advises, a lot of research on the web. I travelled from Montreal on a Delta airlines flight, but got a discounted 30% fare through because I worked as a volunteer for one week on an funded study on the volcanology of Iceland. There are other projects one can volunteer on too, such as trail maintenance. It's a great way to meet people, and get a good introduction to Icelandic life! Hope this helps! Frederic in Montréal

Sivaraman Vasanth (vasanth) on March 7, 2019

Hi Russel, With a one week trip already planned in July, your story is very timely. Nice narration, nice info, great photos. with my short 1 week trip, your article and photos will give ideas. Looking forward to the rest

dennis miller (dhmiller) on March 7, 2019

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The one thing that I would add is the absolutely spectacular shots one can get from a doors-off airplane shoot. I found a guy with a singe engine, 1950s French plane that he piloted using a stick mounted in the floor, and we fly over amazing landscapes for nearly two hours. The colorful Rhyolites were probably the best of the mountain ranges (easily Googled). Examples here: and

Bonnie Christensen (BChrisRad) on March 6, 2019

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Really well done, Russ. Love your photos and all the details you give for anyone considering a trip there. Yes, this is on my bucket list.Eagerly awaiting part 2.

Gavin Duffy (Gaduf) on March 6, 2019

Hi Russel, A fascinating and most informative article. Can’t wait to read your next part,and,all five of them. I have been considering a visit to Iceland sometime, and the detail covered in your trip will certainly be used as a guide and reference for future plans for a visit. Kind Regards Gavin

Tom Jacob (sevendayimages) on March 6, 2019

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Winner of the Best of Nikonians Photo Contest 2020
This member has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art and science of photo Winner in the Best of Nikonians Photo Contest 2021

This is only Part I and I am already looking for my backpack Russ! Very well written and love the images so far that go with it...looking forward to the next chapter. Man, I need to get good hiking boots!

judith dunn (topper1946) on March 6, 2019

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Loved the article. I have been twice both times in early summer and live Iceland. Who did you travel with? Thanks