Back in March 2013 I booked a five day photography holiday in Iceland with my bro. This was to be far removed from the tailored photography holidays in which a professional photographer provides hands on experience and takes a group on a structured itinerary; we were keen to do it at low cost with as little pre-booking as possible. With this in mind, it was clear that the most viable option was to simply book flights and rent a cheap camper van, thus avoiding the need to book any accommodation which would dictate a fixed itinerary. So with this done (cost total £450 each) we set off with a bag full of camera bodies, lenses, chargers and filters to explore this supposed Mecca for landscape photography.
So did it live up to expectations for photography? To get immediately to the point, yes, Iceland certainly did live up to my personal expectations as a fantastic photography destination. Iceland is stunningly beautiful, and offers a much greater variety of landscapes than I'd imagined from web-based research. I'll return to photography highlights of the trip later in the post.
Is "Iceland on the cheap" do-able?
Did we meet our objective to keep the trip cheap? Cheap is a relative term of course, but Iceland is by no stretch of the imagination an inexpensive place to spend a few days. Here is an idea of the costs we incurred as a guide:
- Car rental. Car rental is astronomically expensive in Iceland. My understanding is that this is driven by two factors; firstly, cars are expensive to buy, and secondly, the season is so short that any returns on the investment have to be earned in about 3 months during the summer. Car rental is likely to be the greatest single cost item for a trip - so we went as as cheap as possible with a van from Go Iceland . It wasn't luxury - far from it - but it cost less than half of the alternatives.
- Campsites (if you want showers, and a common room / lounger to hang out in while charging batteries) - about 2,000 - 3,000Kr per night for two (they charge per person). We stayed in campsites on all nights but one and booked none in advance. These were in Hella (excellent), Vik (quaint but a little tired), Skaftafell National Park (spectacular views) and Seljalandfoss (very nice but boggy due to rain during our visit). For our first night in Iceland, we didn't reach a site so pulled over in a layby to rough it - somewhere near Thingvellir National Park. It was pretty cold (even in July) and we had no water, gas, or toilet - so it wasn't ideal.
- Food. I don't wish to offend the lovely Icelandic people, but there is a whole lot of crap food in Iceland. Junk food abounds; burgers, chips, hot dogs, pizzas are the order of the day at most stops you encounter along the roads. Prices are a bit higher than home (UK) but not achingly so. You will pay around 2,000 Kr to stuff yourself with a large sandwich / burger and chips with a cake and coffee. (One plus point - most places offer coffee and you serve yourself from a flask with as much as you like. Useful for early morning blurry eyed photography outings). Of course, there are nicer places to eat. I'd highly recommend Gamla Fjósið near the Eyjafjallajökull museum on Route 1. The staff are charming, and the burger (made from their own cattle) was genuinely first class (and oddly very little more than a standard crap burger from a service station).
- Alcohol. It's expensive - I didn't bother - except the bottle of red wine that Dave the campervan man left as a gift in our van.
- Fuel - fuel was similar in price to that of the UK / rest of Europe.
In conclusion, prices should absolutely not put you off going. Once you've swallowed the bitter pill of the price of car rental - the rest is well manageable.
Chasing the light
The weather is as changeable in Iceland as anywhere I've been. We had cold rainy squalls, apocalyptic dark skies, blue skies with bright sunshine and less interesting overcast weather during our 5 days. One thing we unfortunately did not get was colourful sunsets or sunrises. The benefit of having a flexible itinerary of course is that we could hold back, or charge ahead depending on what the weather seemed to be doing. The best weather forecasts are available from the Icelandic Met Office - and they seemed pretty reliable during our trip, so well worth looking on the night before to plan the next day. On our trip, the worst weather (rain) was headed in over the South West coast, so we made a more rapid run over to Jokulsarlon where there were brighter skies. We then revisited some of the locations (Skargafoss, Seljalandfoss etc) on the way back (ours was not a circular route, but one along the South coast, and back). One of the joys of the changeable weather is the sudden appearance of a rainbow or 'jesus rays' through the clouds. Grab the camera and shoot!
Whilst the trip was mainly about photography of course, I'll take the following memories with me most of all:
- arriving a the airport at midnight to meet our campervan man Dave, who gently informed us that yesterday someone had rolled our cmapervan and written it off. "Nevermind, I got hold of another one today"
- a swim (um... without shorts as I forgot to bring them) in the abandoned thermal pool off route 242
- driving through miles and miles and miles of < n o t h i n g > East of Vik. Not since travelling through Western Australia have I had this same sense of space, which is so impossible on a crowded island such as Great Britain.
- seeing the vast white, black and blue glaciers tumbling from the mountains in the South-West. The width of the Vatnar Glacier is so vast that you seem to drive along it forever making no progress
- the people. The Icelandic people we met were genuinely lovely. Unpretentious, kind, polite and always with a smile. You get this sense the second you arrive at the airport and it stays until you get back to grumpy Britain
- an early morning walk up the mountain to Svartifoss waterfall. I'm dissapointed with the photographs I got, but the walk there, and to see the splendid waterfall before anyone else arrived, was well worth it.
- seeing a rainbow suddenly appear at the bottom of Seljalandfoss. It was like a scene from Tolkien's Middle Earth.
OK, OK, what about photography highlights?
Our route took in a good number of locations along the Golden Circle and South coast (I've made a Google Map highlighting our journey and good spots here):
- Gullfoss - this really is a beautiful two-tired waterfall. Quite difficult to photography very well given the topogrpahy. Next time (there will be a next time) I plan to walk down the valley a bit to get a better view of the lower falls
- Seljalandfoss (the "one you can walk behind"). This is very accessible off Route 1 and as such gets loads of route buses tramping around the place. Despite this it is actually relatively easy to compose a photograph with no or few people in. It is spectacular - there is nowhere I've been like it. Well worth a few hours of time to watch, walk and photograph in the changing light. Warning - you will get SOAKED behind the falls. I gave up with filters, and simply took lots of cloths and wiped off the lens after every single shot.
- Horses - the Icelandic horses are beautiful sturdy animals. There are lots of them all over the South Coast, and due to their gregarious are easy to photograph. But they are hard to photograph well. When I take a picture of a horse, it looks... like a horse. Some photographers seem to be able to turn them into something else altogether. I need to practice.
- Other lesser known waterfalls. There are many waterfalls falling from the ancient sea cliffs along the south coast. Best of all none are visited by people, so pull off, and get out the tripod.
- Svartifoss. This is an incredible waterfall, disappearing as it does into a hole in the ground lined completely with basalt columns. It's like one of those places you can scarcely believe is natural - it's too perfect.
- Vik. I saw pictures of the black beach on Flickr long ago, and set out to get my version. This didn't prove brilliantly successful, but a walk around the old town revealed something different - decaying tin buildings and old rusty trucks. Wonderful place and a great outing when the weather turned very wet.
- Reynisfjara beach and cliffs. This is well worth a stop off for some back beach long exposures, wide angles from cliffs, and puffins! Wonderful
The funny thing for me about travel photography is that those places you are most looking forward to photographing before you actually get there, are the places that it's easiest to feel something of a sense of disappointment at the photographs you manage to get. And so it applies to Iceland. Gullfoss is STUNNING. Seljalandfoss is STUNNING. The glacial lagoon and icebergs are STUNNING. But at none of these did I get the images I'm most pleased with - perhaps looking too much at Flickr and 500px before going gives you a target that is not realistic to reach (or at least the weather conditions won't happen to be conducive to capturing the idyllic scene). There is doubtless a whole lot of skill in landscape photography - and I've much to learn - but the weather does dictate to a large extent whether a photograph will be simply well-executed or an absolute belter.
Iceland - I will return. Who's in?