Land of Ice: Photographing the Golden Circle

Of all the tours out of Reykjavik, Golden Circle is the most popular (Blue Lagoon being a spa treatment pretending it’s a tour). In the space of 8 or 10 hours, you head up into the highlands and see Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvellir National Park. My visit, in late March, was with my sister and her family and the key highlight was Gullfoss waterfall. We decided to focus on Thingvellir at a time when the trails would be without snow.

I’m starting to clean up my Iceland photos now I’m back. I was there the final week of March and saw some amazing stuff. (No, no Northern Lights. There’s a whole lot of marketing and tours for that, but not so many sightings.) But there were lots of waterfalls, lots of snow, some raw, painful weather and glorious light in a landscape that defines Nordic simplicity.

In a lot of ways Iceland reminded me of the desert Southwest. In both locations the extreme weathering and shaping have stripped the land’s vegetation and uncovered the underlying geological bones.

In the case of Iceland, the volcanic history is quite recent. The black sands are there on every beach and stream, the volcanic boulders are barely hidden under moss. And the fact that the early settlers cut down most of the trees makes the geology stand out more.

Golden Circle

Driving the Golden Circle

The geological record is best presented in the “Golden Circle” area of Iceland. This drive from Reykjavik to Gullfoss and Geysir takes you to one of the few spots on Earth where you can see the North American and European tectonic plates in action. Most of this global tectonic activity is hidden under the Atlantic. But at Thingvellir National Park, you can hike the fissures. It’s even possible to snorkel in a lake from one tectonic plate to the other. I know a few brave (some might say crazy) souls that did it during our frigid March trip.

For me the trip was mostly about Gullfoss, one of the great waterfalls in a land famous for waterfalls. But as we drove the highlands and saw all the snow, I started to change my photo expectations.

Once we arrived I began to see the place with my photographer’s eye — and my body. It was cold, damp March cold and the wind was too much for my hat and LA hoodie. Things were overcast that day, so no need for thought on how to adjust to that. So as I headed down (dodging a tour of English high schoolers), I took a good look at the architecture of the falls.

First thing you notice is the breadth and depth of the thing. The slow, wide river getting whipped in the wind. Then the falls on three levels, the top level of feeder river stepping down to a mid level of falls, and a further, deeper fall that gathers the big river into a narrow canyon of blue-green. Then you notice the constant roar of the falls and how much of the falls are choked with blue-white ice. There’s an almost otherworldly color to the falls in winter… a bonus I hadn’t expected.

There are three (somewhat) corresponding view points that allow you to slice and dice the scene into photo compositions. My preferred photo spot (given the light and conditions) was the lower viewpoint so I started there. Luckily the tour bus crowds don’t intrude on the shot choices at all — unlike some of the South Coast waterfalls.

Gullfoss, lower view point

From this spot, the snow coverage and closed off trail in the foreground were a cool discovery. The white stillness of new snow playing off the falls.

The middle viewpoint gives a slightly different perspective and I framed the shot with a cliff edge.

Gullfoss, Golden Circle

The highest viewpoint is the most upriver. This is the only location that gets a clean view into the lower canyon. And just for fun, I played with shutter speed on these. Most had the shutter at around 1/30 sec, one has it at 1/320.

At 1/320, the water is pure stop action. But with a slower shutter, certain parts of the waterfall to blur — which the eye sees as motion. If I had brought my tripod, I could have kicked the shutter speed down to a 5 seconds or more, to get the gossamer texture that’s so popular. But the wind was painfully after a few minutes so I went hand-held.

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As to the best time to shoot (for the lighting) that kinda depends on the weather. We wanted to make Gullfoss our first stop on the Golden Circle trip to avoid the tour buses and catch some morning light. But we got overcast, muted light. But on a sunny day, a late afternoon visit to Gullfoss might be perfect.


From Gullfoss, it’s about a 10 click drive back to Geysir. There’s a whole complex at Geysir with gas station, food vendors, and the ever-present Icelandic wool retailers. We got lunch there and looked at maps.

Geysir is one of the three main stops for the Golden Circle and it’s the most underwhelming. The mud pots and thermal pools are fun but the actual geyser is mostly blowing off steam. (Sorry) Old Faithful pumps out way more water (and even that tends to be underwhelming).

Geysir, Golden Ring

I liked the shape of this bubbling pool.

I did get a nice shot of the geyser’s steam trail, quite by chance. That made me realize that shooting towards the light gives the geothermal display more impact.

Geysir, Golden Ring

Geysir does its thing

So, Golden Circle. Next time I come back, I want to rent a car and spend much of the day at Thingvellir National Park to watch the continents drift apart. Later on, I’ll head out to Gullfoss for the late afternoon light.

A Note on Tours

Of course there are no end to tours for Golden Circle, it’s the most popular one on the island. And the tours can be quite informative, not to say convenient. But general tours are terrible for anyone who wants distinctive images.

There are lots of photo oriented tours. And if you have a group, these can be a decent deal, $700-$800 for the day. This is a great approach, the guides know the best light and positions, something that’s tough to figure out on your own.


2 Comments on “Land of Ice: Photographing the Golden Circle

  1. Pingback: The lure of Kauai | Travel, Photograph, Experience

  2. Pingback: Iceland Trip: Germ of an Idea | Travel, Photograph, Experience

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