Photographing Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula

As a photographer, I treat a destination like Iceland with enormous respect. I research the place with as much depth as I can muster: do searches of tours (both enthusiast-oriented and general), read up on the culture, talk to friends. And mostly try to connect the best images I find (often on Pinterest) with logistical issues.

And for me, the two areas that held the most charm artistically were the South Coast and Snaefellsnes peninsula. I decided early on to do several days along the South Coast with a 4-wheel rental. The place is a few hours from Reykjavik and has 6 or 8 excellent photo locations. But the Snaefellsnes photo sites were harder to get hard data on – so I decided to do a one day tour.

Reykjavik Excursions, like all the major providers, picks you up at your hotel fairly early, @7:30. And after getting folks checked in, it’s off for the (very long) day.  The peninsula is north-west of the city, over two hours away. So our guide spent the first hour or so doing an overview of the country. Some notes:

Historically, fishing has been the most important industry, not surprising given the island’s location along the northern edge of the Gulf Stream. Iceland had to fight other nations (particularly the UK) to maintain this industry from being overfished during the “Cod Wars.”

The country’s location also gave this little country (330,000 people) two big airports absolutely free. During WW2, the Brits built the city airport for a base in the mid-Atlantic. Soon after, the American’s built what became the international airport would become a prime base for NATO during the Cold War. (In fact, the American troops didn’t leave the country until 2006.) That also meant Iceland got more money under the Marshall Plan.

The airports and a mid-Atlantic location also led to the country having a far larger presence in the airline industry (with Icelandair) than its size would warrant.

All the troops led to a TV station that played American film and TV. One reason the natives speak such good English.

The country gets all it’s energy from renewables, esp. geothermal.

Tourism is now the largest industry and in the last few years (since the volcanic eruptions put Iceland on everyone’s radar screen).

The country still has some dairy and sheep farming but it’s difficult to make a living in this traditional way even for folks whose family’s have been involved for years. There are any number of Icelandic horses and some are still used for sheep roundups. Most are for personal use or for tourists.

Our guide also answered the question everyone had on their minds, why’s it so expensive. Partly the answer is the cost of importing so many goods. Part of the problem is infrastructure. A country half the size of Great Britain has to have roads and harbors all over the place. But Iceland has less than 1% of the population.

Approaching Snaefellsnes

As we climbed into the higher elevations, our guide pointed out the light reflectors by the side of the road. Each about a meter high and maybe 20 meters apart on the side of the road.  The snow is an issue for half the year in this area (as in most of the country). And during snowstorms, the reflectors are the only thing telling drivers if they’re still on the road.

The wind is also a huge factor. Once you leave the lowlands, the wind can blast a car or truck of the road fairly easily. In fact, just the day before our tour a bus was blown over.


Iceland, Landscape and Logistics

Iceland wasn’t what I expected. Not that I had any deep insights of how it might be: Bjork’s from there, it’s cold, vaguely Scandinavian, there’s fishing, volcanos that shut down Europe’s airports, eco-tourism. And of course, it’s world-class photo site.

Iceland seems designed for photography. This place in the North Atlantic exists because here the tectonic plates came together and the volcanos did the rest. The island is nature at its purely primal — land being shaped, vegetation making its early forays into terraforming. And because the land is so new, there’s a palette of light and color that can only exist here.

When you first arrive, you almost feel it’s too spare, too contrasty — blacks and whites everywhere, gray skies and deep blue sea. Like the Lightroom setting were pushed way too far. The photo locations in Iceland are like magazine spreads, the design elements are just that tightly chosen.

In some ways the graphical elements here are resonant of Hawaii, black sand beaches, the volcanic valleys you see at the end of the blacktop, mountain vs. ocean-side plains, the surrounding ocean. There is a huge difference of scale between these two volcanic areas though. Instead of a few Hawaiian volcanos sticking their heads up, you have quite a large island, about half the size of Great Britain. So the Iceland landscapes have big shoulders.

Then there’s the climate issue — the glaciers, the 66 degree latitude. That changes the seasons and the vegetation and everything. Iceland and Hawaii could be brothers (talking pure photographic design, not culturally).  But in Iceland the volcanos are clothed with Nordic notes.

The central core of it is a plateau build out of volcanic activity that’s been flattened a bit by ten thousand years of Ice Age glaciation. So there’s kind of a mountain/glacier plateau that turns into wide coastal plains that spread like spokes, peninsulas that extend the geologic activity into the Atlantic.


The Reykjavik peninsula is one spoke, Sneafellsnes, just above it at 9 o’clock, another. And the entire coastline is wrapped that way with fjords and bays that made fishing such an obvious tradition.

Iceland is as unique in its own way as a Monet. The challenge though, for a photographic artist, is to find a shooting and post-production style that will capture the primal power of nature, the color contrasts, the almost painful simplicity of a landscape palette. And that’s something I’m still exploring.

Engaging with This Place

Iceland Map

Iceland isn’t like a road trip into the mountains. It’s in the middle of nowhere, literally. Hotels are soon booked. Many of the famous sights are a trek from the city over two lane roads. And it’s not a place I’d  drive without a decent GPS, the right clothing, a vehicle that can handle the Iceland weather — and a pretty clear idea of what I should look out for.

That’s why the Iceland tourism industry does so much handholding. But a little knowledge of where to go and how to get there will allow you to engage as little (or as much) with the tourism folks as you want.

Reykjavik. About 2/3 of the 330,000 Icelanders live in or around the capital. The rest of the folks live in little villages and towns along the Ring Road. Reykjavik is an interesting city for it’s size and worth exploring. The old town is fun to wander, the shopping district around Laugavegur street is nice, esp. if you’re looking for wool clothing (and who isn’t in a world of global warming). There are some OK museums. And there’s lots of good restaurants.

And then you have the people. Walking around the city, I was always struck by the people. A highly educated country, with all that Nordic social awareness. The whole country is powered by geothermal and renewables. Who else is close? And when you talk to a car rental or computer shop person, you get helpful interactions, perfect English and a personal connection. After a couple of sunny days, I was starting to think how pleasant it would be to live there (if it weren’t for the weather as we So Cals say so often).

Ring Road. The part of Iceland that isn’t the city is mostly off the Ring Road (or the Golden Circle circuit) that starts just north of the city. This main road is mostly in good shape, mostly two lanes, mostly with a painfully narrow shoulder. It’s a fairly easy road to travel except for all those months of snow. At for those winter (or shoulder season) months you should have a 4 wheel drive. And no, the car rental prices aren’t great.

The Ring Road is an ultimate road trip, with vistas that seem to stretch out forever and a range of spots that demand a photo. You’ll see all kinds of posts about taking Ring Road trips and what to visit. Lots of tourists will do a section of the road in a day car rental — down the South Coast or along the Golden Circle. The more adventurous will go up to the Sneafellsnes Peninsula — or better yet, do the entire road in a week or more. And the full tour can be worth it; the island has enough variety and natural beauty to sustain interest.


Not a “sight,” just a farm I saw bit on the Ring Road past Vik

Another spot just off the road called Maeri, South Coast Ring Road

Tours. Most visitors use tours as their primary way of experiencing the non-city Iceland. The big four tours:

  • Northern Lights — going wherever the forecast says is most likely
  • Blue Lagoon — a geothermal project that turned into an outdoor spa
  • Golden Circle — Thingvelir NP, Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall
  • South Coast — waterfalls, Black Beach, Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach

Some of the other common (non-photo) tours include:

The tours I’ve done were smartly led by guides who could capture the essence of the place. So, do some tours if only to get acquainted with the history and culture.

Photo Tours

In Iceland , photo-enthusiast tours are big business.  Lots of the big name American photo guides do Iceland. But enthusiasts shooters will also find top level tour guides who work out of the city. Just do a search for “Iceland photo tours.”

Anyone who’s done a photo tour will know the benefits:

  1. The most photogenic spots
  2. Perfect time of day to shoot a kick-ass picture
  3. Photo tips
  4. Tour members at all levels of experience
  5. They do ALL the logistics, you have fun.

On the down side, these trips can be pricey. Most of the ones I’ve researched will charge a fixed fee from $700-$800 for a one day tour on up. And that fee will cover a small group (usually defined as 3 or 4). So a person (like me) who’s traveling with non-photo enthusiasts, has to pony up a lot.

Photo tours that originate here in the US are organized for individual booking. But most Reykjavik tours that are oriented towards individual buyers are geared towards non-photographers. Enthusiasts do these tours but the companies are after a more mass market visitor. So if you want a photo-friendly tour, you need a group or deep pockets. (I know, it seems like an obvious business opportunity.)

A few local photo tour links:

A few non-local (and so high-end) photo tours:

Most enthusiasts on a budget will sign up for a general tour and try to grab shots here and there. But that kind of tour is never ideal — your locations aren’t always the best photographically, the lighting hasn’t been planned for, and you’re rushed along more than a photog likes.

Longer Tours

To me, the ultimate photo approach here would be a road trip. It’s something you can do on your own for a day or  5 days or 15. It’s a tour idea you can do without any help at all, just rent a car or 4-wheel for yourself or your party, book hotels around the Ring Road or do the AirBNB or guesthouse route.

Or you can book with a company that will give you detailed maps and instructions of where exactly you can go during those 5, 7, 20, 12, or 15 days and will do accommodation bookings as well (for a price). It’s a question of whether you want to do the logistics and research and planning or not.

But these longer tours are really the ultimate way to see this complex country in all it’s glory.

Road conditions site

That’s all for now.

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.


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