Iceland’s South Coast (Part 2) // Landscape Photography

I want to preface this post with some thoughts on location sharing. There seem to be two camps on this topic, share and don’t share, and I see validity in both sides; one seeks to open new experiences in nature to a wider audience and the other seeks to protect that nature from any harm that might come to it. So I would ask that everybody reading this post (especially those going Iceland, or just out into nature) considers their impact on a landscape. This can be as simple as the footprints you leave behind on a sand dune or the wrappings from your lunch: leave it better than you found it. #leaveitbetterthanyoufoundit

I think everybody can benefit from getting out into nature, so hopefully this post will inspire readers to see the beauty right on their doorsteps. Here are my top photography locations from Iceland’s magnificent south coast and some of my images from the trip.


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Valahnúkamöl

An awesome outcrop of rocks and easily accessible from either the Airport or Reykjavik. Its situation sets up for excellent sunset or late afternoon shooting, when the sun is hitting the western faces of the cliffs. There is plenty of foreground interest to be found shooting both east and west facing with amazing basalt and volcanic rocks.

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Haifoss

A must-see, this is Iceland’s second tallest waterfall. The road leading to the waterfall can be a little too bumpy for regular cars dependent on weather, but the hour or so hike is enjoyable. The waterfall itself has a fantastic lookout point, where there will no doubt be some other people taking pictures – consider wondering down stream to explore for a more unique composition looking back at the falls. Theres not much in the way of foreground interest at this site, although there is the opportunity to frame the falls between two moss covered mounds on the near side of the canyon. This is the typical composition for this falls. I found a wider shot using the riverbed as a grounding element had more impact as it shared a story: the waterfall has a sense of time, a fantastic geological event carving the rocks out over years. Look to your conditions and control your shutter speed to achieve a sense of place – a fast shutter speed will enhance the power of the falls where a slow shutter speed will smooth things out.  In addition, there is a great shot using the river as a leading line and foreground interest all the way down the canyon (SW facing). Shot in September, the mosses were still a lovely green. Look for weather with great clouds in the early morning to shoot here.

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Seljalandsfoss

Even though this shot is classically Iceland (to the point of being a tourist icon), being there in person and framing things up, you start to understand why. Sitting behind the falls at sunset is magical. Don’t go too wide here or you’ll start to include too much of the tourist infrastructure (footpaths, bridges etc). The curved foreground and overhanging rock on the right hand side of the image frame the waterfall and the landscape. There are a multitude of compositions to go for here – just remember to bring plenty of microfibre cloths to wipe down your lens and a tripod for silky long exposures.

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Hekla / Landmannalaguar

This area is tremendously vast and I have not even begun to explore it but there are unique images to be had around every corner. The lava fields on the east side of Hekla are something to behold. Their immense textural qualities doesn’t quite hold up on screen, but might do in a large format print. There are great lookout points all over this region (you can drive in a proper 4×4 or hike to many of them, I would personally recommend Midgard Adventure’s day trip) with striking reds, blues, yellows, and greens in the surround hills. For these areas, I can’t stress how important a long lens is! Cropping in on the vast landscape allows you to compose and story tell, give scale and specificity, control the viewers eye through an image. September only had very small amounts of snow in the area, so depending on the photos you are visualising be specific about when you visit. There is a fantastic hour-long walk starting from Landmannalagaur campsite, leading you around under the foot of Bláhnjúkur (blue mountain) and around to Laugahraun. There are some view points with great foregrounds of weaving streams and lava fields that lend scale and direction to your images. The colour in these mountains is unparalleled, but should not distract you from composing images. Be on the look out to use the sulphur vents as part of your image – they can be useful if trying to block certain distracting elements out, but also locate the images in a region of active volcanic activity. Camping here allows access to many proper hikes in the region (I didn’t have the opportunity to on this trip, but I would start with going to the top of Bláhnjúkur at either sunset or sunrise). In addition there is a 4-5 day trek leading all the way down to Skógar on the coast (Laugavegur Trek) which is on my to do list.

Skógafoss

A classic Icelandic location. The width and power of this waterfall is awesome to behold, but I can’t recommend enough exploring the trail that runs beyond the waterfall. Go up the metal steps and follow the river upstream (this is the track that comes from Landmannalagaur on the Laugavegur Trek so don’t venture too far). The river twists and winds and as you climb you get amazing aspect looking back over the river, Eyjafjallajökull (volcano), and the coastline beyond.

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Vik / Reynisfjara & Dyrhólaey

The Reynisfjara sea stacks are absolutely stunning (@thomasheaton). Get there early or stay out late. Tourist busses bring troves of people here from Reykjavik and its worth beating the crowds at this location. A break in the clouds at sunrise gave for amazing side lighting from the east, but the location would be equally good at sunset. Be extremely watchful of the waves and tides at this location and don’t get too close as every 10th (or so) wave comes much farther up the coast and has been known to sweep tourists into the sea. That being said, at the right times of day it is possible to go around the tip of the peninsula to view the puffin colony nesting on the east cliffs (at the right time of year). Time to crack out the telephoto and snap away – there is an abundance of birdlife at this location! (I would also recommend a pair of binoculars.) The colourations of the rocks, grasses, and mosses allow the puffins to stand out beautifully against their background. You can also get amazing foreground bokeh if you position yourself right. These little guys are fast though – try and pick out where they are landing and taking off from (they seem to go from a few select take off pads), point your camera, and keep that shutter speed above 1/1000s. The interactions between the puffins are amazing to sit and watch in the morning sun. Dyrhólaey at the west end of the beach has an awesome sea arch. There is a nice walk up to the lighthouse to get a view from above. Sunset and sunrise at this location both work, but I would consider being there for blue hour as the longer exposures possible give a dreamy quality to the otherwise stormy sea. Be prepared for windy conditions here – bring a sturdy tripod.

Grafarkirkja (or just below on the 209-208 loop)

A little detour worth taking. Don’t go all the way up to the village, but there is a great view back down the braided river system here (we’ve all seen those aerial drone shots).

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Fjaðrárgljúfur

An amazing moss covered canyon which sports a couple small waterfalls. They have rightly closed off much of this site (due to damage from foot traffic), but there are a couple shots from the metal walkway worth taking. The classic view back down the canyon has an awesome S-shape to it with about 5 layers of interest. The colours here are awesome. The small waterfall a little further up is also worth pointing your camera at; its smaller scale set against the size of the canyon (and the previous waterfalls mentioned above) lends an intimate feeling to the scene.

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Fjallsárlón / Jökulsárlón

Fjallsárlón offers close-up experiences with awesome floating icebergs while the more open Jökulsárlón speaks to the expanse that these icebergs come off from (Vatnajökull Glacier). You can walk around the shores of both of these lakes with ease. They are tricky locations to shoot just because they are constantly changing: the icebergs flow out to sea (to the ‘Diamond Beach’). Look for strong characters/contrasts and groupings in odd numbers (3’s and 5’s work well). The conditions here also make a world of difference. Fog lends a hand in simplifying the image and adding a layer of mystery (see below where the glacial mouth sits forebodingly in the background). Reflections off the lake are excellent here, so aim to visit on a calm day.

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Skaftafell

Skaftafell is a great location for general hiking encompassing all difficulty levels. Hiking up to Svartifoss is easy and a good warm up for the day – get here early if you want a good shot as the light immediately becomes very harsh as it reflects off the glossy basalt columns (bring a polariser!). The national park also includes glacier hikes. These are incredible experiences as you can get up close and personal with the ice (and wear some cool crampons and sport a pick axe). On the glaciers, I went minimal and shot only film – Ektar 100 – with a fixed 50mm lens. This was helpful as it was a compact set up that I could have around my neck without having to worry about stopping to get a camera from my backpack. The normal length lens also made me focus on the details, shapes, and textures the glaciers have to offer; step back a bit to get some great views up the glacier and give it scale. Going wide here could also get great results provided you find good texture, colour, or shape in the foreground to draw the viewer into the image.

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Lagoons / Höfn

The lagoons surrounding Höfn offer a great mix foreground interest and reflect the mountains surrounding the Vatnajökull Glacier which spills out in glacial mouths all along this section of coastline.

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Gullfoss / Thingvellir

These locations are extremely interesting due to their history and scale, but be prepared for high volumes of people due to their proximity to Reykjavik. I wouldn’t recommend them as photography locations, but equally they are must-sees on a trip to Iceland.

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Reflections on my time in Iceland

I could not be happier with my visit to Iceland. The variety of locations and photography it offered pushed me to be creative on a daily basis. I walked away with some portfolio grade shots that I feel really reflect a sense of place. I also learned a lot. Having the patience to revisit locations and not feel the need to constantly see new things just because you are travelling. Knowing when to not take the photo (sometimes conditions aren’t good or sometimes conditions are really good and you need to just be in the moment). I’ve also realised the value in writing these blog posts as a mode of reflection on my process of photography. They serve as the documentation of weeks of planning and the final realisation of a journey, as a tool to help me improve, and as a medium to share the beauty of the world. 

While recognising the value in writing, I also discovered that my process of image making seemed to be cut short – I haven’t been satisfied with the final medium of my images, namely screen-based sharing. In searching for an alternative, I have started printing my photographs. As a result, I better appreciate the time, skill, and knowledge that goes into fine-art print media and am overall more satisfied with the tactility of a final print (shameless plug: prints for sale). This is a topic for another post, however. 

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