Iceland

During March 2018, following 9 days in Lofoten, I returned to Iceland to again experience this incredible country and its unique landscapes.

Iceland is a brutal land, harsh, raw, and exquisitely beautiful and diverse. To think of Iceland now conjures up images of volcanoes, black sand beaches, glaciers, raging waterfalls, ice caves, ice lagoons, icebergs, lava plains and of course the northern lights. Iceland in winter is snow storms, breathtakingly strong and cold winds, snow, ice, closed roads and scary driving. It is an adventure, and so much fun

Observations for the general traveller :-

  • Iceland is ALIVE.  Iceland has active volcanos, active geothermal locations, calving glaciers, shifting tectonic plates….it is alive, and raw, and harsh, and very, very beautiful.

  • Winter is a beautiful time to visit.  In 2015 in late February it was brutal, cold, grey and covered in snow and ice. Storms were prevalent with roads closed and driving was tricky. But, it was stunningly dramatic and beautiful. In 2018, in early March, it was blue skies, sunshine, clear roads mostly (except in the north around Akureyri). and easy travelling. We saw Iceland in a different light and it was also similarly enchanting.

  • The weather WILL be variable, this is the arctic. In 2015 it was cold, bleak, grey, miserable and little sunshine. In 2018 it was much the opposite, though cold, it was blue, clear skies and sunshine. It is however the wind chill that cuts right through you. Day temperatures might typically be around or a few degrees below zero. Night time temperatures could go to -10 degrees celsius as we experienced around Kirkjufell, but the wind chill was around -18 to -20 degrees celsius. In 2015 we had road closures in the south that locked us into Vik for a couple of days. You need to accept that the best laid plans will always be subject to the weather.

  • Travelling in Winter gives you the opportunity to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Across my two visits to Iceland, I have had brief displays, and not strong, and have been fairly unlucky. When the Kp index has been up then the weather and cloud has impeded us. This can be very frustrating but you must be prepared for this possibility

  • The aurora is elusive, be prepared for misses, or for waiting, or for watching the various aurora sites and predictions.  If in Iceland between probably September and the end of March, chasing the aurora is something you have to do.

  • Driving can be scary. A self drive is possible, but you need to be prepared for road closures or scarily slippery roads with fierce winds and little visibility. If you are not experienced in such conditions, then avoid. At the very least, respect the weather forecasts, the published road conditions and all the freely available information. In winter, hire cars will have snow tires and despite the snow and ice, driving can be readily managed. However, be prepared to forsake a destination in favour of safety. Your itinerary must be flexible, and allow for the possibility of road closures.

  • Daylight in February was from about 8am or so to 6pm, plenty of time to get out and explore.  If sleep is not that important to you, get out pre-dawn and enjoy the morning sunrise in this beautiful place.

  • There are supermarkets of course in the towns within reach to buy groceries, food etc., in order to self cater.   You will also find restaurants offering all kinds of fare, with pizza and hamburgers seeming to be a popular standard on any restaurant menu. In Akureyri, we went back 3 nights in a row to Backpackers for the Bernaise Burger and a couple of refreshing beers, and I would recommend it. Vik, Grundarfjordur and of course Reykjavik were other places we found restaurants to have dinner. We otherwise also shopped in Grundafjordur and Hofn at local supermarkets for dinner. The hotels we stayed at also offered some sensational food, but this gets expensive.

  • I would certainly suggest spending time along the south coast, as far as Hofn if you can manage it. Snaefellsnes is really beautiful and only a couple of hours from Reykjavik. Reykjavik and the Golden Circle is worth doing. Akureyri and the north of Iceland is out of the mass tourist hotspot and highly recommended being just 45 mins by plane from Reykjavik.

  • Akureyri was fantastic. It is a lovely city on the fjord, surrounded by mountains and with lots of snow and a stark winter beauty. We hired a car, and stayed just out of Akureyri at Skjaldarvik Guesthouse, and it was a lovely stay. We did a full day super jeep tour with IceAk that took us to Godafoss, Aldeyjarfoss, Hrafnabjargafoss, and Myvatn. We were the only two people and had much of the locations to ourselves. This is the value of Akureyri, it is far from the tourist masses that have saturated the south. I would also highly recommend IceAk for a tour in this region.

  • Jokulsarlon is not to be missed. Though my 2018 visit was a little disappointing due to the lack of ice on the Diamond Beach, and due to my Ice Cave tour to the White Walker cave paling in comparison to my Crystal Cave tour 3 years earlier, Jokulsarlon remains for me one of the most beautiful places anywhere.

  • Ice Cave tours are becoming increasingly popular. I have seen photos of the Crystal Cave being wall to wall people. My first visit to the Crystal Cave was wonderful, with just us in the cave. My second visit we went to the White Walker cave and it was disappointing. It was small, narrow and not a lot of colour. Both tours I did with LocalGuides and they were great, but my advice would be, if fit and mobile enough, to take the longer tours to more remote caves that perhaps require a bit of a hike first across the glacier. You will likely see more beautiful caves with far less people to ruin the experience.

  • Snowmobiling is such a fun experience if this is something you want to do. We had a wonderful day with perfect weather up on the Langjokull Glacier, departing from Gullfoss. Pay the extra and get a solo ride…..much more fun.

  • Even in winter, Skogafoss, Seljalansfoss, Gullfoss, Geysir, Jokulsarlon and Kirkjufell have all been overrun by a new found popularity with the world’s tourists. You need to pick your time perhaps, but as a photographer at least, finding a shot without a heap of people impeding the shot is getting increasingly difficult.

  • The iconic places are still great and worth seeing, especially Jokulsarlon, but if you can, get to Akureyri, go as far as Hofn and Vestrahorn, and find some stunning landscapes that most people do not get to.

  • Accommodation is really expensive. We stayed in various FossHotels (Jokulsarlon and Nupar……nice, great food, expensive), Airbnb cabins on Kirkjufell (literally, and it was wonderful), an apartment in Reykjavik, and various cottages and guesthouses booked through booking.com. The fondest stays were at the smaller cabins, guesthouses, and cottages.

  • Dress appropriately for the cold.  Thermals are good, particularly if it gets real cold.  I often, however, did not wear thermals, and was pretty comfortable mostly in the waterproof/windproof pants, thick wool socks, t-shirt, fleece, and down jacket, beanie, balaclava and good gloves.  The waterproof/windproof down jacket was brilliant and kept me pretty warm.

  • Our itinerary from the 2018 trip below gives some guide to how to allocate your time in Iceland :-

    • Day 1 Arrive Reykjavik, further flight to Akureyri

    • Day 2 Akureyri, super jeep tour with IceAk

      Godafoss, Aldeyjarfoss, Hrafnabjargafoss

      Myvatn, Hverrir, Dimmiborgur

    • Day 3 Akureyri, self drive around Akureyri

      Godafoss, Akureyri

    • Day 4 Flight to Akureyri, drive to Vik

      Seljalansfoss, Skogafoss

    • Day 5 Drive to Jokulsarlon

      Reynisfjara, Fradjargiljufer, Svinafellsjokull

      Jokulsarlon Ice Lagoon and Diamond Beach

    • Day 6 Drive to Hofn

      Jokulsarlon, Hofn, Stokksnes, Vestrahorn

    • Day 7 Drive to Jokulsarlon

      Vestrahorn, Jolulsarlon, Ice Cave

    • Day 8 Drive to Nupar

      Jokulsarlon, Fradjargiljufer

    • Day 9 Drive to Skogafoss

      Vik, Reynisjara, Dyhrolaey, Skogafoss

    • Day 10 Drive to Gullfoss

      Skogafoss, Gullfoss

      Snowmobiling on Langjokull Glacier

    • Day 11 Drive to Gundarfjordur (Snaefellsnes)

      Gullfoss, Geysir, Bruarfoss, Pingvellir

      Kirkjufell

    • Day 12 Self Drive Snaefellsnes

      Kirkjufell, Snaefellsjokul, Longrangar

      Arnarstapi, Budir

    • Day 13 Drive to Reykjavik

    • Day 14 Explore Reykjavik

    • Day 15 Depart Iceland


Observations for the photographer :-

  • Watch for condensation on your lens, particularly at night and if you want to shoot the aurora. There are many discussions you can find on the internet to assist you.  I was hurt once by being ill-prepared one night where condensation was an issue. 

  • Travel with a spare camera body if possible.  

  • Bring at least 3 batteries I would suggest, though it wasn't so cold for us that battery life was adversely affected

  • Bring lots of memory cards.  You will take lots of photos.  I had 2 x 32GB and 3 x 16GB for three weeks of shooting in Norway and Iceland

  • Bring a means of backing up your photos.  Every day, whilst retaining the images on the memory cards, I also downloaded my shots to a Macbook Air, and backed up again to a 64GB usb key and a 1TB external drive.

  • Get out long before dawn to capture the blue light, but also the lovely soft light as the sun finally breaks through and casts its glow over these amazing landscapes

  • Use a GND as needed.  I carried with me Lee 3 and 6 stop soft GND’s and a Polariser.

  • Use a Big/Little Stopper or equiv., as you can.  That is, a 10 / 6 stop ND, this gives you some amazing scope when shooting seascapes or running water as may be found in some delightful spots.

  • sturdy tripod is a must, especially as the wind may be really blowing.

  • Have as fast a lens as is possible for shooting the aurora.  I had a Canon 16-35L III f2.8.  I also shot with a Canon 17-40L f4, and the extra speed of the f2.8 is important.  The aurora can move fairly fast, and the shorter exposure will give you a greater definition. I was able to take well exposed Aurora shots at f2.8 with a 2 to 5 second exposure.

Lofoten Islands

During February 2018, I was fortunate enough to return to Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Images from this trip you will find on this site. Below, however, I have noted those points of interest for those willing to be rewarded by their own journey here to this most stunning of locations.

The Lofoten Islands are stunning beyond belief.  You are literally at sea-level, but surrounded by a 100km stretch of jagged peaks and turquoise waters.  You could be in the Swiss Alps or in France or in Austria.  It is every bit as magical, with snow and ice, and frozen lakes, and blizzards, and blowing snow and charming Norwegian houses. It is an amazing landscape.

To travel there in Winter is something special and I would encourage anyone to consider it.  The weather is of course hit and miss, and for my adventure this time, it was more hit than miss with blue skies, sunshine and wonderful Northern Light displays.

Observations for the general traveller :-

  • Norway is stunning.  The Lofoten Islands is Norway in a Nutshell and it is exceedingly beautiful.

  • Winter is a beautiful time to visit.  Each winter is different of course, but our visit in February 2018 had a fair amount of snow, and loads of sunshine that lit the landscape in all its winter white.

  • The weather can be quite variable, this is the arctic. In 2015 it was cold, bleak, grey, miserable and little sunshine. In 2018 it was much the opposite, though cold, it was blue, clear skies and sunshine. The temperature during the day might typically be at or just below zero. We had clear days in 2018 where the day temperatures though was around -6 to -9 celsius. At night, I did not experience really anything much colder than that, but it is the wind-chill that get’s you, and especially if you remain still, perhaps on a beach, standing in the snow, and waiting for the Norther Lights, so be prepared.

  • Travelling in Winter gives you the opportunity to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). We were fortunate during our 8 day stay in 2018 to see the lights on 4 separate nights, with three of them just amazing displays.  In 2015, we were unfortunate that the displays were far from as intense as they could be, and we were forever dodging clouds and snow flurries.  However, the Lights we saw still just blew us away.  To see the aurora stretching across the sky, shifting, dancing, flaring, dying, forever moving, was an incredible experience.

  • The aurora is elusive, be prepared for misses, or for waiting, or for watching the various aurora sites and predictions.  If in Lofoten between probably September and the end of March, chasing the aurora is something you have to do.

  • Locations for seeing/photographing the Northern Lights are many, with some of the best being :-

    • Reine/Hamnoy from the bridge looking over Eliasson Rorbuer, or above the fjord at the top of the town looking down the fjord with the lights of Reine in the middle ground and the mountain in the background.

    • Skagsenden Beach (layer up appropriately to keep warm)

    • Uttakliev Beach

  • Driving is pretty comfortable, so a self drive is an ideal way to visit and explore.  In winter, hire cars will have snow tires and despite the snow and ice, the roads are easy to drive on and are frequently ploughed.

  • Daylight in February was from about 8am or so to 4pm, plenty of time to get out and explore.  If sleep is not that important to you, get out pre-dawn and enjoy the morning sunrise in this beautiful place.

  • There are plenty of supermarkets within reach to buy groceries, food etc., in order to self cater.  We did not try any restaurants, which certainly can be found in the larger towns like Leknes and Svolvaer, but perhaps not so easily outside of the main towns.

  • Google translate comes in handy when you need to buy food, or read instructions on how to cook that food.  Most people speak good english though and are happy to help.

  • Norway, and Lofoten, is ridiculously expensive.  Perhaps why we didn't eat out to often.

  • Far from seeing all in Lofoten, I would certainly suggest spending time around SvolvaerLeknes and Reine, with much to explore from each of these places, particularly Leknes and Reine.

  • Around Leknes, visit the beaches of Haukland, Unstad, Uttakliev.  Visit Stamsund, Ure, Sennisvik, and take the coastal road back up towards Svolvaer via Valberg, rejoining the E10 and back to Leknes.

  • Towards Reine, go to Skagsanden Beach, Ramberg, Fredvang and Nusfjord.  Get off the main road and explore the quiet roads and the stunning seascapes and mountain peaks.

  • Check out Anne Gerd's Lofoten Guesthouse near Leknes, it was a wonderful stay for 4 nights.

  • The traditional Rorbeurs as an accommodation option is a good option.  We stayed at Eliasson at Hamnoy near Reine and it was a pretty cool and unique stay in a stunning location.

  • AirBnB can be an option also. We spent 3 nights at an AirBnb at Haukland Beach, and it was a great stay at a stunning location where we could walk down to the beach for beautiful morning light, or hope over to Uttakliev for Northern Lights.

  • Dress appropriately for the cold.  Thermals are good, particularly if it gets real cold.  I often, however, did not wear thermals, and was pretty comfortable mostly in the waterproof/windproof pants, thick wool socks, t-shirt, fleece, and down jacket, beanie, balaclava and good gloves.  The waterproof/windproof down jacket was brilliant and kept me pretty warm.


Observations for the photographer :-

  • Watch for condensation on your lens, particularly at night and if you want to shoot the aurora. There are many discussions you can find on the internet to assist you.  I was hurt once by being ill-prepared one night where condensation was an issue. 

  • Travel with a spare camera body if possible.  One of our team on my first trip here had his Nikon 800 simply seize with some sort of power board issue.  That camera was done for the trip. Fortunately he was able to borrow a spare body one of the other guys had with him.

  • Bring at least 3 batteries I would suggest, though it wasn't so cold for us that battery life was adversely affected

  • Bring lots of memory cards.  You will take lots of photos.  I had 2 x 32GB and 3 x 16GB for three weeks of shooting in Norway and Iceland

  • Bring a means of backing up your photos.  Every day, whilst retaining the images on the memory cards, I also downloaded my shots to a Macbook Air, and backed up again to a 64GB usb key and a 1TB external drive.

  • Get out long before dawn to capture the blue light, but also the lovely soft light as the sun finally breaks through and casts its glow over these amazing landscapes

  • Use a GND as needed.  I carried with me Lee 3 and 6 stop soft GND’s and a Polariser.

  • Use a Big/Little Stopper or equiv., as you can.  That is, a 10 / 6 stop ND, this gives you some amazing scope when shooting seascapes or running water as may be found in some delightful spots.

  • sturdy tripod is a must, especially as the wind may be really blowing.

  • Have as fast a lens as is possible for shooting the aurora.  I had a Canon 16-35L III f2.8.  I also shot with a Canon 17-40L f4, and the extra speed of the f2.8 is important.  The aurora can move fairly fast, and the shorter exposure will give you a greater definition. I was able to take well exposed Aurora shots at f2.8 with a 2 to 5 second exposure.

What Gear for Winter in Norway and Iceland

The long planned return to Iceland and Norway’s Lofoten Islands is drawing near.  Just 3 weeks away, and then four glorious weeks in the most inspiring and beautiful winter landscapes.  So, with all preparations made, flights and accommodations booked, hire cars rented and all my photographic equipment primed, I thought perhaps to share what gear I have to best capture these wonderful landscapes.

Cameras

Canon 5D Mk iv

Canon 6D Mk i

With freezing conditions, snow, rain, waterfall spray, gale force winds and all sorts of opportunities to do damage, it is important to have a back up camera.  My last trip, I had the Canon 5D Mk ii, so really looking forward to the extra resolution, the improved dynamic range, the better low light capability and the improved focus system of the Mk iv, and coupled particularly with my new 16-35 III f2.8 L series lens.  The 6D I bought for backup just for this trip.  In its own right, it is an excellent camera, great in low light, but hopefully not needed.

Lenses

Canon 16-35L III f/2.8

Canon 24-70L f/4

Canon 70-200L f/4

A highlight of any winter visit to the Arctic North is the opportunity to capture the Aurora Borealis.  Key to capture it is to have a fast, wide, lens.  The new 16-35 at f/2.8 should be ideal.  It will also be ideal for capturing those vast landscapes that Iceland and Lofoten offers.  The 24-105 is a great general purpose lens, and the 70-200 gives me scope to get tight when the opportunities demand.

Tripod

I have a fairly light weight MeFOTO A2350 Globetrottr aluminium tripod with its standard ball head.  It folds up compactly for easy packing and easy carrying.  It’s the first time travelling with it, so will see how it goes, but it has the capacity to easily manage my heavy camera and lens combo’s and deal, hopefull, with the strong winds we will certainly see in both Lofoten and Iceland

Filters

Lee Filter System, with ......

77mm and 82mm adaptor rings

2 stop soft edge GND Filter

3 stop soft edge GND Filter

10 stop “big stopper” ND Filter

105mm Landscape Polariser

A Filter system is a must for the images I hope to take, importantly to balance the wide dynamic range that I will find in Lofoten and Iceland.  The Mk iv has pretty good dynamic range, but I will still need to balance the bright skies against the foreground shadows that I will encounter, perhaps even stacking the 2 stop and 3 stop gnd’s In the same image.  The “big stopper” gives me a lot of scope to smooth out lakes, seas, and waterfalls even in the harsh light of midday, and the polariser is a must to cut through haze and harsh reflections particularly when capturing some of the stunning seascapes in Lofoten.

Storage

It is critical to have enough card storage for 4 weeks of travel.  I have a number of Sandisk 64gb sdxc and 32gb, and 16gb Compact Flash Cards.

Just as important is the backup capability.  I will have a 2TB external hard disk with my MacBook Air to routinely back up every days’s shoot too.

Other

Canon TC-80N3 Remote

Batter Charger with 3 or 4 batteries

 

A lots of gear, but all fit for purpose and enabling me to take the best images possible for this trip.

 

Next Blog.     My Itinerary for Norway and Iceland

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