What should I bring on my Photo Tour to Iceland?
Unless you have traveled abroad on photography trips in the past, deciding what to take with you to Iceland is most likely a challenge. My clients frequently ask what camera equipment and personal gear they should bring to Iceland, and my response is always the same — only take what you need. The following section should help with those difficult decisions.
If you are like me, you own more than one camera body, many lenses, filters, at least one flash and tripod, and a lot of other gear. However, if you are traveling to and around Iceland, you should minimise the gear you bring to what you will actually use. My photography gear recommendations are for landscape and wildlife photography and are predominantly intended for DSLR users. What camera system you use (Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji etc.) is irrelevant to my recommendations. Drones are becoming a part of peoples camera gear and are allowed in most parts of Iceland, but should be used sensibly and without disturbing people or animal life as a general rule.
If you recently purchased a new DSLR, lens or other gear, I highly recommend using and practicing with it before arriving in Iceland. Many shooting situations you will encounter in Iceland may be only momentary, in poor weather, or from precarious locations such as from a cliff or beach with the potential for large rouge waves. If you are familiar with your gear, you will stand a much better chance of capturing those difficult or fleeting shots.
The following list provides my photography gear recommendations, based on my extensive experience photographing Iceland in all four seasons and from leading photography tours for many years.
Bring two camera bodies; the second will be your backup. Once you leave Iceland’s major cities, there is only one camera shop available if you need to replace or repair a camera, and it is in Akureyri in North Iceland.
If you do not have a second camera body or cannot borrow one, you can take excellent photographs with your Smartphone (e.g., iPhone). In fact, I often shoot Smartphone images in addition to shooting with a DSLR, because it is easy to post them to the web while in Iceland.
If you have them, I recommend bringing both a wide angle lens and an ultra wide angle lens. Fixed or zoom wide angle lenses are a necessity for landscapes and seascapes. I regularly use 16-35mm and 24-70mm lenses on a full-frame camera with the 16-35mm used most often.
A telephoto lens is also useful for zooming in on areas of interest in landscapes or seascapes and can be used for wildlife. Most wildlife in Iceland can be photographed successfully with a telephoto lens with a zoom range to 400 mm. However, a 200 mm or 300 mm can be used effectively, but images with these lenses may require some cropping.
Using a polariser filter is highly recommended for landscape photography. Polarisers bring out details in the sky and enhance colour saturation, and Iceland’s landscapes and seascapes are wide open and unobstructed, meaning most photographs will include the sky. A polariser filter is also important when photographing water or wet surfaces since it cuts out the glare, but it should be used with care.
Neutral Density (ND)
ND filters are a must when shooting waterfalls at a slow shutter speed to get a silky look in the falling water, and you will most likely see and photograph many waterfalls in Iceland. ND filters also work well on lakes, bays, and the ocean when you want to smooth the surface of moving water and waves, providing an artistic look to an image. There are many types available to include variable ND filters, any of which will work. My ND preference is the rectangular filters that slide into a holder attached to the front of a lens. This type of filter will not cause vignetting like round filters on to the front of a wide angle lens. Whether you use the rectangular or round ND filters, I also recommend bringing several filters enabling stopping down the exposure by two to ten stops, giving you the ability to adjust to varying light and your desired images. Be careful when using polarisers with a circular ND-filter, they can get stuck to each other because of a grain of sand being stuck in the threads or they being fastened too tight.
Tripod and ballhead
Bring along a tripod and ball head that are solid and capable of being used in various types of terrain (e.g., cliffs, rocks, sand, water). Ideally, the tripod is lightweight for long hikes and climbing up or down steep trails and cliffs. The wind in Iceland can be very strong at times; therefore, the tripod needs to be able to withstand high winds and is also one that you can suspend your camera bag from to hold it firmly to the ground. Recently one of my clients broke his ball-head but could get it replaced in the camera shop in Akureyri.
A shutter release, either wired or electronic, is critical to most landscape shots, especially long exposures. I always carry an inexpensive spare in case my better one fails to work. Keep spare batteries with you if your shutter release uses batteries.
Camera rain cover
Many excellent landscape images are made in poor weather conditions, and in Iceland the weather can change rapidly. I highly recommend some form of rain cover for both your camera and lens, as well as for your camera bag. Most camera bags have built in covers, but if yours does not, light plastic bags work well and can even be used to cover your camera and lens when shooting. A soft towel is good to have to wipe rain of your camera and lenses.
Of course you will remember your camera’s battery charger, but if you have a spare, bring it too. One of my recent tour clients left his in his hotel room and did not discover it was missing until the next day in another location. Fortunately, my client had a spare. Another client’s charger went bad, which could have been caused by the power differences between Iceland and the USA. Bring a spare if you have one! Often it can be useful to have a dc convertor to use in the car, for example when traveling in the highlands when electricity is not available for charging the batteries.
You cannot bring too many memory cards, especially if you are not bringing a portable backup/storage device or laptop. My recommendation is to bring as many memory cards as you can afford, especially if you will be bracketing or focus stacking images, and do not bring a portable storage device or laptop unless you want to review your photos at night with your guide. Instead of spending time backing up cards, spend your time shooting. The days are long and nights are short during spring, summer and early fall. Use that time shooting. If you follow that advice, also carry your memory cards separately from your camera gear, just in case your gear is stolen from your car or hotel room, which is unlikely in Iceland, where the crime rate is very low. I carry my used memory cards in a zip-lock bag in an inside zippered pocket in my jacket.
One more tip on memory cards. Change memory cards each day, whether they are full or not. That way, when you return home, your images are organised by day (date), and you can more easily create separate folders/directories by day. This method makes it easier when identifying locations for naming images. Some camera models allow you to create seperate folders for each day on your memory card, so you do not have to change them every day.
Laptop or tablet
Bring one if you are going to be in Iceland for long periods of time. I prefer to travel with a tablet and not process images in hotel rooms after a long day of shooting. You can use your smartphone for processing some images if you need to post shots to the internet for your friends or clients to view while you are on the road. Wifi is sometimes slow or unstable when staying at guesthouses or hotels in Iceland. It is also useful to buy an Icelandic sim-card for your phone, it reduces the cost of 3G or 4G connections when traveling.
Deciding what personal gear to bring to Iceland can be as difficult as deciding what camera gear you will need. Critical to choosing your personal gear is, obviously, the time of year of your trip. If you will be in Iceland in the winter different clothing is required than if you will be there in the summer. However, the most important recommendation is to think in LAYERS. Regardless, of the season, use layers effectively, ensuring comfort when the weather changes, because it will change nearly everyday at least once depending on several factors, such as location.
An excellent resource for anticipating Iceland’s weather can be found at: https://weatherspark.com/averages/27562/Reykjavik-Capital-Region-Iceland or check the Icelandic www.en.vedur.is
The following list provides my recommendations for personal gear and is based on living in Iceland all my life and being outdoors exploring this amazing country as a professional landscape photographer. Keep in mind, personal gear is available in stores and shops in even the smallest of towns. Therefore, if you need something or need to replace gear, it is probably available throughout the country, but it can be expensive and limited in variety.
Your clothing should be comfortable while rugged enough for casual to strenuous hiking, climbing or descending trails or locations where there will be no trails. Be prepared for wet, windy, and cold weather, as well as sunny, warm weather, depending on the season. Again, consider layering your clothing.
The season(s) you will be in Iceland dictates the right jacket or coat to bring to Iceland. Ideally, your jacket or coat, regardless of season should:
Rain gear is a must in Iceland and should be considered a layer. As the saying goes in Iceland, if you do not like the weather, wait 5 minutes and it will change. Rain gear includes a waterproof and windproof jacket with a hood and rain pants.
Keep your gear easily accessible in your vehicle. Even if you are traveling to Iceland in the warmer seasons, bring along gloves, especially if you are going to be traveling to northern Iceland or the highlands. I recommend lightweight, windproof gloves for the warmer seasons and well-insulated gloves for the colder seasons.
Quality hiking boots are essential to a successful visit to Iceland. To get to most good locations in Iceland, you will need to hike on a variety of terrains. Your hiking boots should provide ankle support, good traction and be waterproof, as well as warm, if you will be in Iceland during the colder seasons. If you purchase hiking boots for your trip to Iceland, be sure to thoroughly break them in before arriving.
If you wear sunglasses at home, do not forget to bring them to Iceland. The days are long during Iceland’s warmer seasons, meaning you could be in bright sunlight for very long days. Polarised sunglasses will prevent your eyes from fatiguing and will assist you in better seeing what you will be photographing by eliminating glare and saturating colours.
Same as the rest of Europe, 200V @ 52Hz. You need power converters when using most USA electronic devices. Details at: www.123.com Pay attention to wattage requirements.
You do not need it; there are no mosquitoes or other biting insects in Iceland. However, there are small annoying flies in some wetland areas in late spring and summer. If you need or should want to avoid them, bring fly-nets to put over your head.
If you do own a pair of light binoculars you can bring them if you are looking for birds or wildlife, but you might miss the shot while reaching for your camera, so you don’t really need them.
Maps and Guide Books
Available in bookstores everywhere in Iceland. Kortabók Máls og menningar (The Mál og menning Road atlas) is most useful because it is designed to meet the needs of those who travel around Iceland. The country is divided up into 60 pages of maps with a large overlap between pages, making the book convenient to use. The Mál og menning Road atlas was nominated world’s best atlas and has since then been Iceland’s most popular atlas. Also you can find local brochures in every gas-station and information centre around Iceland.
There are more cell phones per capita in Iceland than any other country. Therefore, cell phone coverage is generally excellent in Iceland and available all around Ring Road, but not as good in the highlands. In addition, most major carriers have international plans for short periods of time at very reasonable rates. In addition, many newer cell phones are capable of use in Iceland without changing SIM cards (e.g., iPhone).
Iceland’s currency is called the Krona (plural Kronur), which is often abbreviated to ISK. It is often difficult to find someplace that will accept the US dollar or any other foreign currency. Although you will find that you can complete transactions for everything using a credit or debit card, it may be useful to have some local currency. The best place to exchanging your cash into Kronur when you arrive and back to US dollars when you leave, is at the airport currency exchange where there is no transaction fees. Often hotels and other exchange counters charge a significant fee for this service.
All credit cards must have an EMV chip embedded in them. Check yours and exchange them if they do not have the chip. More information can be found here: www.123.com. MasterCard and VISA are accepted everywhere.
You should not forget to check your insurances, your personal, travel and camera insurances. Also if you do need some vital medicines, be sure to bring enough for the whole trip. Your photo guide will ask you if you are in good physical shape and capable of hiking with your camera gear on your back into a mountain range. Make sure that your understanding of the terms “Easy”, “Moderate” and “Difficult” are the same as your guide’s. If not, a 20 minutes “Easy” walk can extend into a 60 minutes “Difficult” hike.
There are several options for touring Iceland, which include renting an automobile, SUV, or RV and doing it on your own, choosing one of Iceland’s many commercial tour services, or hiring a private guide, like me. Each of the options have their pros and cons, but as a private Icelandic guide, who is also a professional landscape photographer, I believe using a professional guide is the best way to see more of what you want to see and photograph in Iceland. Each of the options is described in the following list.
Travelling on your own