What do the movies Fast & Furious 8, Rogue One, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Prometheus, Thor 2, Noah and Batman Begins have in common? Scenes in all of them were filmed in the otherworldly fire and ice landscapes of Iceland! This small volcanic island nation has become a favorite of Hollywood location scouts as a ready-made stand-in for distant planets, the beginning of time, or world apocalypse. Iceland's resemblance to some far-off planet is so convincing that nine of the twelve Apollo astronauts, who would later set foot on the moon between 1969 and 1972, came to Iceland to train for their space missions.
As a mere 20 million-year-old "infant"—compared to other lands on our 4.5 billion-year-old planet—Iceland maintains a freshness, a rawness and a newly-made aura that begs to be photographed. While this dramatic world of black lava landscapes, torrential waterfalls, crystalline glaciers and surging coastline should be enough to tempt any landscape photographer, imagine this setting in winter—envision an ice-shrouded frozen planet, punctuated with twisted lava forms, geysers and bubbling hot springs. Accessible and photogenic deep-blue ice caves, steaming fumaroles, an awe-inspiring iceberg lagoon, and the possibility of the nighttime aurora borealis spawn seemingly endless powerful graphic imagery.
Iceland's unpredictable weather—even more variable in winter—gives rise to swift, picturesque rivers with 10,000 thunderous waterfalls that flow across the tortured volcanic landscape. Ever-changing clouds accentuate polychrome rhyolite hillsides, striking basalt columns and sculptural sea arches. Snow, rain, sunshine, freezing and (almost) balmy conditions are all possible in a single day. But, as a destination for winter landscape photography, all you can say is Iceland is smoking hot!
We travel eastward out of Reykjavik along the coast road through dramatic volcanic landscapes to the town of Vik. Along our route, we stop at the impressive Seljalandsfoss—a 130-foot-high gauzy cascade plunging into an amphitheater-like pool—and Skógafoss—surging over a cliff in a broad sheet—and also capture images of the panoramic scenery. The area is renowned for wild and untouched seascapes. We photograph the rugged black beaches near Vik, and Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey with their impressive sculptural coastal features, including the Reynisdrangar sea stacks.
We continue further eastward to the Vatnajökull region which was designated as a national park in 2008. Vatnajökull is Europe's largest icecap by volume—a relic of the last ice age. One of its outlet glaciers, Breiðamerkurjökull, calves into the picturesque Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. A short river flows from the lagoon to the ocean and, twice daily, the tide carries icebergs out of the lagoon and washes them up on the black volcanic beach. This is one of the most unique and dynamic landscape photography locations in Iceland—and the world. To make sure we capture its essence we stay four nights in the area. Our base is a nearby guesthouse—the closest accommodation to the lagoon and only about an eight-minute drive away. We make repeated visits to Jökulsárlón and the iceberg beach. Depending on accessibility and safety considerations at the time of our visit, we have also scheduled photography at the spectacular Vatnajökull ice caves. At night we direct our attention to any stretch of clear sky to see if aurora borealis appears over the icebergs.
Following our shooting days near Vatnajökul, our journey takes us further east into a dramatic fjord landscape. We spend the night on the coast before continuing to Lake Mývatn.
From our comfortable hotel base on Lake Mývatn, we photograph the nearby geothermal area and the otherworldly volcanic features surrounding the lake. We also visit the tumultuous Goðafoss waterfall—which should be partially frozen. At Mývatn, as well as at all other locations, we respond to any possible northern lights events by photographing after dark.
Jeff Vanuga and Icelandic photographer Daniel Bergmann lead our remarkable March trip through the most diverse, dramatic and photogenic winter landscapes in Iceland. Join them and experience Iceland's hearty Viking hospitality, and capture the recurring interplay of light and weather that traverses some of the least photographed—and most unearthly—environments in the northern hemisphere.
For more information on this trip, check out these trip reports from past years' trips:
2015 Trip Report by Joe Van Os
2016 Trip Report by John Shaw
Depart from home.
Day 2 (Feb 16)
Most US flights to Iceland arrive at the Keflavik airport in the early morning and those from Europe land in early afternoon. Transfer to Reykjavik. Following our welcome dinner, with favorable conditions, we photograph the aurora borealis in a preselected scenic location.
We travel along the coast road to the southernmost mainland town of Vik. We photograph Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls en route and the monochromatic seascapes near Vik, Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey. (BLD)
We continue to explore the spectacularly scenic glacier country of the southeast coast as we cross the Skaftafell region. This afternoon, we photograph at Jökulsárlón—where strikingly-sculpted, blue-tinged icebergs float in a densely-packed lagoon. Our guesthouse is at the foot of Vatnajökull—larger than all other glaciers on mainland Europe combined. As our primary goal of this trip is to create landscape images in the best available light, we are on location sometimes before sunrise for the pre-dawn light—waking at 6 AM and returning to our hotel for breakfast after the morning session. (BLD)
We return to Jökulsárlón lagoon these mornings. The icebergs, calved from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, are irregularly shaped and sized—marbled with black volcanic ash and sediment. For many photographers, Jökulsárlón is the photographic highlight, among the many fantastic landscape highpoints in Iceland. From our strategically-located base near Jökulsárlón we may photograph as far east as the Stokksnes Peninsula or as far west as Skaftafell. Each day's photography locations will be chosen based on weather and local road conditions. We plan to photograph Vatnajökull glacial ice caves (depending on their accessibility and safety factors). Rivers running under the glaciers form the ice caves but the locations of caves vary from year to year and conditions inside the caves (the amount of water being the primary concern) can change from day to day. As these ice caves are dynamic, the accessibility of a photogenic cave has to be decided once we're in the area. For our cave excursion we use local ice guides who provide us with appropriate safety equipment. (BLD)
The main highway follows the coast eastward and then northward to Breiddalsvik. The small fishing village is located in the longest and widest valley in East Iceland and framed on two sides by mountains rising to 3,600 feet. (BLD)
We plan on traveling to Lake Mývatn. Once in East Iceland, we make a decision based on road conditions further north. Due to the low population density in the extreme northeast, roads are not plowed for snow every day and drifting snow can obscure visibility. We obtain local (and reliable) road snow conditions and decide whether to spend additional time in the Eastfjord region before continuing to Lake Mývatn—a true winter Icelandic adventure! We reserve the right to adjust the itinerary based on local weather, snow and road conditions. (BLD)
In the Lake Mývatn area we photograph the Námafjall geothermal area where boiling mudpools bubble and the steam of hissing fumaroles is accentuated by the frigid air. The spectacular Goðafoss waterfall is nearby and it is particularly photogenic in winter when much of its thundering cascade can be frozen. Our days are spent exploring the region, including the lakeshore and the coast to the east of Húsavík. (BLD)
Day 12 (Feb 26)
We drive to Akureyri for a domestic flight to Reykjavik. Transfer to Keflavik airport in time for late afternoon international flight departures. (B)