Iceland in Winter 2018 Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Mar 14, 2018

If there was one thing I knew to expect in Iceland after many trips to this enchanted island, it was the weather. Watching the forecast prior to leaving the US was nerve racking to say the least. The news was reporting multiple roads and transportation routes closed due to heavy snow and high winds. Fortunately, our group of photographers all reached Keflavik Airport and made the short transfer to the capital city of Reykjavik with no delays.
As with all Joseph Van Os tours we had an enjoyable first-night meal; ours was in the city near the boat docks. In the morning we headed out in a specially-built Mercedes Sprinter 4x4 van.  Traveling southeastward along Highway 1 (Iceland’s Ring Road) we made brief stops at Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls. Seljalandsfoss drops around 200’ and is fed from the nearby glacier Eyjafjallajökull, while Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country at 50’ across and with a height of 200’. As with many of the waterfalls in Iceland, mist and spray from the cascading water create photographic challenges and I saw many participants working diligently to keep their equipment clean with terrycloth towels, microfiber cloths, camp towels and lens cloths. (One of the best tools for keeping equipment dry is the microfiber cloths which are easily used on both lenses and cameras. A good source is from Amazon where they are listed as Microfiber Cleaning Cloth–24 pack. A good investment for any trip with wet conditions.) Enough perseverance battling with the elements allowed for some really nice images of these falls surrounded by ice—and, in one case, a pleasant rainbow. After a day of driving and photography we spent the night in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Photographing in Iceland in winterLeaving early the next morning, we headed to our next destination in Skálafell, where we would stay for the next 4 nights. This area put us in close proximity to many locations we would be photographing over the course of our stay. From here we ventured out to Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon. Some of the tongues of the largest ice cap in Iceland—Vatnajökull—drop icebergs into the lagoon on their way out to sea. Around the corner, and literally a stone’s throw from Jökulsárlón, is renowned Diamond Beach. Here, icebergs from the glacial lagoon are taken by ocean currents and tossed up on stunning black sand beaches. Some of the clear, transparent icebergs have the appearance of diamonds when caught in varying light, giving the beach its name. Working with slow shutter speeds of 1-2 seconds lights the ice with a fusion of flowing water and bubbles from the ocean surf. This excursion was, however, not without mishap as two of our participants lost cameras and lenses to the ocean waves. Rogue waves are common and one has to be constantly on one’s toes for waves and icebergs moving in the flowing surf. No time for chimping on your camera under these conditions! Even with the lost equipment, participants were obtaining some world-class images.
Other areas visited during our four-night stay were Svínafellsjökull glacier, Vatnajökull glacier from Breiðárlón glacier lake, Reynisdrangar from Dyrhólaey Peninsula, and Vesturhorn Mountain at sunrise with black sand beaches reflected in the surf. One destination that did not work out was the ice caves at Vatnajökull glacier. Due to heavy rains earlier in the year, the caves were pretty much washed out or had calved. We did make one last attempt at a cave called Anaconda, but rains the night before put a thick layer of ice on the road to our destination, making the journey unsafe. Better safe than sorry! Our last day was also rained out with 80-mph winds and inches of rain, so we stayed indoors and covered some image reviews and spent a few hours relaxing before the next leg of the trip.
Aurora borealis in IcelandMoving eastward up the coast from Skálafell we were delayed for a few hours due to road damage from the heavy rains during the previous two days of storms. We worked our way up the coast making some stops along the shoreline and at the fjords. As the sun was setting we managed to photograph rough ocean surf near Breiðdalsvík where we stayed for one night. Keeping an eye on the weather and on solar activity we found that the Kp-index was 4. The Kp--index indicates changes in the Earth’s magnetic field due to storms from the sun. The greater the number (on a scale up to 9), the higher the probability of aurora activity. Even with only a moderate aurora forecast—but one of the only clear nights on the early portion of the trip—we headed out to the fjord and were treated to a wonderful display of the aurora borealis. Although short lived, we had an hour or more of shooting a jaw-dropping streaming light show.
The next morning we headed to Mývatn in the northern part of Iceland where we entertained ourselves with some of the island’s premier waterfalls in winter, Goðafoss and Aldeyjarfoss. We visited Goðafoss for two photo shoots, covering both sides of the waterfall, and made an expedition to Aldeyjarfoss. After driving as close as possible in our 4x4 van we still had a trek to make on icy roads and snow, so we put on our ice cleats and hiked the last 1.5 miles to the falls. Definitely worth the effort! Both of these waterfalls are some of my favorites in this land of waterfalls.
Our final days in Iceland were spent photographing the geothermal features near Mývatn and taking a trip to the ocean sea stack called Gatanöf in Bakkakrokur Bay in the far north of the country.  
Tide flowing past iceOverall, we had highly variable weather—which was no surprise for Iceland. Despite the weather we managed to find fantastic photographic opportunities. We covered about 75% of the Ring Road from Reykjavik to the east and around to the north of the island and stopped at countless places to photograph. Iceland—land of fire and ice—never disappoints. No matter how many times I visit, every trip turns into a new adventure. My only wish is to come back again, and again and again. I can’t seem to get enough of Iceland’s beautiful countryside or its warm and hospitable people. If you missed this trip I plan on leading another in September and, hopefully, also return again next winter. I hope to see you on the enchanted island of Iceland!

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