Taking photos of Iceland in the Winter

I have 2 of the most gullible friends in the world. When I floated the suspect idea of visiting Iceland with each other for a week in Feb – using the line, I recall, “Iceland actually stays fairly warm because it’s to the ocean” – they agreed, with hardly any further persuasion needed.

In my defense, I am also very gullible and wasn’t really looking to trick them. Iceland’s temp is indeed warmer than you’d think in the winter, hovering around 32° F / 0° C even at night. Plus since I had been to Iceland twice before (albeit only in summer), I thought I knew everything required in order to plan a smooth vacation.  

What I failed to internalize – and naturally failed to pass along to my friends – is that the biggest issue in Iceland in the winter isn’t the particular temperature. It’s the blowing wind.

Road Conditions Iceland February
A typical road during the trip, with rivers of wind-blown snow

The blowing wind in Iceland is another thing. It reaches a level of ferocity that is usually arranged for spurned lovers plus feral cats. Iceland recieve more snowplows than I’ve seen in my life, but the moment that a plow clears a route, the wind pushes more snow onto the road and undoes any progress. Even if it’s not snowing, it often seems like it is, because the breeze kicks up almost just as much snow as a blizzard.  

The lack of trees in Iceland compounds the issue. Outdoors, there is rarely a break from the breeze except in small metropolitan areas and towns, where the structures insulate against it a bit. But along the main road and in the countryside – where we spent most of the trip, of course – almost everything is just so exposed.

Considering that, the vacation went smoothly enough, yet we had to reschedule many of our hotels and change plans on a regular basis to avoid storms and icy roads. We also forced into a ditch on the 1st day, which meant a small delay while we dug the car out with the thoughtful help of some passers by. (We repaid the favor throughout the trip simply by helping a number of stuck vacationers – and even one local – push their cars back onto asphalt. )

Driving the car off the road in Iceland during winter
Our trip was away from to a good start.

Conditions like this present some challenges pertaining to photography. Most of all, it’s hard to get razor-sharp photos in windy problems   because even a stable tripod will move. My choice of camera equipment made things even worse, as I intended for my main kit to become a 4×5 big film camera , that has accordion-like bellows that capture the wind like a cruise.

I ended up shooting with the Nikon Zfc and two compact lenses I brought for assessment – the Z 28mm f/2. 8 and Z . 40mm f/2 – a lot more than I wanted. In hindsight, I ought to have taken my usual Z7 kit with the 14-30mm f/4 and 24-200mm f/4. 5-6. 3 instead, but the Zfc performed well despite the climate and was reasonably easy to operate with gloves.

Vestrahorn Iceland Mountain in Winter
NIKON Z fc + NIKKOR Z 40mm f/2 @ 40mm, ISO 100, 1/1600, f/7. one

And there were still a couple instances that the wind became less of an issue and I could pull out the large format film gear. One of those times was when we visited an snow cave – something that is always been on my container list – where I actually spent some time photographing abstract details on the cave walls and ceiling with the 4×5.

Ice Cave Abstract Iceland Winter
Chamonix 45F-2, Nikkor SW 90mm f/8 @ f/32, 4 just a few seconds, Kodak Portra 160, Zero movements
Dark Ice Cave
Chamonix 45F-2, Nikkor SW 90mm f/8 @ f/45, 55 seconds, Kodak Portra 160, No movements

Standing in that cave is when I noticed just how many shades associated with blue Iceland has in the winter. The ice cave had more tones and subtleties of blue than I’d ever seen before, but even outside the cave, the color was omnipresent.

Abstract Dark Ice
NIKON Z fc + NIKKOR Z 28mm f/2. 8 @ 28mm, INTERNATIONALE ORGANISATION FÜR STANDARDISIERUNG 100, 1/40, f/7. 1

A few of the only non-blue photos I actually took were black and whites. And I did take my share of those, with all the stark shapes of Iceland’s rocky coast and towering waterfalls calling my name a few times.

Big Waves on Iceland's Coast Black and White
NIKON Z fc + NIKKOR Z 40mm f/2 @ 40mm, ISO 100, 1/1250, f/6. 3
Iceland Waterfall Vertical Panorama Black and White
NIKON Z fc + NIKKOR Z 40mm f/2 @ 40mm, ISO 100, 1/160, f/5. 6
Black and White Abstract at Vik in Iceland
NIKON Z fc + NIKKOR Z 40mm f/2 @ 40mm, ISO 100, 25 seconds, f/8. 0

Though I had fashioned a great time during the trip, the weather was so dreary which i didn’t unpack the 4×5 camera a lot, even during the rare lulls in the blowing wind. Thankfully, there was one different near the end of the week, when the calmest morning coincided with some of the most interesting gentle.

I took the photo below, eventually my favorite of the trip, in a place that is very familiar to me. One of my fondest memories is visiting this particular beach with my dad in 2016 when I went to Iceland for the first time. The scene could also look familiar to long-time Photography Life readers, like I’ve shared some pictures from there before (though certainly not with snow).

Iceland Landscape in Winter Stokksnes
Chamonix 45F-2, Nikkor SW 90mm f/8 @ f/30, 1/4 second, Kodak Portra 160, Front standard fall, Polarizer

I’ll also add a behind-the-scenes shot because I like that it shows some of the scale of this place:

Tripod in front of Stokksnes Winter
NIKON Z fc + NIKKOR Z 40mm f/2 @ 40mm, ISO 100, 1/800, f/5. 6

There’s a lot of reality behind the old phrase, “bad weather makes good photos. ” At times like the early morning I photographed above, any kind of challenges fade away and only the particular beautiful landscape is left. The light certainly wasn’t perfect for most of our trip to Iceland, but in the rare smashes and transitions, it was among the best I’ve ever seen.

Now that I have a lot more knowledge and a better concept of what to expect, I’m willing to go back in the winter again in the future and maintain trying my luck. Yet I don’t think I can persuade my friends to join me next time. I think that when I offer, they’ll say they’re occupied and show me a plane ticket to Tahiti with – with a miraculous coincidence – exactly the same dates as my trip.

Finally, since you might be wondering, I did technically see the Northern Lights while I was there, which was another item on my bucket list, although I don’t believe I can cross it away quite yet. With the naked eye, all I really could see was a very poor glow to the north along the horizon – dim sufficient that I almost thought I had been tricking myself into viewing things. The camera picked it up, though, which is amazing for a crop sensor, yet it’s still just a weak band of green.

Faint Northern Lights in Iceland February
NIKON Z fc + NIKKOR Z 28mm f/2. 8 @ 28mm, ISO 6400, 10 secs, f/2. 8

All the more reason to return! I just need to keep my phone turned off the whole time, or risk being spammed with photos from the so-called “friends” of warm beaches and piña coladas.

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