For years I have always wanted to visit Iceland. Many photographers who have been there before are mesmerized by its diverse landscape and staggering natural beauty. There are glaciers, mountains, fjords, wide black beaches and many active volcanoes. With only 320,000 inhabitants of this small island nation (who all love nature), most of the country is unspoiled. It is simply a feast for your eyes and soul.
A year ago on a trip to Antarctica, I met a respected travel photographer named Max Schmidt (author of four books on Iceland) – he told me that Iceland is his favourite place to visit on the planet. In his own words, “Visiting Iceland is like witnessing creation.“ With that kind of endorsement, I decided it was time to finally visit – and as luck would have it, it also turned out to be a professional assignment for me.
As you will read a bit later, I found Iceland to be incredible. The people are friendly and to say the country is beautiful is the biggest understatement of the century. In this brief article, I have summarized some of my experiences and preparations in the event you decide to visit this wonderful country.
As I had never traveled to Iceland before, I needed some help in planning my trip. I decided in the end that a self drive tour was the best option for me as I wanted the flexibility of exploring things on my own.
I enlisted the assistance of Iceland Unlimited which is based in capital city of Reykjavik. I met the owner, Jón, via Trip Advisor and he was attentive and professional from start to finish. They made all of our transportation and accommodation arrangements at a very reasonable price. They even let us borrow a GPS and mobile phone as part of our package which was a pleasant surprise (and a nice touch).
His staff also went beyond the call of duty during our trip (we ran into a couple of issues caused by other parties) and were always available to help us if we ran into any trouble. So, if you are looking for an Icelandic travel agent, I highly recommend you check them out.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you travel to Iceland:
Iceland is unbelievably safe. I had heard from others that Iceland is one of the safest places you will ever visit and they were correct. I never leave valuables in my rental car or hotel room, but I broke my own rules and did this a couple of times. Of course, like everywhere else in the world, exercise some caution, but know that you can let you guard down a bit in Iceland.
Icelanders are extremely friendly people. Everywhere we went, from the larger towns to the smaller villages, we were welcomed and treated extremely well. There were a couple of times when I looked a little lost, someone would come up to me and asked if they could help. That has rarely happened to me in the past and was a very pleasant surprise.
Learn a little Icelandic before traveling. Icelandic can be a difficult language to learn, especially for us western folk – there are many sounds and characters in the language that will get your tongue tied in knots. Even though most Icelanders speak English, they do appreciate it if you try to speak a little bit of their language (plus, you might get a couple smiles/laughs as you mangle it).
WiFi is available everywhere. Iceland is one of the most “connected” countries I have ever visited – no matter if you were in the capital city (Reykjavik) or in a tiny village of 200 people, high speed internet access was always available. We generally received free WiFi in the hotels we were staying at plus many of coffee shops in the country.
The water is completely safe. I typically drink bottled water when I travel, however, the Icelandic water that comes straight out of the tap is probably from the local glacier and better than anything you will ever get from a bottle. After traveling to a few countries recently where I was concerned about water safety, it was refreshing to not have to worry about it in Iceland.
You can use a regular car on the main roads, but I recommend 4×4 for off road driving and the West Fjords. The main roads are in very good shape and you can use a regular car for travel. There are many gravel roads throughout the country that are also very well maintained and you can get away with using a regular car on them too (just slow down a bit).
If you are planning to do any off road driving, definitely rent a 4×4. I didn’t do much in the way of off road driving (the roads/terrain looked quite rough at times) but in the West Fjords, I was glad that I had a 4×4. Most of the roads are not paved, and during some of the bad weather we encountered, I am really glad I spent the extra money for a 4×4.
Purchase additional windshield and tire insurance. The basic insurance for a car rental does not cover windshield and tire damage – and since Iceland has many gravel roads, it is easy to damage these items on your car. For an extra fee (in our case, about $US 40.00 for two weeks), you can purchase extra coverage in the event your windshield of tires get damaged. We had a small incident with our 4×4, but did not have to worry about it as we purchased the extra coverage.
You will have no car insurance when crossing a river. No matter how much insurance you have for your rental vehicle, it will become null and void once you cross a river. Our vehicle actually had a sign on the dashboard warning us of this and our travel agent/car rental company even told us this before we picked up the vehicle. You can of course do what you like with your vehicle, but if the rental company finds water damage to the undercarriage, you may be responsible for the entire cost of the vehicle. Something to keep in mind.
You need a credit card to purchase fuel. All of the gas/petrol stations that I encountered in Iceland are automated and you need a credit card to purchase fuel. In fact, Icelanders use plastic for just about every purchase. Just let your bank know you will be using your card(s) overseas before you leave. VISA and MasterCard are accepted everywhere, American Express, not so much.
For those of you who prefer to use cash for non-fuel purchases, bank machines are plentiful throughout the country.
Iceland is a paradise for photographers – I felt like a child in a candy shop. It is a place of staggering beauty and diversity. One moment I was photographing volcanoes and mountains, then a couple hours later, I was walking next to a glacier or along a beach. There is so much to see and do in this country.
As I was doing some commercial work during my visit, I brought three different camera systems with me to Iceland. They consisted of:
The Nikon D800 (and lenses) was my main workhorse for this trip and it performed extremely well. Given many of the images would be used commercially, I wanted the maximum resolution and image quality and the D800 fit the bill nicely.
As Iceland is home to many migratory birds during the summer, I wanted to extend the reach of my long lenses and used a Nikon V1 and FT1 adapter to do this. This combination worked well and I was glad I brought it with me as they did not take up much room in my camera bag. I also used the 10-30mm kit lens supplied with the V1 for casual snap shots as the camera body plus lens easily fit in my jacket’s front pocket.
Up until the day I left for Iceland, I had no intention of bringing the Fujifilm X-Pro1 (and lenses) with me, however, since I did not have a backup Nikon DSLR with me, I decided at the last minute to take it along. At 1 kg for the camera body and three lenses, it did not add much wait and it was nice to have a little piece of mind.
I used this combination the least of the three camera systems as I usually photographed my subjects with focal lengths greater than 70mm or less than 28mm. Of course, the image quality is superb with the X-Pro1 and the few shots (less than 5% of the total) that I did take were excellent.
It doesn’t really matter what camera you have when you visit Iceland as long as you have one you are happy with. Make sure you bring a lot of memory cards as you will become snap happy with all of the photographic opportunities. Iceland really is that beautiful and diverse. As I had rented a 4×4 and was working out of my vehicle, I also brought more gear than I normally would.
I found that I used my telephoto zoom (70-200mm) the most, however, my ultra-wide angle lens (16-35mm) got more use than I previously thought. In addition, my neutral density filters and tripod really came in handy for most of my landscape work.
The biggest challenge I had (photographically speaking) was the weather. Before arriving in Iceland, I had heard the expression, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes.” It was so true – one minute we had sunny skies, the next minute it was raining. The change in weather can provide you with some dramatic lighting and skies, but make sure you keep your camera gear dry. When my camera was not in my photo backpack, I made sure I protected my D800 (and lenses) using Think Tank’s Hydrophobia rain cover.
Iceland was a place I had always wanted to visit and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to do so. Icelanders are very proud of their country and they have every reason to be.
I have been very fortunate to have had the chance to travel extensively and I have been to many wonderful places. Having said that, Iceland is by far one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. Its natural beauty is surreal at times – and I also found Icelanders to be equally wonderful.
Everyone I met greeted me with a smile and they seemed to be genuinely happy. Given what happened during the recent (2008) financial crises, Iceland was especially hard hit, but you would never know it – they all seemed to be “content” with themselves and with life. It was refreshing to see this.
This is the first trip I have ever taken where I did not want to go home. My wife also felt the same way. Between the natural beauty and wonderful people, Iceland is a place I would like to visit over and over again. After spending two weeks there, it really did feel like, “home”.
A wise person once told me that that, “Happiness is wanting what you already have.” Iceland is an amazing place and Icelanders truly appreciate their country. Maybe that is why they seem happy and content.
Having said that, I am extremely happy that I had the chance to visit Iceland. I will definitely be back. And very soon.
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