Where can you visit waterfalls, explore ice caves, and witness the Northern Lights all in the same trip? In ICELAND! These are the highlights of my self-guided winter photography adventure trip there in late February 2017, timed to coincide with a new moon phase for prime night sky viewing conditions.
- 4 nights in Reykjavík, within driving distance to Kirkjufellfoss and Gullfoss.
- 5 nights in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, within driving distance to Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Jökulsárlón, and Vatnajökull National Park.
Reykjavík and Surroundings
One could say I got a cold welcome upon landing at Keflavík International Airport as I was told that all major roads to Reykjavík were scheduled to close within two hours due to a major snowstorm! Luckily, I was able to drive my rental car to the city center and park it at the hotel before getting buried under a pile of snow.
Due to the snowstorm, I spent my first two days in Iceland leisurely exploring the charming Reykjavík city center by foot. It was actually quite refreshing to hike through fresh snow to contemplate iconic landmarks such as the Sun Voyager (viking ship sculpture) and Hallgrímskirkja (national sanctuary), among others.
Once the weather cleared up on the third day, it was time to finally explore beyond the city center. My first drive was to Kirkjufellfoss, a very photogenic waterfall located three hours away from Reykjavík. It was a beautiful drive with bright blue skies. I knew I had arrived when I spotted numerous photographers positioning themselves all around the waterfall. To our delight, Mother Nature rewarded us with a glorious sunset on that day, as captured on my cover photo for this blog entry!
The following day, I drove the entire Golden Circle to round up my stay in Reykjavík. My favorite stop on the circle was Gullfoss, a massive waterfall located two hours away from the city center. It was quite impressive to see and hear the endless flow of water cascading down partly frozen cliffs. I managed to snap a few shots from the main viewpoint before my fingers went numb from the extremely cold and windy conditions on an otherwise gorgeous day.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Surroundings
After spending four nights in Reykjavík, I relocated to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a village in the south of Iceland that is fairly equidistant to the other natural attractions that I had planned to explore during my visit. Thankfully, the weather forecast called for clear skies for the remainder of my trip, so I was definitely looking forward to an all-out photography adventure at this point.
There are two popular photogenic waterfalls on the way to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, namely Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. I visited both of them on multiple days. Seljalandsfoss is unique in that one can actually walk behind the waterfall, which is kind of surreal as you can see on my 4K video linked below (word of advice: wear crampons to hike along the icy trail if you’re visiting in wintertime). On the other hand, Skógafoss is unique for its accessibility. Simply park your vehicle and walk across the flat field to admire one of the biggest waterfalls in the country.
On my first night at Kirkjubæjarklaustur, I set out to look for the Northern Lights. Meteorological conditions were predicted to be excellent: new moon, clear skies, and a high Kp index; so I drove to a remote area with almost zero light pollution on the outskirts of Vatnajökull National Park.
My initial encounter with Aurora Borealis was as magical as I had hoped. The light show started in earnest close to 10pm and intensified throughout the night. It was simply mesmerizing to gaze at the dancing lights painting the night sky with shades of green and purple traces for hours on end.
I repeated the experience on the next two nights trying different camera settings each time, and eventually choosing to shoot at f/2.8, 5sec, and ISO 6400 using a 24mm lens. The timelapse video linked below shows the results from using those camera settings. Having heard from people who visited Iceland without getting to see the Northern Lights, I couldn’t believe how incredibly lucky I was to witness them three nights in a row!
After exploring my share of waterfalls and gazing at the Northern Lights a plenty, there was only one big item left on my photography to-do list: ice caves!
On my second-to-last day in Iceland, I found a late-opening on an ice cave excursion tour organized by Iceguide. The tour was limited to eight photographers and the experience was fantastic. We traversed through rough terrain on a 4x4 vehicle, hiked over pristine glaciers, and arrived at a double-chamber ice cave where we got close to three hours to take pictures to our heart’s desire. To cap the day, we were dropped off at Jökulsárlón, where I had the chance to hike along the lake’s perimeter for a few more shots of the fascinating landscape.
For Next Time
As I check out from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to start driving back to the airport, the hotel staff suggests that I should visit Iceland again in summertime, when the frozen fields give way to lush vegetation, creating a completely different landscape. My response: count me in! Looking forward to a warm welcome in the not-too-distant future to explore more amazing landscapes throughout the entire island nation.