Freeze Frame: A Photography Tour of Iceland
There are few places on Earth that catch the camera’s eye quite like Iceland does. Follow along with KT’s Alessia Piccolo as she recounts her recent photo tour to the magical land at the top of the world.
On September 29, 2017, a group of like-minded individuals touched down in Iceland on a variety of different flights, but with the same idea in mind: to photograph some of the beautiful sights and phenomena in one of the world’s most picturesque locations.
With the help from Los Angeles-based photographer Andrei Duman and his trusty assistant Scott, our explorers learned how to use state-of-the-art camera equipment provided by Phase One Camera Systems and take home exquisite photographs and memories made along the way.
With seven clients, two photographers, myself (a Kensington Tours Destination Expert), an Icelandic guide, and a mountain of camera equipment in tow, our talented driver was ready to take us on the trip of a lifetime.
Day 1: Exploring Reykjavík and Welcome Dinner at Sjávargrillið
On Day 1, our explorers arrived one by one and two by two from a variety of different flights coming in from Europe and the United States and were ready to take on Iceland. I met them at Keflavík International, and our private drivers chauffeured them into the city, where eyes began to light up. Driving down Laugavegur Street towards the centrally-located Alda Hotel, it seemed the excitement set in as soon as the bags hit the pavement.
The group was free to explore the city on their own during the day, and we all met in the lobby before dinner for an official meet-and-greet before heading to one of my favorite restaurants in Iceland: Sjávargrillið (“Seafood Grill”). We sat down to a six-course meal designed to spark the senses, with delicacies like minke whale, smoked beef belly, and tuna tartar, and with each glass of wine or pint of beer, we got to know each other a little better.
Day 2: Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 2 is when the real Kensington tour began. We departed Reykjavík and headed northwest towards Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The first stop was a small fishing town, Stykkishólmur, one of the largest fishing ports on the island, with picturesque fishing boats, cute little fishing houses, and glistening waters along the bay. Our first photo-stop began, and the advanced Phase One equipment seemed like a scary and too-advanced feat at first but became like second nature to our perseverant photographers by the end of their trip.
After lunch at Fosshotel Stykkisholmur, we made our way to the renowned Kirkjufell – a fitting stop for the first day on a photo tour as Kirkjufell is the most-photographed mountain in Iceland. Standing behind Kirkjufellsfoss, our photographers set out to find the perfect shot of the famous mountain in the background, with plummeting falls in front. Then, it was time to head to our next hotel for dinner and a good night’s rest – Hótel Húsafell.
Day 3: Golden Circle
Just a short six-minute drive from our hotel was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Or rather, some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Hraunfossar is a collection of waterfalls plunging through lava rocks on a backdrop rich in foliage and vegetation – quite a contrast to the black lava formations from which the falls were born. This was a stop we could not miss before heading out on the famous route of the Golden Circle.
Our first stop on the Golden Circle was Geysir, where we stood before an erupting geyser that shot over 328 feet (100 meters) skyward (and then came plummeting back down over us to soak our warm, thus-far dry clothing).
The next stop was Gullfoss, perhaps the most famous waterfall in Iceland, which translates into the “Golden Waterfall” (hence the name of the Golden Circle). The falls are characterized by their “three-step staircase,” over which a bright rainbow could be spotted from a distance.
Along the way to our next stop on the circle, we spotted a group of Icelandic horses on the side of the road that we couldn’t bear to pass without stopping. In A.D. 982, a law was passed that no horses could be imported into Iceland, which means the Icelandic horse has remained purebred since its settlement with the Norseman in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Before the day ended, we made our way to Þingvellir National Park to round off the Golden Circle – the site of one of the longest-standing parliamentary sites in the world. It is the location of significant events that have taken place in Icelandic history, one example being the declaration of independence in 1944. It is also situated on the boundary line of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, but, for our photography tour, we made our way to another beautiful waterfall within the park: Öxarárfoss.
In the evening, many photographers set up their cameras and tripods and awaited the aurora borealis from the comfort of their private hot tub – an Icelandic tradition and great way to unwind and warm the bones after a long day in the chilling cold. Luckily, the aurora put on a light show before their eyes, and our photographers were able to capture the dancing Northern Lights as they watched in amazement.
Day 4: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
Day 4 was perhaps my favorite day of the photography tour, where we made our way even further east along Iceland’s south coast towards Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. On the way, we passed Eyjafjallajökull (which directly translates into “Island Mountain Glacier”), the glacier-capped volcano which infamously erupted in 2010. As we drove along the ring road, a stunning backdrop of glaciers in front of a cloudy yet blue sky stood tall in the distance, getting more beautiful with every kilometer we advanced.
Once we arrived at the glacier lagoon, mouths dropped, and cameras were ready within minutes when the perfect frame was found in the distance. The lagoon, nestled on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park, was formed by the rapid melting of Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest icecap. Once dropping icebergs into the Atlantic Ocean, the recession of the icecap began to retreat inland, and its former resting grounds filled with melted water and the large chunks of broken ice.
As stunning as Jökulsárlón is, I wasn’t quite prepared for the beauty and natural wonder of its neighbor across the street and on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean – Diamond Beach. Less than a minute’s drive away from the lagoon, we found our way to the black-sand beach that may just be one of the most unique beaches in the world. Sprinkled upon the black lava sand are pieces of ice of all shapes and sizes that glisten in the light and shimmer like diamonds against the contrast of the black sand. The ice pieces flow from the lagoon into the ocean and are washed up to shore. Each day the tide brings in new pieces of ice and takes the old ones away, so the beach is ever-changing and the “diamonds” forever anew. Like children on a playground, the photographers worked away to capture the perfect crashing wave, rainbow or diamond that they could set their eyes on, all while dodging the sneaker waves that added just a little more adventure to the day.
Day 5: Iceland’s South Coast
Up until Day 5, our venture was blessed with scattered clear skies and little to no rain – a striking pattern of weather for Iceland at the end of September/beginning of October. But, in true Icelandic fashion, Day 5 brought on a dreary day with pesky rain clouds – nothing that our photographers couldn’t work with.
Our first stop was the black-sand beach of Reynisfjara, one of the most famous black-sand beaches near the charming village of Vík í Mýrdal. At the far end of the beach stand towering black basalt columns near the edge of the shore which look out to Reynisdrangar, the sea stacks that stand tall and mighty in the crashing waves of the ocean. Once again, our photographers steered clear of the sneaker waves along the beach while capturing the eerie essence of the black sand beaches and gloomy skies.
Next was a photo stop atop a hill overlooking Vík, the southernmost village in Iceland and home to just over 300. With a scheduled lunch at the Icelandair Hotel Vík, we were able to escape from the cold and rain before heading out to explore more of the south coast.
We then ventured up a steep road (thankful once again for our very talented driver) to the small peninsula of Dyrhólaey, home to stunning views over the vast black-sand beaches and the iconic “cave with a hole” just beyond the Dyrhólaey lighthouse.
Our final two stops before heading back to our hotel in Selfoss were Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss – two of the most famous waterfalls along the south coast, both with unique characteristics. A great way to see Skógafoss is from the top, and you can climb the 370 steep steps to get there for a stunning view over the falls. Meanwhile, the best view of Seljalandsfoss is from behind it – by following the circular path you can walk right behind the misty falls and feel the power of the water – but this is only recommended with a waterproof camera!
Day 6: Landmannalaugar Highlands
On our sixth day, none of the travelers knew what to expect when we told them we were heading to Landmannalaugar Highlands. Located inland and covering most of Iceland’s interior, the highlands are at an altitude of about 1,312-1,640 feet (400-500 meters) and are uninhabited volcanic terrain. Our venture today was to the highlands, which are located about an hour’s drive from our hotel in Selfoss, but more specifically, we were headed toward the area of Landmannalaugar in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.
Once we reached the edge of the highlands, our bumpy commute began along the rocky road, scattered with small craters, bodies of water and steep hills to cross before arriving at our destination. We held on to our seats as we bounced around in our lifted bus as our skilled driver navigated through the rugged terrain.
Abundant in hiking trails and hot springs, Landmannalaugar is an artist’s dream, with colorful rhyolite mountains, vast expanses of lava fields, and a surreal landscape that looks like it could only be found in an oil painting. Our photographers were guided on a small hike through the area to snap photos of the unique landscape with its stunning array of colors and natural beauty.
Day 7: Vestmannaeyjar
For our history buffs and photographers alike, the main island of Heimaey on Iceland’s Vestmannaeyjar archipelago (also known as the Westman Islands), is a beautiful place for exploration. After a 35-minute ferry ride to get to the island, we hopped on our bus and headed to the windiest spot in Europe, which happens to be at a high altitude and a great place to set up a tripod. In the summer months, travelers and photographers have a field day with the puffins on the island, as it is home to one of the largest puffin colonies in Iceland. However, as the puffins had already migrated to the open sea for the winter, we were unable to spot any of the small birds this time (except the three plush ones purchased by one of our talented photographers to add as hilarious props into his Vestmannaeyjar photos!).
Heimaey is also home to the volcano Eldfell, which erupted in 1973 wiping out a vast perimeter of the town – now covered in an expanse of lava rock. Some of our photographers made the climb to the top of Eldfell for panoramic views of the island and the Atlantic with Eyjafjallajökull in the background, while others remained rooted on land exploring the wreckage caused by its eruption before we all headed back on the ferry.
Day 8: Blue Lagoon and Farewell Dinner at Fiskmarkaðurinn
The final day of the tour welcomed a later start in the morning, which left some catching up on sleep in bed, while others were up before dawn to catch one last beautiful Icelandic sunset. The group met up and ventured to our second last stop outside of the city to relax and rejuvenate in the calming waters of the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal, artificial lagoon famous for its milky blue waters. It is rich in silica, algae and other minerals, and owes its milky blue color specifically to silica, which makes it appear blue as sunlight is reflected in it. Though the lagoon is man-made, it remains heated to 98-104°F (36-40°C) year-round by geothermal energy, harnessed through geothermally heated water 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) below ground level and pumped into the pool from a nearby geothermal power plant.
The Blue Lagoon was the perfect way to end a fast-paced photography tour, and we were able to bask in the warm waters for hours for a little bit of rest before heading back to Reykjavík to get ready for our last dinner as a group.
Similar to the tasting menu at the Sjávargrillið, we were treated to a nine-course tasting menu at Fiskmarkaðurinn (“the Fish Market”). Meal after meal in Iceland continued to spoil our taste-buds, and this one was no different, as we spent a whopping four-and-a-half hours tasting unique and rich delicacies native to Icelandic chefs. The excellent dinner was one to remember, on an unparalleled trip that is one we’ll never forget.