Against all his instincts, Scott Bennett, our intrepid correspondent looks at Iceland in the winter. He comes back with some very positive views.
I’ll be honest. I’m not exactly a winter person. By the time February rolls round, my usual thoughts are to escape the cold, not go to it. However, when I discovered my friend David Swindler from Action Photo Tours was leading a trip to Iceland in February 2020, I decided it was time to do things a little differently.
Straddling the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic, Iceland has become wildly popular in recent years, attracting over 2 million tourists annually. Geologically active to the max, this rugged land of geysers, waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanos is very much a work in progress.
I first visited in June of 2016 as a stopover on the way back from Denmark. Iceland Air offers free weeklong stopovers to and from Europe. With only one night, I opted to do the Golden Circle Tour, taking in a trio of the island’s most famous sights: the geysir valley, Gullfoss waterfall and Thingvellir. The otherworldly landscape of colours, forms and textures was spellbinding, and I vowed to return.
Fast forward to 2020. I had done other tours with David in the American Southwest, but this would be unlike anything I have done before. In fact, I have never done any serious winter photography at all, which may sound surprising for someone born and raised in Canada.
Concentrating on landscape photography, our 5-day itinerary encapsulated the island’s south coast, following the Ring Road from Reykjavik to Vestrahorn mountain in the east. Co-leading with David was Icelandic photographer Sigurdur “Siggi” Brynjarsson from Viking International Photo Tours. Seeing his photos in the trip dossier sold me on the spot!
Winter reveals an entirely different side to the island yet receives but a fraction of the visitors. Despite its name, Iceland is far from the deep-freeze one would expect. Thanks to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream, Reykjavik enjoys milder winters than New York. Winter temperatures generally hover around the freezing point, although the conditions can change rapidly without warning.
Arriving in the mid-Feb, I wondered how much sunlight there would actually be, if any! Fortunately, it was much more than expected. The month starts with sunrise at 10:08AM and sunset at 5:15PM but adds about 6 and a half minutes of daylight every day.
From my home in Toronto, it was an easy 5-hr overnight flight to Reykjavik. At least in theory, as an unexpected snowstorm delayed my flight. An hour and two de-icings later, we were finally cleared to depart.
From the airport, a shuttle delivered me to the city bus station where David was patiently waiting. Even at 9:00AM, it was still dark, although a crescent of light was now peering over the horizon. Boarding our minibus, I awkwardly realized I was the last of our group of 14 to arrive. With luggage finally stowed, we hit the ground running.
About 90 minutes from Reykjavík, our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most iconic (and visited) waterfalls. Cascading from the summit into a large pool, it is one of the few waterfalls in Iceland visitors can walk behind. Not so in February, as relentless spray had transformed the surroundings into a skating rink.
Fortunately, a solution was at hand. Everyone was given a set of crampons to use for the trip. Essentially rubber rings with dangling studs attached, they slipped around the soles of your shoes, allowing easy negotiation of icy surfaces.
I eagerly anticipated trying out some new equipment; a special wide-angle polarizer and holder to use with my wide-angle lens. I kept a safe distance from the spray, as the last thing I needed was ice crystals scratching my polarizer on the first day. Fortunately, it remained unscathed and proved invaluable reducing shutter speeds, enabling a silky water effect, even bright conditions.
Afterwards, we visited two more waterfalls: Skógafoss and Kvernufoss. Skógafoss was the bigger of the two, with a drop of 60m. By now the sun had emerged and from just the right angle, a rainbow was visible. The difficult part was getting an image without other people in it. Then, one member of our group moved closer, giving a sense of scale. Her red coat was an added bonus!
Tucked away in a nearby gorge, Kvernufoss was an easy 20- minute hike from Skógafoss but far less busy. Following the river, the trail was fairly level, but steepened nearer the falls and I was grateful for the crampons. Occupying a niche in a natural amphitheater, the falls were delicate in comparison to Skógafoss’s raw energy. Pristine snow blanketed the ground, and combined with the soft afternoon light, created a scene of sublime beauty.
We finished the day at the small seaside village of Vik. Perched above on a hilltop was Reyniskirkja, a wooden church dating from 1929 and renowned as one of the country’s most photogenic. The weather had changed again, the blue sky replaced by steel-gray clouds and serious gusts of wind. Our last photo op was the Reynisdrangar Rocks, basalt pillars once part of a cliff but now isolated by the punishing surf. According to Icelandic folklore, the rocks are the solidified bodies of 2 trolls, who ventured into the water but turned to stone by the rising sun.
With no intent of joining the trolls, we headed for a safe vantage point on the beach. The wind and waves were ferocious, with a bitter cold that chilled to the bone. Keeping the camera steady, even on the tripod, proved challenging. Just as I turned to talk to someone, an icy gust blasted my face with black sand. Face stinging and fingers frozen, I’d had enough. So did everyone else and we promptly escaped to the warmth of a nearby shopping complex and the hot coffee within.
I had assumed Icelandic winter sunrises would allow the luxury of sleeping in. Wrong! Our location was the Reynisfjara black sand beach, situated on the opposite side of the headland near the sea stacks. Arriving under a full moon, the scene was stark yet magnificent, the black sand framed by the headland’s fluted basalt columns. Offshore, immense waves battered the sea stacks, a testament to the sea’s relentless power. Reynisfjara is reputed to be Iceland’s most dangerous beach, and I warily kept my distance from shore.
After a welcome coffee stop, we ventured east, planning to photograph a volcanic lava field. Alas, it was entirely blanketed with fresh snow so Instead, we pushed on to Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. En route, we stopped to photograph Lómagnúpur Mountain, just off the Ring Road. Framed by a large pond encircled with ice and snow, the dramatic butte was reminiscent of the American southwest.
I was surprised at how conditions could change in such short distances. Fjaðrárgljúfur( say that quickly three times) Canyon was virtually snow free, apart from patches clinging to the precipitous walls. At 100m tall and 2km long, it was an impressive sight; even in winter, vestiges of its mossy summer attire were still discernable. Following a trail to higher vantage points, I skidded repeatedly on the icy surfaces. “What’s going on?” I thought, baffled by my struggling. Sheepishly, I realized I had put my crampons on upside down!
Later, we stopped at a unique memorial devoted to a bridge. Part of the Icelandic Ring Road, the Skeiðarár bridge once spanned the Skeiðarár Sandur, a broad plain of volcanic sand interspersed with creeks fed by run-off from the Skeiðarárjökull glacier. In 1996, the eruption of Grímsvötn volcano melted portions of glacier, with the resulting floods sweeping house-sized icebergs down the plain, destroying the bridge.
Fashioned from the bridge’s remains, the memorial’s twisted metallic beams were a sobering testament to the forces of nature. Another bridge has since replaced it, but a subsequent eruption could replicate the entire scenario. David climbed up to pose for some photos, his red jacket contrasting with the wintry white.
In the distance, I could discern the blue ice of Svínafellsjökull glacier, the day’s final stop. Translated as “Pig Head Glacier”, it is an outlet of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in all of Europe. Despite being 8 kilometres long and roughly 800 metres wide, Svínafellsjökull is but a mere sliver compared to the immensity of Vatnajökull, which encompasses 10 percent of Iceland’s entire land mass.
Arriving at the parking lot, it was a short walk to the viewing area, where the grandeur stopped me in my tracks. The sheer scale of the landscape was difficult to comprehend. A wall of ice cascaded down to a massive lagoon, now frozen solid. The textures and patterns were phenomenal. It was the first time I had ever seen blue ice and I was spellbound!
David encouraged me to head further up to a better vantage point, but I was reluctant. Even with crampons, trudging up a slope of sheet ice with camera gear did not compute! Taking only my camera and tripod, David helped me along and I made it. The viewpoint was even more spectacular, and I was grateful for making the effort. While setting up, the sun emerged from the low cloud, bathing the entire scene with glorious light!
One of the highlights of a winter visit is the chance to see the Aurora Borealis. Until now, evenings had been overcast but with conditions now clear, Siggi checked his Aurora Borealis app. With solar activity in the forecast, we set out after dinner.
As we drove, things were starting to happen! We needed a foreground element and Siggi knew of a bridge. Upon arrival, everyone found a spot to set up. Manually focusing on the stars, I recomposed, opened my handwarmers and waited.
And waited…….Standing immobile was numbing, even with 4 layers of clothing. After a few false starts, the Aurora finally appeared, but in a decidedly subdued manner. Still, we did get to see it and I managed a few images. Even in Iceland, nature has no guarantees.
If the trip hadn’t been amazing enough, the following morning ramped up the wow factor. One of Iceland’s true winter wonders, ice caves are formed by water running through or beneath a glacier. Visits are only possible in winter yet can be hit or miss. If temperatures are mild, access is denied for safety reasons. Fortunately for us, the week had been cold, and we were good to go! There are a number of accessible caves, but we would be visiting Sapphire Cave, situated within the Vatnajökull glacier.
Just getting there was an adventure. To arrive before sunrise necessitated a very early wakeup call. Bleary-eyed despite a full breakfast and multiple cups of coffee, I boarded the bus under a tableau of shimmering stars. After a 30-min bus ride, we transferred to a massive 6-wheel tundra buggy to get to the access point. Donning crampons helmets and headlamps, it was then a 30-min hike to the glacier itself in the dark. Fortunately, the trail was dry, with a minimum of icy patches. In the gloom, I could barely discern the glacier and then finally, the cave entrance.
The scene was jaw-dropping; a wonderland of blue ice honeycombed with patterns and textures that didn’t look real! There was little time for gawping; with conditions brightening, we wanted to shoot the entrance from the rear of the cave. This necessitated crouching in the most uncomfortable of positions with everyone lined up tripod to tripod.
David posed for scale, his red coat again adding a splash of colour. I managed to fire off a number of images and then it happened: the tour groups arrived. Within minutes, the cave was a circus. Another photo group attempted the shot we had done, but the meandering rabble made it impossible. I immediately thanked David for dragging us out of bed!
Escaping the horde, we then hiked up on to the glacier itself. Here lay another wondrous sight, a massive arch of ice. David hiked up to the ridge behind it to pose, his jacket contrasting with the green and blue hues. Siggi remarked the arch would likely collapse in days, another testament to Iceland’s ever-changing landscape. Returning to the bus, I turned for a final look at the glacier. In the morning light, it now filled my entire field of vision. The scale was stupendous and something a mere still image couldn’t capture.
If the cave hadn’t been breathtaking enough, next came Diamond Beach! One of the most surreal, yet beautiful places I’ve ever seen, its swathe of black sand lay strewn with icebergs washed ashore from nearby Jökulsárlón Lagoon. Ranging in size from footballs to small houses, the icebergs boasted a whimsical array of shapes, resembling everything from modern sculpture to animals. I felt like I was walking through an immense open-air sculpture gallery.
Although it’s easy to be transfixed, be cautious. Under no circumstance should one climb upon an iceberg. There have been instances where tourists posing for photos have found themselves unexpectedly drifting out to sea!
I started off with compositions of ice along the shoreline before concentrating on individual icebergs with a backdrop of Hvannadalshnjúkur, Iceland’s tallest peak at 2,109m. It was Diamond Beach that had sold me on a winter visit to Iceland and it more than lived up to expectations. I couldn’t wait to return for sunrise the next day.
With conditions looking ideal, the guys recommended we head to Vestrahorn Mountain for sunset. Enroute, we stopped to photograph some Icelandic horses. Admittedly, I’m not much of a horse fan, but I loved these guys! Small and very friendly, they are descendants of horses brought to Iceland by the Vikings a thousand years ago. Today, they are the sole breed of horse on the island and are renowned for their purity of bloodline. If a horse is taken off the island, it is not allowed to return.
The moment we got off the bus, they came right over to investigate. The only problem with photography was they got TOO close, recognizing tourists as a possible food source (as in providing food, not BEING the food. ) Feeding is actively discouraged, but it sure doesn’t stop them from trying!
Our horse photo fix satiated, we set out for Vestrahorn, located outside the town of Höfn and the furthest point of our journey. The mountain is regarded as one of Iceland’s the most beautiful, and it was easy to see why. From our vantage point, an assembly of jagged spires thrust skywards across the bay, their upper reaches lightly dusted by snow. Before us, clumps of tall grass punctuated the black sand, while the expansive beach was glazed with ice. During winter, the peaks receive direct light at sunset and conditions were perfect.
Our goal was to capture images of the mountain reflected in the ice. Although it was only a thin sheet, careful negotiation was required. We couldn’t use our crampons, as they would puncture the ice with holes. Curiously, long cracks crisscrossed the ice, with black sand oozing up to fill the gaps. According to Siggi, it was the first time he had seen such formations in 20 years of visiting the site. Chilled yet enthralled, we finally called it a night and retired to Höfn for dinner. Photo days don’t get better than this. Or so I thought……
The next morning, we awoke to unfortunate news. A winter storm with hurricane-force winds was heading our way. David and Siggi decided to return to Reykjavik that night instead of our planned stop at Vik. Once the storm hit, the entire island would be shut down.
Fortunately, it was mild and calm as we set out. Arriving before sunrise allowed ample time to scout for compositions. Unlike the previous day, there were few people. Just the diehard photographers! Our goal was to capture the retreating tide during a long exposure, revealing silky streaks on the dark sand
On occasion, the retreating tide shifted sand beneath the tripod, resulting in just enough movement to ruin the shot. However, when everything worked, the results were magical. With ice backlit by the rising sun, Diamond Beach truly lived up to its name.
Siggi warned us to watch the water at all times. On average, one in every seven waves breaks further up the beach, catching visitors and camera gear unaware. In preparation, I wore a Gortex raincoat and pants along with some water-proof hiking boots, which I soon discovered…. weren’t. One wave swept over my feet, giving me an instant soaker. I got off easy; one participant tripped over her own tripod and plunged right in!
Before I knew it, our time was up. Two hours wasn’t remotely enough; I could have spent days! Even among 14 photographers, I was the last one back on the bus. I now have a new addition to add to my list of all-time favourite photo locations.
With a long drive to Reykjavik ahead, our remaining schedule was tight. We stopped briefly at Jökulsárlón Lagoon, its blue waters dotted with icebergs from the receding Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier. Unobstructed views allowed for plenty of great photo opportunities, especially for panoramas. This time, however, I was the first one back on the bus.
We fit in two more stops for the day: the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall. The former is home to fumaroles, boiling mud pits, hot springs, and of course, geysers. It is named after the Great Geysir, which gave its name to all others and derived from Icelandic verb geysa (“to gush”).
Although the Great Geysir itself remains inactive, Strokkur is the main attraction, erupting 20m-high jets erupts every five to ten minutes. The first view is startling, with virtually no warning it will go off. With camera ready, I managed to freeze the action my camera’s motor drive the motor drive set on high.
Plummeting 32m in two tiers, Gullfoss is Iceland’s largest waterfall. Starting at the main viewpoint at the front, we then moved to a higher spot looking down on the falls. The wind was intense, making it virtually impossible to capture a sharp image, even with a tripod. The bitter cold sealed the deal, and we all made a hasty retreat for the bus.
Fortunately, we arrived at the Natura Hotel Reykjavik well before the storm hit. Within hours the roads closed, and the next day was a washout for photography. Instead, we had a full afternoon processing workshop, learning a variety of processing techniques in both Lightroom and Photoshop. Both leaders shared a wealth of information and it was good opportunity to see some images the other participants.
I had opted to stay for an additional night at the tour’s end. The hotel offered free shuttle service to the city centre, so after breakfast, I grabbed my camera and headed into town. Under steel grey cloud, the city looked as I remembered with one exception: construction. Lots of it. Reykjavik is undergoing a building boom, no doubt due to the burgeoning tourism industry.
I quite like Reykjavik. Compact and quirky, its downtown is easy to explore. From the imposing modern concert hall to the colourful local architecture, there was plenty to photograph and I spent several enjoyable hours wandering about before ending up at Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest church at 74.5m high. By now, hunger pangs had set in and I was in the mood for something local. Across from the church was the Café Loki. Sold!
Perusing the menu, I actually considered trying (albeit briefly) the fermented shark called dish Hákarl: cured Greenland shark hung up to dry for five months. Famed for its ammonia stench, it came with a shot of the local spirit called brennivín, no doubt to help keep the shark down! Instead, I opted for the smoked lamb on homemade rye flatbread which proved extremely tasty. For dessert, I tried the rye bread ice cream which was equally good. Much easier on the taste buds and nostrils. By the time I finished lunch, the wind had picked up again. After doing some shopping, the gusts were knocking me off balance and I opted to head back to the hotel.
On my final day, I opted to do something admittedly touristy. The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa approximately 20 km from Keflavík International Airport and a popular excursion for arriving or departing travellers. Situated in a lava field on the Reykjanes Peninsula, it isn’t a natural spring but supplied by water from the Svartsengi geothermal power station.
I’d bought my ticket and transfers before leaving home and was very time specific. Even booking two weeks in advance, the slots were quite full, but I managed to get a booking early in the morning. As my flight was in late afternoon, it gave me plenty of time to relax and get some lunch.
I was picked up at the hotel at 7:30 AM and taken to the main bus station where I transferred to another bus bound for the Blue Lagoon. Upon arrival, the entire operation was a well-oiled machine. Upon stowing my luggage, I headed for the check in area before heading to the change rooms. Guests must shower prior to using the spa, with the communal showers split up by gender.
After finding a large locker for my camera bag and clothes, I changed into my bathing suit, showered, and ventured into the brisk morning air. The chill was promptly forgotten as I eased into the 39 °C water. And yes, the water really is blue. Despite the crowds , the immensity of the lagoon ensured plenty of space. I had booked 2 hours and I enjoyed every second. Touristy? Certainly, but luxuriating in the warm water with a fruit smoothie and watching the sunrise was the perfect end to my Icelandic saga.
Travelling in winter was a unique experience that I would wholeheartedly repeat. My week-long adventure revealed but a fraction of the wonders this island nation has to offer. For some of them, like Diamond Beach, glaciers, and ice caves, it is the best time to experience them in their full glory. It truly was an amazing experience and one I would repeat in a heartbeat. From now on, I really need to re-think my relationship with winter.