Photographing Iceland in the Winter

Tips & Techniques

I have two of the most gullible friends in the world. When I floated the questionable idea of visiting Iceland together for a week in February – using the line, I remember, “Iceland actually stays pretty warm because it’s on the ocean” – they agreed, with hardly any further persuasion needed.

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

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 temperature. It’s the wind.

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

The wind in Iceland is something else. It reaches a level of ferocity that is usually reserved for spurned lovers and feral cats. Iceland has more snowplows than I’ve seen in my life, but the moment that a plow clears a path, the wind pushes more snow onto the road and undoes any progress. Even when it’s not snowing, it often seems like it is, because the wind kicks up almost as much snow as a blizzard. 

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

Considering that, the trip went smoothly enough, but we had to reschedule many of our hotels and change plans all the time to avoid storms and icy roads. We also drove into a ditch on the first day, which meant a slight delay while we dug the car out with the gracious help of some passers by. (We repaid the favor throughout the trip by helping a number of stuck tourists – and even one local – push their cars back onto asphalt.)

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

Conditions like this present some challenges for photography. Most of all, it’s hard to get sharp photos in windy conditions because even a stable tripod will wobble. My choice of camera equipment made things even worse, as I intended for my main kit to be a 4×5 large format film camera, which has accordion-like bellows that catch the wind like a sail.

I ended up shooting with the Nikon Zfc and two compact lenses I brought for testing – the Z 28mm f/2.8 and Z 40mm f/2 – more than I wanted. In hindsight, I should 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 weather 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/7.1

And there were still a couple times 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 ice cave – something that’s always been on my bucket list – where I 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 seconds, Kodak Portra 160, No 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 realized just how many shades of blue Iceland has in the winter. The ice cave had more tones and nuances 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, ISO 100, 1/40, f/7.1

Some of the only non-blue photos I took were black and whites. And I did take my share of those, with 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 a great time during the trip, the weather was so dreary that I didn’t unpack the 4×5 camera a lot, even during the rare lulls in the wind. Thankfully, there was one exception near the end of the week, when the calmest morning coincided with some of the most interesting light.

I took the photo below, ultimately my favorite of the trip, at a place that is very familiar to me. One of my fondest memories is visiting this beach with my dad in 2016 when I went to Iceland for the first time. The scene may also look familiar to long-time Photography Life readers, as I’ve shared some photos from there before (though never 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 truth behind the old phrase, “bad weather makes good photos.” At times like the morning I photographed above, any challenges fade away and only the beautiful landscape is left. The light certainly wasn’t perfect for most of our trip to Iceland, but in the rare breaks and transitions, it was some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now that I have a lot more knowledge and a better idea of what to expect, I’m willing to go back in the winter again in the future and keep trying my luck. But I don’t think I can convince my friends to join me next time. I think that when I offer, they’ll say they’re busy and show me a plane ticket to Tahiti with – by a miraculous coincidence – 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 think I can cross it off quite yet. With my naked eye, all I could see was a very dim glow to the north along the horizon – dim enough that I almost thought I was tricking myself into seeing things. The camera picked it up, though, which is impressive for a crop sensor, but it’s still just a faint band of green.

Faint Northern Lights in Iceland February
NIKON Z fc + NIKKOR Z 28mm f/2.8 @ 28mm, ISO 6400, 10 seconds, 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 my so-called “friends” of warm beaches and piña coladas.

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