Updated: 28th January 2017
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There is a big debate when it comes to Iceland, when is the best time to visit? For me, it was all the incredible Iceland winter photography I saw on Instagram which triggered my desire to visit this country during its darkest months. Whilst I can’t fight the corner for summer, I hope these snapshots and my winter in Iceland video give you an insight to this snowy playground.
What to expect in Iceland during Winter?
The most obvious difference during the Icelandic winter months is daylight. Given its location just south of the arctic circle, the summer months bring 20 odd hours of daylight with the sky never entirely dark. In winter you can expect as little as five hours of daylight. For some this is a major draw, for others totally off putting.
Whilst famous activities such as the Blue Lagoon can still be enjoyed in the winter, and it was an awesome experience in the dark, the reality is you will have a completely different experience than if you visited in the summer months. The rugged, green countryside is coated in snow, the temperatures are fierce when combined with the wind and some activities are closed down. That all said, Iceland in winter has some incredible bonuses.
Is travelling Iceland during winter hard?
I have to be honest and say Iceland wasn’t the easiest of trips I have been on. Travelling over new year, to experience the famous celebrations, many accommodation options and tours were booked far in advance. I have heard from others travelling during other winter months they faced the same problems. The other issue you may face during winter is some of the roads are closed, so if you want to spend two weeks in Iceland, travelling around the full ring road and stopping then this is likely not going to be possible.
If you don’t have a driving license, or don’t want to face the Icelandic roads which can be a challenge in the summer, let alone the winter, you will likely be filling your itinerary with various tours. Even if you are self-driving, activities such as scuba diving the tectonic plates and trekking on glaciers or through ice caves need to be booked in advance and let’s be honest, this country is not cheap.
I dread to think how over budget I went whilst exploring Iceland and in hindsight, I likely should have listened to a friends suggestion of booking a complete tour rather than piecing it all together myself. Companies such as Exodus holidays offer a range of packages that might take the hassle out of creating a DIY itinerary.
What can’t you miss in Iceland during winter?
The incredible black glacier beach, pictured above, was one of my absolute highlights whilst exploring Iceland. So much so, the local village of Hof made it on to my best hidden gems to visit in Europe list for 2017.
If you can, the new year eve celebrations are well worth experiencing. Although there are no official government celebrations organised, the locals (and visitors) of the Island come together to put on fireworks which last for days either side of NYE itself. With bonfires and an explosion of fireworks marking the evening itself, the safe, welcoming and exciting atmosphere was a totally unique way to welcome in a new year as well as an additional photo opportunity.
Whilst the northern lights did come out to play during my visit, I sadly found myself always in the wrong place at the wrong time and heavy cloud over above. The darker, cooler months are obviously the best time to try to witness aurora given the never-ending daylight during summer, but as with anything nature based, they are never guaranteed. In hindsight, taking a northern lights tour would have been a wise option so as to not miss such an integral part of the Iceland experience. Not only do these tours have professional guides who know exactly where to take you, they also generally guarantee a second trip should the first excursion be unsuccessful.
Trekking over a frozen glacier has got to be an ultimate bucket list tick and whilst some people may prefer there to be no snow, I found the white blanket actually made it a truly magical experience and something I can’t recommend enough.
The other huge bonus of visiting Iceland during winter is the ice caves are both present, and stable enough, to explore inside. If there is one thing you shouldn’t miss, this is likely it.
Even when the temperature outside is gruelling, stepping into a heated winter hut with the chance of the northern lights starting to dance outside the window is more than enough reward for fighting your way through any snow storm
Scuba diving the tectonic plates in Iceland during winter
The picture above is as freezing as it looks. Whilst scuba diving in sub-zero temperatures might sound crazy, it is actually one of the most awesome experiences Iceland has to offer.
Most people assume this activity is only available during the summer months, but winter in Iceland isn’t an excuse to skip this one out. Although the two tectonic plates dividing the continents have actually moved further apart than this small crack, the insane visibility the dive offers in such a beautiful and unique surrounding is a must. Just be careful your hair doesn’t snap off when you get out.
I personally opted to just snorkel here, partly due to cost but also as the visibility is so clear I was happy just doing it this way and have zero regrets about not actually doing the scuba dive.
Deciding how long to visit Iceland during winter is tough. There is a lot to both see and experience here and you want to allow a little free time in case the weather isn’t playing ball. If a road is closed or the northern lights are hiding, you don’t really want to leave without experiencing everything this country has to offer. Whether you go DIY or on an organised tour, try to give yourself a little time at the end of your trip just in case.
Forward planning is also essential. The roads can be dangerous during the winter months due to Ice, but the Icelandic government does a great job of keeping people up to date on their website and social media. There are even handy live webcams from Iceland’s roads so you can check them out before heading off to explore for the day.
Iceland winter photography tips
Photographing Iceland during winter was a tough task. Between the limited hours of daylight, the adverse weather conditions for the camera, the quickly dying batteries and the constant blue hue that affected each shot it was perhaps the hardest country I have ever tried to capture on camera.
There are a few easy tips to make your experience better through before you go.
Pack a tripod if you want to capture the northern lights with a DSLR this essential as well as for other aspects of Iceland winter photography.
Bring extra batteries, the cold weather will drain them much quicker.
Consider weather protection, whether it’s a homemade bin bag or you buy an actual camera case, the elements here are not a camera’s best friend.
Study up on long exposure photography as the aurora are so hard to photograph, a basic understanding of your camera manual features will really help. Check out some free online tutorials.
Once in the country, there a couple of easy pointers to improve your Iceland winter photography.
Use your tripod and long exposures, not just for night photography but also to capture waterfalls with smooth water.
Increase your shutter speed whilst driving so you can capture shots from the car without being blurry if you are driving through somewhere which won’t allow you to stop.
Use people and objects, especially in front of waterfalls, white backgrounds and mountains. Not only will these add an idea of scale to your images but a colourful jacket can break up an otherwise white canvas look which is caused by the snow.
Be careful with plastic equipment outside, the cold will affect both your camera and tripod. The arm even broke off my tripod as the weather was so cold and I tried to move it without fully untightening the lock.
Be careful of condensation which will occur when moving from the cold outside to your warm accommodation. Try to minimise this by keeping your camera in a bag in a cooler place inside until it has adjusted as the moisture inside the camera can sometimes create damage.
Would I recommend visit Iceland in winter?
Hell yeah! My winter trip to Iceland was epic, even though it didn’t go entirely to plan. I do want to explore it again in the summer months and I imagine it will feel like a completely different country with the rolling green countryside instead of the steady splattering of snow. That said, it felt like such a winter wonderland during January I would be happy to go back again during the winter months.
I would, however, do it differently next time and, though I very rarely say this, have a carefully crafted itinerary with attractions and tours booked in advance. I met people during my visit who hadn’t been able to get a ticket to the Blue Lagoon during their whole trip due to it being closed for a period of time. It’s an expensive journey to make to then miss out on what you came for and as such, I wouldn’t recommend it being one of those adventures you just play by ear unless money and time are on your side.
With cheap airfares now being released by WOW air for the upcoming winter season, even if you just plan a stopover in Iceland rather than a full trip during winter, I hope this handful of Iceland winter photography has you convinced. I promise you it will be one of the best decisions of your life.