Iceland is a haven for every photography enthusiast. With its stunning nature and landmarks you won’t have to look far for a place to take great photographs.

It is no coincidence a lot of couples travel to Iceland to get their wedding photographs taken. Whether you are a professional photographer, an amateur or you want to take pictures to show your family afterwards, Iceland will not disappoint.

If you’re not into photography it might be overwhelming what to bring and what settings to use for those beautiful northern lights shots or silky smooth waterfall shots you see online.

In this article I’ll share some great beginner photography tips for Iceland and how to photograph the northern lights.

What do you need?

 1. DSLR Camera or Phone

These days it is sometimes hard to distinguish a photograph taken with a phone with one that is taken with a DSLR camera. A DSLR still gives you more control and better overall image quality but this does not mean you need a DSLR camera to take great pictures. There are a lot of apps that allow you to manually select your ISO settings and shutter speed for your phone. Camera+ 2 for IOS does a great job. This way you can get that beautiful picture of the northern lights or silky smooth waterfalls. Of course not on all phones you can change these settings but if you do some research you’ll quickly find out. If you want to know more about Iphone photography has a lot of useful tips.

2. Tripod

A tripod will prevent your camera from moving while you take a long exposure photograph which otherwise will result in a blurry photograph. For a decent travel tripod you will pay around €180. It is definitely worth the investment and is guaranteed to improve your photographs. Buying a tripod for your phone is much cheaper. I can definitely recommend one of these tripods with flexible legs called a “GorillaPod”. They work great and you can wrap them around different objects enabling you to use them almost everywhere.

3. Lens cleaning cloth (Microfiber works great!)

This one is a must considering the Icelandic weather. You’ll have a hard time preventing any water spray or rain from hitting the lens. If it does, a cleaning cloth might come in handy.

4. Camera bag or backpack which is waterproof

Make sure you have something to keep your camera or phone safe from the rain. A plastic bag may already do wonders. However, a decent camera backpack that will support the weight on your back is worth the investment.

5. ND Filters (OPTIONAL)

This will allow you to get longer exposures in bright conditions. They basically work like sunglasses for your camera. It will block multiple stops of lights from entering your lens allowing you to use a longer exposure in bright conditions. I use the Benro filter system which works great for me and is kind of affordable compared to other reputable brands.

6. Shutter release (OPTIONAL)

A shutter release will prevent any shaking that will occur by pressing the button on your camera. There are different options to choose from. The more expensive shutter releases will often allow you to set intervals for time-lapses. I use a simple but great shutter release from Nikon because I already have the option to set intervals in camera.

TIP: You can also use the selfie timer on your phone or DSLR camera.

7. Tip: Bring a shower cap

If you travel with a DSLR this is a lifesaver. With Iceland being full of waterfalls you’ll probably be photographing some waterfalls. If you get close to them or behind them the water spray can get you soaked by just standing there for a couple of minutes. A shower cap will allow you to cover your DSLR and remove it from the front of the lens to take a quick shot and then immediately cover it again. Genius right? 😉

How to shoot a long exposure photograph?

If you want to photograph the northern lights or get that silky smooth waterfall shot you will need a longer shutter speed. Once we are talking about long shutter speeds you need a tripod or some sort of stabilization. The smallest vibration while the shutter is open will result in a blurry photograph. Even pressing the button to take a photograph can cause a vibration that will result in a blurry photograph. If you don’t have a shutter release you can put the selfie timer on 10 seconds. This way the camera counts down and takes the photograph without you having to touch the button.

How to photograph the Northern Lights?

There are no exact settings to take the best northern lights picture. It all depends on personal preference, how bright the northern lights are and your surroundings. A good guideline to start off is an ISO of 1600, shutter speed of 10 seconds and your f stop should be as low as your camera allows (between f1.4 and f2.8 is perfect). Depending on the brightness of the northern lights and your surroundings you’ll probably have to tweak these settings. You can do this two ways. Changing your ISO or changing your shutter speed. In case your picture is too bright and your shutter speed is between 2-10 seconds it is best to lower your ISO because this will result in less noise in the photograph. In case the photograph is too dark you’ll have to make a choice. If you choose a shutter speed longer than 10 seconds you’ll lose details in the northern lights. Northern lights can have this beautiful vertical streaks that can move quickly so with a long shutter speed these will become one long horizontal streak with not much detail. In case you like this you can choose this option but I would prefer a higher ISO which results in a little more noise but this can be corrected in post processing.

What about focusing? (DSLR users)

Of course you want your photograph to be as sharp as possible. This is not always easy when you are shooting in the darkness. The best way to go about this is manual focusing. The fastest way is to use the “focus to infinity” symbol that most lenses have on them. Most of the time your photograph will be perfectly sharp but not on all lenses this setting is accurate and you still end up with a blurry photograph. The safest way to get that perfectly sharp photograph is to look through your viewfinder or on your display and keep turning the focus ring until all the stars are crispy sharp. On the more high end DSLR cameras autofocus might do a great job autofocusing on the stars or another object in the distance, but your best bet is to manually check no matter what method you decided to go with.

Northern Lights Photography

The picture above is taken at ISO 800, F2.8 and a shutter speed of 6 seconds.

How to get that silky smooth waterfall shot?

Everything mentioned above also applies for getting that silky smooth waterfall shot. Only the settings will be different. Before using this effect you have to ask yourself what your photograph has to emphasise. Let’s say you are photographing Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. When using a longer shutter speed you’ll get a dreamy and calming effect. If you want to show the power of Dettifoss this is probably not desirable. You want to see that raw power of the water going over the edge. In this case a fast shutter speed might be better but that is totally up to you.

So what settings do you need to use? First of all because most of the time we’ll be shooting at daytime an ISO of 100 will be great. This also prevents noise to show up in your photograph. Your f stop should be around f/10. Ideally your shutter speed should be around 0,5 seconds and 2 seconds. This also depends on the effect you want. If you just want to see some movement in the water 0,5 seconds till 2 seconds is great. This is what most photographers will use. Any higher and you will completely smooth out the water.

The picture above is taken with an ISO of 100, f/10 and a shutter speed of 0,5 sec. I had to use a ND filter which basically works like sun glasses for your camera. Without it I could not get this slow of a shutter speed because of the bright conditions.

TIP: Include a person in your photograph

Including a person in your photograph might be a great contribution. Let’s say, you are taking a picture of a beautiful mountain range in the distance or an enormous waterfall. Most of the time the mountain range and waterfall will look relatively small in your photograph in comparison with the reality. By asking your travel buddy or somebody else to pose in the photograph you add a sense of scale. It gives the viewer a reference point that allows them to compare an object that they know with an object they don’t know the exact size of. Using this tip can definitely enhance your photograph if you know in which circumstances to use it.

Dynjandi waterfall westfjords

Want to know more about Iceland?


Beginners photography guide Iceland