1 May 2013

Equipment List for a Photographic Trip to Iceland (plus a few other tips and links)

UPDATED 150315 I've had quite a lot of experience of preparing for Icelandic trips, having been once in September, once in October, once in February, four times in March, and once in July (most recent one being this February). Even in summer, you need to be prepared for the fickle weather that the place is likely to throw at you, but for the rest of the year you really need to wrap up warm and dry! Updates to original blog (written in May 2013) shown in green!

For a photographic trip, I'd suggest having a look at my recommended list below. Most of them are fairly obvious, but you might pick up something you hadn't thought of.

Photographic Equipment
  • A sturdy tripod - absolutely imperative as the wind can get very very fierce; I kept it fairly extended and just bunged it on the back seat of the car when not using it. Make sure the head is strong enough to support the weight; ballheads are recommended.
  • A lightweight tripod is useful if you're hiking, although other things might work (like clothes/bag/beanbag). Not a necessity, but if you've got the room it's quite nice to have. I left this at home on my recent trip and didn't miss it.
  • A decent camera - I took a point-and-shoot (Canon S90) when I went hiking from Landmannalaugur to Þórsmörk 6 years ago and massively regret not carrying the extra weight of a proper DSLR and lens. I take my Canon 5D Mark III on my (non-hiking) trips now and it's perfect for the job: the low-light capability is fantastic (and necessary if taking aurora borealis shots) and it's also weather-proof, which is important given how notoriously changeable Iceland's weather can be (not to mention just being a damn good camera). I also take a spare body (Canon 60D), just in case anything happened to the 5D... If you have one and have the weight allowance, then take it!
  • One really good landscape lens is obviously a must - I have a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L and use it for about 80% of my shots in Iceland. I got the new Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L lens last year, which is great for big wide landscape shots, especially at night if there's northern lights. This year I rented a whopping 100-400mm lens and left my 70-200mm at home. I used it for some close detailed shots, eg. focusing in on landscapes and waves, as well as getting shots of distant horses and reindeers (there were no swans, sadly). It was challenging to use in that wind! I also took a macro lens and extension tubes with me but didn't use them once (I just made do with the macro functionality on the 24-70mm lens). I always forget how cold and windy it is, which isn't conducive to macro photography. I have carried a whole range of other lenses on different trips, most of which I probably could have done without. I once took my extremely heavy Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L prime lens and used it only once (in an ice cave), so that now stays at home too. I guess it could be good for portraits, but given that I actually meet practically no-one on my trips, portrait options are usually limited (and the 24-70mm does well for that anyway). Renting is definitely something to consider if you don't want to invest in a lens that you're unlikely to get much use out of. A quick Google search will show some possibilities in your area - the price varies a lot; make sure the insurance is sufficient. Look out for sales around holiday periods and low season (I rented a 21mm Zeiss lens last year and the big zoom this year from Lensesforhire.co.uk). Make sure that you remember your hoods for the lenses too, as they can be very useful in protecting your lenses from rain/snow/hail etc as well as preventing too much glare from the sun (if there is any).
  • I take a whole collection of filters with me, some of which I use a lot. All of my filters are of the screw-in type with a 77mm diameter (the diameter of my 24-70mm and 16-35mm lenses). I also have some step-up rings so that I can use them on my narrower lenses - not necessary on this trip. I was rarely without my new 4-stop Tiffen attenuator ND filter on (skies often overcast but bright). I also use a circular polariser (there can be a surprising amount of blue sky, and it's good to experiment with on water shots). I also have a selection of full ND filters for long exposure shots - I have B+W 3-stop, a 6-stop and 10-stop filters, as well as new Tiffen ones - a 10-stop Apex one and a variable 2-8-stop one. On this recent trip I only used the 10-stop ones a little as the weather conditions weren't great for it (too much wind, not much cloud contrast or movement), but used the 3- and 6-stop ones a fair bit - I love the extra time these filters give you for exposing water. Most of my Jökulsárlón beach shots of water trails were taken with one or other of these filters on. On my Feb 2015 trip I used the variable filter on the beach too for waves shots; it's very useful to be able to change the density by swivelling it round just a touch. It's too wide to use the hood with it, though, so only really suitable if there's no rain or spray. Without filters, the only time you'd be able to capture water trails, or smooth waterfalls, would be in really low light. They give you the ability to do this in bright light (see my earlier blog on Long Exposures). I sometimes stack a couple of filters together.
    For the Zeiss that I hired for my March 2014 trip the thread size was 82mm, so my filters didn't fit. As a compromise, I bought a step-down ring so I could attach my 77mm filters, but as expected suffered from some serious vignetting (some with a nasty blue cast). I did manage to crop a few photos to look reasonable but it certainly wasn't ideal, so not the best solution.
  • Spare batteries, chargers & adaptors - I often use the LiveView option (better on the neck and for accurate focusing), but it chews through the batteries, so it's useful to have a couple of spares (or a battery grip). Having more than one charger (plus adaptors) is also useful if you're popping back to your abode for something to eat before heading back out and need to recharge in a hurry (FYI - they use the European round two-pin plugs). Batteries also die in the cold more quickly. I bought a couple of cheap non-Canon batteries and they only last about 2/3 of the time the Canon ones do, but they're about 1/3 of the cost, so worth it, I think. Try to keep batteries warm when not in use. I've also got a cheap car charger now - every little opportunity to recharge is helpful!
  • Cloths - an obvious thing on the kit list, but very important if photographing anywhere near water (and for general cleaning purposes)! The lens will get covered in spray near waterfalls, and often you'll need to wipe your lens/filter after each shot. It also rains and snows and hails a fair bit too, so water's never far away from your camera. I use a combination of PecPads and microfibre cloths. I also take a tiny bottle of cleaning fluid with me (not allowed on planes, but a tiny bottle in your toiletries bag might make it through...). It's very important to make sure you clean your sensor before you leave and try not to change lenses too often (and always do it very carefully). I spent a lot of time after previous trips cloning out dust-spots, but this time just had one to worry about! I had my trusted sensor cleaning kit with me, just in case. Clean your lenses and filters frequently. A blower might also help to blow away any large dust particles on your sensor.
  • Rubber gloves - if you've stacked filters and they've got stuck together or to the lens then a pair of rubber gloves might help to free them. This doesn't seem to work so well for me any more as I think I have the wrong texture of gloves - but they're cheap and light and can sit at the bottom of your bag, almost forgotten, so worth a try).
  • Remote shutter release - if you're planning on taking shots of more than 30 seconds (on Bulb setting) you have to have a remote trigger, and it's also useful to prevent camera shake (if you don't have a remote you can just used the 2-second timer instead). I have two, one with a lead, and one which is wireless. For my 2014 trip I bought an intervalometer, hoping to try out some time-lapse shots, but still haven't ended up using it in Iceland! Maybe next year...
  • Memory cards - take lots of spares - it's amazing how quickly you can fill your card when you really get going (especially if that flock of whooper swans flies over head, for example, or you're doing star-trails or time-lapse...). And if you don't want to delete shots until you get home to additional back-up facilities then you're going to need a lot more memory cards. If you've bought brand new cards try them out before you leave home - I've had a couple of new 64GB ones fail on me while I was away. Now I'm sticking to the 32GB Integral fast ones as these seem to work the best for me.
  • Laptop and external hard drive - it's good to download the photos in the evening and do some reviewing and editing. I always store my photos on external hard-drives and then back-up separately when I get home. Always pack them in hand luggage. I used to have a ridiculously heavy Sony laptop - would recommend a light one for travelling (I have a lovely MacBook Pro). Make sure you've got enough room on your hard drive, in case you go a bit crazy and take thousands of shots.
  • Smartphone - I can't believe I used to travel without one! Everywhere in Iceland has WiFi, so if you're travelling alone these are great company. More importantly, they're useful in case of emergency - there is an app for the emergency rescue service - 112. Definitely a good idea to download this, just in case...
  • A comfortable camera bag is necessary if you're hiking. I have an Osprey 35 litre backpack that fits a smaller Lowepro camera bag snugly (which fits the camera and two large lenses - just) as well as the laptop, hard drives, and a few other bits and pieces (it has lots of pockets and pouches on the side for a small tripod or water bottle). If you're not planning on any hiking then a larger dedicated camera bag might be more practical, but you'll still have to carry it to locations.
  • An accessories bag - I just bought a wonderful little bag that has a couple of purposes (it's a Kipling Haru bag). When I'm travelling it's great for travel documents, wallet and iPhone, and when I'm out shooting it's perfect for all my filters. It has two pockets, so I can separate out the different types of filters and then find them really easily. I also keep cleaning cloths, iPhone, spare battery and memory cards in there. Saves faffing around getting these things out of pockets or the big bag.
  • A torch/flashlight - necessary for night shots for trying to see what you're doing and where you're going!
  • Wind/waterproof jacket and trousers - you won't believe how forceful and chilly that wind can be until you step outside of Keflavik airport. And it can rain pretty hard too. I take ski trousers and wear those most days with long-johns underneath (only sometimes is it mild enough to use the lighter Goretex rainproof trousers over hiking trousers). On my recent trip I also bought a cheap plastic raincover for the camera but it was such a faff to use (couldn't see the screen and it made zooming in and out painful), so I gave up. If you have weather-proof camera and lens just make sure you wipe them off from time to time.
  • Down jacket - if you're going in autumn/winter/spring then a good down jacket is a must, preferably with detachable hood so you can keep your head warm even if you're not wearing the jacket (not a great look, but helps keep that wind off your ears if you're standing around on an exposed beach for a few hours). I vary between the windproof jacket with fleece underneath and the down, depending on how cold/windy/wet it was. On my Feb 2015 trip I used the down jacket the whole time as it was so damned cold (with 3-4 layers underneath)!
  • Good warm hat that covers your ears - that wind really is biting. I have a great one by Arcteryx which has a fleece-lined section around the ears. A baseball cap is useful to wear under a hat and hood if it's raining - keeps the rain off your face.
  • Scarf/snood - did I mention the wind?! - don't want draughts down your neck.
  • Windproof gloves + lightweight ones (+ down ones if you're going in winter or if you're out capturing the aurora borealis). I bought some MacWet ones this year, which worked well. When out capturing northern lights I'd put these ones inside the down mittens to warm them up between shots.
  • Wellies - most other photographers seem to just wear walking boots, but if you're standing in rivers, snow, mud and sandy beaches I don't think you can't beat a good quality, sturdy pair of wellies. I used neoprene Hunter ones last year with added some felt liners to add an extra layer of warmth to the soles. In Feb 2015 I bought some Grubs Snowline boots which were even warmer, and I added toe warmers on a couple of really cold occasions. Still got cold feet, but not as bad as they could have been.
  • Thick mountaineering socks - I highly recommend the Smartwool ones as they're thick, warm, and don't get smelly for days! I hear the Icelandic woollen ones are good too.
  • Walking shoes/boots for hiking - make sure they're worn in! I still nipped up the odd hill in my wellies, but for serious hiking they wouldn't really work. Also nice to have some proper footwear to change in to.
  • Slippers/flipflops are very handy for knocking about hostels/hotels when your outdoor footwear is sitting by the door covered in black sand and there's black sand all over the floors too.
  • Thermals - both long-johns and thermal long-sleeved tops. I wear these every day during my autumn and winter trips; they're also useful in the summer as it can be very chilly too, especially at night.
  • Some hiking top layers and a light fleece.
  • Some normal clothes (unless you're hiking) - it's quite nice to change into jeans when you're sitting around in the evening.
  • Sleeping bag - saves a bunch of money in accommodation if you take your own sleeping bag. I have a 3/4 season one which is warm enough in most conditions, and unzips to the bottom, so can act like a duvet cover.
  • Suncream & sunglasses - in spite of the wind and rain and snow and hail it can also be lovely and clear with strong sun, so take a little pot of suncream and sunglasses for those occasions.
  • Padlocks - if you're staying in hostels and carrying expensive camera gear remember to pack a few padlocks to lock your bags. I've found Iceland to be incredibly safe and friendly, but you never know. 
  • Emergency blanket - I have one of these that lives in the bottom of my small backpack - thankfully never used, but I always carry it with me, just in case...
  • Snacks - I'm very bad at remembering to eat when I'm out-and-about shooting, so always carry a few Nature Valley snack bars with me - great to keep me going for a little while longer until I could be bothered to make my lunch (and on that, stock up on some bread, cheese and ham for your lunches - saves a bit of money and saves you eating gas station burgers).
  • Car hire - I couldn't imagine doing a photographic trip without a car, but it would just about be possible by bus (you'd have to be very organised and have no flexibility to stop at whim). If you rent a car in winter (or autumn and spring) a 4WD is probably recommended, as there's often snow and ice on the road. On my Sept 2014 trip I hired a normal (much cheaper) car (a Toyota Yaris), although a 4WD would have been good for exploring off the beaten track (check where you're allowed to go though, insurance-wise!). Make sure you get a 4-door, so that you can bung gear like a tripod on the back seat, so much easier. Shop around massively! I got a 10-day rental of a Suzuki Grand Vitara on this trip for £440 (through Budget via Auto-Europe), which I think is a great price). Some companies (eg. Hertz) do one-way rentals, and I've done that on a couple of trips, taking a one-way internal flight up to Egilsstadir and Akureyri. It adds a little to the cost, but saves a lot of driving time.
  • There are loads of organised photographic trips to Iceland. Although I've always done it independently, this could be a good way to see the highlights, with a professional photographer as a guide (and driver, etc...), as well as guidance on improving your technique. Your flexibility will be limited and you're stuck in the group, but they probably go to places that normal visitors don't know about, as well as the usual ones, which will be increasingly useful as Iceland becomes more packed with visitors. It's a good way to see the aurora borealis too (if there are any, of course), as the guide will be the one staying up to see if they're happening, so you don't need to worry (some hotels also offer that service). They should know some good spots to photograph the lights too.
  • Look at the baggage restrictions before booking your flight - one thing to bear in mind when packing for a trip to Iceland is that all the airlines have weight or size restrictions, and all of the above equipment adds up, weight-wise. You'll need to buy the hold luggage option (included with Icelandair), and make sure you pack wisely according to these restrictions, as they can charge you for the extra weight. On my March 2013 trip I flew in on Wow! and had problems on check-in as the hand luggage weight allowance was only 8kg (I had about 12kg, so ended up re-packing a bit of stuff in my hold luggage and "wearing" my camera + 24-70mm lens, so the woman eventually let me go without paying any extra - if necessary I would have worn more of my clothing too and put stuff (eg. a 1kg lens!) in pockets)(@ Oct'15: the weight restriction on Wow! is now 5kg and you have to pay extra to get 12kg). On the way back I flew with Easyjet who don't weigh your hand-luggage, but they do have size restrictions instead. Icelandair has increased its allowance of hand luggage since 2012 to 10kg (with size restrictions) and 23kg of hold luggage.
    If you're flying internally on Air Iceland (which also flies to Greenland and the Faroe Islands) then please note that the hand luggage allowance, in whichever class, is only 6kg and hold luggage is only 20kg. On my flights to Egilsstadir and Akureyri I thought I'd be wearing everything and stuffing every pocket but they didn't actually check the weight of my hand luggage on either occasion. I still wouldn't risk being too far over though.
  • Book early - the cheaper flights are usually those booked early. This also goes for accommodation. Some hotels, guesthouses & hostels are remarkably cheap off-season (eg. around £20 per night per person for sleeping-bag accommodation and £35 a night for a one-bed studio-apartment in Reykjavik). Always check the website of the place you want to stay as it may be cheaper to book directly with them than going through a booking site (like hotels.com or booking.com). Also try calling or emailing them directly to ask about any deals. The summer is far more expensive for accommodation so going off-season will save you a fortune. I searched for some of the places I've stayed in March for the summer and the prices were more than double. Consider other times of year - they all have their benefits...
Last thing to recommend is a lot of patience and flexibility! The weather can definitely dominate your trip and can obviously make a big difference to the photography opportunities that are possible/practical. Weather systems are often very localised, so it might be worth driving only 20 miles to a different spot. And also be patient, because while it might be snowing one minute, the sun might peek through 10 minutes later. Be really careful too - on my Feb 2015 trip I actually rearranged one day's plans as there were some massive storms which would have been too dangerous to drive through. Fortunately I didn't lose out too much financially, but don't risk your life just to get to a place you've paid for!

I found the following websites extremely helpful while I was away for weather, aurora and road conditions/forecasts:

  • http://en.vedur.is/ - Icelandic weather + aurora forecasts. Probably the most accurate for local weather forecasts, although not very detailed for individual places. Make sure you check the wind speeds - anything over 15 m/s is dangerous to drive in.
  • http://www.road.is/travel-info/road-conditions-and-weather/ - up-to-date road conditions, which are absolutely essential if you're driving in winter (and other times too!). They show whether roads are open, whether there's snow or ice on the road, if there's storms or blizzards, and most importantly, recent wind speeds.
  • http://www.yr.no/ - this is a Norwegian weather-forecasting website, but the information seems to be fairly accurate, at least in the short term. They seem to have more detailed place information than the Icelandic Weather site. You can build up "my Places" to see the long term & short term (including hourly) weather-forecasts for a bunch of different places, which is helpful if you're trying to work out where to go next!   
  • I now use two sites for aurora forecasts, concentrating on short-term forecasts, as the long term ones seem quite inaccurate. Try http://f5data.net/aurora/ and http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/


  1. Sophie, thanks for taking the time to write this up. I found it extremely helpful and informative, as I'm traveling to Iceland this year on a photo expedition tour. I also think you're photography is fabulous (I "liked" you on FB). Looking forward to seeing more of your work!

  2. Hi there! The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens you use...is that the 1 or the II? I want to rent this lens for my trip to Iceland but I want to be sure I'm renting the right one. Thanks!!

    1. Hi Patricia - I've only got the I - the other one came out soon after I bought it! The II is supposed to be much better, but I'm pretty happy with the I. If you have any screw-in filters this might determine which one to rent - the II (which is a lot more expensive to buy but probably not that much more to rent) has a 82mm filter thread, whereas the I has a 77mm thread (which is what my filters are). Hope this helps!

  3. Excellent write up. I'm going to Iceland in September and I'm certainly some of these tips will come in handy. I think I will need to invest in a new tripod as the one I have is very large and heavy. Any tips in that respect?

    1. My one is very large and very heavy and the baggage allowance for the planes did make this all quite challenging (trying to get within the weight allowances, etc. - especially on the internal flight, although they didn't bother weighing the hand luggage which was what I was really worrying about). I really recommend a sturdy one, though, as the wind can be strong at any time. I'd still take the heavyweight one over a lighter one, although I hear the technology is better these days... Sorry not to be able to give any specific advice on tripods - I'd check out reviews on google! Where are you planning to go?

    2. Hi. Thanks for the advice on tripods. They always seem quite a tricky item with so many combinations/options. But I suspect my 3 section one will get ditched for a 4 section one just due to its length. I am going on an organised trip focused on photography partly to save me having to do too much research into the great locations and also to save having to drive! But the trip encompasses the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, going on to VIk for waterfalls and volcanic beaches and also Hali to see the Svínafellsjökull glacier. If you have any favourite spots, would be happy to hear about them. Thanks Pete

    3. Sounds as if you've got most of my favourite spots covered ;)

  4. Sophie,
    Is tripod allowed as a hand luggage in Air Iceland?

    1. Hi Joanna, as far as I know, you can take on one main item of hand luggage and it needs to be within certain dimensions - have a look at their page here - http://www.icelandair.co.uk/information/baggage-information/carry-on-baggage/
      You can also then take a small handbag and laptop. This wouldn't leave you any allowance for your camera bag though. If you have a small tripod you could try to strap it on the outside of your camera bag, I guess. If you have a big one the options are to try to pack it inside a suitcase or backpack or check it separately, for which you'll have to pay an excess baggage fee, I think. You could email them to see if they count it as "sporting equipment" with a lower fee. Travelling with a bulky tripod and camera equipment is never easy...

    2. Sorry, just realised that you said Air Iceland (not Icelandair) - and I read your email! Air Iceland has much lower hand luggage weight allowances - only 6kg. However, for the internal flight I did earlier this year they didn't check my hand luggage at all, so I needn't have worried. However, I might just have been lucky. If in doubt you could try emailing them - http://www.airiceland.is/contact-us - I think if the small tripod is strapped to the side of another bag you might get away with it.

  5. The best camera bags protects equipment from getting knocked around and damaged by dust or moisture.

    Laptop and DSLR Camera Bag

  6. Thanks so much for this. We're off to Iceland on a cruise, and I am still trying to work out many of my DSLR's functions. I'm hoping this trip will give both the time and the opportunity to explore things like wide angle landscapes and maybe some nighttime shooting.