Updated: Dec 14, 2021
After my trip to Lofoten in Norway in September 2020, I didn't touch my camera for almost three months. I was supposed to travel to Chile in December to capture the Solar Eclipse and hike in Patagonia. With the many travel restrictions at the moment, this dream didn't come true. My yearning for a new adventure was stronger than my fear of travelling. At the same time, I didn't want to risk getting stuck on another continent again as it happened during the pandemic outbreak.
Since many countries in Europe closed their borders to tourists, there were not many places left to consider. After a short research, Iceland seemed to be the best choice. We spent 2019 Christmas in Iceland, and we loved it, so we said, let's do it again! At the time of our booking, double testing for Covid-19 was required and a short 5 - 6 day quarantine between the two screenings. The prices for accommodation and car rental were very reasonable compared to previous years. Finally, we found a cheap direct flight from Vienna. It all sounded too good to be true! I refused to even think about the "what if we test positive". No Covid-19 test was required to leave our country (Czech Republic) or to enter Austria. Two days before our trip, we went for a voluntary self-paid PCR test to ensure that we are negative.
We woke up very early to drive four hours from Prague to Vienna Airport. We had our negative test results with us printed if the police at the border would stop us. There was no border control that day. We parked the car safely at the prearranged Hotel near the Airport. The Airport hall was empty, only a few Cafes open. The flight experience with WIZZ Air was exceptional; during our 4-hour flight, we could purchase refreshments twice. Everything went smooth. We already filled out the Health Declaration and downloaded the mandatory Covid Tracing App before our flight; after landing, we were heading straight for the test. The instructions are clear. There were a few cubicles and no queues. They checked our throat and nose; it was swift. In no time we were through, and our next stop was the duty-free shop to buy some goodies, beer and wine are much cheaper than in the liquor stores (Vínbúðin) in Iceland.
The representative from the Car rental company picked us up, and we drove to their nearby office. After picking up the car, you are supposed to go straight to the quarantine accommodation where you need to spend at least 5 or 6 nights waiting for the second test results. We landed at Keflavik International Airport at 5 pm, and by 9 pm we were in our cottage on Snæfellsnes peninsula. By 10 pm, we had received our negative test results.
Quarantine under the Northern Lights
When it comes to quarantine accommodation, the hosts must provide a private bathroom, separate entrance, etc. You have to stay isolated and can not go shopping or to restaurants. We booked our quarantine at Dís Cottages on Snæfellsnes peninsula. I advise you to directly contact the properties; you may receive a slightly better price when booking for more nights. Our communication with Dís Cottages was excellent! Since we cannot go to food stores during the quarantine, we asked for help with shopping. Upon our arrival, fresh bread, fruit and other items from our shopping list were waiting for us in our kitchenette! Having the 32kg luggage with WIZZ Air allowed us to pack some food, too. Accommodations that welcome guests in quarantine are listed here.
I wished to stay somewhere more remote with minimal light pollution and surrounded by nature. During the quarantine, you are allowed to go for walks and hikes, which we did a lot. The third night of our stay, Lady Aurora painted the sky green! What a treat!
We received our second invitation for the test on the evening of day five, for the next day and we booked an additional night at the cottage. You have to stay at the same place until the second test results arrive. You can choose from several locations for the second screening; we decided to go to Borgarnes, the closest town. We arrived at 11 am, and at 6 pm we had our results back. After the second negative test result, we were free to go anywhere!
Around midnight I saw the green band above the horizon and decided to head out to the nearby waterfalls. The waxing moon illuminated the top of Kirkjufell (Church Mountain).
Except for our mandatory quarantine and the three nights during Christmas, we didn't book any other accommodation. We did it after our quarantine, once we knew we are free to go. Most of the hotels were closed due to Covid-19 or Christmas. Still, there were many self-catering cabins and apartments available along the ring road.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is often called Iceland in miniature. It combines many diverse attractions in one location: volcanic craters, lava fields, a glacier, waterfalls, cliffs, black sand beaches, and picturesque fishing villages with colourful wooden houses.
Snæfellsjökull is a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano. The mountain is one of the most famous sites of Iceland, primarily due to the novel Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne, in which the protagonists find the entrance to a passage leading to the center of the earth on Snæfellsjökull.
After our quarantine, we drove towards the south. We spent Christmas in a cosy cabin with a fully equipped kitchen called The Potato Storage. It is another charming self-catering place at a perfect location just a few minutes drive from the most accessible outlet glaciers from Vatnajökull - Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafelsjökull. At Svínafell glacier lagoon, you can find exciting ice formations. From the top of the hill, you can capture the whole panoramic scene with the glacier tongue. I was shooting at this location three times during our visit, and we didn't meet a soul.
I was waiting for this magical moment whipped by icy arctic wind. Suddenly the rising sun illuminated the clouds, and they created a mysterious fiery portal above the glacier.
December's full Moon is most commonly known as the Cold Moon. That day the Moon was shining above the horizon for long 22 hours! I captured the setting Moon from the roadside in Svínafell area.
Our next stop was Stokksnes peninsula, well known for the majestic Vestrahorn mountain. We stayed two nights at Viking Cafe Guesthouse. Since we were the only guests, Omar, the owner upgraded us to a bigger room! Thank you!
This epic mountain is probably on every photographer's wishlist. Despite the gale-force wind coming from the north, I decided to give it a try and capture a few long exposure shots from the sea. This view is towards the north, and I fought my battle with the sea spray and the foam.
I was standing in the water wearing rubber boots and waterproof trousers over them when capturing these pictures. Suddenly a big wave came up to my waist! I managed to lift up my camera, and my long waterproof parka kept me dry, but my boots filled up with ice-cold water. Sneaker waves can surprise even experienced photographers; you need to be careful with your gear. Before you enter the sea, observe the waves for a few minutes and plan your emergency exit route. Remember, never turn your back to the sea! I always have a spare pair of dry socks and boots in the car.
The next morning I was shooting the majestic Vestrahorn Mountain from the black dunes and waiting for the late sunrise to illuminate the peaks. I had quite tricky shooting conditions with wind gusts at 36 m/s (80 mph). I turned around and suddenly saw these "rainbow clouds". I have never seen anything like this before, and I knew nothing about the Polar Stratospheric Clouds, also called the Mother of Pearl. I grabbed my other camera with the telephoto lens from my bag and took a few shots when suddenly the wind picked up, and a black sand devil swallowed me! I couldn't even close my camera bag in that panic! I had sand in my eyes, mouth and ears, too. Fortunately, after proper cleaning, my cameras and lenses are still working. Good advise - whenever you are shooting, keep your bag closed! :)
I learnt later that day from my friends that I witnessed something extraordinary: "Glitsky" in Icelandic, which means glitter sky. I was truly mesmerised by these beautiful yet sinister ozone-destroying clouds. The pinkish clouds illuminated the sky again the next day, and I capture them above Brunntorn, the Batman Mountain.
Our next stop was the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Breiðarmerkursandur beach, probably better known as the Diamond Beach. Capturing the waves painting around the ice on the beach is quite some fun. The same rule applies here, check your exit route before you start shooting, the ice can hit you as the waves move them. Sooner or later you will probably get a little bit wet if you want to capture similar shots, but you shouldn't risk if you are not feeling up to it. Iceland's beaches are well known for waves that claim cameras, tripods, and even lives!
If you want to achieve silky waves, the shutter speed should be between 0,5 and 2 seconds. I used an ND64x filter (6-stop) from VFFOTO: 2s for the first, 1,3s for the second and 0,8s for the third image.
At low tide, less ice is floating in the sea; the fragments are scattered on the beach. It was a feast for the eyes to see these beautiful "diamonds" contrasting with the black beach. The frost highlighted the ripples in the sand.
We stopped at Reynisfjara beach twice during our journey and stayed in the fully equipped spacious Black Beach Suites, located just a few minutes from the black sand beach. Experiencing the beach without the masses of selfie-taking tourists was magical.
On the picture above, Skessudrangur basalt sea stack with the first sun rays in the New Year. Can you spot the bird on the sea stack?
Visiting an ice cave is usually one of the highlights of my Iceland trip every year. 2020 was a different year. Although it was the same cave, the experience was truly unique without the tourists! The Sapphire Ice Cave changed a lot since last year. A big part of it melted just as the glaciers are retreating. It is so sad to see this happening! Haukur from Glacier Adventures was a great guide and explained a lot about the area and the glaciers.
I will dedicate a separate blog post to the Ice Caves in Iceland!
Photo gear and clothing
I used my wide-angle lens 16-35mm at most of the locations on my full-frame camera. This lens gives me flexibility when I need to move around a lot and can't or don't want to carry my gear bag. Although it was extremely windy most of the time, I managed to use my VFFoto Filters (both magnetic and screw on filters). Having the sun very low above the horizon, I used the ND64x filter the most. I didn't use a polarising filter at all. After my little accident on the dunes, I extensively used the UV filter from VFFoto to protect my lenses from the sand! In conditions like these, never wipe your lens or filters with a cloth before properly removing the sand. You could scratch them. Use a blower instead!
Whether you will shoot standing in the water or on top of the hill, use a sturdy tripod and never leave it unsupervised! Strong wind gusts can surprise you at any moment. I am speaking from my own experience, the night when I was shooting the Aurora from our terrace during the quarantine, it was super calm. I went into our cabin to grab something when I saw my tripod flying in the air together with my camera! Fortunately, the wooden railing caught the falling tripod so that the camera stayed levitating above it and intact. I guess it was just pure luck!
Warm water and windproof clothes, hat and gloves are an absolute must in Iceland. Not only in winter! I visited Iceland once in July, and I ended up buying a pair of gloves! Hand warmers are essential, too. Don't forget that the batteries drain much faster in the cold, especially when you use live view. I always keep a spare battery in my inner pocket close to my body to keep it warm. Some days the temperature dropped down to -10°C (14°F). In addition to that, it may feel colder than the temperature indicates due to the wind chill factor. I usually carry a flask with hot tea with me in freezing temperatures to keep me warm.
Christmas in Iceland
There’s something magical about Christmas in Iceland. During Christmas, practically every home will be illuminated with lights and the graveyards are adorned with colourful lights during the winter as well. Christmas in Iceland lasts for 26 days, from the 11th of December until the 6th of January, and Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses or Yule Lads. Yule Lads are the sons of two trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði, living in the Icelandic mountains. Each of the Yule Lads is known for a different kind of mischief (for example slamming doors, stealing milk or eating the candles). The Yule Cat (Jólakötturinn) is a huge and vicious cat who is described as lurking about the snowy countryside during Christmas time and eating people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. He is the house pet of Gryla and her sons.
Sadly, this year many places were closed due to the pandemic. Even Reykjavik's streets were quiet.
It was my 7th trip to Iceland. I used every second to breath in the fresh air and appreciate the otherworldly beauty of the famous spots without people. There are still many photos to process. You can find my Iceland gallery here.
Those who choose to travel to Iceland are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure. You can find all the updated information about visiting Iceland here.
I hope to visit Iceland soon again!