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Iceland in the winter - Travel Photography

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

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