Six Critical Steps To Plan Your Landscape Photography Trip In Iceland
I recently led a landscape photography workshop in Iceland, and shared my 3P Creation Process with my workshop participants. (See definition of my 3P Creation Process)
My 1st and 3rd P were easily addressed indoors, and the 2nd P was addressed in the field. In order to better help everyone to digest the 1st P - Planning and Logistics, the most important factor that sets apart a great photographer from the rest, I documented the following six critical steps.
Step 1: Find photography inspiration
Typically most of us first decide which country (eg. Iceland) or region (eg. Europe) we want to see. Different from other trips, a landscape photography themed trip requires us to plan in much detail. This first step will help you decide what you want to photograph after deciding your country/region destination. My top 3 favorite websites to find photo inspiration include: 500px, flickr, Pinterest
Step 2: Collect the location information of major viewpoints or attractions
Based on the research above, collect your favorite photos, jot down where the photos were taken
Step 3: Map out all the locations you'd like to visit
Based on the reputation of viewpoints or attractions, some locations are easier to find and some might take hours. For example, most of the locations in Iceland we visited are documented pretty precisely on Google Map, but Bruarfoss took me hours of research online, and two snow hiking trips to find (the 1st one took me 2 hours with no avail, and the second one took almost an hour).
It's important that you know in advance how much time you need to travel by car and by foot in order to get to the vantage point to photograph main attractions. For landscape photographers to get the best colors, every minute counts (see my video tutorial How Colors Change Within 10 Minutes For Landscape Photography)See following recommended map sites:
maps.google.com General purpose maps, typically used to calculate driving time
Iceland road condition For countries like Iceland where road access is unpredictable due to weather, you need to check in advance whether the roads are open
US National Park map example If you travel around national parks in the US, most parks have their own websites and maps. You can download their free maps online in advance and figure out the travel distance and time
Step 4: Do field recon
Most amateur photographers neglected this step, and often underestimated the time required to find vantage points. Even you did a perfect job in the previous steps finding the location and driving time to the main attraction, you still don't know how long it takes to walk, hike, or even climb to a perfect vantage point. Many great landscape photos are not taken at the tourist lookout, but hundreds of feet or meters away. This has happened many times during my travels. Therefore it's important to arrive early or even one day in advance (if time allows) to do the field recon, so you know exactly where to go, what lighting conditions you'll encounter, the direction you want to face based on the light direction etc.
Step 5: Research on weather
This is a two step process.
The 1st step happens before you purchase your flight ticket, you want to know the best season and general weather conditions of the month you travel to your destination.
The 2nd step happens during or slightly before your travel. Typically I use www.weather.com or iPhone weather app. Usually you can find out weather forecast 10 days in advance, but forecast within the next 3 days are definitely more accurate than forecast within the next 10 days. In such countries as Iceland where you'll easily experience 5 different kinds of weather within one day, you need to check local weather forecast website and with more frequency. Iceland Weather site gives you forecast every 3 hours. The weather changes so fast there that the forecast at 6pm could be different from 3pm. Make sure to change your itinerary swiftly and avoid being stuck in the snow storm.
Step 6: Decide what time to photograph
Sunrise Sunset Website. Basic info about sunrise and sunset time. You should always check twilight time, which typically gets you nice colors in the sky if it's clear or cloudy. If you are interested in photographing full moon, this website can also give you moonrise and moonset time. All the information is free. See my video tutorial example How To Arrange Your Photo Activities In The Evening using the data from this website
Photo Ephemeris App. The App many professional landscape photographers use. It not only gives you all the information from the sunrisesunset.com site, but also helps you plan your photo shoot based on the terrain altitude and light direction. It is much more advanced tool and takes some time to digest. It offers a free desktop version and charges minimal fees for iPhone and iPad version. In my experience, unless you are very familiar with the sites you are visiting, the best way to plan your landscape photo shooting is still in-person recon. The app at best gives you Google satellite terrain image but in remote back countries, you won't be able to find from the app how close you can walk to the waterfall for example, and what vantage points are realistic for you to access to.
Combining all the information above, you can draw a clearer picture on where to visit on what day, and at what time. Print out a Google Map with all the locations and bring with you during the trip (see example of my 72-day national park road trip map). Although you can easily rent GPS and wifi devices in Iceland, it's still very useful to have a map hard copy in case reception was bad (which happened quite often in back countries and Iceland).
Booking hotels in advance is plausible in most places I traveled to, but in Iceland, if you are serious about photographing the best landscape, I'd recommend you to rent an RV, so you can chase northern light at night, or adjust your itinerary according to weather changes or road blockage conditions. For the first week, since there were only two of us, we booked a van at Happy Campers. It was my first time to travel in an RV and although it wasn't as comfortable, it was pretty cool experience (except once our wheels got stuck in the sand on the Jökulsárlón beach). We booked our second van that can sit 9 people plus plenty of luggage space from Reykjavik Rent A Car (excellent service and very professional!) during my photography workshop in the second week. Compared to calculating the distance and time to travel to the vantage points, renting a car and booking a hotel were much easy.
For more detail on what you need to purchase before taking on a landscape photography trip in Iceland, check out my free eBook - The Ultimate Buying Guide for Your Iceland Photo Trip