Iceland is a country of extreme weather and when planning a trip to this remote island a plan B and C is always needed. The weather can change in an instant and even in the summer months it can be cold and blustery with Atlantic storms blowing through. Despite the extreme conditions, Iceland can be rewarding for both photography and general travel throughout the year.
Deciding When to Visit Iceland
Iceland is a large country with varied landscapes and this brings variations in weather conditions. Many of the places in the south-west close to Reykjavík are generally accessible year round. This includes places on the Golden Circle, Skógafoss and Jökulsárlón, although some winter storms can sees even these areas become inaccessible.
Other destinations which are more remote or need an F-road for access such as Askja in the highlands or some of the East Fjord and Westfjord regions are only accessible during the warmer summer months when the snow has cleared from the roads.
If you only have a short period of time to visit Iceland or it is your first time then during the summer months around the summer solstice in June is best. The weather is settled, most roads are open and the long days give more than enough time to visit sites and photograph this amazing landscape.
Visiting Iceland in the Spring (April-June)
Spring in Iceland sees the country emerging from the long dark nights that haunt the winter months. While the northern lights are still visible by late May the endless days take over and the Midnight Sun replaces the greens of the Aurora borealis.
As the winter snow and ice melts the rivers are in full flood and the waterfalls increase in intensity, tumbling over the cliffs with a louds full force. The melting of the ice also means that the higher F-roads slowly reopen giving access to some of the more remote regions.
The green of fresh foliage appears alongside the emergence of the moss across the lava fields. By June the landscape is coated in purple as the wild lupins flower in every space possible.
June sees the return of the migrant birds who return to their colonies on the rugged cliffs and grassy headlands. This includes the puffins, gannets terns and eider ducks who nest around Iceland. Some areas will be closed during the nesting season and this includes Grótta Island Lighthouse just outside Reykjavík and Dyrhólaey Nature Reserve near Vík.
Iceland in Summer (July and August)
The summer is short in Iceland and by August the nights are already drawing in but this is when most tourists visit the country. At lower elevations the temperature in the south of the country is generally fairly warm and most of the snow has cleared making most F-roads accessible. This doesn’t mean that you can be complacent and regular checks of road conditions are still needed.
To see snow and ice you will need to venture into the highlands region, explore Jökulsárlón or take a tour out onto the glaciers.
Wild flowers and wildlife is in abundance at this time although by mid August the puffins and their new offspring will have left and the bird cliffs will have a strange calm hush.
Autumn in Iceland (September and October)
From the end of August the winter chill can be felt on the air in Iceland and by mid-September autumn is in full swing. While there are not many trees in Iceland the shrubs that are found all over the landscape start to turn a deep red, yellow or orange and berries are in abundance.
During September the nights become dark enough for the Aurora Borealis to become visible again (it has been there all along but the sky has been too bright) and more planning is needed to make the most of the shorter days.
Snow will begin to fall in the more remote areas especially at higher elevations and rain starts to become a more fixed feature along the coast.
Visiting Iceland in Winter (November to March)
Iceland in winter is an unpredictable place. The weather can change quickly, sometimes within hours. Keeping a close eye on the forecast and road conditions is essential. Most of the interior roads are closed as well as those further north and east. Outside of the area around Reykjavík and along the coast to Vík the roads may close intermittently because of snow. The roads that remain open may have a covering of compacted snow and ice making driving interesting if you aren’t used to the conditions.
Iceland is also prone to winds that are persistent and intense. You always need to consider where you are parked in relation to the wind to ensure you can safely open the car door and get out.
These harsh conditions are however worth overcoming for the stunning landscapes. Waterfalls surrounded by snow and ice and mountain peaks dusted in snow with beautiful golden light cannot be beaten.
This is also the time for the northern lights which dance in the sky when conditions are right.
READ MORE: HOW TO FIND THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Weather in Iceland
Iceland is a hotpot of weather and can change in a short period of time making it ideal for photography. If the light isn’t perfect, wait a while and it will change to hopefully something better.
Given its name and latitude many visitors expect Iceland to be cold. However, during the late spring and summer the sun can be intense and days can be incredibly warm. In the south-west corner around Reykjavík, the sun and lack of wind can make for pleasant days exploring.
In contrast during the winter months the wind can make the temperature feel much colder than it actually is. The wind is intense and persistent and can chill you quicker than the air temperature.
The Icelandic Met Office has a really useful website at https://en.vendur.is/ that shows general weather as well as much more localised forecasts. These forecasts include any rain or snowfall expected, cloud cover and aurora predictions as well earthquake records. From experience these forecasts are very accurate and provided a good basis for planning our route and photography stops each day.
Seasonal Considerations when Planning a Trip to Iceland
As can be seen, Iceland has a range of conditions that can be extreme and complicated for many visitors. When planning any trip for travel or photography then depending on the season you will have other things that will need to be considered for your own safety.
Rivers and Waterfalls
The flow of water through the rivers and waterfalls in Iceland can change through the seasons. In spring many rivers will be in full flood and flowing quickly making them hazardous places to be. As many are fed by glaciers they will be cold year round however inviting they may appear.
Waterfalls in Iceland can be at their best during the spring and summer when they are flowing and there is fresh green foliage emerging on the cliff faces surrounding them. Spray can be a problem so taking note of the wind and spray direction before setting up for a photograph can protect your camera and make the whole experience more pleasant.
In winter some of the smaller waterfalls freeze up completely or disappear and some may become clogged with ‘dirty’ snow. This is not the best time to photograph waterfalls unless there has been a fresh fall of snow. If waterfalls are your thing then a spring or summer visit is best.
READ MORE: WATERFALLS IN ICELAND
Icelandic Coast Through the Year
The coast of Iceland is a wild and remote place. The winter brings large storms and strong currents that results in large waves breaking onto the beaches. It is essential that you are aware of the waves at all times and take time to watch what is happening when you arrive at any beach.
The ice at the Diamond Beach and Jökulsárlón can vary through the year with more ice being present during the winter months. After a storm or high winds the amount of icebergs on the Diamond Beach can change dramatically from one tide to the next.
Some parts of Ring Road 1 may be closed in the winter months because of high winds, waves and snow and it is essential check the weather and road reports throughout the day. Road conditions can be seen at https://road.is.
Plants and Moss
Through the year, the landscape changes. In spring and summer the landscape is awash with colours. Purple lupins, blue forget-me-nots and harebells as well as the green of moss is everywhere. In autumn the leaves of many plants change to orange and red and this can give a different feel to familiar places.
READ MORE: LAVA AND MOSS IN ICELAND
The northern lights can be seen on clear nights between about October and April. The sky needs to be clear of clouds (often making the night cooler) and there needs to be darkness. In the summer months the sky never gets dark enough for the lights to be visible.
READ MORE: WHAT ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
New Year in Iceland
While Iceland is perfect for natural spectacles, New Years Eve is an experience not to be missed. This is the only time of the year that fireworks and available to purchase and the sky is filled with fireworks and smoke. Across the city bonfires are lit and families celebrate in style with late night parties. This isn’t just in Reykjavík and some of the smaller towns celebrate as much if not more than the capital.