The Essential Guide to Photographing the Icelandic Horse

The Essential Guide to Photographing the Icelandic Horse

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Horses in Iceland

Did you know that people travel from far and wide to photograph the beautiful horses of Iceland? These incredible creatures make for a fascinating subject, particularly when framed against the stunning landscapes, grazing and going about their usual business... or should we say, 'horsing around'.

Not only are they exceptionally photogenic but Icelandic horses are completely unique and interesting in their own right. So before you train your camera on these endearing souls, you might want to learn a little bit more about their history, in order to really bring out the character behind their eyes when you get around to capturing them in a photograph.

What Makes the Icelandic Horse So Unique?

The Icelandic horse is a special breed, and has been central to Icelandic culture for centuries, since the earliest settlers brought horses over from Scandinavia. The horses were highly regarded in Nordic mythology and this regard continued when they were brought over to Iceland. Icelandic horses have been featured strongly in literature and folklore throughout the ages. They have also served multiple purposes, which is why they are often referred to as 'þarfasti þjónninn' (“the most needed servant“) by locals.

Horses in IcelandLove at Kirkjufell. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

In former times, the Icelandic horse served as a means of transport. It was viewed as a beast of burden and would also be harnessed for wagons and plows. Although they continue to be used by equestrians for horse-riding to this day, they are seldom harnessed as a 'work horse' anymore.

One interesting point to note is that Icelandic horses are used as a source of food in Iceland. When the country converted to Christianity in the year 1000AD, it was a condition of the the people that they would still be able to eat horse meat. Although horse meat is not eaten all the time in Iceland, it is still a traditional food that you may find on restaurant menus here and there.

Having said all of that, the use of Icelandic horses has changed a lot over the years. These days, they are a point of interest for photographers, for recreation, racing, and somewhat for traditional farm work. Icelandic horses are also in high demand internationally and people flock to Iceland from all over to see them, ride them and photograph them in various settings. In our own photo tours, we do indeed always try to photograph the Icelandic horses.


Throughout the centuries, the Icelandic horse has been shaped by both selective breeding and the often harsh Icelandic climate. People often comment on how they can spend all their time outside, even in the bitingly cold winds of winter! In fact, these horses love to be outside and hate to be trapped indoors. As such, farmers will often leave them in their grazing fields throughout the seasons.

The Icelandic horse is a small and beautiful animal, about the size of a pony, and is renowned for its bravery, its strength, resilience and stamina, its sure-footedness and good temper. Although they are on the small side, their physique is quite muscular and they are renowned for their gorgeous coats of long, shaggy fur – particularly during the winter. As such, you'll often find them frolicking about together playfully, on the best and even the worst of days.

Horses in IcelandWindswept Horses. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Icelandic horses are very popular both within and outside of Iceland, due to their friendly and inquisitive nature. They will often wander straight over to you in the paddock to find out who you are and what you're all about. You might even get a lick from them if they happen to find you particularly interesting! There has been quite a lot of discourse over the years amongst horse trainers about the differences between the personalities of Icelandic horses and horses from elsewhere in the world. Some think that their wonderful nature is due to genetics, whilst another train of thought is that they are generally more easy-going than other horses due to their relaxed way of life in Iceland.


Apart from their personalities, another particular distinction of the Icelandic horse is its five gaits. This means that in addition to the typical walk, trot and canter/gallop, it has the characteristic gaits known as the tölt and skeið. Tölt is a four-beat lateral ambling gait, characterised by an explosive acceleration and speed, while still being comfortable and ground-covering. This gait in turn has its own varieties.

On the other hand, skeið or flugskeið (“flying pace“) is very fast and smooth. When undertaking the skeið, Icelandic horses can reach up to 48 km per hour, though not all of them are able to perform this gait. This is a two-beat lateral gait where the footfalls are suspended, with the horse having both feet on each side touching land almost at the same time. This gait requires the skills of a well-trained and balanced horse, combined with seasoned riders.

Horses in IcelandIcelandic Horses Grazing. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Another distinction of the Icelandic horse, in addition to those already mentioned, is its many coat colours. Indeed, Icelanders have over a hundred names for them. In wintertime, the Icelandic horse will develop a double coat to protect it against the cold weather. As such, you'll often see them standing out and about in the snow, seemingly without a care in the world, not even huddling or shivering!

Due to the unique and revered characteristics of the Icelandic horse, the Parliament of Iceland has sought to restrict horse imports since 982AD, thereby preventing the degeneration of the breed. Furthermore, the law prevents any horse that is exported from Iceland from being allowed back into the country. As such, the Icelandic horse is one of the most purebred horses in the world; a strong and hardy breed that is afflicted by very few diseases. The only downside of this law is that any Icelandic horse which is entered into an equestrian competition overseas cannot return to Iceland, meaning that most of the time, the best Icelandic horses are not sent abroad. Rather, they remain in Iceland to participate in competitions here or for breeding purposes.

Equipment You'll Need to Photograph Icelandic Horses

  • A reliable camera

  • Mid-range zoom lens

  • Memory card

As Icelandic horses are very friendly and naturally curious creatures, there is every chance that once you arrive near the field in which they are resting, they will walk straight towards you in the hope that you have food. While this may be endearing, it can make photographing Icelandic horses quite difficult! So rather than attaching your telephoto lens, it is best to have a mid-range zoom lens around the 24-70mm mark, which will allow you to capture these beautiful horses perfectly.

Icelandic horses are continually moving, so it's best to hand-hold your camera and to switch on the image stabiliser mode of your lens or camera, if you have one. Set your aperture so that you'll be able to get most of the horse in focus or whichever parts you want to be in focus, depending on your creative needs. Usually, an aperture between f/5.6 to f/8.3 will give realistic results similar to the aperture of the human eye.

As you'll be handholding your camera, you'll want to use an ISO that will be fast enough for you to photograph the Icelandic horses whilst minimising noise. Depending on the light, an ISO between 400 to 800 may suffice.

How to Photograph the Icelandic Horse


The Icelandic horse is a noble creature and one of true beauty. As such, it is highly photogenic, though we advise that you show the utmost respect towards these noble creatures. Do not use flash and approach them carefully and gently.

As with all animals, making eye contact can sometimes be a threatening gesture. Once you've caught a horse's eye, it will either move towards you inquisitively or begin to move away. Don't keep maintaining eye contact if it is moving away. This is a sure sign that the horse is uncomfortable.

Speaking of the eyes – when you take a photo of the Icelandic horse, be sure to train your focus upon their gaze. It's just like portrait photography with humans, but you're photographing a horse instead. The eyes are the centre to our souls and they convey a lot of emotion. By focusing on the eyes of the horse, you'll be able to capture its spirit and character in quite a lot of detail, without having to say a word.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to capture the eyes of the Icelandic horse, simply because they have such exquisite manes of fabulous hair. You'd be forgiven for mistaking them as models fresh from a shampoo commercial. When you are unable to train the focus of your lens upon their eyes, try instead to to focus where their eyes should be, which will give the same effect. As humans, we are trained not only to look for eyes first, but we intrinsically look towards the most logical place which in this case, would be near the horse's face.

Icelandic HorseThere's a New Boy Band in Town. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Although it's best to use an aperture that will get the entire horse in focus, you can get a bit creative with your aperture, just as you would in portrait photography. Experiment with a larger aperture for bokeh around the horse's face in order to draw attention to its eyes, or use a smaller aperture to get everything around the horse in focus if you want to emphasise the beauty of the surrounding landscape. As a landscape photographer, you'll probably want to include some of the landscape in the background anyway, to give your images some sort of context. After all, what kind of horses are you photographing? These horses could be anywhere! Your aim is to get the message across visually that you have captured Icelandic horses in Iceland.

As you are shooting, you'll find that some of the horses will group themselves around you. This is the perfect time to capture a photograph, with two or more horses together to help you tell a story. Sometimes it can be difficult to shoot when they're all around though, as they'll try to bite at your clothes, lick your camera and may be standing far too close for your lens to focus. These are the times when you'll simply have to stand further back, or move to another group of horses to try your luck.

As always, it's best to keep your ISO as low as possible, at 100 (or lower) if you can. This is to minimise noise, though if you're handholding for your shot, then you might want to increase it to minimise camera shake. Most of the time, there won't be any need to use a tripod, as you'll be moving around to capture the perfect moment anyway.

Icelandic HorseHorse Riding at Vestrahorn. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

If you can't manage to get the photo that you want, then try framing the Icelandic horses from a different angle. Just like you would with landscape photography, try angling your camera up or down, to get a different perspective on your subject. You could also try experimenting by going wide (though this my result in some distortion along the bodies of the horses) or zooming in on little details, such as their incredible manes.

However you decide to photograph the friendly horses of Iceland, remember to be respectful of the animals and the farmer's property at all times. Don't feed the horses (unless horse food has been provided to you by the farmer) and don't harass them by chasing them to get your shots. Let them wander over to you to satisfy their own curiosity, and you'll be able to satisfy yours.

About the author:  Serena Dzenis is a landscape photographer based in Iceland. You can find more of her work on her website or by following her on Facebook and Instagram.

Have you been wanting to photograph the horses of Iceland? Check out our range of photography workshops that will take you to the best locations in Iceland to see these beautiful animals in the wide-reaching nature.