So you’ve booked your photography tour to Iceland, but did you know that you’ll have opportunities to photograph much more than just the sensational landscapes? While the stark, volcanic environment of this country may not be teeming with wildlife, there are plenty of animals that call this small island with a harsh climate their home.
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What kind of creatures will you see? How is best to photograph them? What kind of settings will you need? Read on to find out the answers to these questions, as well as how to capture the unique character and personality of Iceland’s beautiful beasts!
Common Animals in Iceland
During your landscape photography tour, you are likely to encounter Iceland’s distinctive livestock as well as a number of native species. We cannot guarantee that you will see all of these, though you may see some and even have the opportunity to snap a few photos of them in their natural environment.
If there is one animal that you are bound to see when you step foot into this country, it is the Icelandic sheep. In fact, sheep have outnumbered people on this island since the first settlers brought them over by boat!
These short-legged and stocky animals can be both easy and difficult to photograph, as they tend to walk away quickly when approached. Their temperament can range from very sweet and friendly to timid.
Although mainly quiet and docile, rams can be quite protective of their flock, becoming aggressive when they are feeling threatened. They tend to hang around in small groups of three to five, which is exactly the best way to photograph them too.
Icelandic sheep can disappear in seconds while you're getting your camera ready! Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
Icelandic sheep can be seen all over the country, on farmland as well as on the road! Approximately 800,000 sheep run wild during the Icelandic summer, before they are rounded up again in September prior to the winter months. As such, your best bet to photograph these woolly flocks is during one of our Summer Photography Workshops in Iceland.
The second most common animal in Iceland is the famously small and hardy Icelandic horse. The very first horses arrived aboard the Viking ships sometime between 860 and 935 AD. Since then, they have been selectively bred to change and adapt to the harsh climate, which is evident by their thicker coat during winter and subsequent shedding in spring.
Icelandic horses are beautiful inside and out. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Icelandic horses are not only physically magnificent – they are well-spirited with a gentle temperament, easily approachable and very friendly. As such, they are a favourite subject for any photographer visiting the country.
You will often see them standing in large groups in paddocks or lounging on the grass in pairs or threes. They are best photographed when interacting with one another or once they have acknowledged your presence and move towards you. However, Icelandic horses can often be very curious, so you’ll really need to watch your bags and gear around them. If you leave your bag on the ground while taking your shot, they can be so curious as to even try eating it!
There's a new boy band on the block. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Icelandic horses can be seen year-round, though unlike sheep, they do not roam free. These magnificent creatures are kept within fenced fields by their owners, so it is important not to trespass, feed or pet them without the owner’s permission. The easiest way to get close enough to photograph these majestic animals is on our 9-Day Photo Workshop Capturing Autumn in Iceland.
Iceland’s only native mammal, the Arctic fox, can be found all across Iceland. However, you may go your entire trip without seeing one as they are very elusive! These small, furry carnivores are one of the country’s toughest natural survivors, being able to withstand the harsh climate without any need for human intervention. In addition, the colour of their coat changes in accordance with the seasons. They can appear white, grey or brown, often blending in with their environment.
Arctic foxes range from skittish to being quite comfortable around humans, depending on where and when you are lucky enough to spot one. If you are are able to stay quiet, then you may even get near enough for an intimate shot.
It is best to photograph the Arctic fox in a state of motion, which highlights its flexibility and agility. One of the more distinctive behaviours of Arctic foxes, and a perfect moment for photography, is the sequence of movements that they display when hunting. As soon as an Arctic fox has found its prey, it will leap high into the air, curling its body before diving straight into the snow with its snout!
You are most likely to find Arctic foxes in the Westfjords, where they are a protected species in the remote Hornstrandir Reserve. For the best chance to photograph an Arctic fox, join our Midnight Sun in the Westfjords Photo Workshop.
Puffins are clearly a favourite subject of photographers who visit Iceland. These seabirds visit the island from the beginning until the end of summer, managing to capture everyone’s hearts with their brightly coloured beaks and adorable expressions.
Puffins breed in Iceland. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Millions of nesting pairs of puffins breed in the crags and crevices of Iceland’s coastal cliffs. If you are able to find one, then you are likely to stumble upon hundreds more. They are quite tame and do not have much fear of people, so will only fly off when feeling extremely threatened. You will probably spot them standing around with their significant other or in groups, seeming strangely aloof!
It is best to photograph them when they are coming in for landing or appearing to examine some part of their environment. This really brings out a puffin’s personality and can even make it seem as though it is interacting with your camera.
Puffins arrive in Iceland at the start of summer in April and May. They can easily be seen up close in many parts of the country until the end of summer in August. The best place to see them is in the Westfjords – a large peninsula to the northwest of Iceland. It is also possible to see puffins nesting on the Dýholaey rock arch, in the Eastfjords, and on Grímsey Island in the North. You will be able to see and photograph puffins on our 12-Day Midnight Sun Photography Workshop Around Iceland.
There are two species of seals that call Iceland’s shores their home – they are the harbour seal and the grey seal. These seals are a permanent fixture on Iceland’s coast, using the beaches as places to ‘haul out’ and breed.
If you are lucky, then you will be able to see and photograph seals frolicking between icebergs, riding in the surf, and even sunbathing on rocks. The best time to photograph them is when they are most relaxed and seeming to ignore your presence. It is not unusual to be approached seals, though if they do get close, then you should move away for your safety as well as theirs. In no circumstances should you ever touch or feed a seal.
You will be able to spot seals throughout the year along the coast in Iceland, but the best places to photograph them are in the Westfjords, the Vatnsnes Peninsula, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Join our 3-Day Photo Tour of the South Coast and Vatnajokull National Park for your best chance of capturing a slippery seal on camera.
Reindeer were introduced to Iceland from Norway during the 18th century. Although it was thought that they would thrive in Icelandic conditions, reindeer have only been able to survive in the wild in the eastern part of the country.
Reindeer in the winter in Iceland. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Currently, there are about 6000-7000 reindeer in the east of Iceland. During summer, they tend to spend their time in the mountains though during winter, they will often head down into the lowlands in search of food. Sometimes, you may even be able to spot large groups of reindeer at a time. As such, it's best to compose your shot with a few reindeer in the frame, to capture the true spirit of the animal in the Icelandic wilderness.
You will be most likely to see reindeer during the winter in parts of Vatnajökull National Park or in the Eastfjords. For your best chance of photographing them, join our Complete Two Week Winter Photography Workshop in Iceland.
Camera Settings for Photographing Animals in Iceland
When photographing Icelandic horses and sheep, you may find that the most fitting focal length to use is a medium zoom lens, such as a 24-70mm. This is because you will most likely be able to get relatively close to these animals.
On the other hand, you may need a longer length such as a 70-200mm to photograph puffins, Arctic foxes and seals, which are better viewed from further away.
A longer focal length will also allow you to compress the background with the animal in the foreground.
- See also: The Best Lenses for Wildlife Photography
Animals can move very quickly, so the best technique to use when photographing them is to have a fast shutter speed that will freeze their actions. Keeping your shutter speed above 1/2000s for puffins that are coming in for landing around the cliffs will ensure that your image remains sharp.
If you are trying to capture sheep as they roam through the Highlands, then try a shutter speed of 1/1000s to 1/5000s. Of course, you can get away with slower shutter speeds if your subject is just lounging around in the sun!
You'll need a fast shutter speed to capture puffins in flight! Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
When photographing animals in Iceland, set your camera to auto ISO. This will ensure that if the light fades, you will still be able to maintain your minimum shutter speed. When the light returns, then your camera will automatically lower the ISO back to an appropriate level, so that you can still capture all of the action.
To help isolate animals from the background, use a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field. Just be mindful that this technique can result in some areas of your image being out of focus. Therefore, if the light is bright, take your aperture down a few stops to ensure that the entire animal’s body remains sharp. In general, a good aperture to start with is f/8. Of course, using a narrow aperture like this means that you will obtain slower shutter speeds, meaning that your ISO may need to be increased to capture a sharp shot.
When taking photos of animals, rather than focusing manually, try using the autofocus. This will heighten your chances of getting everything sharp. Set your camera to use a single autofocus point, which will make it possible for you to lock and maintain focus with more precision. If the animal is moving or in flight, then set your camera to use a dynamic focus mode, which will activate several autofocus points around the one you select. Doing this will ensure that once the animal moves, your camera will be able to track it and remain in focus.
To help you get all of the action on camera, make sure that your frame release rate is set as high as possible. Shooting a short burst of images will improve your chances of getting a great shot that is worthwhile keeping. Another useful thing to do is to keep your finger depressed on the shutter button halfway, to ensure that you will be ready to release the shutter as soon as you see a moment that you want to capture!
Tips For Photographing Animals in Iceland
Now that you’ve got your camera settings down-pat, there are several tips and tricks to follow which will increase your rate of getting a successful shot of the Icelandic wildlife. Follow these and you will find yourself with a creative photograph that captures the unique character and personality of the animals in Iceland.
Approach Slowly and Quietly
The animals in Iceland can be quite skittish, so if they sense you approaching from a distance, they may walk, run or even fly away.
To increase your chances of getting a shot, approach them slowly and quietly. Stop every few metres to let them know that you are not a threat. Try taking a handheld shot at each stop before you get to where you actually want to be, as the animal may flee before you can get close enough. This will ensure that you’ll have at least one photo which you can crop down later if required! If you are eventually able to get close enough to take a good shot, then you can set up your camera on a tripod and begin to consider different compositions.
Focus on the Eye
Your photos will always be more captivating if you focus on the animal’s eye. A sharply focused eye creates a connection with the animal and helps to draw the viewer into the image. It also helps to convey character, personality and spirit.
Focusing on the eye can be a little difficult with Icelandic horses. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Each and every animal in Iceland harbours a range of interesting behaviours that conveys the essence of its species. We’ve mentioned some of their more common behaviours above, but when you see them in the field, spend some time studying them for a while before you take any photos. Most animals have a pattern of moves that will lead up to certain poses, displays or other actions. These are the kinds of moments that will look amazing when captured on camera.
The beauty of watching animals is that eventually, you will see them approaching and interacting with one another. Some of these interactions may be majestic in nature, whilst others may even appear to be quite funny. These are the moments that can bring out the personality and character of the animals in your photos. Being poised and ready at all times is the key to documenting moments like these. Don’t put your camera down, because as soon as you do, you’ll be at risk of missing the shot!
Capture an animal's behaviour, such as during feeding time. Photo by: 'Edwin Martinez'.
Composition and Balancing the Frame
When taking photos of animals, try to balance the frame with your composition. For example, if an Icelandic sheep is looking to one direction, give more space to the direction it is looking in. If you are photographing a puffin in flight, give more space to its flight path so that it doesn’t look like it is flying out of the frame.
Another important thing to consider when framing a shot is how you can bring the viewer’s eye to focus in on the animal. Tightening the frame can help you to achieve this, though not all of your shots need to be tight. Never cut off an animal’s legs and try to include some of the landscape into your images to give a sense of the surrounding Icelandic environment. Try finding an interesting background for your shot, as you will find that Iceland offers a lot of epic fjords and magnificent mountains for you to work with!
Try to find an interesting backdrop when photographing animals in Iceland. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.
Know When to Stop
Finally, whenever you are photographing animals in Iceland, be mindful to respect their space and know when to stop shooting. For instance, if the animals appear to be agitated or keep walking away, don’t continue to follow them, hoping for a shot. Doing so will only contribute to their unease and stress. These situations will not result in successful photographs and may even affect the safety of the animals involved or yourself. By respecting the animals in Iceland, they will feel comfortable in their surrounding environment, allowing you to capture more of their unique behaviours, character and personality in photographs.
Capture the wildlife in the magnificent landscape of Iceland! Join one of our Photo Tours and Workshops, which are designed to get you to the right places at the right times for spectacular photography.
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