In Iceland we have incredible variations in daylight depending on the season. As a photographer I have experienced all the seasons here and the various lighting conditions and I wanted to write a little about what I have found.
Summer - Midnight Sun
Most people are aware that in the summer here we have very long days. In fact it sometimes doesn't get fully dark and can stay quite bright at night, with the sun only just dipping below the horizon. This presents some unique opportunities for photography, whilst also presenting some challenges you may not be aware of.
If you like the Golden Hour then this is a good time for you mainly because we tend to get upwards of 7 hours of it! I've posted up some screenshots from an iPhone app I use called "Golden Hour" to show how the light changes during the summer months.
So from May 20th until July 23rd you can expect Golden and Blue hours lasting pretty much all night.
This is perfect for photographers because there is no rush to grab that picture during a brief 10 minute Blue Hour - you now have 3 hours to capture the image and you can wait for the right weather conditions. Similarly, the soft golden light that we get feels almost endless.
There are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, the light is very good but comes from a narrow direction so you will need to plan you shots carefully if you want the light to hit a particular subject e.g. a mountain or glacier. I recommend you use the Photographer's Ephemeris which has a web app and some excellent apps on iPhone and Android. This way you can plan where the light will hit and at what times. You won't get caught out when it dips behind the hills!
The other thing to keep in mind is that this means possible long days and long nights to make the most of conditions. If you are coming here purely for photography then you can change your sleeping cycle to the day and stay up all night. However most people are here on a holiday so if you want to make the most of the good light, be prepared for some long hours!
The main benefits of the summer nights are that you can visit places that are normally very busy and find yourself almost alone in the middle of the night. Admittedly this is becoming rarer but it's still possible at even some of the most popular locations. The other benefit is that the weather tends to be calmer and warmer (relatively speaking) meaning you are able to spend longer outdoors and you have a better chance of getting the great light conditions.
Winter - All Day Golden Hours
If the days in summer are long you would be right to assume that the opposite is true in the winter. Whilst on some days during summer it never truly gets dark, in the winter there are some days where it doesn't become fully light.
You may be thinking that the shorter darker days don't offer up ideal photography conditions but there are actually some benefits to the winter light conditions.
Here are the winter versions from the Golden Hour app:
As you can see, we have two straight months in the winter where we have Golden Hours that last sometimes for over 7 hours a day! In addition, there are no early morning alarm calls or late night sunsets required. You can get up at your leisure, have a casual breakfast, capture the sunrise for about 3 hours followed immediately by 3 hours of sunset photography before making your way leisurely back in time to get changed and have dinner somewhere.
In terms of the light, it is quite different to the summer. The colder winter air certainly has an effect and the sunrise/sunset tones tend to be much more muted and pastel in colour.
You will see from these images that there is some incredible light available. On a very cold day, December 10th, I was able to leave my house at around 9am, travel an hour to the area I wanted to visit, prepare for the sunrise at around 11:45am and spend the next 4 hours making the most of the Golden Hour(s). At the end of the day I captured the sun setting on the way back and I was home in time for tea.
I have found that these shorter winter days tend to lend themselves well to productive photography. They are short enough that you avoid the fatigue that can come from having a long day of photography. You are also not rushing to chase the light as it's the same all day - you can really take your time to get the image. The late starts and early finishes are certainly a bonus too!
Of course, there are some disadvantages to these conditions and the main one is the unpredictable weather. There were stretches during the last winter lasting up to 2 weeks at a time when conditions were too poor to venture out at all. High winds, storms, ice, snow - you name it, we had it all and it sometimes set in for a long time. This can impact people who are visiting here for only a limited time.
Secondly, it is not easy to spend all day out in the wilds of Iceland in winter. It can be bitingly cold! For the first image in the above gallery I was out all day in gale force winds with windchill down to -20 Celsius. The driving conditions were challenging to say the least and whilst it was a shorter day, I was exhausted by the end of it! I had high hopes of capturing the famous Kirkjufell on this day but I couldn't stand in the wind, let alone get a nice long exposure of the waterfall. I had to settle for an image taken whilst laying on my front in deep snow with my iPhone steadied against a rock!
The low sun in winter can also provide some challenges if you are wanting subjects to be nicely lit. If there is even the smallest ridge line, hill, mountain or tree in front of the suns passage, then it'll block the light. Planning using something like the Photographer's Ephemeris is again essential. That said, the low sun can create some gorgeous shadows and reflected light conditions.
I just want to mention one last winter benefit and that is the appearance of the Northern Lights. The long nights provide excellent windows of opportunity to see and experience this amazing phenomenon. On most clear nights there was almost always some activity to be seen during the winter and I know this is one of the main reasons that photographers (or anyone) visit Iceland at this time. However, don't forget to spend time making the most of our amazing all day Golden Hours - after all you can have a nap between sunset and our darkest hours meaning you're fresh and ready to capture the Aurora when they appear!
Spring / Autumn - The Transition Months
I have spent a long time writing about the summer and winter months, primarily because these are the times that offer up the best light conditions for extended periods of time.
Spring and autumn do offer good lighting conditions for photography though. The days are just more normal in their structure with the Golden and Blue Hours fitting to a schedule that most photographers will be familiar with.
Of the two, autumn is a better time to capture the colours as the flora and fauna turn. We may not have many trees or forests but they can put on a colourful display, as can the moss and lava fields. We do tend to have some storms in the autumn however and the conditions can be pretty unpredictable, especially the wind.
In spring as the days get longer the snow and ice starts to melt and the landscape beings to emerge. If I'm honest, there's a transition period here where things appear to be many shades of brown and hiking about can prove to be a bit of a soggy affair. That said, later in spring the flowers and trees suddenly bloom and we are given fields of lupine that paint the landscape purple!
I hope this post has been helpful for those considering visiting Iceland and wanting to know about the light conditions. The summer and winter months offer unique chances to experience a never-ending Golden Hour that lasts for over 7 hours on some days. If you have ever felt rushed chasing the light, come visit us in Iceland and spend a day (or night) taking your time in our all day/night Golden Hours!