When Travel + Leisure sent a beginner photographer — and professional pop culture nerd — on a GoT-themed photography tour of northern Iceland, he found a whole new way of seeing this uniquely spectacular destination.
Winter was coming. Or, rather, I was coming for winter.
Long before dawn in late January, I took a bumpy, twin-prop flight from Reykjavík into the bleak darkness of Iceland’s north. When the plane touched down on the icy airstrip of Akureyri Airport at 8 a.m., the sky was still inky black. And, though I was wearing more wool than most sheep, I was still freezing.
A bit like Game of Thrones hero Jon Snow, who trekked to the north of Westeros, I was on a quest to northern Iceland — where the TV show filmed its most frigid scenes. Travel + Leisure had challenged me, an amateur photographer and professional pop-culture obsessive, to study landscape photography on a guided Game of Thrones–themed tour. I hoped to return with my grail: publishable photographs and a sense of how the Land of Fire and Ice inspired the books that inspired the show, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Since the birth of pop culture, fans have flocked to Hollywood and New York to see Sunset Boulevard or Manhattan; to Dyersville, Iowa, to see the real Field of Dreams; or even to Austria, to see the place that inspired The Sound of Music. But over the past few decades, as our TV and movie franchises have become bigger and travel has become more affordable, there has been a boom in entertainment travel, drawing fans like me to the locations of Lord of the Rings in New Zealand or the ensorcelled England of Harry Potter. Over the years, Iceland has played host to scores of production crews, providing the backdrop for everything from The Empire Strikes Back to Batman Begins. But the local travel industry has seen nothing like the impact of Game of Thrones. Since the show launched in 2011, GoT fans have descended on Iceland from all over the globe.
On my personal quest, I was accompanied by a band of merry companions: six British photography enthusiasts, eager to shoot the aurora borealis and the rugged, untouched landscapes that lie outside Iceland’s well-trodden Golden Circle. We met at baggage claim in Akureyri Airport, where I quickly surmised that I was the group’s most knowledgeable Game of Thrones fan and least experienced photographer — in both cases, by far.
Luckily, I had a mentor: our tour guide, photographer Niall Benvie. A soft-spoken, thoughtful Scot, Benvie greeted us warmly in the tiny airport café and, over coffee and hot chocolate, broke down a few basics. The short Arctic days, he said, are not as limiting for photographers as one might imagine. Since the sun barely rises above the horizon at this time of year, we wouldn’t lose hours to midday glare, and would have extra time to shoot during dawn and dusk, when the sun hovers below the horizon for nearly an hour.
Briefing over, we headed out into the wilderness. Driving northeast along the coast, I watched the sky slowly brighten, revealing a world of endless snow. A couple of hours later, Benvie pulled off the highway and parked our van at the foot of a hill. As we loaded up our cameras, he issued a final safety lesson: “It’s dangerous out there. Pay attention to what’s outside your viewfinder, or you could slip off a cliff and into an icy chasm.” As we set off up the hillside, stamping fresh footprints into virgin powder, his warning immediately made sense. Around us there was no contrast, no horizon, just a disorienting scroll of white landscape bleeding into a bright, white sky.
Then, at the top of our climb, we came to a cliff edge. Peering over, we saw a giant tear in this blank page, where water thundered over a huge semicircle of black cliffs. This was Goðafoss falls, one of the most spectacular locations in the whole of Iceland. I was convinced I’d seen the falls on GoT, but it turned out the series never filmed there; these waters were legendary long before the show came along. The name means “waterfall of the gods” and was coined sometime around the year 1000, when a pagan priest named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði converted to Christianity and declared it the religion of the realm. At Goðafoss, he obliterated the old Norse gods by casting their statues into the falls.
I stepped back from the brink, feeling woozy. Bundled up in winter gear and whipsawed by gusts of wind, I clumsily unzipped my new camera bag. I had never used anything but an entry-level DSLR, but just as Jon Snow wielded the extraordinary sword Longclaw, I had borrowed my own Excalibur: the Sony a7R III, a state-of-the-art mirrorless DSLR. Excited to try out my new equipment, I began snapping away. But when I reviewed the photos, the waterfall of the gods looked puny — more like a birdbath of the gods. I told Benvie that I didn’t know how to capture the scale of it all.
Speaking over his breath-frosted scarf, he suggested that, since I was feeling overwhelmed, I should start by zooming in and grounding my framing with foreground detail. “Don’t try to get it all,” he said. “Pick the story you want to tell.” It was good advice. Setting up my tripod for the first time and swapping lenses with freezing fingers, I took hundreds of photos. I framed rocky outcrops against the falls and zoomed in tight on the cliffs. I even slowed the shutter speed down to blur the water and get that misty effect — though, I admit, it mostly looked cheesy.
The rest of the day’s journey passed in a movie-montage rush of jagged mountains, lunar craters, whistling snowy gales, and empty horizons. Like all adventurers, we suffered early setbacks: next to the intimidating Ytri-Selbunga mountain, we attempted to shoot a group of Iceland’s photogenic wild horses, but they galloped away before we could grab our cameras. And though I had lost sleep watching “How to Photograph the Northern Lights” videos on YouTube, the Icelandic weather service’s aurora forecast (a local news fixture, like Oahu’s surf forecast) was dismal. Due to cloud cover, the northern lights would not be visible all week.
Later that night, I reviewed the absurd number of photos I’d taken — more than a thousand — and was disappointed by every one. Most were sharp enough, thanks to my camera, and plenty were serviceable in a “Hey, check out this crazy crater” kind of way, but they lacked the cinematic drama — the fantasy — that I had come to capture.
Closing my laptop, humbled, my Game of Thrones hero’s catchphrase echoed in my mind. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
On our icelandic journey, base camp was a group of rustic wood cabins named the Dimmuborgir Guesthouse, located on the shore of Lake Mývatn, a strange, shallow body of frozen water punctuated by jagged volcanic rocks and plumes of steam belching from submerged hot springs. Looking out at this eerie view the next morning, I breakfasted on local smoked fish and traditional Icelandic dark rye bread. As I ate, the innkeeper told me that the eighth Fast & Furious movie had staged a chase on the frozen lake with a Lamborghini, a tank, a Hummer, and — thanks to CGI — a submarine. “It was crazy,” said the innkeeper. “Huge explosions!”
Fittingly enough, the snowy roads were so impassable that day, Benvie had to call in a vehicle that would have made the Rock proud: an American military-surplus Hummer fitted with giant snow tires. We rumbled off through pristine expanses of crystallized snow, glittering in the rising sun, toward the Dettifoss — the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It’s often called “the Beast,” in contrast to “the Beauty” — Goðafoss — though I knew it from the Ridley Scott sci-fi film Prometheus, where the 150-foot-high waterfall looked so otherworldly that I imagined it had to have been a special effect.
But when we arrived at the edge of Dettifoss, after hiking about a mile through knee-high snow, I couldn’t see it. The geothermally heated water surging over the falls was so much hotter than the Arctic air that it threw off giant, rolling waves of steam that cloaked the falls entirely. Some of my companions were disappointed, but I found the strangeness exhilarating.
Catching this mystery on camera was confounding, however. I asked Benvie how to shoot when there was nothing but white snow, white steam, and black rock. He suggested I lean into it. Instead of looking for colors that weren’t there, he advised me to focus on the black-and-white extremes and embrace the high-key contrast. I took shots of waves of white steam cresting between black cliffs, and close-ups of the ice crystals that covered every rock and quivering leaf like a sorcerer’s spell.
The next day we visited Dimmuborgir, or the “Dark Fortress” lava field, which inspired the name of our cabins. It is also where Game of Thrones filmed scenes featuring the wildlings — the uncivilized “free folk” who live beyond civilization’s northernmost border. Hiking through this jagged labyrinth, I saw profiles of trolls and giants in the craggy rock faces, and tried to capture them on camera. Then I pulled out two faces of my own: Game of Thrones action figurines of Jon Snow and his wildling lover, Ygritte. I staged silly, cinematic shots of the two statuettes, imagining how the show’s directors shot their real-life avatars in this exact setting. Just then three Turkish tourists materialized, as if from thin air. They spoke very little English, but pointed at my figures shouting, “Jon Snow! Jon Snow!” One managed to ask me if I was working on the show; when I told her I was not, their grins disappeared, and then they did too, like fangirl Cheshire cats.
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Over the next few days, Benvie led us from one photographic location to the next, like a hunting guide goosing the odds of our getting a great shot. We visited Námafjall, with its roiling geothermal mud pits that stank of the sulfur once mined for medicine and gunpowder. As we explored, I found that, despite the brutal cold, I was starting to enjoy the ritual of walking, hiking, and looking. Focus became more than a lens ring I twisted; it became a way of seeing the world.
On the last day, I decided to stay behind and edit photos on my laptop. Reviewing the small proportion of images I hadn’t deleted, I began to see some progress. Because I hadn’t been thinking about technique as much over the past few days, my photographs had begun to look a little less clichéd. My favorite was a group portrait of my fellow travelers, all lined up in a near-blizzard, appearing to photograph nothing but blank whiteness.
I looked up from my laptop to see Benvie’s wife, Charlotte, our cohost and an enthusiastic amateur photographer, walking in the direction of a nearby farm, camera in hand. Pulling on my coat to join her, I realized, in a panic, that Benvie had left with the van containing my bag and my magic camera. Reluctantly, I grabbed my six-year-old, entry-level Canon Rebel — and rushed to catch up with Charlotte, who was already shooting horses outside the farm.
While I played around with my wide-angle lens, trying to exaggerate the horses’ features, the sky suddenly erupted in color over our heads. It wasn’t exactly a sunset; Benvie later explained it was a display of “polar stratospheric clouds” — the most intense example any of the locals could remember. The clouds were filled with ice crystals, which refracted the sinking sunlight into shards of green and pink and orange, sending them slicing across the horizon and reflecting off the lake.
All I knew was that it was the most spectacular sunset I’d ever seen, and I didn’t have my magic camera to capture it. I didn’t even have my tripod, so I had to wedge my camera into the snow. When my memory card filled up, I deleted photos; then my camera battery died, so I just sat and let the colors wash over me.
I admit, I had been skeptical about taking a Game of Thrones tour. I’d always cringed at tourists who treat whole countries like backdrops for TV-inspired selfies. But out in that field, I realized I’d never looked so closely at any place I’d visited. The camera helped me to see details I would otherwise have missed.
As I watched the sky ripple with color, I remembered a blog post I’d read by George R. R. Martin. “Reality is mud brown and olive drab,” he wrote. “Fantasy is obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli…. We read fantasy to find the colors again.” As I watched the strange, iridescent sky turn dark, I realized I’d found the colors again. My quest was complete.
How to do Northern Iceland
Venture into the extreme landscape that inspired the frigid north in Game of Thrones — either on a weeklong photography tour or a regular sightseeing trip.
Getting There & Around
Fly into Keflavík Airport outside Reykjavík and spend a day taking in the sights of the capital. From there, it’s a 45-minute flight to Akureyri, on the northern coast. In winter, weather can be extremely unpredictable, so if you decide to rent a car, make sure it’s a four-wheel-drive with snow tires. An even safer option is to use a local company like Geo Travel Iceland, which can get you around the island in everything from a Hummer to a dogsled.
Make Iceland’s second-largest city your jumping-off point. After snapping a few pictures of the oddly geometric Akureyrarkirkja church in the quaint downtown area, I picked up a collection of Norse mythology at the Eymundsson bookstore, some backup winter wear at the 66°North shop, and an excellent coffee at Bláa Kannan Café (96 Hafnarstræti; 354-461-4600).
In warm weather, this shallow lake is a haven for bird-watchers. In winter, it’s an icy base camp from which to explore the caves, waterfalls, and hiking trails of the region. We stayed at Dimmuborgir Guesthouse (doubles from $116), a collection of wooden cabins on the lake’s eastern shore. It offers spectacular sunset views and simple meals of local food, including some delicious smoked fish. It’s also a 10-minute drive from Mývatn Nature Baths, one of the largest and best-reviewed hot-spring spas in Iceland.
Wild Photography Holidays offers a variety of guided photography tours to Iceland, including Northern Lights, Waterfalls, and Game of Thrones Locations. Instruction in the field is complemented by tutorials in photo development and editing back at base camp. (Seven nights from $3,935 per person.)
What to Pack
Invest in a solid camera kit, including lenses, laptop, and plenty of absorbent cloths for wiping off snow. (Buy your gear before you leave; camera stores are not plentiful in Iceland.) Batteries die faster in the cold, so bring spares. If you’re hoping to shoot the aurora borealis, don’t leave home without a fast, wide-angle lens and a headlamp. Waterproof winter wear is very important: head-to-toe woolen thermals, sturdy walking boots, and tactical gloves for your camera hands are all highly recommended.