Visiting the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in south-east Iceland for the first time is one of those very rare experiences which simply leave you speechless and awestruck... it is so other-worldly and alien that it is hard to comprehend what you are seeing.
Iceland is a significantly glaciated country with ice covering approximately 11% of the land area all through the year. These glaciers are mostly concentrated in the southern central highlands with Vatnajökull in the south-east quarter of the island being by far the largest, occupying a surface area of over 8000 square kilometres with a thickness of over 1000m in places. Breiðamerkurjökull (one of Vatnajökull's outlet glaciers) winds its way down to sea level before calving huge icebergs into the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
The glacier lagoon started to find wider fame after being the shooting location (pretending to be Siberia) for the pre-title scene of the James Bond movie "A View To A Kill" in 1985. Commercial boat tours on the lagoon started immediately after that and Jökulsárlón has become one of Iceland's biggest tourist attractions. Not content with pretending to be in Siberia, Jökulsárlón has also pretended to be in Tibet (Batman Begins) as well as featuring in numerous other movies.
Icebergs spend a period floating majestically in the lagoon, occasionally colliding, splitting or capsizing as they slowly melt. The lagoon is also home to a number of grey seals which are often to be seen playing in the desperately cold water.
One surprise is the range of different colours that the icebergs display. Some contain ash and sediment and take on a fully grey or mottled appearance, some are close to white, some are a very bright blue. All are the children of the same glacier.
Some small fragments of ice gather on the shore of the lagoon, where their interesting shapes can be observed more closely.
As with many places, the softer light at the start and the end of the day provides some of the best photographic opportunities. On my last trip I was finally lucky enough to be at Jökulsárlón for a nice sunset.
As the sun went down the prevailing hues went from orange/ pink towards purple and blue as a lovely evening began.
The glacier lagoon connects to the North Atlantic via a narrow (and highly dangerous) channel, a channel which flows under highway 1 which traverses the gap using a suspension bridge. Once icebergs are small enough in size to pass down the channel the strong current pulls them towards the North Atlantic, sometimes forming traffic jams as a declining tide temporarily runs them aground on the channel floor.
The forecast for strong auroras that night meant that I spent the next few hours around the coast at Vestrahorn, but I was back at Jökulsárlón shortly after one in the morning to see the remnants of the aurora show.
A few hours later I was back at Jökulsárlón once again, by which time the traffic jam in the channel had almost cleared.
As the tide recedes a large number of icebergs are drawn out into the ocean, many of which are depisited onto the beach (near to the ocean, on both sides on the channel) when the tide turns. This beach gets referred to as the diamond beach as a consequence... it could just as well be called the photographer beach as the ratio of photographers to diamonds is usually about 1:1 - it is perhaps the most photogenic part of this location.
The different shapes, sizes and compositions of the ice fragments provide a lot of potential interest.
The constant lapping of the waves also gives some opportunities to play with the shutter speed in your photographs, showing the motion of the water to a greater or lesser degree.
Jökulsárlón is a very popular and busy destination. For those who find themselves in the area but want to have at least a bit less of a crowd around them then there is animpressive alternative just a few kilometres down the road.
The Fjallsárlón glacier lake... (a lake is a body of freshwater surrounded by land, a lagoon is a body of water separated from a larger body of water by a reef or other barrier)... sits at the foot of the Fjallsjökull glacier, which is another outlet glacier for the huge Vatnajökull glacier.
At Fjallsárlón you can find many of the same facilities (icebergs, refreshments, toilets, boat trips among the icebergs) but with (for now at least) a fraction of the amount of tourists. It doesn't have its own diamond beach and as a lake it is a lot more calm... which removes the possibilities of "waves breaking against the icebergs" or "iceberg in receding waters" pictures... but on the other hand the still water makes it a lot easier to photograph the icebergs themselves with a bit longer exposure.
For wider views of this kind of glacier lake/lagoon I think that Fjallsárlón offers a bit better opportunities than it's more famous neighbour. The glacier in the background is angled a bit more steeply and appears to be slightly closer, both of which make it a little bit more prominent in any pictures. The outlet glacier's path is flanked by some interestingly shaped rocky mountains, this helps to make the background a bit more interesting and also to make the glacier's route stand out a lot more than in similar pictures at Jökulsárlón.
Well, thats it from me for 2018. I hope that you have enjoyed this post and my many other posts throughout the year and I wish all my readers a happy new year and a terrific 2019.
All the best.
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Normally I prefer to be flexible in my arrangements, and don't require much pre-planning... but even for me deciding to go to Iceland with less than 20 hours notice was a bit last minute. The weather in Finland was depressing, and not having made an early appointment for changing to winter tyres meant that I was somehow limited in what I could do... so I decided that it was time for another trip. Flights and accommodation were checked for a number of places that were on my to-visit list and the decision was made - I left for Iceland the following morning.
I have seen many pictures from Iceland, and some of my photographer friends speak about it in the same terms that I refer to Lofoten, as a photographic paradise, but I had been holding off on booking a trip there... somehow unsure about how (and when) best to do it. I decided that it would be best to stop procrastinating and just go there, thinking of it as a scouting trip, with an intention to learn as much as possible so that I could make a proper plan for the next time. The first time visiting a new location has the benefit of maximum excitement due to everything being new, but the penalty of a lot of time spent finding out which places best capture your imagination and how things work in that destination... the second time often delivers the best results from photography point of view, at least for me.
My plan for the trip was to follow highway 1 round the entire southern coast of the country as far as the town of Höfn (about 450km), and then return by the same route, stopping overnight on the way at Vik and Hali and at Hali and Selfoss on the way back.
As I landed in Reykjavik, the weather was pretty disgusting... extremely windy and pretty wet. The temperature was about 5 degrees, but with the wind and the moisture in the air it was really cold. Soon enough I was on the road, stopping at the spectacular waterfall of Seljalandfoss on the way to Vik.
Seljalandfoss is the first of many spectacular cascades that you can see from the highway as you make your way around the island, and it was absolutely packed with tourists, even on this rather ugly day in the off season. It may look deserted in the picture above, but that is due to the magic of a very long exposure... as long as the people are moving it is possible to turn them into ghosts with an exposure of many tens of seconds. One special feature of this waterfall is that you can walk behind it, opening up some great angles for photography, but in this kind of weather, with the wind blowing all the spray towards you, it was impossible to make any use of those possibilities.
The town of Vik, with the nearby Reynisfjara beach, was my next stop. Reynisfjara is a beautiful but dangerous location, the black sands, basalt columns and interesting sea stacks providing the beauty, while the possibility of "sneaker" waves (suddenly coming 10-15m further up the beach than all other waves) provided the danger. After a gently sloping start to the beach, it drops away very rapidly, and if one of those waves catches you there is no getting back... the next landmass to the south is Antarctica. By this time the weather was truly horrible, and the sea was wild, the chances for any sunset colours were replaced with a selection of thunderous greys.
The next day was brighter, but no less windy. The wind was strong enough to be a real problem for photography, even a comparatively heavy tripod could not keep the camera still reliably and many attempted pictures were ruined by the vibrations. I had studied the weather forecast before leaving, but had been more interested in the the rain and cloud than I had about the wind. The geography of the southern coast of Iceland is such that the mountains, volcanoes and glaciers that make up the interior of the country are bordered by extremely flat and exposed plains, and there is very little natural shelter.
After leaving Vik, I started on the journey towards one of my most anticipated locations, the glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón. I expected the journey to take a couple of hours, but it is quite difficult to make good speed on the Icelandic roads because you end up stopping every few kilometres when the next amazing sight catches your eye. The 90km/h speed limit and occasional one-way-at-a-time bridges on the highway also limit your progress. I alternated between stopping (and feeling like I should get going again) and driving on (wishing I had stopped) for much of the morning, the waterfall at Foss á Siðu being one of the places where I was happy that I did stop.
Thankfully I managed to keep going forward sufficiently to arrive at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon with a couple of hours to spare before sunset. This is a truly "out of this world" destination, a place that takes your breath away. The massive Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier deposits its building-sized iceberg offspring into this lagoon, from which there is a relatively narrow and shallow passage to the ocean. The icebergs therefore need to melt significantly before they can escape to the ocean, and form an amazing iceberg traffic jam in the waters of the lagoon. These huge and impressive objects come in all shapes and sizes, and colours that range from clear or white through all different shades of blue, with some that are more dominated by dark residue that has been picked up during the relentless progress of the glacier.
As well as the slowly melting masses in the lagoon, the shores of the lagoon, the channel to the ocean, and the sea shore itself are littered with smaller ice sculptures, some of which are extremely beautiful. Each visit yields a different view as the magical structures are constantly melting, changing and being replaced with new versions.
The following morning, I spent a long time and walked a number of kilometres in search of icebergs that would meet my criteria. They should be stationary, interesting looking and far enough away from other objects that it would be possible to isolate them in the frame. After a couple of disappointments (one iceberg, which I thought would work well, catastrophically degraded, splitting into two pieces, during a 10 minute exposure... ruining my shot), I found a trio of ice sculptures, about 20 metres off shore, grounded on the bottom of the lagoon, and eroded by the tides to create an interesting illusion that they were balancing on the surface of the water. One 306 second exposure later (I aimed for 300 and got a bit sloppy with my timing) I had the shot I was after, by far my favourite shot from the trip.
After departing from Jökulsárlón, I headed for the less famous Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon a few kilometres up the road. This was also a spectacular location, with possibilities for better views of the glacier that fed the lagoon and also greater proximity to the mountains.
My journey continued towards Höfn where my intention was to photograph the iconic Vestrahorn mountain, a set of jagged peaks that were conveniently located such that you can picture them with many different interesting foregrounds. When viewing pictures from Iceland I had always been most taken with the Vestrahorn as a subject, the most classic views from there being with the grassy volcanic sand in the foreground, or with a reflection in the waters of the bay. I spent two days at the Vestrahorn, but was not very lucky with the light at any point.
Leaving the Vestrahorn behind it was time to re-trace my steps back towards Reykjavik. During my travels I had seen a large number of swans and based on their size I thought that they might be Bewick's swans, a species that I have not photographed before, so I was excited at the opportunity to photograph some at the roadside. A quick google, and a look at the pictures, soon told that they were in fact Whooper Swans (Finland's national bird), so I was denied the possibility for species number 166 of 2017. Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to photograph the Whoopers in typical Icelandic autumn colours (even though the longest lens I had with me, at 85mm, was not ideal for the task).
My next stop on the journey was to revisit the glacier lagoon, and it was there that things took a turn sharply for the worse. I was on the beach, trying to find the right composition for a coastline picture. I thought that I had a good idea of the look I was aiming for, but the best angle was proving elusive. I took the following picture...
... and then decided that it would look better if I moved a couple of steps to the right. I repositioned my tripod and was about ready to take the picture when I managed to bump into the tripod, sending the whole package (camera + lens + tripod) tumbling into the surf, the sea having decided to take a couple of steps to the left while I took a couple of steps to the right. The camera was submerged for less than a second... but that was enough... it seems to be totally dead. The picture above was it's final act. I did what I could to try and dry the equipment, and I did have a second camera with me, but the incident was a bit of a shock and it rather reduced my enthusiasm for the rest of the day.
The next day, the wind was once again really howling, making photography into a real challenge. The waterfall at Foss á Siðu had no idea of it was coming or going.
A quick stop at Vik allowed for one final shot of the sea stacks and cliffs as the afternoon sun got lower in the sky before I continued around the coast towards Selfoss.
The last destination on the busy itinerary was the mighty waterfall at Skogafoss, where I hoped to see a rainbow in the spray before the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Once again there were hundreds of people to contend with, but I got there with a few minutes to spare and was treated to a double rainbow.
Overall Iceland was a spectacular and fascinating destination, and the trip was extremely memorable, but it was also a very difficult trip. The weather absolutely refused to cooperate (ok... it was November... what did I expect) with the extreme wind being a challenge that I was not able to deal with easily. The accident on the beach, killing my camera and damaging a lens and a tripod was a real low point, and now I get the unwelcome new experience of dealing with insurance claims.
I learned a lot on this trip, and it will be much easier to go to Iceland next time. One thing that I would definitely do differently is to lower my ambitions for covering so many kilometres. There are such a lot of additional attractions between the attractions that you know about that you cannot do justice to the locations when trying to cover too much, especially at this time of year when the days are already quite short.
Well, that's it for this time, thanks a lot for your interest in my blog, any comments are most welcome.
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