I had three sunrises on my recent trip to Iceland. The first was a soggy and cloudy morning in Vik followed by some quality time with the puffins at Dyrhólaey. The third was a delightfully foggy sunrise at Kirkjufell. Sandwiched betwixt them was a heavily overcast morning on the famous ice-strewn beaches near the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier.
The beaches lie on the east and west sides of a small river mouth that acts as a tidal conveyor belt of icebergs from the glacier lagoon known as Jökulsárlón. The lagoon is a marvel in itself, having only been around for a few decades. As Breiðamerkurjökull has retreated, the massive tongue of the river of ice has pulled back to leave a big hole for glacier runoff and calving icebergs to collect. The river connecting the lagoon to the Atlantic Ocean is only a couple of hundred feet long so it’s an easy run for the big chunks of ice which tumble and bob about in the waves up and down the beaches.
The morning I visited I chose the western beach because it seemed to have the densest collection of icebergs. Not wanting to lug around a lot of gear in case I was caught by a wave, I set up my Sony A7R Mark III camera with the stunning Sony 24mm F1.4 G Master lens. I put the combo on my Realy Right Stuff tripod and ballhead and popped two Lume Cube lights into my pocket. To trigger the camera I used the new Sony bluetooth remote, which works awesomely with the A7R3.
Out on the beach I strolled along the pebbled shore snapping image after image of the ice. Soon enough I was lost in the moment with nary a concern about anything but compositions and exposures. This is the type of photography I have begun to think of as my Zen Time. It happens less and less these days for me, these moments of being in the moment. What with kids and obligations and the distraction box I carry in my pocket, it’s really quite rare for me to be focused. I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing.
So when I found myself playing around with the Lume Cubes on these big icebergs, I forgot about the time and just had fun making cool pictures. I turned on the cubes and tucked them into pockets in the ice where their light would bring the insides of the ice to life. In the image above, there’s a single Lume Cube behind the block of ice down on the right. It’s a subtle dash of light which makes a nice impact on scenes with flat light.
When you see images taken on Diamond Beach (as it’s become called), they are usually sunset shots with glorious skies backlighting the ice chunks on the black sand. Those shots are spectacular, but I prefer the light I had on my morning on the beach. The diffuse light and pewter sky helped the blue of the glacial ice play the starring role. I noticed that many of the chunks of ice on the beach and floating nearby in the water were the striking blue tone that we have come to associate with glacial ice, but many of the chunks were astonishingly clear while some has streaks of volcanic ash layered in. One of the reasons I have had a deep affinity for glaciers is their time capsule nature. As the years of snowpack accumulate on the ice caps that spawn these rivers of ice, there is also layers of other things woven in. In Iceland, (like Alaska where I learned to love glaciers), volcanoes are the Yin to the Ice’s Yang and I loved finding chunks fo ice with these volcanic time stamps.
It was the unique nature of each piece of ice that kept me moving along the beach. Chunk by marvelous chunk they all had a story. Some had been polished by the sea while others looked like they just dropped from the glacier’s face. Many had contorted shapes and outstretched arms, while others seemed curled up on themselves. I was enchanted by the shapes and the compositions they inspired, but many of my favorite shots from that morning have the ice sitting centered in the frame like a piece of sculpture on a pedestal.
A few of the sculptures had the appearance of waves, which I found whimsical and charming. I found myself becoming more and more selective about the shapes I thought were compelling. Eventually, I worked my way several hundred meters down the beach where the surf was more dynamic. Bigger waves are exciting, to be sure, but they also move things around and in the dim light of the morning I was shooting longer exposures and enjoying the flow of water around the bergs. With the larger waves, all of the chunks we beginning to move, even the car-sized ones. I didn’t enjoy the idea of being pinched between rock-hard glacial ice chunks, and I really didn’t want to get soaked so I moved back up the beach around the corner from the rougher surf.
Once I moved out of the wave-washed ice I could slow down and get lower where smaller chunks of ice made for interesting subjects. Like the larger icebergs, these smaller pieces ran the gamut of color, transparency, and texture. Some had this dappled texture that refracted light and color in the most pleasing ways.
Even the tiniest pieces had something for me. I set my tripod aside, (well away from the surf), and got down to ground level. Opening the 24mm lens up to reduce the depth of focus, I was able to use the camera’s tilt-screen to shoot precise “portraits” of some of the fist-sized chunks. This one had a delightful ridging that caught my eye.
There was one piece in particular that stood out to me. In fact, it was the first and last chunk I photogrpahed on the beach. It had a large hold in the middle of its contorted shape and throughout the clear ice that comprised its bulk I could see embedded particles of rock. The sea had worked the chunk over thoroughly and I’m sure it was reduced to nothing later that day, but I really enjoyed getting to know it.
If you have the opportunity to visit Breiðamerkursandur (Diamond Beach), I encourage you to come before dawn or stay beyond sunset as the place gets crazy crowded. The morning I visited, the beach was vacant save me and another photographer, but we were working at 4am. When I finally felt that I had seen enough, it was close to 8am and people were starting to arrive. If it’s like all of the other poplar spots in Iceland, it’s awash in tourists by 9am most days.
Even crawling with people, I would bet that the beach would still yield some amazing shots. The ice is so compelling and compositions abound. As with all wild and scenic beaches, I encourage you to always keep an eye on the water and be cautious of sneaker waves. It’s a steep beach, so waves that strike are vigorous, which is perfect for photography but unforgiving to those who disrespect the power of the ocean. It’s obvious, but it’s worth mentioning that even the largest chunks of ice float easily with just a few inches of water, so climbing up onto these icebergs to keep your feet dry (or to take a selfie), could prove memorable.
Breiðamerkursandur was one of a handful of places I visited in Iceland that I could revisit again and again and never find the same shot twice. The nature of glaciers is one of constant and relentless change, so they are different every day. It’s the perfect place to live in the moment and cherish the treasures you find.