If you are planning a trip to Iceland, you might be interested in Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Iceland, which I wrote with Ron Coscorrosa. Since we never found any comprehensive photography resources for Iceland, we wrote the guide we wish we had in planning our travels. Forever Light includes a lot more helpful information about photographing Jökulsárlón and about thirty other locations in Iceland. You can learn more at www.naturephotoguides.com.
In visiting Iceland for the first time, I most wanted to see and photograph Jökulsárlón (which translates to glacial lagoon in Icelandic) and the nearby black sand beach. With iconic places, the reality is sometimes terribly disappointing compared to the hype and I assumed that Jökulsárlón might be one of these places. I arrived with measured expectations but was instantly surprised at the size of the lagoon (much, much bigger than I expected) and the overall beauty of the area. The lagoon is surrounded on two sides by impressive mountains and the icebergs - the first I had ever seen - were much more interesting in person than in photos. And, the landscape turned out to be surprisingly dynamic, making for challenging photography. After spending about a week over two separate trips photographing the lagoon and its neighboring beach under all kinds of different conditions, I consider it my favorite place in Iceland and a must-visit in a country that is truly a landscape photographer’s paradise.
What exactly is Jökulsárlón?
Jökulsárlón is a large glacial lake along the southern Icelandic coast, a recent phenomenon caused the melting of one of Iceland’s glaciers. The Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, an arm of Europe’s largest glacier, used to almost reach the ocean. As the glacier receded, a lake began to form at the base and large icebergs started calving off into this pool of water. Since the lake first formed in the 1930s, it has expanded significantly in size and now covers about 7 square miles with a depth of 248 meters in places (making it Iceland’s deepest lake).
The icebergs from the glacier float through this massive lagoon, eventually making their way to a small channel that flows out to the open ocean. With each tidal cycle, high tides hold some of the icebergs in the lagoon at the mouth of this channel. As the tide starts heading out, an invisible gate seems to open, allowing massive icebergs – some the size of large vehicles – to start making their way out to sea. Some of these icebergs get picked up by the ocean waves and wash ashore on the nearby black sand beaches. The mix of ice, ranging from opaque white to crystalline blue to glistening clear, makes for an excellent contrast with the white waves and volcanic black sand beach. Observing this cycle, which you can do from either side of the channel, provides some fascinating insights into the natural processes that have created this spectacular location.
Photographing the Lagoon & Beach
Photographing the ocean is always exhilarating and dynamic, with tides and ever-changing waves creating variable conditions. At Jökulsárlón, the forces of the ocean make for even more complex photography. In the lagoon, the ebb and flow of the tide keeps the icebergs near the channel in an almost constant state of motion. The icebergs dramatically break up, change shape, and noticeably float around in the space of photographing a sunset or sunrise. On our first visit to the lagoon, we expected to wake up the next morning to a similar set of ice at our chosen vantage point but quickly learned that the outgoing tide allowed some of those icebergs to flow out to sea, leaving a completely different set for the next morning.
The seasons, weather, and moon phase all bring quite variable conditions to Jökulsárlón. At the nearby black sand beach, the tide controls the amount of ice that washes up to shore. For photographers, this adds a level of complexity as the tides do not always coincide nicely with sunrise and sunset, meaning the beach can be completely empty of ice when the sky is full of interesting, colorful clouds. During the spring, a sparse selection of icebergs float through the lagoon and a few of those that make it out to sea wash up on the beach as the tide starts going out, with most of them gone within an hour or so as they are eaten away by gently lapping waves.
During the winter, the density of ice and power of the waves can increase significantly in both the lagoon and on the beach. In colder temperatures, much of the lagoon can freeze, capturing many of the icebergs in place and eliminating many opportunities for capturing reflections but allowing for longer exposures. At the beach, the icebergs wash up on the shore and the cold temperatures keep them from melting quickly like they do in spring and summer. This cycle allows the next wave of icebergs to push the last batch further up on the shore, making for a maze of large chunks of ice varying from the size of a photo backpack to the size of a sofa. Walking through this dense maze of ice that is under constant assault from powerful waves makes for an interesting and sometimes unsettling experience, one that left me with three massive and painful bruises because I wasn't being quite attentive enough to my surroundings and just tripped over a piece of ice, landing on a few others (well out of the way of the waves, fortunately).
Yes, it is touristy but more than worth the frustration!
The location’s iconic status does bring hordes of tourists and photographers during the middle of the day and times of year when the sun sets and rises at reasonable times. During our first trip to Iceland, we visited in June when it never gets dark. This means that sunrise and sunset occur during the night, with good light often happening between 10:00 pm and 3:00 am. During this trip, we only saw a few other photographers anywhere and were almost completely alone each day we were at Jökulsárlón. We found this solitude to be wonderful and one of the best things about traveling to Iceland for photography.
We assumed that a winter trip, with its comparatively difficult travel conditions, would result in the same sparse number of visitors and other photographers. Well, we were wrong! Photographers and photo tours overwhelmed Jökulsárlón during our winter trip. While this made for sometimes frustrating photography (like the evening where I had a shadow who would not stop following me around and setting up right next to me – over and over again!), seeing this place is still a worthwhile and important stop on any trip to Iceland.