One of the most amazing landscapes in the world is Iceland’s Jokulsarlon lagoon — famous for its massive and beautiful icebergs. And if the lagoon isn’t enough, these glass-like icebergs routinely wash ashore on a nearby black-sand beach. This crazy combination is enough to attract photographers from across the globe. In this article, I will share some tips for photographing Jokulsarlon that will help you make the most of your trip to Iceland.
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Jokulsarlon (Jökulsárlón in Icelandic) is split into two parts: the lagoon and the beach. Each of these parts is split by a river running from the lagoon to the beach, and a road running across the river. The illustration below makes this clearer:
The most popular part of Jokulsarlon is quadrant 3 — this is where you will find the main parking lot and gift shop. It is easy to walk along the edge of the lake/lagoon in quadrant 3, which can lead to large crowds (especially during July and August).
Quadrant 4 is nice if you want a less-crowded view of the lagoon. It is still possible to walk to the edge of the water, although you must climb down a moderately-steep hill to do so. However, at least during the four days I visited Jokulsarlon, there were not quite as many icebergs on this side of the lagoon. Of course, quadrant 4 is beautiful, but there is a reason that quadrant 3 is more popular.
Quadrants 1 and 2 are nearly identical. The only real difference depends upon the tides — one of these beaches generally has more ice than the other. The amount of ice on each beach will change day-to-day, and it is impossible to predict which side will have more icebergs on a given day. If you want to avoid crowds, you may consider visiting the beach with less ice.
2) Times of Day
Jokulsarlon is most crowded at mid-day, as would be expected. Throughout most of Iceland, it is rare to see other people — Jokulsarlon, on the other hand, attracts thousands of tourists each day.
A common theme at Jokulsarlon, and in famous locations worldwide, is that few people explore beyond the surface of the site. Tourists may spend thousands of dollars and dozens of hours to visit a place like this, yet nearly everyone stays within 200 feet (60 meters) of the parking lot.
So, even during mid-day, it is easy to escape crowds by walking a few minutes farther up the lagoon. It is quite easy to do so, too — Iceland is so barren that nearly every landscape is easy to hike. Of course, the icebergs may be more plentiful near the parking lot, but that is impossible to predict beforehand.
If you have a more flexible schedule, though, the best time to visit Jokulsarlon is sunrise. Doing so is especially helpful if you want to photograph the black-sand beach without other photographers nearby — and at the best light of the day. Sunset is equally good for lighting, but it tends to be far more crowded than sunrise.
3) Camera Equipment
Since Jokulsarlon is divided into two parts (the lagoon and the beach), it is reasonable to use different sets of camera equipment for each.
Personally, I stuck with a wide-angle lens on the beach, and a telephoto at the lagoon. It is easy to walk up to icebergs on the beach, and a wide-angle lens helps exaggerate the beautiful lines of the waves. In the lagoon, though, most icebergs are in the distance — I would recommend a 70-200mm equivalent for most photographers who want a good shot of the ice in the lagoon.
More important than the lens, though, is a good tripod. I used my RRS TVC-24 tripod with the BH-40 ballhead — a fairly heavy-duty setup — throughout my trip to Iceland. Although I missed the lighter weight of my old tripod, the heavy waves on Jokulsarlon’s beach validated my decision.
However, no matter how sturdy your tripod, it is utterly useless if it sinks in the sand during the exposure. Your best option is to get tripod spikes, which let you push the tripod into the sand. The tripod manufacturer Feisol makes some good and inexpensive tripod spikes, which work with most tripods (although be sure to check your specific model before buying them).
With a strong tripod and a good set of spikes, it is possible to take sharp photos even when you are standing in the middle of rough waves.
4) Camera Settings
A difficult part of photographing Jokulsarlon is that the icebergs move somewhat quickly. Even in the calm waters of the lagoon, ice moves with the current at moderate speeds. To guarantee a sharp image, your shutter speed at the lagoon should be no longer than a second.
On the beach, the iceberg’s movement depends upon its size. The largest, heaviest icebergs generally remain still once they land on the beach, despite powerful waves crashing over them. However, lighter icebergs move quite quickly when hit by a wave, and you may still get motion blur with a 1/10 second shutter or faster. It is crucial to experiment on-location, since different wave and ice conditions make it hard to predict a shutter speed that works for a given scene.
If necessary, do not be afraid to raise your ISO. The worst possible result from a day at Jokulsarlon is to review your images and see that your photos all have some blur because of the iceberg’s movement — it is far better to shoot at ISO 400 or more, if you must.
That said, if you shoot during the day, you are unlikely to struggle with shutter speeds. It is only at sunset that you may find it tough to create a technically-perfect image.
5) Additional Equipment
Jokulsarlon is often wet and windy; and, even during the summer, painfully cold. A pair of windproof and water-resistant pants is a necessity, as is a rain-proof jacket. You may spend hours taking pictures in truly miserable conditions, and it is crucial to be dressed comfortably — Jokulsarlon is worth it.
Alongside all the cold-weather gear, one of the most important pieces of equipment I brought to Jokulsarlon was my pair of fishing waders. It is tough to get good photos on the black-sand beach without standing in the water — and, since this is the Arctic Ocean, you don’t want to stand in the water.
In terms of protective gear, I saw some photographers wearing tall, waterproof boots. These seemed to work well, although I’d imagine they are more prone to filling with water over time. I strongly discourage you from going too far out into the ocean, as it is very easy to be swept away by a rogue wave. But if you stand on the beach where the waves are a no more than ankle-high, and you pay careful attention to the ocean, you should be good. It is safe to say that many of my Jokulsarlon beach photos — including the one below — would have been impossible without waders or waterproof boots.
Jokulsarlon is one of the most wonderful landscapes on the planet, but it takes some preparation to photograph it well. If you want to avoid crowds and capture the best light, sunrise is the best time of day to visit — although good photos can be made here at any hour.
To photograph the lagoon as well as possible, consider using a telephoto lens. Although some icebergs will float near the edge of the water, most of the large pieces will remain in the distance. On the other hand, if your goal is to get a good photo at the black-sand beach, you need to use the proper equipment: a sturdy tripod and spikes, as well as fishing waders or waterproof boots.
If you prepare beforehand and pre-visualize the shots you want, you may find Jokulsarlon to be one of the best places in the world for photography.