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Glacier, Bergs, Lagoon and Ocean

March 14, 2013
Glacier and Mini-bergs, Jokulsarlon

Glacier and Mini-bergs, Jokulsarlon

Due to changes in plans by some prospective group members, there are a few remaining openings on the Iceland photography tour Markéta Kalvachová and I will be leading this coming July. This is a small group event, and represents a great blend of instructors, locations, travel plans and compact group size! If Iceland is a destination you’ve been thinking about, act now to reserve a spot on this event. We will be closing registrations shortly. See my tour announcement post or contact me for details.

In this post, I’m showing three compositions taken at a location we definitely will be visiting in July. Jökulsárlón is one of the justifiably famous photography spots along the south coast of Iceland. Originally extending right into the Atlantic Ocean, the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull glacier has been receding rapidly for the past few decades, as is the case with most glaciers on earth. As the glacier retreated from the ocean’s edge, a meltwater lagoon was formed — Jökulsárlón, now the deepest lake on Iceland. It’s increasing in size as the glaciers continue to melt; at some point in the future, the current lagoon will have become a fjord.

While that change in the geography is playing out, those of us who visit Jökulsárlón now can marvel at craggy mountains covered in ancient glacial ice hundreds of meters thick, as the backdrop for a collection of mini icebergs floating in the lagoon. Either milky white or ice-cold blue in color, the strange shapes of the bergs are in constant flux. New bergs calve off the face of the glacier while the existing ones melt, tumble over or are pushed around by the action of the water. When the bergs get small enough, they wash out through the lagoon’s outlet, down to a beach of black sand and pebbles, and from there out to the Atlantic. Many iconic photos of ice amidst the tidewater on the black beach have been shown over the years; it’s striking subject matter, to be sure.

Mini-berg Details, Jokulsarlon

Mini-berg Details, Jokulsarlon

Even with an iconic location, what if you’re only able to visit it for a limited amount of time, and the light or weather conditions are perhaps not the ideal setup you had in your mind’s eye? There are those who would say that if you can’t shoot the location under magnificent light during fantastic conditions, then there’s practically no point in being there. I’ve literally stood beside people who have barely been motivated to take their cameras out of their packs under conditions like what I’m showing here.

With all due respect to each photographer’s choice in their own style, I say “humbug!” to the attitude that only “glorious light” is worth shooting in. I actually, honestly and truly believe there is no bad light. The trick is in realizing that while we’re working with light, as photographers, we’re not working only with light! As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the goal of the creative photographer is to meld all 3 elements of subject, composition and light to produce something he or she feels is worth looking at.

Often times I find that glorious light can be something of a glorious crutch for creative work; it’s easy to be seduced by the light and forget the other important elements of powerful image-making. Oh, don’t get me wrong — I seek and will photograph in great light, for sure. It’s just that I try to use any and all light the rest of the time as well. When a scene is exploding with mind-blowing light, even the newest beginner behind the lens could probably snapshoot something interesting to look at. The creatively determined (or is it determinedly creative?) photographer takes conditions that are apparently less than ideal, and just gets to work making something happen.

In this case, I did my usual approach of shooting my way into the scene. The day was overcast on our sole visit to Jökulsárlón; there was a chill & blustery wind, and on the surface the situation looked drab and uninteresting. Still, I knew there would be compositions worth getting. I photographed a lot of different setups, most of them with a longer telephoto zoom lens. Some of the compositions showed a grander view, others concentrated on details. I was trying for several things, but there were some common threads — I was using the overcast conditions, which meant generally low contrast, to emphasize the shocking blue of the glacial ice and to play with slower shutter speeds to blur the water motion. And whether I went with color or black & white, I was looking for subjects & compositions where the slate-grey conditions worked with the mood I wanted to reflect, rather than against it.

In the end, as is usually true, most of what I shot went to the cutting room floor. But these 3 (and perhaps a couple of others that I’m still considering) were a pleasant validation that a creative photographer almost never lacks for something to do, as long as the focus is on balancing subject, composition and light. And of course, it goes without saying… I’ll happily work the scene again on every return trip!

You’re welcomed to join Markéta and me on our Icelandic Summer Light photo tour and take your own approach to iconic Jökulsárlón. 🙂

When you encounter conditions that look bad, what do you do? Do you scout, do you pull out a book & read, or go back to the hotel? Or do you dive into the scene and look for a different approach to it that works with the conditions at hand? If the latter, how do you go about making creative alternatives happen?

Strolling Among the Mini-Bergs, Jokulsarlon

Strolling Among the Mini-Bergs, Jokulsarlon

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2013 15:16

    Royce, I couldn’t agree more with what you say here about there being no bad light. I was just talking to another photographer friend the other day about this, and how you must do exactly as you say: take subject & composition into account as well.

    When I was “just starting out,” I used to start thinking in terms of high contrast black and white images after about 9am. For me, at the time, it was a good exercise in terms of making the most of the day. Now I try to visualize monochrome images from the beginning rather than simply use them as a crutch. However, the big idea here does remain the same and it’s just about thinking slightly differently–exercising the creative parts of your brain that (unfortunately) don’t get used during a nuclear sunrise/set. Because, as you say, sadly that killer light might actually distract us from more creative pursuits.

    Don’t get me wrong though…I still love a blazing sky as much as the next guy. 🙂

    • March 14, 2013 16:20

      Right on Greg. I won’t turn down that nuclear sunrise or sunset, either! 🙂 But there’s some fantastic work waiting to happen when the conditions make us question why we’re not still asleep 🙂 and force us to dig a deeper creative well. This is often misconstrued as trying to “force” a good image when it doesn’t really work. The way to make something work is to use the thing we control — composition — to bring a harmonious result from the things that we mostly don’t control — the subject and light.

      I’ve been doing the same as you with B&W, or my take on HDR, or any of a number of techniques. Rather than use them as “bail out” mechanisms when the easy approach isn’t working, I’m now consciously going after them in the situations where I’ve learned they lead to interesting results…

  2. March 14, 2013 16:36

    Great article Royce… I spent a lot of time there last September and had wildly varying conditions on all occasions. Some gentle and delicate, others wild and stormy, and of course, some aurora over ice too.

    I agree that light changes subjects and changes how we feel about them, how we resonate with them, and what inspires us. The measure of our success in image-making on any given day is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the light, rather it’s a representation of how much we want to be there, interacting with nature and expressing that emotion…

    By the way – 20th March 2013, we move to live in Reykjavik 🙂

    • March 15, 2013 10:13

      Perfectly put, Alister! “The measure of our success in image-making on any given day is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of the light, rather it’s a representation of how much we want to be there, interacting with nature and expressing that emotion…”

      When looking at the quality of products to buy, we all use the catch-phrase “you get what you pay for”. I usually restate it slightly as “you get at most what you pay for”. 🙂 Photography, I feel, is similar. We get better work out of it when we invest ourselves more in attention, interpretation and expression. We should not expect silver bullets like a beautiful subject or glorious light to do the heavy lifting for us… the more we invest ourselves into our image-making, the more likely it will be worth looking at regardless of the conditions.

      We may well see you in July… 🙂

  3. March 14, 2013 16:54

    Terrific post Royce. I wholeheartedly agree – light is but one of several factors involved in making an image. The more I take photos, the more I feel like composition is often the limiting factor for me, meaning that even if the other factors “work”, I am unlikely to get an image I like if the composition isn’t right. The beauty of this is that whereas I used to pack it up when the light was “bad”, I now know that if I stick around and play around with the composition I can still return home with something I find compelling. I still seem to frantically run around as much when the light is great though! Besides, if you go to Iceland to shoot sunlit subjects, you might be going to the wrong place. 🙂

    Good luck with the tour!

    • March 15, 2013 10:18

      Thanks for stopping by, Paul! You hit a great point — I’ve seen others do the same, pack it up as soon as the richest, most colorful “golden hour” light is over. By focusing only on the so-called “best” light conditions we can be misguided into thinking there’s nothing worth doing when those short-lived conditions are over. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. But it’s good to do the frantic running around during the light, because doing it in the dark can be hazardous. 🙂

      We had some amazing sunlight in Iceland last June, in fact I was jonesing for some gloomy, overcast, stormy weather and not getting nearly as much of it as I was expecting! Icelanders were telling us not to get too used to those conditions because they were abnormally pleasant. Ha ha! We’ll see what it’s like for round 2 this coming July…

  4. April 7, 2013 04:47

    Enjoyed your post Royce and fully agree with what you wrote about being able to shoot under any light. In 2011 I spent 32 days in Iceland, 3 days at the Jokulsarlon Lagoon. I stayed at a nearby farm at Girda which had a lovely small wooden backpackers cabin. I rented a car for a couple of weeks for travel along South Iceland, so it made it very easy to go back and forth photographing the lovely reflections, ice floes and incredibly variable light at the lagoon, and the ice that was carried out to sea, only to be deposited back on to the black sand beaches by the changing tides.

    I met many photographers in the evenings, especially on the windswept beaches photographing all the unusual ice forms, but rarely in the morning at 6:30am, when I had the place all to myself. It was serene and beautiful.

    I hope to share some images from Iceland on my own website soon. Thank you for sharing your imagery and thoughts! Contact me if you want more info about where I stayed.

    Frederic in Montréal

    • April 7, 2013 09:24

      Thanks for stopping by, Frederic, and for posting your thoughts on Iceland. I just checked out your site and you’ve got an amazing array of travel photography. Even so, I’m sure it only scratches the surface of the people you’ve met and the places you’ve experienced. I look forward to seeing your Iceland portfolio as well; be sure to let me know when it’s online!

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