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Sitting behind the lee of of our baby 4×4, Marianne and I escaped the full force of the wind on this day in the highlands of Iceland. Previously at Ljotipollur, we had been bowled over while sitting down with our tripods!. The shifting light danced across the hills so rapidly here it was amazing to watch.
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The famous black lava beach near Jökulsárlón is one of those iconic locations. The typical shots usually involve a few pieces of crystal clear ice, black sand, and slow shutter speeds. There is a good reason that most photographer, myself included, like to take this approach when shooting at this überphotogenic location: the results look stunning. Tranquil scenes with silky smooth water. However, I really wanted to try some different stuff as well, like the complete opposite.
The ocean here can be pretty brutal, just like the weather. On, or just after stormy weather, huge waves keep crashing into the beach, pushing even the biggest icebergs onto the sand. I decided to photograph the moment of impact from up close – with a wide angle. This means two things: 1. You will get very wet, and 2. you might get hurt.
The wet part is not a real problem, it’s just annoying. Wearing proper rain gear will keep you dry (unless you go down, which happens every now and then), but the equipment is of a much greater concern. I always use my RainCoat rain cover to protect my camera gear from rain and sea spray, so as long as I don’t submerge it, it will be fine. Talking about the RainCoat – LensCoat (the manufacturer) and Squiver have organized the easiest contest ever. Entering the contest is free and will only take you 15 seconds. You can win one of three RainCoats. I’d give it a try.
The dangerous part of this kind of photography is something that a lot of photographers don’t realize until it’s too late. These massive chunks of ice can be 5 to 7 feet tall and weigh a ton. When they’re just lying there on the beach, it’s all safe. But when a powerful wave hits them at full speed, all the ice gets pushed further onto the beach, all pressed against each other. If you’re standing in the middle of all these razor sharp glass rocks, you risk ending up without the lower half of your body. This is even worse with incoming tide. It takes a lot of concentration and athleticism to pull this kind of photography off. Coincidentally, I saw photographer James Balog do something similar a few years later for his documentary Chasing Ice – he was wearing a harness and his assistant was holding a rope to be able to pull him back in case of an emergency. That’s how dangerous it is.
And finally, I had to completely change my photographic routine. There was simply no time to first find a good composition, set up the tripod and wait for the right moment. I had to run into the ice when the water was still retreating, which meant that the ice was moving constantly, pulled back towards the ocean. I had between one and two seconds before the next wave would crash into the ice again, so that’s the amount of time I had to set up my tripod, get a composition and focus. The moment the water hit, I could take maximum two exposures and then I had to run like hell to not get submerged or crushed by the ice. Not the easiest photography, but certainly very exciting.
This is one of my favorite shots of that session, which I survived in one piece. On another occasion I tried something similar and ripped a muscle in my left calf. The first few days of the tour I had to walk with crutches.
If you would like to join me on our next Iceland tour and learn more about landscape photography and composition, please check out my website for more information:
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Hope to see you there!
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