One reason that Iceland is insanely popular for photographers is the fact that there are so many iconic subjects jammed in a small island the size of the Kentucky. Auroras, glaciers, geo-thermal geysers, vast waterfalls, sea arches, black sand beaches, lava tubes, volcanoes and ice caves. Heck any one or two of these would be enough to justify a trip, but all of them together is just a wonderful embarrassment of riches.
Of all of these, Ice Caves were the ones I most looked forward to seeing. I’d never seen, much less photographed one and the images I had seen were spell-binding, so I admit that my expectations were thru the roof. To be honest, I was half-expecting to be disappointed.
What can you say about a scene like the one above? It… is…simply…Epic. The color, the texture of the walls, the sheer scale. I was awestruck.
I spent the better part of two days photographing four different Ice Caves. Actually all the caves we visited were Glacier Caves (to be technical about it)…we actually had to drive out onto some truly vast glaciers to get to them. Sometimes, the entrance was nothing more than a small crevasse (see below)…
others looked like a massive hole created by a meteorite that had slammed into the glacier.
They came in all shapes and sizes. Some of them were so small they could only fit four people at a time, others were so immense you could have comfortably driven two Abrams tanks in side by side.
The GTI Ice Cave (also known as the Blue Cave) was the smallest.
In many ways it was also the most beautiful. Probably less than 10 feet of ice overhead allowed sunlight to actually penetrate through the roof, resulting in the entire cave being translucent. It was so BLUE, and totally mesmerizing. But oddly enough, when I finished processing my photos, it turned out to be the least photogenic cave I shot. My images just don’t have the emotional impact that I felt standing there.
On the other hand, the Anaconda Cave was the largest…maybe a hundred feet across at the entrance and a ceiling easily 50′ at its highest point. It was truly immense and impressive.
There was actually a stream running through the cave as you can see behind the figure in the photo below. As it turns out, it is meltwater that carves out most of the caves found underneath the thick sheets of glacial ice.
The Black Diamond was another substantial cave. The ‘dimpling’ of the top and sides of the cave near the entrance were dramatic and insanely photogenic:
Most of these glacier ice caves are only accessible during the winter between November and late March. There are a couple of exceptions but as a rule, the warming temperatures make them unstable and dangerous.
The last cave we photographed was the Kotlujokull Glacier Ice Cave. This particular cave is famous for its layers of black, volcanic ash laden ice. It had an impressive mountain-view from the entrance:
When a glacier has been compressed beneath its own weight for hundreds or even thousands of years, the air bubbles are forced out resulting in ice so thick, dense and old that it absorbs every color in the spectrum except blue. Sometimes, sunlight shimmering through the transparent ice makes it look like a deep blue quartz crystal. In addition, swirls of contrasting dirt and volcanic ash can get attractively embedded in the glacier (shown in the first photo ‘Motherload’).
Most of these natural caves melt and break down each summer so they are constantly changing and evolving. The ones shown above might not even exist next year or will have morphed into something totally unrecognizable.
I had a gas. My time in the caves zipped by in what seemed like moments. I could have enthusiastically spent weeks photographing the Ice Caves of Iceland and would love to return again in the future. The only thing I regret is that I spent all my time taking photos and didn’t fully experience the caves. Maybe next time I’ll visit without a camera. Yeah…like THAT would EVER happen!
If you are planning to photograph Iceland’s Ice Caves, here are some tips that will come in handy:
- Shoot with a wide angle lens. Most of my shots were at 14mm on a full frame camera
- A tripod is a must…some of my shots were 10 seconds or more due to the dim light.
- Shoot at your sharpest aperture (F/8 worked for me). Since you have a tripod, go ahead and set a low ISO to get the best detail and lowest noise possible
- Bracket! The dynamic range is insane in these caves, especially if you photograph an entrance. I shot 7 shot brackets with a full stop difference between each frame and processed them via HDR.
- Use a model. Shots with a person really help illustrate the scale and supply an empathetic jolt of emotion. Your tour guide is used to being a model for his/her tours, don’t be bashful in asking them to get out in front of your camera. And give them a red jacket!
- Don’t shoot only from eye-level. Get your tripod down on the ground for a different perspective. Also try some shots right up against the side of the cave to emphasize the ‘dimpling.’
- Wear waterproof clothes and gloves. Many of the caves have ceilings that drip and the floor is often wet.
- It will be difficult to get adequate light on the areas of the cave that aren’t next to the entrances (even with HDR). Setting up some low-level-lighting to slightly illuminate the corners would be ideal, but you likely won’t be alone in the cave so having lighting is going to be a challenge (and perhaps down-right rude). I found on-camera flash to be too harsh and it reduced the wonderful cross-lighting on the cave’s ‘dimples.’ Realistically just be ready to spend some time in Photoshop lightening up the shadows.
- Pick a tour that specializes in photography. Otherwise the other guests on the tour will be wandering around getting in all of your shots. On a photo tour, everyone will shoot from a spot, then move together to the next spot. Plus guides on photo tours will know the best camera angles so you won’t have to waste precious time figuring it out on your own.
- Pick a tour that has a max of 12 people . These smaller group tours are more pricey, but you will be hard pressed to get decent shots if you are trying to shoot around 40 people in a confined space…there is only so much Content Aware Fill you can use!
- Pick a tour that and will let you spend at least 45 minutes in each cave. Even that won’t seem like enough. You will need some time to cover the larger caves and it will likely take a while to get your camera dialed-in to compensate for the low light in the caves.
- Don’t think about trying to drive out and photograph these caves on your own. There are real safety concerns plus you simply can’t reach many of the better caves with a rental vehicle…pay the money for a good tour and leave it to the experts. Plus, tours will supply the required safety gear (crampons, hard hats, ropes, etc).
- Different tour operators ‘maintain’ different caves and the tour groups have an informal system of rotating and scheduling one group at a time through the caves. If you are not part of an organized tour, you will likely waste a ton of time trying to get ‘a slot.’
- Be prepared to spend a lot time in post-processing if you really want shots that have ‘zing.’ My first efforts were pretty bland. Most of your frames will take a lot of processing to fully reveal their beauty.
- The ‘dimpling’ of the walls and ceilings can be pretty dramatic. I’d suggest making separate layers in Photoshop for the cave’s walls and ceiling and push up the contrast and clarity to make the edges sharp.
- If your shots seem to lack color, try using your luminance slider on the blue and aquas to help ‘coax’ them to be more visible in the poor light.
PS: I went on a tour operated by Arctic Exposure and I highly recommend them.