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Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

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 state of Georgia.  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.

I wasn’t. 

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

“Motherload” Veins of volcanic ash and gravel swirl across the walls and ceiling of Iceland’s Kotlujokull Glacier Ice Cave

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)…

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

Climbing out of the GTI cave at sunset.

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. 

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

The Blue Cave (GTI Cave) was perhaps the most impressive cave. It is just below the surface the sun glows through the ice on both sides and the top. My photos utterly fail to convey the beauty of this little cave.

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.  

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

‘007’  Iceland’s version of the James Bond iconic gun barrel, a Ice Cave guide ‘caught in the sights’ at the exit of the Anaconda Ice Cave

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.  

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

‘ Cave Man’   The ceiling ice looks almost like a wave ready to crash down on this unsuspecting photographer.

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:

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

‘Ive got an Ax to Grind’   Our guide, Aron,  posing with an ice ax at the entrance to the Black Diamond Ice Cave.

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:

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

As you approach the entrance of a cave, the back-lit ice glows in every conceivable shade of blue in wonderful contrast to the layers of black volcanic ash.

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’).

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

‘The View’  A lone adventurer takes in a view that would have been familiar to our Ice Age ancestors.

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:

  1. Shoot with a wide angle lens.  Most of my shots were at 14mm on a full frame camera

    Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

    Yep, that’s me on the left with three of my fellow photographers. Check out the hard-hats! Photo by David Pearce

  2. A tripod is a must…some of my shots were 10 seconds or more due to the dim light.
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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.’
  7. Wear waterproof clothes and gloves.  Many of the caves have ceilings that drip and the floor is often wet. 
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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! 

    Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

    The tours have specially built trucks made for operating on the glaciers. Hertz would have a heart attack if you tried this on your own (and can you imaging the towing bill if you got stuck?!)

  11. 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. 
  12. 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).
  13. 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.’
  14. 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.  
  15. 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.
  16. 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.

PS:  Check out my other photos on my Iceland trip recap and my blog about Iceland’s Northern Lights !

Ice Caves in Iceland:  Images and Tips for Photographers

Time Tunnel


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Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Night photography is a passion of mine.  I don’t know if I can explain exactly why.  Possibly because the images simply amaze me, maybe because of the solitude and quiet, perhaps it is the wonders that photography reveal that my bare eye can only hint at.  Don’t know, but I do love it.

The Milky Way has long been my favorite subject for night photography…and with good reason.  It is mind-boggling, majestic and awe-inspiring.  But I have a new night-time fave:  the Northern Lights!

I photographed the Aurora Borealis for the first time five years ago during a trip to Alaska. Unfortunately, I only had two nights when I could see the lights during that visit. 

“Ribbon Highway”  A favorite shot from my trip to Alaska.  The ribbons of the Aurora above mimic the Dalton highway below (of “Ice Road Truckers” fame) 

In the intervening years since I had forgotten how breathtaking it can be when the night sky dances in swaths of colorful ribbons and the landscape is bathed in its soft green light.  During my trip to Iceland last month, I was able photograph the Northern Lights six times over a two week span.  Seeing the northern lights is truly hit or miss.  Some nights the aurora is weak or simply non-existent…other nights are overcast and it’s hidden.  I have met many folks who spent a couple weeks in Iceland and never saw the lights so I felt blessed to have had such good luck.  In this blog I will share some of those experiences and photos. 

After a day in Reyjavik, I took a two day tour up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  We stopped at a small hotel (the Langaholt Guesthouse) on the peninsula’s southern coast for the night.  I woke up at 4am and saw a grey glow over the northern horizon.   I knew that until your eyes adapt to the dark, the aurora appears faint and nearly colorless so I hurriedly dressed and ran outside.  In my haste, I put on my pants backward, but I didn’t notice until hours later;)  

 To be honest, I had failed to scout the area before I had gone to bed, so I really didn’t know where I would find a decent foreground.  First I headed out to the main road. 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

The aurora was killer, but the rest of the view wasn’t as impressive…

As my eyes adapted, I could see the colors.  The green was magnificent and city lights glowed red on the lower clouds above the mountains.  I shot for twenty minutes but couldn’t find a  foreground that made me happy.  So I hiked back past the hotel and toward the coast.  And I’m glad I did!  Between the hotel and the coast there was a tidal flat filled with water.  Plus, there was no wind, so it was reflecting the sky almost flawlessly.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

“Odin’s Mirror”

Amazing, huh!  I was blessed with a red aurora as well.  The crimson color occurs only at higher altitudes and it is relatively uncommon…and uncommonly beautiful.  To top it off,  the snow-capped mountain ridge provided interest and leading lines.  It was a magnificent setting…and I knew it.  I photographed blissfully for the next couple hours until the eastern sky started to lighten.

One of my best shots was an accident.  I took a few long exposure images at low ISO just to get high quality/low noise images of the foreground that I could later merge with the higher ISO, shorter exposure sky shots.  Well, this happened:

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

Valhalla’s Kaleidoscope

 This exposure was for a minute and a half and it did capture the high quality foreground image I intended.  But it also made the low, fast-moving clouds appear as streaks that nicely reflected the aurora’s light.  Usually you take aurora shots for about 7 to 15 seconds so you can capture the ‘grain’ and delicacy of the aurora…but I really like the way this image turned out…sometimes you just get lucky!

The next few days were overcast.  I was having dinner on the southern coast near Vesterhorn when the skies cleared again.  I bolted outside and saw that the aurora was dancing! 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

The restaurant didn’t have much of a foreground but the sky certainly had promise…

Our tour guide, Aron, knew of a nearby spot that featured a shallow inlet framed by a mountain ridge.  We jumped into our truck and soon were standing in front of this scene: 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

I was fortunate to capture a comet in this image. You can also see another happy photographer and his (her?) tripod to the far left (look for the red LED).

There was another cloudless night a couple of days later.  I set my tripod up a few inches above a small frozen pond which was reflecting the aurora’s joyful glow.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

The photo tour I was on (Arctic Exposures) circled the entire coast of Iceland via the ‘Ring Road.’  By the time we reached the far eastern coast, people and towns were few and far between but the landscapes were anything but scarce.  Godafoss roughly translates to “Waterfall of the Gods” and that is no hyperbole.  Magnificent as it is during the day, it is truly something sublime when illuminated under the Aurora Borealis:  

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Godafoss

The aurora usually is concentrated toward the north, but this night it covered the sky from horizon to horizon…always shimmering and moving as it danced its magical light fantastic.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Godafoss

Have I mentioned the cold? It was -22° F the night I took this shot…a personal record that I hope to never break.

By now we had reached Myvatn in northern Iceland.  One of my favorite locations there wasn’t a grand landscape.  It was this small pond that had a puny island in its center crowned by an even smaller tree. 

 Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Myvatn

Even after the red faded the ‘normal’ green aurora was enchanting.Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Myvatn

You know, as I think back now, what I really love about the Aurora is its movement and unpredictability.  When you shoot the Milky Way, it doesn’t change much one minute to the next.  It is beautiful, but consistent.

The aurora is always changing.  The shape, color, intensity, texture…they are all in flux and never the same.   It’s kind of like the difference between photographing landscapes and wildlife.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the photos.  I’m off to the Bisti Badlands and Moab for the next couple weeks.  I’ll share my images when I return!


PS:  Check out my other photos on my Iceland trip recap and my blog about Iceland’s Ice Caves !


Posted in Iceland, Night Photography Also tagged , , , , , , , |