Tag Archives: glacier

Feeling the Heat

The ever-changing surface of the lava lake at Erta Ale guarantees that you'll never take the same shot twice. But be warned; staring at the lake's surface can become almost hypnotic.

The ever-changing surface of the lava lake at Erta Ale guarantees that you’ll never take the same shot twice. But be warned; staring at the lake’s surface can become almost hypnotic.

It has been very quiet around here for a few weeks simply because work has been insanely busy. I’m an IT security professional by day and right now I’m currently managing two projects that are well underway and all my time is split between them with the thousand different technical and operational queries that clients raise during the deployment phase. All my other work therefore has to fit into the gaps and the evenings.

Of course there is always a benefit to being so busy and one is that I have been working on one client’s site or another over the past few weekends and the travel fund has slowly been growing! So, despite feeling a little weary right now I do have something to look forward to: the next photography trip!

As mentioned in a previous post, Siberia is planned for 2017. The photographer running that – Alexey Trofimov – has suggested dates around the end of February and so whilst I’m really excited about working alongside him I need something a bit sooner.

The next option is to return to Iceland. I have an image in my head that I can’t get rid of and so I can see a week or two spent driving along the southern coast. Iceland is an easy trip; one I really do not have to think about but again, I want to go late in the year, when it is colder – perhaps November or early December. Again, I can’t wait.

So, the current plan is 18 days travelling through Java on a volcano hunt. The people who organised the trip to Ethiopia, Volcano Discovery, have a photographer-centric trip in September and over the past few weeks I’ve been talking to them about adding a custom extension. If all goes well I should be climbing Krakatoa in just under 80 days!

After the heat of Java's volcanoes Iceland will be a nice halfway-house before the -25°C expected in Siberia.

After the heat of Java’s volcanoes Iceland will be a nice halfway-house before the -25°C expected in Siberia.

Posted in Trip Planning, Uncategorized Also tagged , , , , |

One Image, Two Looks

For a couple of reasons my mind has been thinking of Iceland lately and so it was only going to be a matter of time before I found myself looking at the photographs I took there last year. Rather than look at the ones I’ve already selected for the final gallery, or the ones that made it to first and second pick, I decided to go all the way back to the original ones, which is not an easy task considering that there are 3,500 of them. But I’ve often found it useful to look at images that didn’t make the cut in the hope that eventually I’ll learn to stop making those mistakes.

So I was happy to find this lurking in the pile of photographs that didn’t make even first pick.

Jokulsarlon is a popular destination for good reason.

Jokulsarlon is a popular destination for good reason. [Click to enlarge!]

Ask around about what to see when in Iceland and I’ll guarantee that Jokulsarlon will be on the shortlist. Jokulsarlon is probably the most easily accessible glacial lake (Jokulsarlon translates as ‘glacial river lagoon’) that you can see and if you’re driving along the main road, route 1, then you cannot miss it as you literally have to drive over it, or at least the bridge that crosses its narrowest point. You can even take day trips from Reykjavik by coach, although it is a four hour journey.

One of the reasons that Jokulsarlon is so popular is that the lake is full of an ever-changing collection of icebergs calving off the Breidamerkurjokull outlet glacier which gather in the lake before the tide inexorably draws them out to sea. If you’ve never seen an iceberg up close before you’re in for a treat and the combination of ice and volcanic ash found in Iceland is especially striking. And, if you can, I do recommend that you find a quiet spot along the lake’s edge away from the crowds, close your eyes and listen to the sound of hundred- and thousand-ton lumps of ice melting, shifting and cracking.

But if you have been to a polar extremity – northern Canada, Alaska, the far south of South America, the southern tip of New Zealand – where icebergs easily compete with apartment buildings in terms of size – the icebergs of Jokulsarlon seem, well, tame by comparison. I think that that is why, in my first and second pick of the Iceland photographs, none of the ones I took of the glacial lake made the cut. I didn’t see the beauty of the image, I saw the comparison to something ‘better’.

So, I’m glad I took the time to revisit images that I had already discounted as “not quite there” and it is a good reminder for me to take my own advice of performing a six-month (or in this case an eleven-month) review of images taken on a trip once the passage of time has dampened the excitement of the experience. Then you can be more objective about the images in their own right.

And that would have been the end of the story had it not been for an unrelated task I have this weekend. One of the guys in the office had asked for a copy of one of my Ethiopia images to use as a wallpaper on his PC and so I’ve been looking at that. And at some point the “I wonder what this image would look like as a wallpaper?” question popped into my head.

Modern computer monitors tend to favour the 16 by 9 format – the same format as used by HDTV televisions – which means that the crop of the image is totally different to that required by standard print paper. See for yourself:

Same image, but a different feel. [Click to enlarge!]

At 1920 by 1080, it is the same image, but a different feel. [Click to enlarge!]

Whilst the majority of interest lies from the left of the image to the centre the wider crop allows for the right hand side to be included and a lone floating lump of ice. In the ‘print’ crop I’ve excluded it as I wanted to strengthen the mirror effect of the water’s surface, but in the ‘wallpaper’ crop I’ve included it as a bit of foreground interest and I like the fact that it is aligned along the diagonal line in the water formed by the cloud’s reflection. It’s an important diagonal line too, leading from the edge of the frame right to the focal point of the image. In the print crop, the diagonal is still there, but shorter and with less impact – less visual weight.

So, where am I going with this?

I guess there are two points I’m making, perhaps more to myself than anyone else. First, I shouldn’t dismiss an image simply as I have seen something more impressive – each image should be judged on its own merits. Second, the final crop has a big effect upon overall feel of the image and when pressing the shutter I need to ask myself “What is this image for?” Print? PC display? Instagram? After all, it’s easier to recompose, move if necessary, and take another shot whilst on location than it is to spend time in post production trying to get all the elements in a different crop.



Posted in Process Also tagged , , , |

My (Second) Top Five of 2014: The Beach

Just because I travel with the specific aim of photography doesn’t mean I don’t have fun And today’s image was definitely involved a lot of fun

Jokulsarlon, Iceland.

Beware, icebergs can bite back… [Click to enlarge!]

One of the most visited spots along Iceland’s southern coast is the glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Indeed, even at almost 400km from Reykjavik, there is a steady stream of tourists making the arduous coach trip out here and back in a single day which usually ends up as 9 hours in a coach and two to three hours at the lagoon. But despite what little time they get to spend around the lagoon they invariably leave impressed at what they have witnessed.

As mentioned Jökulsárlón is a lake that has formed at the base of Vatnajökull – Europe’s largest glacier – and more specifically at the base of Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet glacier. There are many complex processes linking these three entities but in essence Vatnajökull is highland ice cap where erosion, glacial motion, snow fall and gravity result in the edges of the ice cap spilling downhill forming what are known as outlet glaciers or glacial tongues. Eventually the outlet glacier meets warm air, ground, or both and collapse under their own immense weight into icebergs – a process referred to as calving.  But words and the science behind them are definitely nothing compared to the sight itself.

I can understand why Jökulsárlón is so popular – thousands of icebergs at the foot of an awe-inspiring glacier – I would have been awestruck too had I not been to Antarctica. Alas however, I have been and so, as impressive as the lagoon is, it left me a little, well, cold.

One of the interesting things about Jökulsárlón is that it vents out via a narrow estuary on to the very top of the North Atlantic and because of this there is a natural tide that pulls the icebergs out to sea. Get there early in the morning after low tide and you’ll be greeted with a sea full of icebergs. It is not a time to go for a swim – some of the larger icebergs can weigh upwards of a 100 tonnes but the power of the North Atlantic tosses them around as if they weighed nothing. The incoming tide also pushes some of the icebergs back onto the beach, grounding them on the black sand. It is truly stunning: A landscape of only black, blue and white. Alas, if you are taking a coach trip out of the capital, you won’t get to see this marvel of nature – as the waves beat rhythmically against the beach and the temperature rises, the mighty icebergs melt and by evening only small lumps remain, the largest the size of a pet dog.

I found myself on Jökulsárlón beach several times trying to do justice to what nature had designed. As can be seen from this image – and the rest in the gallery – the best angles are side on to the sea shooting along the beach. All well and good and I had even bought Wellington boots for this very purpose, which were 1100 miles away back in the UK as I couldn’t get everything into the suitcase! So I ended up playing chicken with the Atlantic: Set up the tripod just out of reach of the waves and begin the task of trying to capture the right shape of wave on the beach at the right time (which is tricky with multi-second exposures), all the while keeping an eye open on the waves coming in to the side of me. Of course, just as soon as I would get in to the swing of things, a rogue wave would come hurtling in and it would be a mad dash out of its path, often having to leave the camera behind perched on the tripod and hoping that there would be camera to return to. Over the course of my visits I discovered a list of handy tips, the hard way.

First, don’t set up the tripod with a thigh-high iceberg right behind you and between you and safety as, when an incoming wave means it time to make a dash for it, the iceberg is somewhat less bothered. You learn a lot about momentum, high centre of gravity, pivot points and just how big a bruise a iceberg can make by crashing full speed into one.

Second, just because you find a nice, solid feeling iceberg you can stand on to raise yourself above the level of the incoming wave, don’t get smug. Given a big enough wave that solid feeling iceberg suddenly becomes far less solid and the thing about ice is that it isn’t exactly a high friction surface.

Third, no matter how far up on the beach you leave your camera backpack out of harm’s way, it won’t be enough. The tide is coming in and you’re engrossed in trying to capture the perfect moment. You end up relying on the goodwill of others to either shout a warning that your backpack is about to get a good wash, or to move it for you.

Fourth, no matter how much you rinse the sand off your tripod after a session you’ll still take half the beach home with you. By the end of the trip my lovely carbon fibre Feisol was making alarming grating noises. Luckily John over at Feisol’s UK distributor was brilliant and had the tripod serviced and back in my hands within a week.

But the biggest thing I learned on my days to the beach was that, despite the bruises and the soaking wet feet, I was having more fun than I’d had in years.

Oh, and not to leave my wellingtons at home again…




Posted in Frame by Frame Also tagged , |

My (Second) Top Five of 2014: The Expedition

Maybe it is age or maybe just being too pre-occupied with other things right now but my grand plan to reveal my top five images of 2014 hit a bit of a snag yesterday when I suddenly realised that I’ve already posted about them over the past few months! I could of course just run through them again, but where is the fun in that. So I’m going to try again and this post about my second top five. Technically that would make them part of my top ten, but – and this is hard to explain – they are not images six to ten. They are a top five of their own in my mind. So, with that cleared up…

Brattafonn, Iceland.

Fimmvörðuháls is not a place that has global recognition, but it could have been a very different story…


Back in 2010 Iceland, which hitherto the World at large had only modest interest in, suddenly found itself a bit of a media darling. The fact the you know exactly why is proof of that, but just in case you have forgotten, it was the year that a rather unimpressive volcano had a minor eruption and – only due to a freak sequence of events – did it have global implications. Yes, Eyjafjallajökull become the household word that no-one mentioned, although only because no-one could pronounce it. At some point an inspired American presenter referred to it as E-15 (‘E’ followed by an unfathomable combination of 15 characters) and the name stuck. So it was rather obvious that, on the travels along the southern coast, I wasn’t not going to see it if I could.

The thing that most people do not know – and I only knew as I researched it – is that there were three eruptions at Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 each with a few weeks of each other. The first took place slightly off centre at the mountain pass of Fimmvörðuháls and was fairly uneventful – even referred to as a ‘tourist eruption’ by the guides – due to the fact that you could pretty much stand around and watch the eruption. It was the second eruption that caused the chaos. You still can’t get to the site of the second eruption, the area being not only officially out-of-bounds, but also because it is geologically unstable and hence not worth the risk. But the site of the first eruption is a different story.

It may have been a ‘tourist eruption, but the ground still steams as the hot ground hot evaporates off the snow. We were hiking up to Magni, one of the two new craters that had been formed and this is the view that greeted us upon out arrival. It is not particularly high up – only 1200 metres or so, but the mountain pass of Fimmvörðuháls sits between two glacial caps and the surrounding peaks cause weather fronts to back up as they struggle to climb over the high ground. The pass is also part of the popular three (or four) day hike between Skógar to the south and Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) to the north. The weather was closing in again rapidly and we were just getting ready to head back down when  a group of intrepid hikers were making their way along the path en route to  Þórsmörk.

This image really sums up one of the aspects of my photographs I most like: It is spartan. I am not keen on ‘busy’ images, I like negative space and how a few details can convey a feeling or a mood. The old adage is that a picture can convey a thousand words, but often you only need a few to make a point. It is this aspect of my work I am keen to develope.

I do envy that they got to stay and experience the power and beauty of nature whilst we had to return down the mountain.

Posted in Frame by Frame Also tagged , |

Svínafellsjökull: Walking on Water

A long time ago I had a couple of bad experiences with organised trips, bad enough to tarnish the experience in fact. After the second I resolved that I would never go on an organised trip again. Never.

The problem is that, if you are interested in travel photography there are only two options: You rely on someone else to plan the trip or do it yourself and because my obstinance on the matter had precluded the former option I have had, over the years, to become quite adept at the latter. To be honest, I’ve even come to actually enjoy the process and wholeheartedly believe in the old axiom: If something is worth doing, do it yourself – or something along those lines…

But there are some things that you can’t, or shouldn’t, attempt alone.

Destinations such as Antarctica firmly fall into the can’t category. Just getting there is a challenge: The Drake Passage is not a body of water that you would want to cross in a fishing boat and nor would you want a fishing boat captain, and specialist vessels and specialist staff require specialist organisations.

As for the shouldn’t category, well, that’s a bigger list. However here’s one example from Iceland.

Of the three organised trips I booked in Iceland the first was a glacier walk on Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. Walking on glaciers is not only fun, but presents great photographic opportunities too. But walking on a glacier can also be dangerous – after all, you’re essentially walking on a gigantic skating rink, albeit one with man-eating crevasses, soft spots and, of course, gravity-affirming slopes. Walking out onto a glacier when you do not know what you are doing or are ill-equipped usually puts you one step closer to asking your maker – personally – as to why such wonders of nature exist in the first place.

There are several operators who offer glacier hiking but I went with Icelandic Mountain Guides, aka MountainGuides.is, for a couple of reasons. The first was the number of options they offered for glacier hiking. I was on a tight time schedule and having various options available meant that I could plan my limited time effectively whilst still getting the experience into my itinerary. I initially opted for the full-day hike, but ended up taking the half-day for the reasons discussed below. They also included all the safety kit – so I didn’t have to worry about last minute costs or hassle. Probably the thing that ‘sealed the deal’ however, was that they responded quickly to my emails – when I am planning something I want to get it organised quickly and out of the way. I want people to move at my speed.

It was only a few weeks after booking that I saw the BBC documentary “Julia Bradbury’s Icelandic Walk” and Icelandic Mountain Guides were the local guides involved. If they’re good enough for the BBC, they were good enough for me!

Even after paying my money, they were very responsive and, when they had to cancel the full-day trip I had booked as I was the only person, they gave me an option to have a full refund, move to the half-day trip (and refund the difference) or move to another day. They really could not have done much more.



The day before the start of the season and operators are out checking safety conditions.


So what are the benefits of going on an organised glacier hike?

The first is, quite simply, safety. Certain activities carry a significantly higher risk of serious or fatal injury for those who are badly equipped and  glacier hiking is one of them. I only have to cast my mind back to last winter here in the UK when a bit of ice resulted in the endless news spots showing  people slipping and falling over.  Ice is nice, but there more of it there is, usually the more dangerous it can be. With an organised hike all the necessary safety equipment is provided and all you have to do is use it. Perhaps more importantly, there’s someone watching to make sure you use it properly. Of course, you could walk past a crevasse without using guide ropes and 99 times out of 100 you would be perfectly fine. But that one time out of 100 will really ruin your day.

Going with the experts has a number of benefits. Not falling into a crevasse being one.

Going with the experts has a number of benefits. Not falling into a crevasse being one.

The next benefit it is educational. Do you know what an ablation zone is? Do you know that the ice at the front of the Svínafellsjökull tongue moves at 1.5 metres per year whereas the ice at the rear moves at 50 metres per year? Do you know why? Do you know why crevasses form at different angles? I didn’t. But after a few hours with Árni, our guide, I did, along with a whole bunch of other interesting facts. At some point you’re going to be telling the folks at home about your trip and it is going to be so much more interesting to them if you can explain why the patterns in the ice are the way they are. Yes, you’ll learn that too.

300 year old art: Icelandic glaciers mix pure ice and volcanic ash to create some truly stunning abstract art. It is possible that the catalyst of the French Revolution is in this very photograph…

300 year old art: Icelandic glaciers mix pure ice and volcanic ash to create some truly stunning abstract art. It is possible that the catalyst of the French Revolution is in this very photograph…

The third is that you meet new people. That is always a reward.

So, maybe I am slowly recovering from my earlier experiences with tour operators and that my adamant refusal to consider them in the past is exactly that – in the past. As the saying goes, never say never…



Disclaimer: If this post sounds like a bit of an advert for Icelandic Mountain Guides, I guess it is. One of the problems I’ve always had in planning a trip is finding recommendations for excursion operators that are photographer-friendly. Whilst this trip is not a photographic hike – and I was the only photographer on this particular hike – two things make me recommend it. The first is that I felt like I had plenty of time for photography. Whilst I spent a lot of time shooting on the move, there were plenty of stops. The second is that I was pretty much allowed to move at my own pace – I frequently drifted behind the group to get them in the ‘sense of scale’ shots as well as look around at other things that caught my eye. Other than keeping a watchful eye on me, Árni let me drift behind and catch up as I needed. It was only as I approached something potentially dangerous that he intervened.

Some more shots from the hike…

From a distance you get a real sense of the scale of Vatnajökull - Svinafellsjokull is a relatively small glacial tongue.

From a distance you get a real sense of the scale of Vatnajökull – Svinafellsjokull is a relatively small glacial tongue.


At the foot of the glacial tongue. Up close the black rocks in front of us turned out to be ash-covered ice.

At the foot of the glacial tongue. Up close the black rocks in front of us turned out to be ash-covered ice.


Close to the mountainside friction causes the glacier to twist and buckle.

Close to the mountainside friction causes the glacier to twist and buckle.


Having an experienced guide like Arni meant that I could concentrate on photography safe in the knowledge that I wasn't going to kill myself.

Having an experienced guide like Árni meant that I could concentrate on photography safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to kill myself.


If you've never tried hiking on a glacier, you should add it to your list - it is great fun!

If you’ve never tried hiking on a glacier, you should add it to your list – it is great fun!

Posted in Destinations Also tagged , , , , |

Planning Iceland 2014 from the Inside Out: Jokulsarlon

It’s a cold, wet and generally unpleasant day outside here in my part of the UK and so I’ve been making good use of time in front of the computer: Planning Iceland 2014!

To recap the previous itinerary, I was attempting a circumnavigation of the island along the (roughly) circular route 1. It was to take 19 days and cost in excess of £3000 which, whilst expensive, is cheaper than some other destinations. The problem was not so much the cost but the imbalanced itinerary: approximately two-thirds of the time and cost was being spent along the south and south-east coast with a mad dash around the remaining part of the island, resulting in a lot of driving, not much stopping and no ‘slack’ time at locations to allow me to return should bad weather hamper the photography. Also, some of the accommodation I had booked was based on what was available at the time and not necessarily convenient for a key location meaning long, early morning drives, again not necessarily knowing what the weather would be like upon arrival. So, I cancelled the trip, lost about £300 in non-returnable deposits and had a sulk.

Not one to feel sorry for myself (for long, at least) I decided I should return to the plan allowing a bit more time before the departure date and focus the itinerary. As it is, work has been busy with various projects and, as it is the overtime that pays for my trips, evenings and weekends have been scarce. It is only today that I have had a chance to sit down and dedicate some time to the new itinerary free from distractions. And, progress has been made. Eventually.

The first mistake I made was to do the obvious: Decide how long I want to travel for, when I want to go and then begin dividing up the time between the key locations. This would be a brilliant approach if I were the only person thinking of visiting Iceland at the time, but of course I’m not and Jokulsarlon – one of two key locations for me – is a generally popular spot resulting in very limited accommodation options at the best of times. Given the dates this approach gave me I could either spend in excess of £700 for five nights in a conveniently located hotel, spend a more palatable £450 for one 40km east of the glacial lagoon and 80km east of the Skaftafell National Park, or I could camp.  What I really wanted was a convenient, and cheap, place to stay for both the lagoon and the national park. Which surprisingly does exist as I discovered when I planned the 2013 accommodation.

'Cheap' accommodation can be found 20km west of Skaftafell and 40Km east of Jokulsarlon. But I wanted the perfect base for photography...

‘Cheap’ accommodation can be found 20km west of Skaftafell and 40Km east of Jokulsarlon. But I wanted the perfect base for photography…


To be fair, the convenient-and-cheap hotel doesn’t exactly get rave reviews, but after an eye-opening stay on a Chinese farm a few years ago I’ve have a generally liberal view on these things. After all, I’m not moving in.

So began the game of entering dates into the booking web site and seeing if the hotel had vacancies and after few iterations – during which I gave up on working out proposed flight and car rental dates – I had some dates for when the hotel was available.

Of course it wasn’t as simple as that: One of the reasons I want to go to Skaftafell is that there is a full-day glacial walk tour that heads out from there, but the season starts on June 1st – the last day the hotel is available –  meaning I would have to check out, go on a seven hour hike and then drive back to Thingvellir National Park. A long day and a plan leaving no time for contingencies (such as tour being delayed due to weather etc.).

In the end, I’ve adopted a split approach – check into the cheap-and-cheerful hotel, use it as a base for Skaftafell National Park and, maybe, Jokulsarlon. Then check out on the 1st, go on the glacier walking excursion and then drive over to the guesthouse 40km east of the glacial lake. Whilst it sounds like a bit of an aggravation, the new guesthouse is only three kilometres further from Jokulsarlon than the cheap-and-cheerful place is and offers a different vantage point from which to explore the landscape. Also, should the glacial walk be delayed a couple of days, at least I’m still in the area.

So, eight hours of work later and I have a hook to hang the new itinerary upon. Not a bad way spend the first day of 2014!




Posted in Travel, Trip Planning Also tagged , , , |