One of my goals during my recent Iceland trip was to capture a photograph of an ice cave.
The ice cave was an optional location offered as part of our photography tour. Since I was visiting Iceland in February and the ice cave is located about 275 miles from Reykjavik, I was expecting the location to be somewhat remote and free of crowds. Then, I received the following information from our tour leader:
"The regular ice cave has become very popular and has become busy in recent years. As you can imagine it can be difficult to do photography with 20 people around us in a tight space. I am trying to arrange an early tour with one of the companies. They will take us out at 07.00 when it is still dark. We could have the cave to ourselves for an hour before the crowds arrive. This special arrangement will cost $277 USD - $77 more than the standard tour that you have paid for."
The ice cave tour guide published the following warning:
"Please note! We will not be the only group visiting the ice cave. This has become incredibly popular winter activity in Iceland. Other tour companies bring guests to visit the cave which can cause it to be crowded. Please expect to share the cave with additional groups."
I found this information alarming for a few reasons:
We met the ice cave guide in Jökulsarlon at 7:00 am (two hours before sunrise). Once our group was situated in his monster jeep, we started working our way up the Vatnajökull glacier in the dark and driving snow. The drive to ice cave was so unique that it made the whole experience worthwhile. After about 20 minutes or so, we reached the entrance of the ice cave.
Our guide parked the vehicle and then pointed out the various flags that were planted in the snow around the area. He warned that walking past the flags posed risks. The glacier has crevasses that aren't visible as they are covered in snow.
We were pleased that we did have the ice cave to ourselves--at least for a while. Tony Prower, our photography guide, assured us that the blue color of the ice would appear if our exposures were long enough. He was right.
The interior of this cave is quite small. We had just three photographers capturing pictures in there, and we had to take turns at times to get a shot as there wasn't enough room for everyone to compose their shots at once. Exposure times were long...so I ended up with just 10 or 12 pictures during the entire visit--which lasted just under an hour.
About ten minutes before sunrise, we heard the engines of approaching jeeps and knew we had time for just one more picture before more tourists entered the cave. Just then, we asked our ice cave guide to pose in the opening of the cave to give the photograph a sense of scale. I set my exposure for 30 seconds, but after 10 seconds passed the crowd started pushing their way past our guide to enter the cave--despite our request to just let us finish this one last exposure. So, I killed the exposure early...knowing that if I left the shutter open a few more seconds the model would blur.
Fortunately, luck went my way. The shorter exposure worked well for a single shot. I had initially planned for a 30 second exposure to properly exposure the ice...and then to take another 5 second exposure to properly expose the guide. I would then blend the two in Photoshop for a properly exposed picture throughout. But, if there was time for just one exposure, the 10 second one worked best. During post processing, I was able to recover enough detail and color in the ice, yet save the exposure of the guide.
Ten seconds later, about 25 people flocked into the cave. We could hear even more vehicles approaching. As we were escaping, there were so many people in the cave that there was barely room to stand. As our vehicle was heading back to Jökulsarlon, we saw even more vehicles heading toward the cave.
Thankfully, our photography guide knew to get us into the ice cave early. I can't even imagine the disappointment of having to share the experience with 50 or more people and not being able to get a single photograph--after all that it takes to make it to that remote part of Iceland at such cost.
This photograph is one of my favorites from the trip: