Sunrise at the black pebble beach was about 4:30am. Given it was 30 minutes from the hotel, the alarm was set for 3:30 to insure we could ingest a cup of coffee before hitting the road.

The black beach is one of the highlights, if not the highlight, for photographers in Iceland. We had been looking forward to this shoot since we booked our vacation last fall. Anticipation was running high. We knew there was a high probability we’d bag a “wall worthy” photo.

What is so special about this beach?

It is adjacent to Joklsarlon, the glacier lagoon, where icebergs calve off the glacier and float in a lagoon amidst the mountain scenery. As the icebergs break down, the bergy bits travel along the river to the ocean and are strewn with the tide on the black sand beach.

Joklsarlon Glacier Lagoon just after sunset [photo by Jeff]

Iceland tourism has started calling the black beach, “Diamond Beach, as the ice chunks lying on it resemble diamonds glistening in the sun.”

Diamond studded black beach with morning alpenglow in the sky

Sure enough, arriving just about sunrise, I see the beach dotted with various sized bergy bits. I was in heaven. As soon as I hit the water’s edge, I immediately started shooting. I had no particular plan (called “spray and pray”), but just to capture as many of these sparkling beauties as I could in standard landscape form. A bergy bit in front as a foreground element, ocean waves behind as the midground element, and the sky with clouds as my background. A beautiful scene, but I soon discovered that not all bergy bits are created equal. The white bergy bits did not look quite as good on my camera LCD panel, while the clear ones looked like glass and took on more color and sparkle.

Clear glass-like bergy bits look so much better than their cloudy counterparts.

I was busy capturing the bergy bits on the black sand when Jeff showed me a long exposure shot where the waves surround the ice, looking like a blurred abstract. Wow.

I began to play with timing. If I shot the photo with no water, I had the contrast of the ice on the black beach.

A combination of ice in the receding wave and ice on the black beach.

If I shot the photo just after the water washed up, I had the reflection of the light in the sand.

Alpenglow from the sky reflecting pink in the receding wave.

If I shot the photo as the wave crashed on it, the focus was on a blurry wave and seemed to take away from the subject.

Crashing wave distracts from glassy bergy bit.

If I shot a long exposure, I could get this surreal effect, which turned out to be my favorite. Now all I needed was a good “ice” subject. There was this wonderful crystal like ball of ice that looked perfect.

Long Exposure blurs the waves for a surreal look.

Back at the hotel, when reviewing my photos, I found the long exposure was closest to my ideal image. But I felt I could do better.

I begged Jeff to go back the next morning. Yup, that meant setting the alarm for 3:30am again. This time I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Reluctantly he agreed to sacrifice another night’s sleep as he had already gotten “his” shot.  My plan: 1) First search out most crystal looking iceberg, 2) shoot away from the sun so the ice would appear to light up on the dark beach, and 3) use a long exposure to capture the waves rushing around the ice. 4) print my wall-worthy photo.

Even the best laid plans fall apart.

On our second morning, everything was different. The tide was higher and the larger bergy bits were further out, rocking in the waves. It would not be possible to isolate the big bergs on the beach. The beach was strewn with more ice, but they were smaller ice chunks. And we had sun, bright sun.

I was unprepared for these changes. I couldn’t balance the light exposure in my photos. With the bright sun, my photos were blowing out on the highlights. I added a polarized filter which helped a bit, but not enough. Because of the reflections and the wave movement, there was no way to use a graduated neutral density filter to block the sun, and address the moving highlights.

Beautiful light reflecting in the receding wave (shot with polarizer), but the sky is a bit blown out.

I then tried to capture the light coming through the ice, but this required getting close to the ice chunk. The tide was coming in with huge waves. With all the warnings on the beach about rogue waves, I did not have the time nor the courage to risk getting my gear wet or being swept out to sea. I opted to switch to my longer lens (80-400mm) so I could capture those bergy bits from afar (or so I thought). Each time I changed my tactic, the light or waves would change.

Smooth reflected light on the crystal ice, but not as much motion as I hoped to capture. Plus with the long lens, I missed the context of the horizon. (shot with the 80-400mm)

Another beautiful crystal bergy bit with some horizon, but a little too much water over the ice. (shot with the 80-400mm)

I went up to Jeff, “I’m struggling”, I said.

He showed me an image of capturing the huge waves breaking over the bergy bits. Awesome, but that required changing lens and settings. So I did, and I struggled some more.

Quick exposure to capture the wave action. Fun, but not the best composition.

In the end, I found that shooting at the diamond beach to be extremely challenging, especially for someone like me who needs to process information before adjusting their plan. I have no trouble finding compositions in hills or mountains being lit by sunrise (they don’t move), but shooting bergy bits on the beach was pushing my limits.

My challenges were a:

  1. Changing subject: The ice is never the same – day to day or even moment to moment. As I set up to shoot one ice chunk, the waves move through it, or the ice breaks apart, or the wave moves my subject. I can’t tell you how many times my composition changed as I was shooting.
  2. Changing environment: The water is always changing. Each wave is different, and the tides shift the waves.
  3. Changing light: The light is always different. The sun position is changing, and the light coming through the clouds is different moment to moment changing the reflections on the beach.

However, the very same elements that make shooting on Diamond Beach so difficult, are also what makes it exciting. It is constantly changing and there is always a new angle. No one else can duplicate your shot.  There is always a new and unique photo to be had.

Fortunately, where I struggled, Jeff excelled. I may not have captured the “wall worthy” photo, but “we” did bag a few prospects.

Long exposure creates subtle patterns with the wave motion [photo by Jeff]

Here the long exposure creates leading lines back through the image [photo by Jeff, he was not afraid to get wet]

What can I say? It’s all about the light [photo by Jeff]

Awesome starburst balances out the crashing wave [photo by Jeff]

It’s all about the light, and being able to quickly adapt your game plan.