Posted on April 26, 2020
When I was a kid, my family took a camping vacation to the Pacific Northwest. We packed our Ford Country Squire station wagon so full that it almost felt as if my brothers and I were an afterthought, hooked up the tent trailer, and pointed north. As with all of these Hart-family summer vacations, we covered ridiculous miles and saw a mind numbing selection of diverse natural wonders, but my strongest memory from that trip is a warm afternoon hike on Mt. Rainier that ended at an ice cave. Gazing upward inside the cave, I rotated slowly, mesmerized by the diaphanous blue ceiling and its intricate curves. Not quite believing my eyes, I did my best to lock the scene in my brain. Over the years that memory remained as vivid as ever, but the more time passed, the less I trusted it—could something really have been that beautiful? On a snowy January morning in Iceland, I found out.
One of the highlights of the winter workshop Don Smith and I do in Iceland is a trip to an ice cave. But like most things in nature, ice caves are ephemeral, never a sure thing. On last year’s scouting trip, Crystal Ice Cave on Vatnajokull Glacier was closed, so we got to tour what I’d call more of an “ice crevasse” instead—pretty cool, but nothing like my childhood ice cave memory. But this year the glacier gods smiled on us, and on a snowy morning about half-way through the trip Don and I piled our group into a large van (small bus?) with the biggest tires I’d ever seen, and headed onto Vatnajokull Glacier. There were a dozen photographers in our workshop group, plus Don, me, Óli (our Icelandic guide), and the local glacier guide/driver we’d hired for that morning. To beat the crowds, Óli had gotten us out well before sunrise (not as taxing as it sounds when you factor in the 10 a.m. Iceland January sunrise). Our adventure started on a regular highway, but soon detoured off-road across undulating snow and ice that bore very little resemblance to an actual road. After 20 or 30 minutes of jostling, our vehicle had gone as far as the terrain allowed, so we parked and tumbled into the frigid air. Our glacier guide issued helmets and crampons, delivered a brief orientation, then led us into the darkness across more snow and ice.
Following an uneventful, nearly 2-mile hike, we rounded a corner and got our first glance at a gaping opening at the base of the glacier just as the day started to brighten. From the outside, Crystal Ice Cave was an unimpressive black void beneath a massive chunk of ice, but the instant I stepped inside, my childhood ice cave memory came surging back. Only this time, I had a camera.
Not only were we the only ones in the cave (two hikers who had arrived before us had quickly moved on to less accessible parts of the glacier), an overnight snowfall had completely erased all signs of any previous visitors’ tramplings in the patchwork snow that accumulates on the floor beneath small, natural skylights in the cave’s ceiling. Though we had the cave to ourselves, sharing such a wide composition with a dozen other photographers makes taking a picture without someone in it pretty difficult, but the whole group worked well together, sticking to the perimeter, taking turns, and avoiding leaving footprints in the pristine snow.
Awaiting my turn to photograph, I craned my neck and gaped at nature’s masterwork. An ice cave forms when glacial runoff finds, or makes its own, path through the glacial ice. Flowing water is always warmer than the surrounding ice, so with time the channels the water creates expand as more ice melts. When the runoff finds a different path, or diminishes in the winter months, the channels in the ice remain and an ice cave is born (or reborn). Ice caves are blue because centuries of pressure from above compresses opaque, accumulating snow, forcing out air and leaving translucent ice crystals that light can pass through. As sunlight from the surface travels through the ice, all but the shortest visible wavelengths are absorbed, leaving only the blue wavelengths to reach fortunate eyes.
When my turn came to photograph this marvel, I was ready with my Sony a7RIII (my a7RIV and had a small mishap with the Iceland surf and was drying back in my room) and 12-24 G lens. I lowered my tripod to about 18 inches above the ground and composed this 12mm frame to emphasize the faceted ceiling. At 12mm, I was wide enough to also include some of the polished black rocks framing the nearby snow.
I know what you’re thinking: This picture needs a person “for scale.” First, let me say that, because I always try to capture the world devoid of human influence (that is, as if humans don’t exist) I don’t put people in my images. But I acknowledge that adding a person often gives a scene a focal point that a creates a more personal connection with the viewer. So even though the shot of a single person standing in an ice cave has become something of a cliché, compositions become cliché for a reason, and I won’t deny that many (most?) people would like this image better if there were a person somewhere in it. But because leading workshops means my income doesn’t depend a lot on image sales, I’m blessed to be able to photograph the world in the ways that make me happiest, without having to worry about pleasing others.
But let me get back to the scale thing for a second. Despite what others may tell you, adding a person to a scene like this rarely conveys true scale when you try to take in as much of the scene as possible with a wide angle lens. Rather than conveying scale, adding a relatively distant subject (rock, tree, person) to a wide angle scene will exaggerate the expanse of the scene, and shrink the subject. There’s nothing wrong with this—I do it all the time in my landscape images—just don’t say you’re doing it for scale. (Real estate photographers know that a wide angle lens will make even the smallest room look spacious.)
But anyway… I spent a long time in the ice cave making all kind of wide compositions, but as often happens, I switched to a longer lens and started trying to isolate elements of the scene, getting progressively closer as time passed. Shortly before we left, I must have spent at least 20 minutes working on a single water drop dripping from the ceiling every 10 seconds or so. I have no idea if I got anything worth sharing, but I was sure happing a blast.
We packed up when the cave started to fill with selfie-stick toting gawkers. It wasn’t until the hike back that I fully appreciated how fortunate we were to have the ice cave virtually to ourselves for so long. Based on the virtually uninterrupted string of people heading toward the glacier as we headed out, I’d wager that the ice cave experience for anyone arriving after we left wouldn’t be too different from Upper Antelope Canyon at midday (or the New York City subway at rush hour).
One more thing
Ice caves are one of the canaries in Earth’s climate coal mine. As our planet warms, glaciers recede and their ice caves disappear. I know now that the Rainier ice cave of my youth was part of Paradise Ice Caves. Sadly, Paradise Ice Caves disappeared in the late 20th century, so you, your kids, their kids, and so on will never be able to pile into the family car like we did, and create a memory that lasts a lifetime. Sadly, Crystal Ice Cave probably won’t survive this century, and the clock is ticking on all the world’s ice caves.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 23, 2018
I’m five days into the first of two New Zealand winter photo workshops with my friend Don Smith. With such full days down under, it’s hard to find time to post, but I’m doing my best to keep up (and to keep warm). Today I’m in Fox Glacier watching a spectacular electrical storm from the fireside confines of our hotel’s lounge. Yesterday we enjoyed sunrise at the Wanaka Tree, the waterfalls and Blue Pools of Haast Pass, and a short hike through the Lake Matheson rain forest; tomorrow we’ll helicopter onto Fox Glacier….
Don and I arrived in New Zealand last Friday, and spent several days pre-workshop scouting in the Mt. Cook National Park area. Before going on, I should probably clarify what I mean by “pre-workshop scouting”—or more specifically, what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I show up for a workshop a few days early and hope to find enough shooting locations to keep the group busy. All that work starts years in advance—I never schedule a new workshop until I’m completely comfortable with the destination. For me, comfortable means backup photo spots and backup-backup photo spots. I’m kind of obsessive that way. My worst workshop fear is losing a location to weather or road closures or erupting volcanoes (hmmm, I wonder what made me think of that…), I sleep easier knowing that if a spot were to go down, I have a quality replacement.
But plugging in a viable backup spot also requires a little last-minute knowledge that can often be gained with feet on the ground just a day or two before the workshop. So I always arrive early and run as many (all, if possible) of my workshop locations in advance.
For New Zealand, hitting every one of ten days worth of locations isn’t practical, but in this case Don and I have an advantage because we’ve hired a local driver whose business it is to know every nook and cranny of the South Island. Nevertheless, we came over early to see what the current winter has done (specifically, how much snow and water there is), to add to our bank of potential photo locations, and to get our eyes on a few spots in the Twizel area that were inaccessible on previous visits due to conditions. (Plus, it was a great excuse to spend quality photo time with spectacular scenery.)
Last Saturday Don and I were in Mt. Cook National Park. One photo spot that was inaccessible last year was Lake Tasman, a pristine glacial lake often dotted with floating icebergs. We found the trail to Lake Tasman short but steep, immaculately maintained in typical New Zealand fashion. The hike ends at a vista above the lake, with a visual payoff that’s more than worth any oxygen depravation. As I sized up the scene at trail’s end, a park ranger (or whatever they’re called in New Zealand) trudged up behind me and asked if I could help him out. He explained that he was searching for a missing young woman, but had just been notified via walkie-talkie that the woman’s boyfriend was having a severe panic attack back at the trailhead.
Since David (the ranger) was a search party of one at this point, he had to continue the search. He told me the man’s name was Julian, gave me a brief description, and asked me to check on him and reassure him that an ambulance is on the way. So before clicking a single frame, I found myself hoisting my camera bag back onto my shoulders and beelining back to the trailhead, about a half mile down the hill.
About 100 yards from the bottom, a young woman on her way up stopped me and asked if I’d seen the ranger. When I asked if this had anything to do with the missing person, she told me she was in fact the missing person, and that she’d just reunited with Julian and was trying to catch the ranger to let him know she was no longer lost. I told her what I knew, including where I’d seen David last, and that I would continue down the trail to check on her friend and let him know help was on the way if he still needed it.
I found Julian resting in a shelter at the trailhead and confirmed that he was doing better now that he’d reunited with Sophie. Soon another search and rescue person showed up—when I relayed the status to him, he was able to contact David and tell him to stand down, all is well.
But now Sophie was wandering around who-knows-where trying to locate David. So back up the trail I went to catch her. I briefly considered leaving my camera bag but decided if I was going to go all the way back up there, I at least wanted the option to reward myself with pictures.
On the trail’s final switchback I ran into Sophie and David descending the trail, all smiles. We chatted briefly and I got a quick summary of how Julian and Sophie became separated, Sophie’s wanderings, and how she had taken a minor fall but was uninjured (though she would need a new pair of pants). They learned that Julian was fine and the ambulance had arrived and been turned around. I’m not sure the outcome would have been much different without my contribution, both were nevertheless very appreciative (and I have a story to tell).
Time for a little photography
Crisis resolved, I soon found myself back at the Tasman Lake vista. Unfortunately, the sun had come out and chased away the great light that had greeted my initial arrival, but I decided I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Since it was impossible to create a shot that included as much of the scene as I thought was necessary without also including the sun, I decided to make the sun part of my composition by turning it into a sunstar.
I started with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM on my Sony a7RIII, but soon switched to the 12-24 f/4 G so I could include more of the lake and nearby foreground rocks. I stopped down to f/20 to enhance the sunstar, and since I rarely shoot with the sun smack in the middle of my frame, I bracketed a few exposures to give me options at processing time. Like all my images, this is a single click—no HDR or other blending of multiple images.
Typical of most extreme dynamic range images, this one looked pretty awful on my LCD (nearly black shadows, nearly white sky). The bipolar histogram reflected these extremes, but based on what I saw I was pretty sure I’d be able to recover enough usable detail to save the image. Nevertheless, just to be safe (since I don’t usually feature a the midday sun prominently in my frame), I bracketed a few exposures and chose the one that worked best.
I suppose the lesson here is that rather passing on difficult conditions, sometimes it pays to make the best of the hand you’re dealt. My standard response to a scene like this is to enjoy the view and vow to shoot it again another day. But being (literally) halfway around the world with no other day guaranteed, I decided to search for something I could use. Armed with my great Sony a7RIII sensor, a reliable histogram, and the knowledge to read it, I was able to rescue my image in post and come up with something that works.
Stay tuned for an announcement of the 2019 New Zealand Winter photo workshop….