A River Runs Through It

Gary Hart Photography: Sapphire Cathedral, Vatnajökull GlacierIceland

Sapphire Cathedral, Vatnajökull Glacier Ice Cave, Iceland
Sony a7R V
Sony 12-24 GM
.8 seconds
ISO 50

Among the greatest joys of my photographer’s life is the opportunity to witness rare and exotic beauty I might otherwise have missed. An erupting volcano? Check. The dancing colors of the northern lights? Check. Shafting light in a Southwest slot canyon? Check. Southern Hemisphere night sky? Check. The view from the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Check.

In my California-born-and-raised world, glaciers certainly qualify as beauty both rare and exotic. Fortunately, this photography life takes me to New Zealand, where I get to walk on a glacier, and most recently, to Iceland, where I actually get to walk in a glacier. How cool is that? (Very, actually—no pun intended.)

Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland, and the second largest in Europe. As recently as the 19th Century, Vatnajökull extended all the way to the Atlantic, but thanks to our warming planet, in most places it is now a few miles inland.

As alarming as that is, a consolation prize is the beauty Vatnajökull’s shrinking has produced. Glacier Lagoon is filled with Vatnajökull’s meltwater and decked out in large chunks of calved glacial ice; nearby Diamond Beach is bejeweled with the remnants of the lagoon’s ice; and Sapphire Ice Cave (and its predecessors) was formed in the wake of Vatnajökull’s retreat.

Ice caves are dynamic phenomena that can change noticeably from week-to-week, and over a span of many weeks or months will eventually become unrecognizable. They form when glacial runoff finds, or makes its own, path through glacial ice. Since flowing water is always warmer than the surrounding ice, these voids and channels continue expanding as more ice melts. When the runoff finds a different path, or diminishes in the freezing winter months, the spaces in the ice remain and an ice cave is born (or reborn).

Perhaps the most striking feature of an ice cave is its color. Contrary to popular opinion, this blueness is not reflected color from the sky, but from an inherent quality of the ice itself. Snow is opaque, but centuries of pressure from snow accumulating above compresses the older underlying snow, forcing out air and leaving only translucent ice crystals. As sunlight passes through these ice crystals, all but the shortest visible wavelengths are absorbed, allowing only the blue wavelengths to pass through to bless our fortunate eyes.

Each year Don Smith and I take an Iceland photo workshop group to visit the current incarnation of the Vatnajökull ice cave, and each year it’s completely different. So far it has been in more or less the same location for every visit, but this time, using a bridge across a small creek near the entrance as a reference point, I noticed it had retreated at least 100 yards in the last year. The glacier guides say that within a year or two this cave could be inaccessible or completely gone, requiring them to find another ice cave to blaze a tourist path to. (They’re only open to visitors in winter, one more reason winter is my favorite time to visit Iceland.)

With two Iceland workshops this year (still playing COVID catch-up), Don and I visited the Vatnajökull ice cave twice, 9 days apart. This version is dubbed Sapphire Ice Cave by the guides (earlier versions have been Crystal and Diamond), about 9 days apart. This created a great opportunity to compare, contrast, and witness firsthand the gradual changes that accumulate with time to completely end the cave, or transform it into something brand new.

Iceland’s ice caves can be extremely crowded, making photography difficult. In previous years we’ve started well before sunrise to be the first out there, but this year the morning weather didn’t look good, so we switched to late afternoon to be the last people to leave. To lighten my load for the one-mile walk, I pared my camera bag to nothing but my (brand new) Sony a7R V body, Sony 24 – 105 f/4 G lens, Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens, and Really Right Stuff Ascend tripod.

Upon arriving with our second group, rather than start shooting immediately, I took a couple of minutes to survey my surroundings and get a handle on what had changed in the last 9 days. The most obvious difference was the river running through the cave. Recent rain, augmented by warmer temperatures, had created mini (and not-so-mini) springs and even a couple small waterfalls that poured in from intra-glacier reservoirs and streams. And then there were the seemingly ubiquitous and aggressive ceiling drips that (given my many layers) were surprisingly adept at targeting my neck and sliding down my spine. All this water united on the cave’s floor to form the shallow but swift river splitting the length of the main chamber before exiting through the main entrance. (This new river made instantly clear the puzzling presence of a makeshift metal bridge spanning nothing but dry rock and dirt on our first visit.)

Soon other differences came into focus: in addition to the flowing water, I noticed subtly altered curves, a few missing or blunted outcrops, and a handful of overhead portals that provided new views to the sky above. At one point during our visit a small rockslide sent several dozen softball-size rocks crashing about 10 feet from an elevated ice shelf, an instant reminder of an ice cave’s perpetual dynamics (and of why visitors are required to wear helmets at all times in the cave).

Our guide, provided by our Iceland guiding service to assist both workshop groups, was fellow Sony Ambassador Albert Dros (Albert is from the Netherlands; Ambassadors in the US are called Sony Artisans), whose energy is matched only by his creativity (check him out). Albert had most of the group occupied photographing Artie, our ice cave driver/guide (yes, there were 4 guides for 12 workshop participants in the ice cave portion of the workshop: Don, Albert, Artie, and me), whom he had drafted as a model to establish scale for everyone’s images.

With a few minutes to myself, I was both ready and able to begin taking actual pictures. I warmed up by attempting to reprise compositions remembered from the earlier visit. But once I became comfortable with the ice cave’s changes, I moved on to new compositions that emphasized those differences.

I started by concentrating on the waterfalls with my 24 – 105 lens, using long-exposure motion blur to help them stand out. But when I noticed that the view beyond the cave entrance was filled with a nice mix of clouds and sky, I saw an opportunity to highlight the ephemeral river (and to test the dynamic range of the a7R V). Time for my 12 – 24 lens.

Setting up shop on the bridge, I started composing versions of the scene you see here, first horizontal, then vertical. It took a few frames, but I eventually found the combination of position on the bridge, tripod height, and left/right framing (at 12mm) that allowed me to include the new natural skylights on the left (with enough distance from the edge), all of the cave’s entrance (and the sky beyond), plus the ideal balance of river and ceiling.

I wanted to smooth the water enough to eliminate distracting (in my opinion) texture freezing the motion would create.  Lacking a neutral density filter for the 12 – 24 lens, I stopped down to f/18 and dropped to ISO 50, which allowed a nearly 1-second shutter speed—just slow enough.

The river was in shadow, but the water’s blueness really came out with the extra light my camera was able to capture. As with the ice cave’s color, the color of glacial water also is not simply reflected sky—or in this case, the ice’s blue. Rather, the water’s color is actually determined by the glacial silt it carries.

To understand this, now might be a good time to mention the counterintuitive truth that even receding glaciers move forward. Gravity carries a glacier downhill, but the glacier can still be retreating despite this downhill motion if it melts faster than it advances. As a glacier moves, embedded rock fragments at its base behave like sandpaper, grinding the rock over which it slides into finer and finer particles, the finest of which is called glacial flour. As the glacial meltwater carries all this scoured rock downhill, the heavier particles soon sink, while the finer glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff.

Most of the light striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the fine suspended particles, but the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to blue, green, or turquoise water. The exact hue of flowing glacial meltwater is determined by the size of the suspended particles and the wavelengths (color) they scatter.

The product of these glacial machinations is the overwhelming blueness you see here.


I continue to be blown away by the dynamic range of the Sony sensors. As you may know, I never blend images, so the ability to capture with one click the entire range of tones in a scene like this is extremely important to me. On my LCD (jpeg) preview, the shadows in this image looked nearly black, while the highlights appeared hopelessly bright. But I trusted my histogram and the Sony raw file, and a couple of tugs of Lightroom’s Highlights and Shadows sliders validated that trust.

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Rare and Exotic Beauty (I Might Otherwise Have Missed)

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Inside a Glacier

Gary Hart Photography: Blue Cathedral, Vatnajokull Glacier Ice Cave, Iceland

Blue Cathedral, Vatnajokull Glacier Crystal Ice Cave, Iceland 
Sony a7RIII
Sony 12-24 G
1.3 seconds
ISO 800

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.)

Yours Truly, for scale, in my “spacious” 10’x10′ office. (12mm, 6 feet from the camera)

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.

Feeling Blue?

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