Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

Key Tips for Photography at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

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Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

Hands up if you've been wanting to visit the magical Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon! Spread over about 18km2 of land, Jökulsárlón is a large, peaceful lake at the base of a glacier and is known as one of the most popular natural wonders in Iceland. Within its 200 metres of deep, ice-cold water, enormous icebergs of all shapes and sizes float around serenely, though what meets the eye is not always all there is. You can only see 1/10th of the icebergs above water, so one can only imagine what lies beneath!

These colossal icebergs float through a narrow waterway that links the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon with the Atlantic Ocean, eventually breaking up within the waves and washing ashore on the nearby Diamond Ice Beach. The result is a sight that can be witnessed nowhere else in the world, making a visit to Jökulsárlón something incredibly special indeed.

More Than Ice and Stone

Jökulsárlón, which literally means ‘glacier river lagoon’, started slowly developing into a lagoon when the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull began receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in 1934-1935. The lagoon is therefore quite young but it is growing at a very fast rate.

Jökulsárlón managed to double its size within a 15 year period, has increased fourfold since the 1970s and continues to expand even today.

Due to ongoing recession of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, Jökulsárlón will look completely different every time that you visit – this may be a positive thing for photographers, though it is also a sad reminder of the stark effects of global warming.

Although the icebergs that float within Jökulsárlón may be fascinating, they are not the only thing to be found in the waters; the lagoon is actually full of life. A wide variety of fish drift in from the sea along with the tides and seals can often be seen swimming between the icebergs in search of food or resting peacefully on the ice.

In addition, large numbers of sea birds nest upon the shores in the summertime, including Arctic terns and other species. This is not a popular place for puffin watching, though a few have been spotted flitting around at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon here and there!

Jokulsarlon Glacier LagoonPink Milkshake. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

The incredible glacier lagoon in south Iceland stands out for its sheer beauty, so it is no wonder that Jökulsárlón has been the setting for a number of films. These include the James Bond films 'A View to a Kill' and 'Die Another Day', as well as the blockbuster 'Tomb Raider'. The beautiful setting of the glacier lagoon has also been used in Justin Bieber's music video for 'I'll Show You', as well as the 2015 romantic action Bollywood film, 'Dilwale'.

The contrast of the gentle, blue water and the razor-sharp icebergs is a unique opportunity for any photographer to catch on camera, let alone filmmakers in their movies. As such, we've compiled our best tips below, to help you catch the perfect photo of the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in Iceland.

Equipment for Photography at Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

  • A reliable camera

  • Wide angle, mid-range zoom or telephoto lens

  • Tripod

  • Graduated neutral density filters

  • Neutral density filters

  • Memory card

While you don't have to use filters to shoot at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, graduated neutral density filters can help you to balance out the exposure of your shots, particularly in the sky and the foreground.

Neutral density filters can also help to smooth out the ripples in the water for a dreamy effect. Just keep in mind that Jökulsárlón is a tidal lagoon, meaning that the icebergs will continually be moving with the flow and ebb of the water. While a 20 minute longer exposure might sound great on paper, the result may be a mess of blurry ice.

There are a number of vantage points for photography at Jökulsárlón, including from the top of a hill. Beware though as it can get windy up there, so bringing along a tripod is certainly a good idea!

Jokulsarlon Glacier LagoonPhotographing Jokulsarlon. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Wide angle lenses may be used to get down low and close to the icebergs in the foreground, though telephoto lenses work just as well at Jökulsárlón for capturing abstract shots or photos of icebergs in the distance. They're also handy to have, in case you spot some seals hauled out on the ice or sea birds in the distance!

A mid-range zoom lens can also work well here, particularly if you'll be shooting from a high vantage point, overlooking the entire lagoon. 

Camera Settings for Photographing the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

When shooting at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, it is best to use a tripod, to ensure that your images will be sharp and to minimise camera shake. It will also allow you to dial in the lowest ISO, in order to minimise noise whilst guaranteeing clear and sharp images. This is particularly important if you're planning on making prints.

For the best quality images, use a lower ISO around 50 or 100. However, if you'll be handholding your shots, then you'll need to use a faster ISO around 400-800.

Jokulsarlon Glacier LagoonReflections of the Sky. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

To ensure that your shots will have sharp foreground to background focus, set your aperture to somewhere between f/11 and f/16. However, to truly ensure that the icebergs are all in focus, you may need to use the photography technique of focus stacking.

A faster shutter speed around 1/125 will allow you to freeze the motion of the icebergs floating in the lagoon, though slower shutter speeds will create long exposure and movement effects. Experiment to see what works for you. Whatever you choose to use should reflect your own creativity and artistic vision.

How to Compose a Photo of the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

There are many different ways that you can compose a photograph of Jökulsárlón, from a panorama of the entire lagoon to abstract close-ups of the icebergs that float in its midst. Sometimes there is not much ice in the lagoon, though other times there can be so much that it is hard to isolate any single piece. The trick to shooting at Jökulsárlón though is to find an interesting piece of ice floating on its own, which you can use to anchor in the foreground of your shot, or to use the reflection of the icebergs on the water as a subject within itself.

Try experimenting with your camera at different heights and angles while using a wide-angle lens at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, in order to emphasise smaller pieces of ice which you may often find near the shoreline. Alternatively, switch to a telephoto lens and capture the juxtaposition between blue and white pieces of ice, shining brilliantly in the sun.

The Best Times to Photograph the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

As you can imagine, this spectacular location in Iceland attracts a lot of visitors. To make the most of the lighting, it is best to visit the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon during sunrise or sunset, when the colours of the sun and the clouds reflect in the glassy waters. These times also result in less traffic, meaning that you'll have a bit more peace and quiet to enjoy in relative solitude.

Jokulsarlon Glacier LagoonBrilliant Colours of the Sun at Jokulsarlon. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Summer at Jokulsarlon

The Icelandic summer at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is not to be missed. The Midnight Sun is the most sensational experience, when the sky turns into the most colourful pallet of red, purple, pink and yellow you’ve ever seen. It is as if the icebergs absorb these divine colours, allowing you to observe the their true beauty in a million different facets.

During the summer season, it is best to visit Jökulsárlón around midnight, not just to make the most of the Midnight Sun but because everyone else will most likely be in bed! You'll also be treated to hours upon hours of beautiful lighting, with the sunset melting seamlessly into sunrise.

Winter at Jokulsarlon

The winter season at Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is just as beautiful, when the sky takes on an ethereal glow, making the lagoon all the more enchanting. Although the calving of icebergs from the nearby glacier may take place at a faster rate during the summer, the lagoon is more likely to freeze with lower temperatures in the winter, meaning there will be a lot more ice to photograph.

In addition, the winter season often results in a layer of soft, white snow all around the edges of the lagoon. However, the rocks that lay along the shore may also be encrusted with ice, making the experience a lot more treacherous. For your own safety, remember to wear crampons when venturing down near the icebergs. Also, do not surf or stand on any icebergs as they may be washed out with the flow of the water. The icebergs may even break or overturn, causing large waves of water to be pushed towards the shore.

Northern Lights at Jokulsarlon

The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is especially beautiful in the cooler months when the chances of catching Northern Lights are high. Unfortunately, these also happen to be the coldest parts of the year. However, even the most hardcore Icelander cannot take their eyes off nature’s own theatre, so if you're planning to photograph the Northern Lights at Jökulsárlón, then be sure to be ready with your eyes wide open and your camera in hand, as the dancing auroras can be tricky to snatch.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon'Northern Lights at Jokulsarlon'. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

To really make the most of your Northern Lights experience at the lagoon, you should stay at a hotel within the vicinity, to minimise the amount of driving that you will have to do to be in the right location when this green dance takes place in the sky. Also, remember to take a headlamp with you and to wear crampons for safety when wandering around Jökulsárlón at night.

As it can be very dark at night time at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, it pays to visit when there will be a full moon (or any moonlight) gracing the sky. This will not only help to light up the beautiful foreground, but it will also make it easier for you to focus your shots.

For your best chances of seeing the Northern Lights at Jökulsárlón, you should visit Iceland either during winter, early spring or late autumn. There is no chance of seeing the Northern Lights during summer in Iceland, when the country experiences nearly 24-hours of daylight.

Where is the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon?

The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is situated in southeast Iceland at Breiðamerkursandur, between the Skaftafell Nature Reserve and Höfn í Hornafirði. It borders the Vatnajökull National Park – the largest protected wilderness area in all of Iceland.

Jokulsarlon Glacier LagoonTall Icebergs at Jokulsarlon. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

As you near the lagoon (driving towards Höfn on Road 1), you will see a large single lane bridge. The glacier lagoon will be on your right, while the Diamond Ice Beach will be on your left.

Access is free to the public, though a variety of different tours that go out onto the lagoon by boat and hovercraft may be purchased at the nearby ticketing booths.

About the author:  Serena Dzenis is a landscape photographer based in Iceland. You can find more of her work on her website or by following her on Facebook and Instagram.

Capture the spectacular icebergs of Jökulsárlón on an amazing 3 Day Vatnajökull National Park Photo Workshop in Iceland!