Nacreous Dawn – Glacier Beach Iceland

Nacreous Dawn – Glacier Beach Iceland


The Ice beach at Jökulsarlon, South East Iceland.

The ice on this beach come directly from the glacier lagoon at Jökulsarlon. The tide of the Atlantic ocean interact with the lagoon, accelerating the melt and taking small ice bergs out to sea. The small bergs wash up on the black sand beach of Breiðarmerkursandur. The view is South across the North Atlantic.


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Camera Settings

  • ƒ/18
  • 24 mm
  • 4 seconds
  • 400

Mode: AV mode with +5/3 EV over (compensation +/-).
Focus: Approximate Focus Distance – 1.8 M This is close to the ice.

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This is early January on our Winter workshop. It is a beautiful, clear, but very cold morning. We are heading out an hour before sunrise and I notice that some of the clouds are not regular clouds. As we approach the area it is obvious that we have a rare display of Nacreous clouds (mother of pearl). I know how rare this is because the last time I saw them was around 5 years ago in the Northern Sky over the lagoon. This time they were in the Southern sky over the ice beach.

These are clouds of ice crystals that form in the Arctic many kilometers high in the sky. Because of their height, they catch the sunlight much earlier than regular clouds. This was an opportunity to shoot a truly unique scene.


Because of the height of the Nacreous clouds and my 24mm limit I was forced into shooting some verticals. I was restricted for time because I had to make sure that the workshop guests were capturing them as well. I hunted around for some attractive pieces of ice and found this one. The trouble was that I couldn’t get close because of the Atlantic swell. I just made sure that the ice sat nicely in the frame and had plenty of space around it. Of course, I needed to ensure that I was catching a full Nacreous cloud above it.

My tripod was as low as it could go. I had to be low to include the very high Nacreous cloud. The real challenge working so low was getting the image straight. I waited for a big wave to wet the sand and exposed for 4 seconds.

Magic Cloth

Long exposure = 4 seconds.

Nacreous clouds are difficult to expose. The trick here was under-exposure to make sure I didn’t loose any of the details and colours in the glowing cloud. After a few hand held experiments I found that the sky needed to be about one stop under. My exposure compensation settings was +5/3 EV (less than a stop over), this was equal to be 2 stops over 1 stop under! So the sky would be under-exposed with a fast Magic Cloth and then the ice and beach would be only slightly over exposed (much less than my regular ice beach scenes).

A very fast cloth worked well, the sky was covered as quickly as possible, with what I call the reflex Karate chop. Basically this means that as soon as I hear the shutter open I karate chop the scene with my Magic Cloth. I estimate around .35 sec (out of 4 seconds). As you can see this exposure was quick enough to capture a huge Atlantic wave coming in.

The remaining seconds were used to expose the Ice and Beach.

Recommended Equipment:

Be sure to choose the right equipment for Long Exposure photography. A lens with a large= element is essential, I find things difficult with lenses lower than 58mm filter size. The larger the lens element, the truer the cloth shadow. Lenses can be so wide, such as the famous Nikkor 14-24mm. The lens is perfect for long exposures at night, but dark filters for day time Magic Cloth photography becomes complicated.
Canon pro-DSLRs are perfect for Long Exposure photography.

  • Great features and true manual mode
  • Amazing live view able to see auroras before humans!
  • Important settings can be changed with external buttons .
  • The Red light on the back lets you know you are shooting. (nice feature in the dark)

Canon 5D - full frame

This is a professional landscape camera. The Canon 5D works in all weathers. Powerful live-view and sensor.

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 l

Canon's 24mm Prime L lens is sharp from corner to corner and has a good aperture range.

Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod

Load Capacity: 26 lb Max Height: 60.8" Min Height: 8.7" Folded Height: 17.5"

B+W 77mm SC 106 ND

Neutral Density Filter
64x Filter Factor, 6-Stop. Darkens Entire Image & allows slow Shutter Speed

Neutral Density Filter: (not if you are shooting at night!)

I recommend screw-on filters for damp days.

Heavy Tripod:

I like to get down to the ground for better details in the foreground so folding legs are definitely nice features to look out for choosing your tripod. Set up your tripod so it is strong. Magic Cloth movements can cause vibrations. But, this is essential for top quality long exposure photography.

If your tripod has a hook , hang something from it to help with better strength. Many professionals carry a special bag to place rocks and stones to give a better stability which will stabilize the tripod steady – even in strong winds.

Some more Long Exposure tips…


Shutter bulb:

Exposure times can sometimes be longer than the 30 sec your camera will allow. Having a Shutter bulb (sometimes called “infra red Shutter release) will allow you to expose: as long as your battery allows.

Magic Sock:

Choose a large cloth like a mouse-mat, or black card of similar size. Should be able to completely cover the whole surface of the glass. Better to be Black. A dark colour is best. Use a straight edge of any shaped cloth.

Magic Cloth Method:

Camera settings

Use a dark filter or darkness for a to achieve a long exposure, then over expose the image by two to three stops.

Shutter speed

It is preferable to work with a long Shutter speed. 2-5 sec requires a quick, but controlled action to burn the sky within a split second. 5-10 sec lets you have a extra exposure of the foreground.

Magic Cloth Motion

Normally, I use very fast downward motion and slow, gentle upward actions.

Different Methods

Change the Motion to capture several short exposures of the clouds, rather than one initial exposure (30 sec + exposures only).

Spot meter for the sky and multiply that shutter speed by four to get the total exposure time.

Tony’s Magic Cloth Technique 1

Tony’s Magic Cloth Technique 1

The Magic Cloth Technique involves controlling the amount of exposure to different parts of a scene during a slow shutter. The technique involves dodging and burning over a long exposure.
Using a dark cloth (or card) you can reduce the exposure to the sky (or highlights) by covering the front of the lens for part of the exposure time

Pink Pearls at Jökulsarlon Ice beach

Pink Pearls at Jökulsarlon Ice beach

I was trying to triangulate the 3 main subjects.  The middle iceberg was a bit too close to the center but getting closer to the nearest piece of ice allowed me to form a triangle.  It was important to be a few meters from the ice, so that I could include more sky with them.

Beauty and the Diamond Ice Beach

Beauty and the Diamond Ice Beach

This was one of the most rewarding mornings I ever experienced at the Diamond Ice Beach at the Glacier lagoon at Jökusarlon,  I used to run tours to Jökusarlon and back (to Reykjavik) in a single day.  This was a 14 hour trip with 10 hours of driving.  In December,...

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