Near Landmannalaugar, Iceland
Time / Date:
11:57 / November 2nd, 2013
Camera Body: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Shutter Speed: 1/2500s
Focal Length: 115mm
On a previous visit to Iceland I had hired a small aircraft and pilot to get a taste for aerial photography. Of course once I had tried it I was hooked, so returning to photograph Iceland Airwaves 2013, a music festival in Reykjavík, I arranged to take another photography flight when the weather was good. I was planning to head out to Landmannalaugar, a region of Iceland’s highlands famous for multi-coloured mountains and a geothermally heated river, close to the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano which caused so much disruption to air traffic in 2010.
It quickly became clear that there was far too much snow covering the mountains to get any shots of the famous colours of Landmannalaugar, which is always a risk when you visit Iceland in the winter. However the river with its heated water was still flowing freely and had melted a lot of the surrounding snow, creating these abstract banded patterns with hints of green.
I had two 5D Mark II bodies with me on the shoot, one with a 70-200mm zoom attached and another with a 16-35mm zoom. Changing lenses while flying was never going to be an option, so I wanted to ensure I had as wide a range of focal lengths available as possible. I’m always looking for abstract patterns and details so ended up using the longer lens for pretty much the whole flight, enabling me to frame images like this which lack context, adding to the abstract effect.
Making the Shot:
A flight in a Cessna is not a calm affair. The plane itself is constantly vibrating, and when you open the window to shoot, the wind rushing past the lens makes it a battle just to frame the shot. A very firm grip combined with a fast shutter speed eliminates camera shake, and using the burst mode ensures you get as many chances to get the shot right as possible. I asked the pilot to align the plane so I could align the river within a landscape orientation shot, opened the window, leaned out and grabbed a burst of 4 shots, with the camera securely strapped to my body.
Editing & Processing:
To finish the shot, using Adobe Lightroom I used the snow as a reference point to correct the white balance and remove the blue cast created by the slight haze from that altitude. I could see hints of green/blue in the areas where the river appears to have flooded the surrounding land, so boosted the saturation to show it more clearly. I also ramped up the contrast to emphasize the difference between the pure white snow and the almost black river cutting through it.
There’s very little time to set up a shot when you’re flying 6,000 feet up, so you need to do as much preparation in advance as possible. With lighting conditions relatively stable for much of the flight, I was able to dial in the exposure in beforehand meaning it wasn’t something I needed to worry about for much of the rest of the flight.
Aerial photography is expensive and subject to all sorts of risks – obviously you need the weather to be good so ensure you have a pilot who is flexible enough to be able to fly as soon as the weather improves, and allow enough time that you have a better chance of catching at least one good day. Ensure you use a really fast shutter speed and have your camera set up so you can catch a shot at very short notice. If you have specific subjects in mind, let the pilot know well in advance so you can work out how much time (and therefore money) you will need and what you will be able to see on the way. Research the geography well so you know what to expect to see. Finally, wear gloves – the air outside a moving aircraft is VERY cold, but ensure the gloves are thin enough that you can still operate the camera.
I am always inspired when I visit Iceland, and each time I go there is more I want to see. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t have Andre Ermolaev’s amazing abstract images of Iceland’s rivers in mind on this shoot.
About the Photographer
Nick is a photographer from the UK who feels a strong connection with the people and landscape of the north Atlantic island of Iceland. Like most people who visit, he was hooked from the moment he first travelled there in 1999, and has been back on an almost annual basis since. To pay the bills, he takes photographs of hotels and other commercial buildings and is as happy around modern interior design and minimalist architecture as he is in the wild open spaces of Iceland.
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