Updated: Feb 27
I recently published a blog post of photos taken on my trip to Greenland, in June 2019. Greenland is an amazing country, and I was blown away by the spectacular landscapes and friendly people. In this post I'm sharing some aerial landscape photography, taken on a sightseeing flight over the spectacular Ilulissat Icefjord.
Unlike most posts, I'm going to write about it first, and then share the photos at the end. So if you're just here for the photos, you might want to skip to the end.
I flew with AirZafari, who run sightseeing flights in small (6-seater) planes from Ilulissat and Kangerlussuaq. Flights are expensive, and there's no getting around that. You either do it or you don't. I reasoned that this was an experience I may never be able to do again, in a location which was as spectacular as anywhere in the world, and that it would give the opportunity to photograph it from a more grand, and less common perspective.
Once I'd decided I wanted to do it, I emailed AirZafari, and asked lots of questions about the routes available, and about general flight availability and booking process. I must have been a real nuisance, but I got a very lengthy reply, with lots of useful information. When we got to Ilulissat, we popped into the AirZafari office, to have a chat and book our flight. We met Helmuth there, who couldn't have been more helpful. He listened to what we wanted and suggested a route for us. We were able to choose whatever time of day we wanted - which is great for a photographer as you can plan according to the light you want.
We chose a 60 minute flight, flying clockwise from Ilulissat, to the Northern Glacier ("Sermeq Avangnardleq"), down over the edge of the vast inland ice cap to the Jakobshavn glacier (aka "Isua Glacier"), then along the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Ilulissat Ice Fjord until we reach Disko Bay, and back to Ilulissat.
Incredibly, I have spent as long scrawling that shambolic map as I spent in the air on this flight. Sometimes I really have to question how effectively I'm using my time.
Planning and Lens Choice
If we'd have had a cloudy/overcast day in Greenland, I could have flown at any time of day. A nice damp, overcast day would give me an even light, and some deep blues in the ice below. But with our forecast of clear skies all week, I had to avoid daytime, when the light would simply have been too harsh. I chose to fly at 9pm-10pm; wanting the sun to be at a relatively low angle, with softer shadows than bright daylight, but not to be shooting when light levels are too low for fast shutter speeds (which would be required to shoot from a moving aeroplane).
I found it very hard to tell which lens would work best for aerial photography. From the start I was torn between my wide-medium lens (24-70mm) and a longer lens (70-200mm or 100-400mm). I decided I would take my longest lens (100-400mm) to Greenland for the potential wildlife there (whales, musk ox, arctic fox), and as such it wasn't worth taking the 70-200mm. So for the aerial photography it was a choice between the 24-70mm and 100-400mm. The simple fact is that both lenses would get me nice photos - just different types of photos. I don't have two camera bodies, and I didn't want to waste flight time changing lenses (I'd probably be wanting to change every few minutes - and in doing so would miss the shot I wanted to change for anyway). In the end I figured that a minimum of 100mm would be too restrictive, and that 24-70mm covered more options, so I went with the wider option. It also has a much wider aperture; enabling faster shutter speeds, and the wider focal length enables greater depth-of-field.
The flight was incredible, and I'd encourage anyone to do it, whether you have a camera or not. There's simply no other way to see these sights than from the air, and the perspective you get it is unlike anything I've seen before. The enormity of the inland ice cap is hard to take in, the remoteness and lack of development in the area is awe-inspiring, and the scale of the glaciers and ice bergs is beyond anything I could portray in photographs. It was a real memory of a lifetime, and something I know I'm so lucky to have seen.
Photography-wise, it proved very tricky. For a start, how do I convey a landscape as awe-inspiring as the one I've just described? It can't be done. Then we get on to the practical issues. It was a windy evening (cold air rushing across the land from the inland ice cap), which caused turbulence at low altitude. So we couldn't fly as low as we'd otherwise have been able to do. We'd already postponed by one day due to strong winds, but had to fly the next night as it was our last opportunity. That meant that my choice of wide-angle lens was now less than ideal as from higher up the wide-angle now felt even wider. I was able to capture some nice scenic shots, but I really wanted to be lower over the ice, and the next best thing would have been to shoot with a longer lens. The light during the flight seemed great, and I was happy to have got a good compromise between light levels (bright enough) and angle of the sun (low enough). However, cameras have a tendency to amplify lighting situations, and after-the-fact, I could see that the light was really too harsh - certainly for the first half of the flight; casting hard-edged shadows over the crevasses in the glaciers and ruining a lot of shots which looked nice through the viewfinder at the time. Flying east for the first half of the flight, the sun was more-or-less behind us, and the landscape looked very blue. During the second half of the flight, we were flying more towards the sun, which was a much nicer angle, and enabled me to play with that light a lot more.
I picked the wrong flight time. Although the light was nice during the second half of the flight, it would have been nicer if it were softer. During the first half of the flight, it was certainly too harsh. You'll see in the photos below how the light improved as the flight went on. I should have gone an hour later, when the sun was lower, but it was still fairly light out (the sun didn't actually set in June, after all).
I got the lens choice wrong. I should have just taken the 70-200mm specifically for this flight. We were very short of weight/space in our luggage, but I should have prioritised bringing that extra lens. From the altitude we were at, I could have taken 'wider' shots at 70mm, whilst being able to pick out features and abstracts using the longer end too.
The turbulence was a problem. I wanted to fly as low as possible, to capture images that put you in that place, rather than looking down on it so much. That just wasn't possible when having to fly a little higher. When we did fly lower, the turbulence shook the plane so much it was impossible to compose a photo, let alone capture it sharp. I should have prioritised the flight on an occasion earlier in the week when there was little or no wind.
I'd rather it had been cloudy. During the second half of the flight, I was able to get some nice photos using the warmth of the evening sunshine, which was nice, but probably an even light with little or no shadow would have been better photography-wise. Colours would have been truer, and lower contrast would mean less harsh shadows, and a softer feel to the images.
Helmuth was very accommodating, and willing to customise the flight to our requests. Before-hand he asked what I was looking for, in terms of shots and angles, in order to provide that during the flight. Not having tried aerial photography before, I didn't really know what to ask for, so I was prepared to simply react to the opportunities I encountered. In hindsight I realise that I didn't get nearly as many shots looking directly downwards as I'd anticipated. Due to my inexperience, it hadn't really occurred to me that that's what I wanted, but if I flew again I'd ask for those opportunities - where the plane is able to bank over to one side, to look directly down (or nearly so) on the landscape.
Tips for shooting from a plane
I struggled to find much advice on this before I tried it, but I came up with a few notes prior to my flight, and I certainly learnt a lot from the experience. Here's a few tips if you're planning some aerial landscape photography yourself.
There is no perfect lens for aerial photography, and I could happily have shot with anything from 24mm to 300mm. Wider than 24mm and you'll struggle not to include bits of the plane (wings, propellers, etc). Longer than 300mm, and you'll struggle to get sharp images due to movement & vibration of the plane. The golden focal length would be 50-150mm. If I had to choose one lens for the next flight I take, it would be the 70-200mm. But that's partly because I've already tried the 24-70mm, and I'd want a different perspective second time around.
In terms of shutter speed, you do need to keep it fast. Small planes (and therefore their windows) vibrate a lot. I was shooting on aperture priority, with a minimum shutter speed of 1/1600th second. Shooting ice on a light evening (i.e. a bright subject) helped me a lot in this regard, and my actual shutter speed varied between 1/1600th and 1/8000th.
You don't need a small aperture when you have no foreground. Unlike 'normal' landscape photography, a large depth of field isn't required. I started at f/5, which was fine, but as there was plenty of light around I was able to stop down to f/8 for the second half of the flight. But if needs be, you could shoot at f/2.8 if you have a relatively wide angle.
If you can go on a slightly misty, cloudy, overcast day, go for it. The nice even light will let you concentrate purely on composition, and ensure your exposure is nice and easy too. If you are shooting in sunlit conditions as I was, look for back-lit opportunities, to make the most of the sun.
Sometimes you'll have an open window available, but you should go prepared to shoot through glass. Wear plain neutral clothing to minimise the effect of reflections, and use a rubber lens cap which moulds to the angle of the glass and cuts out light for reflections.
Every now and again, stop shooting and enjoy the view. You won't see the landscape from the air very often in your life, so take it in when you have the opportunity. It may help your photography, as you might notice something you otherwise wouldn't, but it'll certainly aid your enjoyment and memories of the experience.
The Northern Glacier
We got pretty close up to the Northern Glacier, which enabled me to get these full-screen abstracts.
The next photo demonstrates the hard-edged shadows I was struggling against during this flight. Flying later (when light is softer) or during overcast weather (which reduces shadows almost entirely) would have eliminated this problem. It also demonstrates the sort of shot which would have been much better if I'd have had a longer focal length available.
The Inland Ice Cap
The ice sheet that covers all but the coastal areas of Greenland is so vast it's impossible to convey. Looking out across it it's nothing but ice for hundreds of kilometres.
Such is the volume of ice inland, the surface slopes up all the way to the centre of the island, where it reaches over 3000 metres deep.
Dotted around on the surface of the ice sheet are lakes of glacial melt water, known as 'blue lakes' for obvious reasons.
As we circled the lake and positioned the sun behind it, our pilot Helmuth was disappointed to see us lose the blue colour, but I like this shot below, as all of the water and brightest ice reflects the gold colouration of the low evening sun.
The photo above demonstrates very well the effect of direction of light, compared to those previous. Similarly the shot below shows the Jakobshavn glacier, as we approach facing the sun. The top half of the image shows the surface reflecting sunlight, where as the bottom half transitions into shadow, which brings out the blues of the ice and the water lodged in the shallow crevasses.
The Jakobshavn Glacier
As the inland ice cap flows down to the coast, it develops into separate glaciers which calve ice at the coast. The Jakobshavn glacier is the most productive glacier in the world, flowing/calving at an average of 40 metres per day. It creates some of the largest ice bergs in the world, which flow from the glacier edge, down the icefjord, and out into the Disko Bay.
Here we're looking West from above the Jakobshavn glacier, and looking down the Ilulissat Icefjord.
Closer to the edge we can see the individual peaks and layers in the ice, which almost glow as our angle starts to reach back-lit from the sun.
Circling all the way around, and now looking inland, we see the face of the glacier wall, with the inland ice sheet reaching the horizon behind, and the floating ice of the icefjord below.
I realise I'll probably be alone on this, but this is one of my favourite photos of the flight. It's just a texture abstract looking out across the Jakobshavn glacier.
This is a similar shot, but from closer up, with a better direction of light. This looks like icing on a cake to me. I'm almost hungry just looking at it.
As we circle the glacier and face the sun once again, the towers of ice now rise back-lit, which tints the highlights gold, and leaves the shadows blue.
Here we can see the edge of the glacier at the top of the image, as it transitions to icefjord.
As ice falls from the front of the Jakobshavn Glacier it makes its way out to sea via the Ilulissat Icefjord.
Although it's an incredible wonder of geology, I found the icefjord itself quite difficult to photograph. Here, another example of when a longer lens would have come in handy.
As we reach the end of the fjord, we get to the largest ice bergs, which have run aground on the raised seabed. These monsters can sit at the end of the icefjord for months or years at a time until they're worn down by the pressure of the ice flow behind, and finally broken up or pushed out to sea.
As spectacular as this scenery is I don't think I came close to doing it justice. These photos are all a but untidy to me, but I want to share them to give people an idea of what this flight was like, and the incredible views we had.
Below, we're looking north towards the rocky coast around Ilulissat itself. Those dark rocks are on the route of the yellow hiking route I mentioned in my previous post.
This photo is a wide-angle shot showing a large ice berg in the foreground, with the icefjord behind, and the glacier and ice cap in the far distance.
As we headed back to the airport I took this shot looking north, showing the biggest ice bergs at the edge of the icefjord, and the town of Ilulissat on the rocky coastline behind.
I'm lucky to be able to do this sort of thing, and it was incredible. Photographically, I don't think I really achieved much, but it was still well worth doing, and I'd definitely do it again if I have the opportunity. As is often the case with photography, it's a steep learning curve to try something new, but I'd expect to do better next time around. It's all a learning experience, and in this case a particularly enjoyable one.