Straight out of the icy waters of Silfra I went to charge my batteries overnight and head into the opposite direction: Up! Into the air with a helicopter to capture Iceland from above.
Today I’d like to share my experience and knowledge of aerial photography and tips on shooting out of a helicopter and what you should know before you go as well as the best possible camera settings to get the best possible shots.
Take a moment to watch the episode below and find out more below the video what kind of gear and settings I used and even a Lightroom Preset that will help you with those aerial shots – from chopper, drone or just the top of a tall building.
OK, this one is a little less of an adventure, but to stay true to the series I’m creating I’m going to still call it that.
I got to join a family on one of Nordur Helicopter’s ‘Fire and Ice’ tours which meant 2 landings and about a 2 hour flight in total – one on a glacier and one right next to a geothermal area.
We started off from Keflavik Airport from where we flew over Reykjavik straight towards and over the mountains and the highest waterfall in Iceland: Glymur and then on to the Þórisjökull Glacier where we landed for our first trip.
Iceland really is a such an interesting country for aerial photography. With it’s countless textures and colours that just keep changing and mixing after every stone and river it’s truly spectacular. Taking a bride eye view on this really shows you how ‘active’ and ‘in the making’ this landscape really is. Nothing seems like it’s been there for very long and nothing seems like it will stay or last in any way.
If you ever have the chance to visit Iceland I highly recommend stepping into a helicopter to see it from above. It’s truly an extraordinary experience worth spending a ‘little’ money on. You won’t regret it!
Now back to the flight.
As we approached the glacier I was allowed to open the window for a bit and get even better shots. Good, because the textures of ice, crevasses and waterfalls of the melting ice I was seeing right there were unbelievable.
After a short landing right on top of the glacier, a little snowball fight and a few selfies later we were on our way over the Silfra Gap and on to the geothermal area where Reykjavik gets all it’s power and hot water from that keeps those roads nice and warm and snow free in winter.
This was my favourite stretch of the flight. Unbelievable amounts of texture, colours and variety made for an amazing amount of awesome photos in a short amount of time. And flying over the Silfra Gap and spotting the exact spot I had snorkeled the clearest water on the planet the day before was interesting too.
After the second landing amidst smoke and bubbling puddles of sulfuric mud we got aboard a last time to fly the last stretch back to Keflavik Airport. What an experience!
Special Thanks to Nordurflug for taking me on this adventure and actually making these photographs possible!
Shooting out of a helicopter is anything but easy. Helicopters are very delicate and the slightest wind will move them around. I’ve listed a few tips below from my experience so you if you ever get the chance to shoot out of a helicopter you can be prepared that little bit extra than I was.
Look, if you can get the doors off your helicopter DO IT. (but be prepared to get cold). If you can’t ask the pilot if it’s ok to open a window (they usually have a small one) and shoot as much as you can through that. Strap on and hold on to your gear!
The windows are usually pretty clean and scratch free, but it’s that extra glass and distortion of rounded glass that doesn’t help with the final sharpness of your images. Trust me… I had to trash a lot of image because of it.
You’re moving – fast! So keep that in mind and keep your shutter speed around double your focal length (in full frame/35mm terms) and even further up when shooting anything above 80mm.
Rule of thumb (for micro 4/3 lenses – you can halve the shutter for full frame lenses)
12mm = 1/50sec
40mm = 1/200sec
+80mm = 1/500sec
It all depends on your flight. If you’re hovering you’ll definitly be able to shoot at slower shutter speeds. But if you’re moving from A to B I’d go off those numbers up there.
As for aperture I was shooting around mostly around f/5.6 (or more whenever I could).
My ISO was fixed to ISO200.
I shot single AF and because I use back button focussing technique I could refocus whenever I would change the angle I was shooting at. So from shooting straight down to 45º or up I’d refocus – but between shots I was ok shooting without refocussing. Saves time!
Believe it or not, sitting in a shaky, fast moving, unstable helicopter while looking through a keyhole sized viewfinder desperately looking for things to shoot will make you feel motion sick… I was lucky that we had 2 landings. But more than 30-45min of constant shooting and I was pale like Snow White!
So be aware of that and remember to breathe and not look through the viewfinder 100% of the time while flying.
Strap your gear to you. Know where everything is and be ready to swap cameras at any given time. I found that I was switching cameras almost every 20-30sec! So keep the settings in sync and remember to capture multiple focal lengths of things. You’ll thank me later.
It reduces your visibility and therefore the detail in your shots and adds an ugly blue tint to your images that is a pain / impossible to remove when editing.
If you’ve picked a day that’s not too hazy you’re lucky. If there’s haze focus on the closer up subjects, by, for example shooting down more than into the distance. The top down perspective tends to be more unique and interesting anyway, since not many people ever get to see a place from that perspective.
This is one of those rules where you have to break the rule. Shooting from up in the sky is all about texture. And texture only really ‘pops’ when there’s harsh sunlight. A late afternoon light is probably the best time to go. Or even better an early noon light when the sun hasn’t heated up the earth and there’s ‘less’ particles / water in the air to create haze.
You need those dark and bright areas to see the definition of the landscape, rocks, hills, mountains etc. So yes, go on a bright sunny day!
Just because you’re up high and have a great vantage point doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look down. Helicopters have windows in all directions and I found that the best images were the ones looking (almost) straight down. They reduce the distance to your subject and avoid haze and give an unusual perspective on things. Try it!
This one is probably the most important point: Never stop shooting. Shoot all kinds of things. Pick details, houses, cars, lakes, trees, textures, rivers… everything! And shoot it! It’s costing you a lot of money, so make sure it’s worth it.
A lot of my favourite shots aren’t the one I was the most excited about when shooting. It’s the little things I picked out in between. So please: Don’t Stop Shooting.
You’ll be connected via radio to the pilot and you will be able to talk to him at any time. Do It! Ask him to hover, hold, rotate etc. he’ll most likely will be very happy to do so for you and you will be happy that you asked him for it.
It’s all about texture. Big or small. Pick patterns, frame and shoot them. Try to spot individual things, isolate them, isolate colours, textures… Even when the landscape looks ‘boring’ try your best to find pattern and textures and shoot them.
Preparation was everything here. I made a clear choice about what lenses I wanted to use and what I wanted to use them fore and arranged all my gear in a way that I could blindly grab each camera knowing what setup I was working with.
Time is your enemy. Since we were flying from A to B to C to D to I never got to see the same place twice. So it was then or never if I wanted to get a good shot.
With our rather low flying altitude and high ground speed it was pretty much impossible to capture anything with the 300mm and so I swapped it to the M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO right after the first landing on the glacier.
The 7-14mm turned out to be such a good lens for the inside shots. Showing the tools, equipment, people, helicopter. The whole behind the scenes stuff – I’m very glad I swapped them!
When flying through the mountains the 12-40mm was perfect. It offered the perfect perspective to show the bigger picture without showing too much distant haze.
When it came to texture shots I mostly used the 40-150mm at around 100mm.
Looking at my metadata I can now see that I my shots grouped mostly at 12mm. 40mm and a very even spread of images between 50-120mm.
I also attached battery grips to each of the cameras to avoid running out of power since I knew I was going to be shooting A LOT. But I ended up having enough battery power with one battery per camera… but better be prepared than sorry.
Olympus OM-D E-M1 – http://bit.ly/2kwIkf7
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II – http://geni.us/OMDEM5MKII
Olympus TG-Tracker Action Camera – http://bit.ly/2o3KeI9
M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO – http://bit.ly/2kgKjWo
M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO – http://bit.ly/2jSoIA9
M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO – http://bit.ly/2ldfShL
M.Zuiko 300mm f/4 IS PRO – http://bit.ly/2kwG0FdPRO
Peak Design camera straps – http://amzn.to/2Bm5b40
Zeiss lens cleaning kit – http://amzn.to/2rvqj89
TG Tracker Mounting Clamp – http://amzn.to/2F76l5R
I filmed occasionally while I wasn’t shooting and also made use of the Olympus TG Tracker Action camera which I attached to the pilot’s seat to film myself as well as the cockpit/view. With it’s amazing 204º field of view it’s a great little action camera to capture pretty much everything in your field of view. It’s the first action cam with 5-axis electronic image stabilisation which really did an amazing job considering how much the helicopter and the pilots seat where vibrating and shaking during the flight! Think driving over rough gravel without suspension.
I had to record the voice over audio after the flight as the helicopter was way too loud to do any talking to the camera.
Editing was tough! Haze is your enemy when it comes to aerial photography. Pick a clear day if you can to avoid any nasty editing surprises! If you can’t shoot the stuff that’s right below you. Avoid shooting the horizon too much.
The further your subject is from you the harder it gets to pull out those details when editing.
I know there’a ‘Dehaze’ function in Adobe Lightroom, and it’s really not that bad, but to really bring out those textures, colours and details in my shots I needed to do more than that.
A LOT of tweaking on the tonal curve as well as individual colour hues and luminescence was what really made the right stuff pop.
Check out this before – after of one of my shots to see what kind of detail you can pull out of a RAW image file!
I’ve put together a new Preset Pack for you to download. It’s based on my images I took here and can be used for any aerial images or hazy day photos that you take. Obviously it’s not a solution for every image, but I reckon it could build a very solid base for your work. It’s a creative process and ultimately it is up to you to use the presets in whatever way you want.
The pack includes 6 Presets and all the necessary instructions on how to install them (for Windows and Mac)
click on the image below to get to the download.
Faroe Islands! I just completed a 2 week trip to the Faroe Islands and will be dedicating 2 episodes to this absolutely amazing, remote place.
In one episode I will take you along as I skateboard the perfect, empty – ok deserted – roads of the country
I put a ton of time and energy into these episodes for you to enjoy and learn from and if you’d like to show your support it would be awesome if you could subscribe to my YouTube channel.
Obviously buying Lightroom Preset Packs, Prints or digital images from me supports me a great deal and makes it possible for me to produce future episodes. 😉
If you haven’t yet seen the first few episodes. I recommend watching (and reading about them) in the links below.
In April 2018 I had the opportunity to travel back to my favourite place on earth. A wild, little group of 18 islands in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Tucked away half way between Scotland and Iceland, not even a dot on the world map. The Faroe Islands. I spent a week-long exploring the…Details
I had initially planned to head off to Austria for a week. But soon found myself looking further. I wanted snow, drama, colour, contrast and a wild landscape. And Austria just didn’t feel right for that. So Scotland it was!Details
In EP31 of Adventure Photography on Location I’m exploring famous Lake Bled in Slovenia and I share some of my favourite composition rules & tools with you and how I use them to improve my photography composition techniques.Details
In EP20 & 21 of APOL I go on my biggest adventure yet as I spend 3 weeks in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan to attempt the famous Lenin Peak. The so called easiest 7000m mountain on the planet.Details
So after many weeks and countless hours of preparation and thanks to the help of Olympus AU I’ve finally made it to Iceland. And in the very first episode of the new video series: Adventure Photography On Location I’m taking you along from Budapest to Iceland all the way into a canyon on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the far west of Iceland.Details