Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and Planes

Have you ever seen the world from above? Flying into the sky can provide you with a unique view of the landscape. In Iceland, jagged mountains, braided rivers, volcanoes, glaciers and endless lava fields all appear like abstract art when observed from beyond the bounds of land.

There’s nothing quite like soaring over this stunning island, so if you find the idea of flying daunting or intimidating, don’t let your fear get the best of you. Some shots are completely impossible from the ground and getting up high will give you a whole new perspective of the country that you didn’t have before.



Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesThere's nothing quite like soaring over the landscape of Iceland. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.


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How to Fly in Iceland

There are two main ways in which a photographer can achieve a bird’s eye view of Iceland. One option is to hop onto some kind of aircraft; the other is to man a drone. Whichever mode you choose for taking photos from the sky, you are bound to end up with compositions that you wouldn’t have been able to accomplish otherwise.

Keep in mind though, that the art of shooting from above can be more complex and less precise than photography on the ground. There are also pros and cons to each mode of flying. Therefore, choosing the mode of aerial photography that best suits what you want to capture and being familiar with your equipment will ensure that you have a better chance of obtaining any images that you have pre-visualised.



To help you figure out how is best to fly, have a think about the types of photos that you would like to take from the sky. Once you have an idea of the shots you plan to generate, you can consider which approach to aerial photography will be most appropriate for the job.

Drone Photography in Iceland

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesDrones are a great way of seeing the world from a different perspective. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Hands up if you’ve received a drone as a gift or bought one for yourself recently?

Drones are becoming more and more popular these days, possibly because they offer every photographer a reasonably priced chance to have an entirely new perspective on landscape photography.

Using a drone in an already amazing place like Iceland can make the journey even more surreal but for those with a fear of heights or who feel nauseous while flying, they are also a great alternative to physically getting into the air.



When using your drone to shoot, it is important to have the right control and to think about how you will compose your image. Don’t just focus on how the Icelandic landscape looks from above. As with any photography, good lighting is of the essence.

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesLighting is important when flying a drone. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

As you take your drone through the sky, look at how the light falls across the landscape, particularly if you are shooting in the Highlands. Rather than guessing at how the image will look, try flying your drone at different angles and positions to achieve a composition that you are happy with.

Be creative and look for different patterns or interesting structures in the landscape below. Pre-visualisation helps, so be sure to have an idea in mind of what you want to photograph and how you want it to look, otherwise you might find yourself wasting time by flying your drone around aimlessly.



Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesFlying a drone can be a challenge. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Although drones can be an incredible tool in your arsenal of creativity, flying one in Iceland can be a unique and challenging experience in itself. As in any other place in the world, there are rules and regulations with regard to where and how you can fly. So before you fly, make sure to educate yourself on the current drone laws in Iceland, which are constantly updating.



 

Keeping to the law is one thing, but when flying a drone, there is a lot more to keeping yourself, others and your equipment safe. Here are some of the most common problems that people face when flying drones in the land of fire and ice, so make sure to be aware of these risks and how to reduce them before you lift-off with your shiny piece of gear!

Flying Your Drone in the Wind

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesFlying a drone is difficult when it's windy. Photo by: 'Edwin Martinez'.

It can be ridiculously windy in Iceland, with gusts sometimes strong enough to blow over cars and buses. This doesn’t mean though that you won’t be able to fly – it just means that you’ll need the right equipment and to take off only when it’s safe to do so.

A couple of the best consumer drones for flying in the windy conditions of Iceland are the DJI Inspire 1 and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Lighter drones tend to run the risk of flipping over when it is too windy.

Both of the aforementioned DJI drones are flexible and sturdy with great wind capabilities and precision data accuracy. The Inspire 1 even includes a system that allows pilots to use the wind to their advantage: all you have to do is enable Attitude Mode, which will ensure that you get smooth shots even if you’re feeling nervous and shaky.



Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesYour drone will use up the battery quickly when it's windy. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

During windy conditions, your drone will be working much harder to stay afloat as the wind pushes against it. This means that it will use a lot more battery power and ultimately drain faster. As such, pay close attention to the battery life while your drone is up in the air, just in case it suddenly goes flat and falls out of the sky.

The weather in Iceland can also be finicky; even on a calm day, strong blasts of wind can seemingly sweep out of nowhere, taking your drone along with it. So when flying in windy conditions, be sure to take extra care and to keep your drone away from any obstacles.

Ultimately, it is up to you if you want to fly your drone in crazy conditions but if you’re feeling unsure, then it is probably best to keep it packed away until the wind subsides. 



If you’ve never flown before or you’re feeling apprehensive about the idea of flying your drone in Iceland, then don’t wait until you’re here before you familiarise yourself with your equipment. Learning to fly a drone in windy or suboptimal conditions can be extremely challenging. Before you travel, consider taking a basic drone training course back home and try to practice as often as possible in all sorts of conditions. This will allow you to build your confidence to fly your drone once you’ve arrived in Iceland.

Flying Your Drone in Extreme Cold Weather

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesWinter in Iceland is a great time to fly your drone but be mindful of the weather conditions. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

There are certain precautions to follow when flying a drone in cold and snowy environments, such as during winter in Iceland. Don’t skimp, because these are necessary to ensure the safety of your equipment. Pay attention to the information below and hopefully, you'll be able to keep your gear safe throughout your shoot.

Keep Your Gear Warm

As a rule of thumb, only take out your drone and expose it to the elements when you are ready to fly.

Before the flight, your priority should be to keep the drone batteries as warm as possible, as cold batteries will reduce your flight time dramatically or may not allow your drone to take off at all. It also pays to have a number of extra batteries on hand, which you can store in an insulated box or the inside of your jacket. Some people have even gotten very creative and stored their batteries close to their body inside underwear!

If you are using a smartphone or other touch-screen device to operate your drone, then you may find the batteries draining quickly with those too. Try attaching hand warmers to the back of your devices in order to keep them warm.

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesBatteries can drain quickly when it's cold. Photo by: 'Edwin Martinez'.



Choose Plastic

Another thing to consider when flying in extreme cold is the possibility of ice forming on the propellers of your drone.

To mitigate this risk, choose a drone with propellers made of plastic or a similar composite material. Anything else, including metal and carbon fibre, tends to ice over.

Learn to Catch

 

Aside from frozen propellers, drones have also been known to become inoperable at extremely low temperatures, so be ready for the possibility of your drone suddenly freezing mid-flight: you may need to catch it in your hand or try to land it on a soft patch of snow before waiting for it to defrost and flying again!

Shoot in Manual Mode

When using your drone during winter in Iceland for photography, you may want to switch the settings to manual once you’ve composed your shot, in order to correctly expose the scene. This is because the brightness of the snow may trick the camera in your drone into thinking that the scene is overexposed, resulting in it overcompensating by setting a lower exposure. To counteract this issue, simply manually overexpose by roughly 0.5 of a stop.

You won’t encounter this problem during the summer, when Iceland becomes awash with the glow of the Midnight Sun. However, it can still get cold in summer so to keep your drone safe, you should stay on your toes and follow these precautions anyway.



Can You Fly a Drone in Rain or Snow?

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesIt's not a good idea to fly when it starts to rain or snow. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Although there are many conditions in which you can challenge yourself to fly your drone in Iceland, it is best to stay grounded or to land your drone as soon as possible if it starts to actively rain or snow.

Most drones are not waterproof and precipitation of any kind may damage the camera or gimbal, the motor, and even cause your drone or controller to malfunction.

Aside from that, rain, snow or fog can reduce visibility, making it impossible to obtain clear and sharp images from the air.



Pro Tips for Flying Your Drone in Iceland

Tip #1. Maintain Visual Contact

When flying, always make sure to maintain visual contact with your drone. Losing eye contact may result in a crash with an unseen obstacle – the last thing you’ll want is to be flying your drone into an Icelandic horse or the side of a cliff.

If you don’t maintain a visual of your drone, then it also means that you will have no idea where to look for it when it crash-lands. In the event that you do crash your drone, turn off the throttle as soon as possible. This will prevent any further damage by stopping the propellers from spinning.

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesIt's important to maintain visual contact with your drone. Photo by: 'Iurie Belegurschi'.

Tip #2. GPS Mode

If you are nervous or unsure of what to do at any point while flying, the GPS mode on your drone can help you to correct any mistakes. The GPS also allows your drone to balance itself so that you can take your hands off the controller for a brief moment if necessary.

Tip #3. Be Mindful of Others

Finally, although flying your drone can be fun, recognise that it may be annoying and intrusive to onlookers.

The key when flying around other people or near someone’s property is to be courteous, which sometimes means that you should avoid flying altogether, even if the law says that you can.

If in doubt, talk to the people in your vicinity before you take any action and ask them first whether they mind if you fly.



Helicopters vs Planes

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesAerial photography from a plane or a helicopter can be exhilarating. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.

Flying a drone in Iceland can be a lot of fun, but nothing beats the incredible experience of aerial photography from a helicopter or a plane. Despite the fact that technology is improving constantly, there are still locations in Iceland – like parts of the Highlands or mountains – that are unable to be accessed with a drone, not just in terms of altitude, but also distance itself.

Then there is the issue of image quality. To this date, no company has developed an inexpensive, simple-to-use drone for sending a DSLR into the sky. Therefore, getting yourself physically into the air is ultimately the best bet if you’re after aerial photos of the highest grade.

Before you head on up, let’s take a look at the differences in aircraft for landscape photography and what you’ll be able to achieve.

Aerial Photography in Iceland from a Plane

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesBe mindful that you don't catch the wing of the plane in your shot! Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.

The thing about planes is that they have fixed wings, meaning that you’ll be limited in the area within which you’ll be able to point your lens and shoot. There are generally two types of planes – those with high wings, like Cessnas, and those with low wings. If you’re not careful whilst composing your shot, then you may end up with part of a wing obscuring the view. 

 

High-winged planes are considered better for aerial photography because the wing is located above you, meaning that there is less of a chance of getting it into your shot. However, you may still end up with a wing getting in the way, particularly if the airplane is turning or flying at an angle.



Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesCessnas have large windows that may be opened for photography. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.

If you’ll be flying in a Cessna, then there are usually two large windows that may be opened on each side of the plane during the flight. This is perfect for aerial photography, particularly if you’re going up there with a friend, as you’ll each have your own window to lean out of.

Aerial Photography in Iceland from a Helicopter

 

On the other hand, helicopters have doors that may be taken off or a large enough window that you may point your lens out of without obstructions. As the rotors are on top of the helicopter and out-of-frame, you will be offered a clear view of the landscape below.

The only downside though is that taking a helicopter up for aerial photography in Iceland is certainly the more expensive option. In fact, it can be 3-5 times more expensive to fly in a helicopter than to take a plane.

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesA helicopter is a more expensive option for flying in Iceland. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.

Despite the costs, the benefits of using a helicopter include a slower and smoother flight, including the ability to hover in position whilst taking a picture. There is also less turbulence, making it a more attractive option for those at risk of motion sickness.

Helicopters can also land in many places that planes cannot. These factors may be worth the extra money, depending on your budget for aerial photography and your needs.



Planning for a Successful Shoot in a Helicopter or Plane

Whether you choose to fly in a helicopter or a plane, there are key underlying factors to consider in terms of aerial photography, which will in turn ensure a successful shoot. So to make the most of your flight, take note of these pointers below.

Tip #1. Communicate with the Pilot

The success and enjoyability of your flight will depend largely upon how you communicate with the pilot. Speak with the pilot before you take off to ensure that you have a common understanding of the mission of your flight.

Don’t be afraid to let the pilot know what you want to shoot, how you want to do it, and where you want to go. A good pilot will accommodate what you want to do but also let you know if your request is unable to be fulfilled, particularly if the weather conditions won’t allow for certain manoeuvres or access to certain locations.

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesIt's important to communicate with the pilot while you're flying. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.

Once you’re inside the aircraft, there will usually be headsets with microphones which will allow you to communicate via intercom during the flight. Whenever you are leaning out of the window, physically move the microphone out of the way of oncoming wind, so as not to deafen the pilot and anybody else that may be onboard.



Tip #2. Wear Appropriate Clothing

When flying in Iceland, it tends to get pretty cold, especially at a high altitude. In fact, it can get up to 10°C colder in the sky than at sea level.

To make sure you don’t freeze, keep your coat on and wear a pair of gloves that will still enable you to operate your camera.

You may even want to don a balaclava to keep your face and nose protected, otherwise you might end up with a frozen stream of snot plastered across your face!

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesWear the appropriate clothing for flying, so you can operate the camera. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.



Tip #3. Minimise Your Equipment Onboard

Space within a helicopter or a plane is quite limited. There is also very little time during a flight to change lenses and other gear. As such, it is best to minimise the equipment that you bring on board.

A zoom lens, such as a 24-105mm, will enable you to shoot wide as well as to zoom in for more details. If you simply must have more focal range, then consider taking two cameras onboard, each with a lens attached. That way, you can have a wide-angle zoom lens and a telephoto zoom lens at the ready, without the need for making any changes.



Tip #4. Maximising Safety

It is the pilot’s number one priority to ensure your safety, so listen to what they have to say and follow all of their instructions.

Make sure that you stay secured and attach your gear to yourself by way of sturdy camera straps to prevent items from falling out or flying around in the aircraft.

Above all, never do anything that might put yourself, your companions, the pilot or the aircraft at any risk of danger.

Tip #5. Knowing When to Fly

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesDo some research so that you'll know when to fly. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.

The best time of day for aerial photography in a helicopter or a plane is early morning or late evening – generally during sunrise and sunset. Not only are these periods the best for lighting, but there is also less risk of turbulence during these times.

Your pilot will let you know if the conditions are simply unsuitable for flying, particularly if it is forecast to be stormy, windy or overcast with little chance of light.



Tip #6. Use the Best Camera Settings

When shooting from a helicopter or a plane, you will want to use settings that enable you to capture sharp and crisp images at a rapid pace. Take into consideration that the aircraft will constantly be moving, so what you’ll need is a fast shutter speed matched with a higher ISO.

With aerial photography, you should prioritise your shutter speed and ISO over aperture. Generally, a shutter speed of around 1/250 or faster is perfect, teamed with an ISO between 400-800 to ensure adequate speed with minimal noise. If it gets darker, then you may need to increase the ISO but depending on your camera, your photo may end up with a lot more grain.

To minimise camera shake and vibrations, keep your lens out of the air stream and do not lean against the edges of the plane.

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesBe aware of your settings and check your shots while you're shooting. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.



Tip #7. Use Filters

Using a polarising filter will help to reduce haze, improve contrast and minimise glare, particularly when shooting the braided rivers of Iceland from above. They can also be helpful for taking photos through windows, by getting rid of unwanted reflections. It is not necessary to have one attached though, as you may find yourself wasting time by fiddling with it during your flight.

You might also want to use a graduated neutral density filter if you'll be shooting with the horizon, to help you balance your exposures.

You won’t really need any filters when shooting from the sky if you're aiming to do top-down shots of the ground, though a polariser can make for some nifty effects, such as seeing straight through clear bodies of water.

Tip #8. How to Overcome Motion Sickness

For some people, it never happens. For others, the act of moving your head and looking out of the window while flying may induce motion sickness.

Once you start to feel nauseous, stop taking photos for a moment and breathe deeply. Make sure to let the pilot know if you need to stop, as they can even land at a nearby airfield until you’re feeling well enough to take to the skies again.

If you already know pre-flight that you are sensitive to motion sickness, then you might want to consider having a discussion with your medical practitioner about taking medication to reduce the risk. This will help to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience once you take to the skies, allowing you to do what you do best – concentrating on photography.

Aerial Photography in Iceland | Drones vs Helicopters and PlanesAerial photography in Iceland is an amazing experience! Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.

Now that you’ve got the lowdown on aerial and drone photography in Iceland, it’s time to get out there and enjoy the moment. Not everyone gets the chance to take photos from the sky, so familiarise yourself with your equipment and make the most of it while you can. Above all, be mindful of your safety and that of others – no photograph is worth placing anybody at risk. So keep yourself educated, be considerate and follow the rules. Now have fun with flying!


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.


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