“As we flew closer to the mainland the drift ice was forming patterns, no doubt shaped by currents swirling along the coast. It was beautiful, mesmerising, astonishing…all those descriptive words you use when explaining the inexplicable.”
The story from the beginning…
Let’s start with a flash back to July 2019 when I was glued to my plane window with my mouth open staring in disbelief.
I had just caught a glimpse of the ice cap for the first time and all the information gathered by reading books and documents about just how big and frozen Greenland was hit me. It’s huge, 1.71 million km² of ice that takes up 80% of the entire country.
At the time, I had planned for that trip to be the trip of a lifetime, visiting and photographing somewhere that’s always been at the top of my list. Roughly 15,000km from home, basically the completely opposite side of the world, I was sure it wouldn’t be happening again anytime soon, if ever, so I was trying to make the most of every single second of that flight staring out the window.
Now let’s flash forward a little to January 2020 after chatting with the amazing team at World of Greenland and Visit Greenland about visiting in March to photograph their winter activities and document the Ilulissat Icefjord for my project The Photographic Forecast. Roughly six months after I was seated on what I thought was maybe my last flight over Greenland, a little part of me knew I’d be back one day.
Within minutes of confirming I was going I had my ticket booked and on March 5th was at Copenhagen Airport nice and early, beaming with excitement because I was heading back.
Back to the most inspiring place I’ve ever seen on earth.
You can call me a Greenland addict.
Now, it’s a bit of a known fact that taking photos out of a big plane won’t turn out great. You’ve got the thick windows to deal with, the scratches, finger prints, not to mention the heat (I think!?) generating from the engines that sometimes causes a shimmery fog of blur over the landscape below.
With our eyes we can see through and focus well enough but getting your camera to shoot through and capture a sharp image can be tricky. Having flown plenty of times before with my camera always in my carry on I’ve learnt some tricks for getting a clear shot, keep scrolling and I’ll list them below but for now, let’s stick to the story.
Flying over Greenland this time saw me persistent. I wanted a photo of every single second of that flight because I knew the landscape below is like nothing else on earth. If skies were clear it meant we’d be in for a treat as we flew over Greenland before landing in Kangerlussuaq.
With a sample of the new Olympus E-M1 MKIII on my lap and the 12-40mm f2.8 M.Zuiko pro lens ready, I sat watching the map on the screen. We didn’t have individual inflight entertainment so I had to squint my eyes to see the map visible on the drop down screens every few rows, I’m sure people were thinking I was a nervous flyer or something weird.
I could make out we were closeish to Greenland but out the window I started seeing white. Was it cloud? Was it snow? What the heck was it?
Drift ice. Beautiful swirly patterns of drift ice.
So much drift ice was visible before we even reached Eastern Greenland and immediately my mind went into “insert emoji with hands on cheeks and shocked expression” mode. That description was intentional FYI…I have no idea how to insert an emoji on my site haha.
That’s an iceberg in the center of the frame…probably a giant one!
As we flew closer to the mainland the drift ice was forming patterns, no doubt shaped by currents swirling along the coast. It was beautiful, mesmerizing, astonishing…all those descriptive words you use when explaining the inexplicable.
I had my camera set at ISO 250 and 1/8000sec to prevent blur from the speed of the plane and give myself the best chance of a clear shot. After a few frames, I reduced my exposure to -1 using aperture mode (because I love the instant, fuss free control) to avoid any unnecessary glare from the white landscape below.
The fjords and glaciers of Eastern Greenland are something else, it’s somewhere I hope I’ll get to gaze at from the sea one day. With early March meaning winter in Greenland, the mountain ridges were covered in snow. All that was visible were peaks as far as the eye could see, defined only by shadows from the afternoon sun.
These shadows soon took over as subjects in my images, producing dramatic scenes the further west we flew. Having studied the map of Greenland (a lot!), we’d soon be flying directly above the ice cap and I was expecting a sea of white would appear, reducing the ability to take photos.
So, I did what any sane person would do and captured close to 200 shots out the window in a 15-minute time frame before the ice cap began haha. Yikes. I figured I may never see this part of Greenland look like this ever again so why not try and fill a memory card.
Composing the shots by focusing on where the shadows and mountain peaks met (my auto focus was working like a dream the entire flight!), I snapped away, stopping only briefly to make sure my boyfriend was also getting a glimpse of the amazing beauty I was seeing outside.
As the ice cap became evident, I took a break, looked through the images and finally took a breath. My mind running wild dreaming of what were we in for during our next two weeks in Greenland…
Less than an hour later we were landing in Kangerlussuaq, the main international airport where you then transfer onto smaller planes for locations such as Ilulissat and the capital of Nuuk.
Before landing, I had taken another 200 images of the western coast.
Kangerlussuaq sits at the end of a long deep fjord and with winter in full swing, snow was visible right to the edge of the frozen water. Not only was the landscape white, the fjord itself was completely frozen so it felt like we were about to land on a white carpet.
If you’re flying to or from Greenland one day, be sure to nab a window seat, preferably one at the front of back of the plane so you have a wing-free view. You’ll thank me later.
Tips for Taking Photos from a Plane Window
#1 Keep the camera as close as possible to the window without touching it. This will reduce reflections from the interior lights.
#2 If it’s proving tricky to use auto focus it’s necessary to switch to manual focus
#3 Sit up super straight and shoot downward for the best, distortion free image. You may need to really press yourself (or camera) against the wall to get the ideal angle, a camera like my E-M1 MKIII has the flip out screen for situations just like this so you don’t have to be a contortionist to make it work!
#4 Think about composition, look at the landscape below and try to work with any defining features, patterns or lines like rivers, coastlines that exist.
Travel and landscape photographer from Australia who is far more comfortable in a pair of flippers than heels! Having worked for publications such as Lonely Planet, Wanderlust and the Sunday Times, Lisa founded The Wandering Lens to share destination guides to the worlds most photogenic places and outdoor experiences.
I'm Lisa Michele Burns, a professional photographer and founder of The Wandering Lens from Australia. Welcome to your guide to photographing the world, improving your photography and scouting unique and inspiring places to experience with your camera. Click here to start exploring popular guides + articles. After four years online, The Wandering Lens has turned into the leading publisher of photography focused travel guides!