The Scariest Photo Tour Ever

Patrick and I recently were recently planning a trip to Alaska, and Patrick became obsessed with a particular excursion: a plane ride that landed on a glacier on the top of Denali Mountain. 

The flight is said to be an incredible photographic experience, and so we thought we would make a competition out of it. I would be using the Sony a7 III and the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens, while Patrick would be using our own Nikon D850 and Tamron 17-35mm f/2.8-4. We thought that during this experience, we would be able to test out each camera and lens individually while competing to see who could capture the best photograph. This didn't quite go according to plan. 

We arrived at K2 Aviation, and I was pleasantly surprised to see an impressive fleet of well-maintained airplanes. I was the last passenger to enter the plane, and the only seat available was directly under the wing. Patrick sat one row behind me, and although he could see the wing, it wasn't obstructing the majority of his view. 

The first thing that I noticed when trying to take pictures was that my window was covered in scratches from the previous photographers rubbing their metal lens filters on the plexiglass. Luckily I was shooting with a mirrorless camera, and I was able to position the camera in awkward ways to avoid the scratches. I was able to frame my shot with the LCD screen. I would have never been able to pull this off with a standard optical viewfinder. 

Patrick continued to use his viewfinder because the D850 autofocus does not perform as well in live view. Patrick's window didn't have quite as many scratches as mine, and he was able to work around it more easily. Patrick's lens (17-35mm) was a good bit wider than mine, and so although he wasn't directly under the wing, he still ended up capturing it in a lot of his shots. Of course, the D850 has almost double the megapixels of the a7 III, which gave him many more options for cropping the wing out in post. 

The flight was calm until we reached the Denali. As we began to fly through and above the peaks of North America's highest mountain, the turbulence began. I started to panic. We were so close to these cliffs, and as someone who had worked on a private pilot's license, I knew how dangerous the winds could be so close to these elevation changes. While I stared at the back of the seat in front of me trying to stop myself from going into a full-on panic, Patrick, completely unfazed, kept shooting. I looked over at my wife who had tears rolling down her face, and her whole body was trembling. I wanted to console her, but I knew that if she saw me freaking out, it would only make things worse. I decided to continue to stare at the back of the seat.

Eventually, we started to descend for a landing on a snow-capped glacier. It was an incredible experience and a perfectly smooth landing. We got out of the plane and walked around on about a foot of snow covering hundreds of feet of ice. I was in so much shock that I forgot that I was there to take pictures. I asked our pilot from 0-10, how much turbulence did we just experience... he said "2." Patrick laughed and I thought about how much worse it could be on the way back. We ended up only taking a few snapshots of the plane, and we filmed a quick intro for the video, and then it was time to leave. 

After we left the mountain and got back into calm air, I was finally able to think clearly again. I had taken a ton of snapshots, but I probably wasn't going to come away with any portfolio images. When we landed, Patrick admitted he felt the same way. Although we could have put our favorite picture online to see "whose was best," we felt like it would have all been based on luck anyway. 

In hindsight, this plane ride was not the best place to have a photo competition, but the mirrorless camera did seem like the better choice for this type of shooting. The LCD monitoring on the mirrorless camera had a clear advantage over the optical viewfinder on the D850. If I had been forced to look through a viewfinder, I would have had to shoot directly through the scratches on the window, and all of my photographs would have been ruined. 

I can't say that the K2 plane ride is the ultimate "photographic tour" but it was certainly one of the most insane experiences of my life. After our flight, we looked up Alaskan plane crashes and found that a K2 plane had crashed just 30 days earlier. Tragically, everyone on board died from either impact or exposure, as it took days before a rescue team could get to them. This doesn't make me feel like their services are in any way unprofessional or abnormally unsafe, but flying this close to mountains with unpredictable weather is by definition unsafe. If you're a thrill-seeker, don't miss it on your next trip to Alaska. As for me, I'm glad I did it, but I may never get into a small plane again. 

Stay tuned for more videos from Alaska and a much more detailed review of our gear in the future posts and videos. 

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25 Comments

Philipp Pley's picture

I think the real photography competition would be to convince Elia Locardi to skydive from this plane.

The ultimate challenge

Patrick Hall's picture

That’s a losing game

Burt Johnson's picture

Shortly after I got my pilot's license in 1980, we flew to the Grand Canyon. My first plane (a Piper Cherokee) wasn't really up to carrying 4 people w/ luggage at that altitude, and we nearly crashed. While the others enjoyed the area, I hired a local instructor to teach me how to fly mountains safely (I got my license in San Francisco -- sea level with only small hills around).

He had me takeoff towards the canyon. The end of the runway IS the canyon. As soon as we hit that, we lost lift (no more ground effect) and dove into the canyon. As I griped the controls and almost lost my lunch, he told me to nose down to gain speed. IOW, power INTO the canyon! Yikes.

OK, did that, got lift and rose. He told me to stay below the canyon walls for some training. OK... then he told me to fly directly into the opposite canyon wall. I thought I had just hired a suicide pilot! At first I refused, but he insisted, and I did it.... and found myself sailing over the top of the canyon walls.

The rest of the weekend training was in how to spot such thermals and how to use them to gain altitude (and how to avoid the downward ones!). That was training I ended up using many times over the next dozen years that I was actively flying.

Patrick Hall's picture

Now this comment is way scarier than what we experienced in Alaska. Omg that’s crazy

I guess you just learn to get over it? That sounds insane. I would have quit after that.

Jon Dize's picture

I got my Pilot's license in November of 1977 and my first flight was to the Grand Canyon.

I have been a Las Vegas resident since 1976 and got my PPSEL at North Las Vegas Airport, so MOUNTAIN WAVES were part of my training right from the beginning.

Surfing the Mountain Waves can be fun, sometimes a necessity, but being on the leeward side of the mountain has killed more than a few pilots who were trained in the flat lands.

Tight regulations now (Special Flight Rules) have squelched a lot of the fun out of flying I got to do in the early years, but it's still a beautiful flight.

When I want photos of the canyon though... I just drive over the line and do it from the ground.

I'm big on tripods, when possible.

PS, just a note of caution, a mountain wave on the leeward side can cause down drafts miles away from the mountain face itself, so... make sure you know the wind direction, before approaching a mountain, even if you have plenty of altitude to clear the rocks.

Windward side of the mountain takes you UP. Leeward side of the mountain takes you down.

The down draft can almost always produce more downward pull than the plane's performance can counter.

That can end up causing Pretzel Prop Syndrome.

You guys lucked out with the weather, Denali's (Ruth Glacier) more often than not, "socked in.

That's what everyone kept telling us. It was clear every single day for 2 weeks.

2 weeks! Horseshoes Lee. lol

Patrick Hall's picture

I have a video post coming out Monday or Tuesday and it was literally the only day in alaska where the ski wasn’t pure blue. For 2 full weeks I had the most perfect weather (not the most perfect for photography) and everyone was saying how shocking it was weather wise.

In a weather context-the late (great) Michio Hoshino camped 30 (ish) days up on that glacier in late January attempting to photograph the aurora with Denali as a backdrop.

With temperatures hovering in the minus 50 range, only one night yielded a sky clear enough for capture with Hoshino's mechanical Canon FTB.

C Morris's picture

One tip that may work in that situation, when shooting through glass, is to use a rubber lens hood. You can lean the hood against the glass, without scratching the window, or breaking your nose when you hit a bump. It also helps tremendously, with avoiding reflections from the inside of the glass. I do this when shooting hockey, at ice level, through the glass. If it is really bad, a piece of black foamcore, with a hole for the lens, works well too.

Simon Patterson's picture

I sat in the copilot's seat in a helicopter on a similar tour over the mountains and glaciers of New Zealand's south island. It landed on a glacier, too.

I was so disappointed with my images from the adventure. I felt like they were all just snapshots, too. I discovered that this kind of photography is very difficult to do well in a public tour, even without the highly scratched windows and wing obstructing the view. An amazing experience, but very tough to photograph.

Michael Jin's picture

RE TITLE: Combat Camera?

Joshua Patterson's picture

Great video! For the d850 why not use live view + manual focus with focus peaking?

There is no way that is going to be as accurate as AF. Right?

Joshua Patterson's picture

It’s pretty good and at f8 shooting at a distance would probably do a good job if you’re having problems with the viewfinder

No doubt it works... Just a little slower

Blake Aghili's picture

So cool
Do you remember a James Bond movie scene he jumped from a clip and landed on one of these planes and managed to take the control of the plane :D

Patrick Hall's picture

That’s the next excursion!

Christian Berens's picture

All that and no moon boots, i'm not mad patrick, i'm just disappointed.

Nicholas Vettorel's picture

I Just flew with K2 aviation less than a month ago. We did the flight and hike tour where we took off from a lake and landed on a glacial lake then hiked up the mountain. On the way back I sat in the back of the plane to shoot photos while my wife sat in the front seat with the pilot. Taking off from that lake was admittedly scary (though I never felt unsafe or scared) as we took off directly into the side of the mountain before banking at the edge of a cliff.

This was honestly one of the most amazing experiences I've had as I've never flown in anything smaller than a commercial jet. The scenery was so beautiful and flying into the mountains like that was truly amazing. I don't know how K2 aviation compares to other flight seeing companies around Denali but they did have an impressive fleet of planes and pilots and seemed to be very experience in flying through Denali.

I've included one photo taken from the window of the plane and a photo of the glacial lake we landed on.

Stephan Kjellander's picture

I went on that exact same flight in March of this year but we couldn't do the glacier landing as it was -25 degrees on the glacier. Still wish we could have landed but it was still a hell of a hide. I never heard about that crash though...that's so sad.