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.