Swedish landscape photographer Hans Strand is convinced that he was never meant to fly. Ever since he was a child, Hans suffered from severe motion sickness. Even taking the bus was a challenge for him. He always needed to sit in the far front in order to not get sick. In 1995, during his first visit to Iceland, he discovered a book with aerial photographs of Iceland by German photographer Klaus Francke. Hans was absolutely blown away by the colors and the complexity of the Icelandic landscape. First, he did not quite believe the authenticity of the colors; he thought that must be some technical mumbo jumbo hidden behind unbelievable hues.
What is the secret to the fascinating colors?
Such yellow, orange and red colors could not simply exist!? The secret must be perhaps using infrared film?
Hans was determined to go back to Iceland and try some aerial shooting. But how would he be able to accomplish that project with his motion sickness issues? It took five more years before Hans went back to Iceland. In August 2000 and with a triple dose of anti-motion sickness pills in his bloodstream, Hans was finally sitting in an airplane, a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, looking down on the Icelandic landscape. “Believe it or not these surreal colors really exist.”
It is due to high content of iron in the volcanic soil and with exposure to water it transforms into iron-oxide, hence these rusty colors. On top of these surreal colors the flows of the Icelandic rivers where more complex than anything else Hans had ever seen before. He enjoy balancing these abstract landforms in his viewfinder.
Discovering the beauty in manmade landscapes
Photographing the landscapes from above, Hans came to the conclusion that man has become the greatest creator and destroyer on top of the crust of the earth. “Just look down from a window seat of an airpane and you see what man has done to the landscape below. Almost everything you see is manmade.”
Mother Earth is undulated, manipulated and redesigned to fit our needs for farming, for industrial and energy production and communication. The few wild and green spots are shrinking for every day that passes and is now more or less isolated to designated national parks.
Hans’s latest aerial photographs were made in Spain in February this year. Then, for the first time in his photography career, Hans was taking images of manmade landscapes and the effects of mining and farming.
In Spain 99% of landscapes are manmade. He could not find one single tree that was not planted in a perfect row, not one single square meter of the lowlands which was not used for farming. The only pieces of land which were not visually affected were the mountains.
Farming changes the face of a landscape
In the northern province of Aragon, the farmers have long practiced dry land farming. This means that they manage to grow crops even in the desert. The crops grow during the winter when there is enough rain to make it grow and then it is harvested in spring. From the air, you can see how every single little valley in the mountains is used for farming. Tiny patches of farmland in higher elevations are united together with the larger ones in the deeper valleys. This looks like nothing else Hans have ever seen before. Simply a surreal landscape. An antipode to the ice rivers he photographed in Iceland. The same complexity, but here completely manmade. Hans is sure that the farmers of Aragon had no intention to make visually exciting landscapes. Their only intention was to make productive pieces of land in the desert. A place where crops normally do not grow.
In the Andalusian mountains, there is a huge mining area named ”Mines of Rio Tinto”. It has been active since the Bronze Age. The mine is today, however, more than an isolated cavity on the earth’s surface. Its growth has consumed not only mountains and valleys but even entire villages, whose populations had to be resettled in specially built towns nearby. The area is named after the river which flows through the region itself and for the reddish streaks in its water. Rio Tinto has become a landscape within a landscape. The unearthed minerals give the soil and waters of the region odd, otherworldly shades of blue, green, yellow, red and brown, so it is not unusual to see bright orange or green rivulets trickling past. The predominant ores, however, are the ferrous ones, which oxidize when they come into contact with the air and color land and river alike in shades of reddish brown.
In the helicopter hanging over the destroyed landscape, Hans found himself attracted by the cataclysmic expression of this manmade landscape. Its sheer size, complexity and its colors just blew him away. Here he was inspired by the destructive creations of mankind, something he had avoided to photograph in his earlier career, in a way that he seldom gets, when shooting natural landscapes.
Giving the image scale – or not?
When flying, Hans concentrates hard on the composition. By moving the camera around in all directions in the scene, he tries to find the optimum composition bringing a good balance to the image. He pays extra attention to the corners of the frame. Only when everything is in harmony he will take the picture.
Most of the time Hans try to avoid horizons in his aerials to make them more abstract. An aerial with a horizon easily becomes a postcard type of photograph. Easy to digest and with very little personality. To include a horizon and a sky reveals the truth of the abstraction and also the proportions of the landscape.
Hans finds it interesting not to reveal the scale and also leave the viewer with something to wonder about. People do not always need to understand his photographs. The only time he includes the horizon is when shooting mountains where he still thinks the sky has some relevance. He tries to avoid blue skies, since he thinks they make the images too sweet. A cloudy sky gives the image a more serious character.
Some practical recommendations
Shooting style and strategy is very different depending the choice of aircraft. From a fixed winged aircraft Hans tends to shoot almost straight down. From a helicopter he would shoot more with an angle towards the landscape underneath.
Shooting from an airplane is far trickier than from a helicopter. Hans explains by using the comparison to clay pigeon shooting. “You have to be quick and precise at the same time in order to get what you want. At first it seems impossible, but with some practice you can really get stunning images even from a fix winged airplane. The key is to position yourself in the sky. This is not an easy task.”
With an airplane it is important to develop a special technique. The goal is to fly to the left of the area you want to shoot. Just about when you are 90 degrees to the side of it, tell the pilot to make a sharp turn right. Following this procedure you will end up in a full 360 degree turn over the landscape you want to shoot, aiming almost straight down. The area underneath can now be photographed in all directions of light, full light, side light and backlight. This is really beneficial due to the very different expressions of the same landscape unfolding in front of you.
The helicopter is far less demanding. It is like flying from A to B to C etc. Even backwards is not an issue. The downside with helicopters is the cost, which is about 8 times higher than with an airplane such as a Cessna. The yield of good images however stands in the same proportion. Another advantage of a helicopter is the flying altitude. A helicopter can fly as low as the photographer demands. Airplanes have to fly at least 1000 ft. over ground in order to get sharp images. With travel speeds of 100 km/h or faster it is necessary to work with a very high shutter speed to freeze the motion. Hans recommends to use a setting of 1/1000 second as a rule of thumb.
Helicopters on the other hand tend to vibrate more and therefore also require a fast shutter speed. He usually achieves good results with 1/500 second. These recommendations are for wide-angles to standard focal lengths. If using longer focal length the shutter speed needs to be increased accordingly. Another option could be to attach a gyrostabilizer to the camera. It allows to take pin sharp images from a helicopter with two f-stops longer shutter speeds. The stabilizing effect from a fixed wing is very little since the main cause for blurred images is the travel speed of the airplane and not from vibrations.
Choosing the right lens for the job
When flying with an airplane Hans generally uses a longer focal length due to the higher flying altitude. He recommends a 50mm to 85mm. When using a helicopter he works with a moderate wide angle lens from 21mm to 35mm.
Hans prefers manual focus lenses which he pre-focuses at infinity before take-off. Infinity, since everything he shoots from the air will be further away than 100 meters. He seals the focus with tape over the focus ring. This ensures that the focus remains on infinity and does not change due to the vibrations of the plane or helicopter.
Hans uses his camera in Live View when adjusting the focus. It provides the most accurate results. A pre-focused manual lens will always generate a perfectly sharp image whereas autofocus lenses sometimes fail. This is especially the case when the landscape has little contrast and does not have any components for the autofocus to grab on to. This can easily happen when flying over calm waterscapes.
Hans Strand (61) was born in Marmaverken, Sweden. He sees himself as a wide-angle photographer. His work has been shown in numerous exhibitions and won many international prizes, including the prestigious Hasselblad Master Award 2008. Hans lives with his wife and daughter in a suburb of Stockholm.