• April 21, 2016

Earth’s Most Striking Scenes, As Seen From Above

Earth Day is Friday, April 22, and Proof is celebrating all week. This is the fourth post in a five-day series about our planet. Help us honor the planet by sharing a photo on Instagram with #NatGeoEarthDay. The editor’s picks will appear on the site on Earth Day. 

Twenty-three years ago, German photographer Bernhard Edmaier was working as a geologist. He was fascinated with the Earth and its ever changing structures, but something about spending his life doing research underground just didn’t sit right. Edmaier decided to combine his burgeoning love of photography with his obsession with crust, mantle, and core. His solution? Aerial photography.

Picture of sandstone in Utah Comb Ridge from the air
Comb Ridge, Utah. These jagged sandstone layers have been tilted and eroded by water.

From the aerial perspective I can most effectively tell the narrative of a landscape,” he says. “When it comes to large structures such as mountain ranges or a chain of volcanic cones on a fissure in the Earth’s crust, it is much better to shoot them from the air than from the ground. So it is a really reasonable practice to get airborne and direct the pilot to the right position for my aerial work.”

Picture of a swamp area in Iceland
Landeyjarsandur, Iceland. The water moving across the moor lands is bright yellow as a result of dissolving iron minerals out of the dark volcanic soil which it transports to the coast.

Edmaier approaches his work meticulously, using his geologist smarts to research and stake out a location for the perfect shot. Instead of spending hours in the air looking for the right location or composition, Edmaier already has his photographs planned out. He uses tools such as Google Earth and satellite images and reaches out to local scientists and commercial pilots.

Picture of the huns mountains in Namibia from the air
Huns Mountains, Namibia. The dark Huns Mountains, cut by deep canyons, are situated in south Namibia.

“Quite often, I already have the eligible picture of the selected motif in mind, which also means that I do not shoot hundreds of photos with the option to select one good shot among the unusable ones,” he says. “So I think many of my images are somehow anticipated compositions.” Whether his compositions are expected or not, the sheer impressiveness of the landscapes is enough to make you stop in your tracks.

Having a detailed plan also helps the project in other ways.

Picture of a dried lake in California
Searles Lake, California. Masses of red, salt-loving algae live in the swamps on the banks of Lake Searles, a salt lake in the Mojave desert.

“Knowing the ‘right’ location allows me to keep the flight time as short as possible—an important aspect, as my photo projects have been predominantly self-financed so far,” he says. “Especially since the charter rates for helicopters are enormous. During my photo flights there is something like a running counter in my brain.”

Picture of a glacier in Alaska
Nizina Glacier, Alaska. Huge chunks of ice interspersed with moraine rubble float in the muddy meltwater lake at the front of Nizina Glacier.

As to why Edmaier thinks aerial photography matters, he says that for him it is “the technical means to create a better understanding of natural processes on our planet. Only from a bird’s eye view I can manage to depict these phenomena accordingly to my vision of an ‘ideal’ composition.”

Picture of the Bahamas from the air
Long Island, Bahamas. As the tide recedes, the clear blue water gathers in tidal inlets carved in the limestone sediment, and flows into deeper basins.

He hopes that his work will help people see the Earth’s shape and structures in a new light.

“Generally speaking, my photo projects have always been supposed to provide a window to geological processes,” he says. “In our imagination, the Earth or the Earth’s surface is something eternal or with very little changes. But the opposite is true. Infinite processes are continuously remodeling the surface and interior of the Earth.

Picture of a lava skylight in Hawaii
Lava skylight, Hawaii. A hole in the roof of a lava tunnel is called a skylight by volcanologists.

“In showing fractures, rock folds, erosional patterns, coastlines, and of course volcanoes and glaciers, etc., I have been trying to visualize these geological and geomorphic processes and make them a bit more comprehensible to all.”

Picture of a volcano in Iceland
Maelifellsander, Iceland. Bright green moss has colonized a hill in the middle of Maelifellsandur, a black desert of lava and volcanic ash in Iceland.

View more of Bernhard Edmaier’s photographs on his website. You can purchase his most recent book, WATER, here.

There are 24 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Randal
    May 22, 2016

    It’s alive.!…..

  2. Wilbur K.
    May 5, 2016

    Simply inspirational!, and educational. Being an amateur photographer & geologist myself, I see much to appreciate in these remarkable images. Thank you!

  3. Tyler
    May 1, 2016

    All praise to the wonder that is nature itself that created this beautiful world.

  4. Hamid
    April 30, 2016

    All praise to Allah Almighty Who created this beautiful world

  5. Isabelle Gauthier
    April 25, 2016

    La terre nous offre des lieux tout à fait inouïs! Superbes photos.

  6. Jack W
    April 25, 2016

    Fantastic Earth sculpture

  7. Rajendra Kumar Surana
    April 25, 2016

    These photographs are simply FANTASTIC! They go to show the ARTISTIC NATURE of mother NATURE.No body can just compete with “PRAKRITI MATA”

  8. Joseph M
    April 25, 2016

    Captivating, insightful and soulful. Thank you for helping me see planet Earth differently.

  9. Tina
    April 24, 2016

    The colors and textures of these photos are so vibrant. The Bahamas photo makes me think of Mother Earth…Thank you so very much for showing the world these precious Earth art works.

  10. Robin
    April 24, 2016

    Such amazing, interesting photos!

  11. Edgardo Lamparero
    April 24, 2016

    Arte abstracto de la naturaleza.

  12. Ethel Jarrett
    April 24, 2016

    the many skins of earth WOW

  13. Misty
    April 24, 2016

    I lose myself in your photos here and on your website. Am glad someone else discovered Carrizo Plain.

  14. Carl
    April 24, 2016

    Even places already seen in person become more alive through this wonderful photography.

  15. Sue K
    April 24, 2016

    These fantastic images should help us realize our responsibility as inhabitants that it is our job to protect this jewel in our universe.

  16. Cindy
    April 24, 2016

    Incredible. Thank You.

  17. Liz Evans
    April 24, 2016

    Wonderful. Thank you.

  18. Rudy Cabrera
    April 24, 2016

    Tenemos que verlo desde arriba. Abajo se comprende poco. Ver el bosque y no solo el árbol.

  19. Steve Naviar
    April 24, 2016

    Better work by James Cordes has been originally done for over 40 years. He is the master of aerial geology and man’s works and well known among aerial photographers. His website is ProAerial.com. It barely touches the breadth of his work. Maybe you should contact him.

  20. socksey
    April 24, 2016


  21. Malcolm Andrews
    April 24, 2016

    Wonderful images! Bringing your knowledge of geology to bear makes the images truly meaningful.

    April 24, 2016

    A good repo about summary of the EARTH post 22 April

  23. A
    April 21, 2016

    Earth…a spinning world teaming with life to which our senses overload with wonder and awe and curiosity if just for a moment. Our relationship with nature must be steadfast but I fear we pay no heed and earth moves on.

  24. Silas S
    April 21, 2016

    The earth is a jewel with elements precisely arranged for habitation and sustenance of incredible life forms.

    No other planet can sustain life any better, as long as humans understand their limitations. Man cannot take the driver’s seat just because he has set his foot in outer space. Great people must stop boasting and likewise continue helping the needy who could more easily be discovered.

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