Meet The Man Who Fearlessly Flies Drones Into Volcanoes

Stefan Forster
Stefan Forster

Stefan Forster recently caught our eye with his stunning drone video of an erupting volcano in Iceland. The 32-year-old Swiss native shot the video using flying skills honed over the past eight years, though his interest in nature and landscape photography goes back even further. Digital Trends caught up with Forster to find out more about his work and how he creates his extraordinary drone videos.

What was your first-ever drone and how were your early flights?

My first drone was a DJI S1000 [professional octocopter], but my initial problem was getting my Nikon D800 to work with it as at that time the S1000 only supported Panasonic, Sony, and Canon cameras. So I went to the University of Zurich to find some guys who would help me build a remote controller for my Nikon.

To get the setup working, I had to spend over $35,000 for special gimbals, remotes, working hours, image transitions, and so on. So you can imagine that on my first flights I had a pulse of 150 and was very afraid of crashing; there were no collision avoidance sensors then.

Another problem was that the self-made gimbal and remote frequently broke down, and so I had to spend a lot of money on replacements and work by specialists. So while my first drone was the most expensive one in terms of investment, I did learn so much during this period.

As for crashes, the first one happened when I ran out of battery power, and it came down like a rock. The first drones didn’t include this nice graphic showing the battery percentage. So I only saw the voltage of the battery, and to interpret it correctly, you also have to consider the wind speed, temperature, and so on. After the third crash — also due to battery power — I started flying with smaller drones.

How often did you practice at the start, and how long did it take to become a competent pilot?

I practiced a lot. I flew around 150 hours until I took my drone with me to a project for the first time. The big drones were very nice to fly as they were rock solid in the air.

If you could travel back in time and give yourself one drone-related tip, what would it be?

I guess I would tell myself to wait another three years before buying the first drone. If I had started later, I would have saved so much money, time, and pain. You can’t imagine how expensive it was in the very beginning to ship a 25,000 mAh battery to Iceland. About 650 euros for the shipping alone. A new battery cost around 1,000 euros, too.

What drone kit do you travel with when you go on a shoot?

I’m only shooting with the Mavic series. Depending on the duration and mileage of the hike, I take the Mavic 2 Pro with me or the Mini 2. It also depends on the local rules. The quality of the camera is of course not comparable to the Inspire 2 with the X7 camera, but you know, the best camera is the one you have with you. So my clients, such as BBC, Google Android, BMW, and Hisense, don’t care about which camera I use. They only need 4K content and the best possible exposure and quality. What counts most is the subject of the footage.

Above: A still from Stefan Forster’s Swiss Peaks video.

What single thing could DJI do to improve the next iteration of the Mavic Pro?

The quality of the picture from the Hasselblad lens [on the Mavic 2 Pro] is not worth this great name. I have eight Mavic 2 Pro drones, and half of them have unsharp edges and corners, some even a third of the whole image. So I guess DJI should make the camera of the Pro drone more professional. I always say they should make their drones a bit more expensive and invest the extra money in better optics.

Here’s my wish list for a new Mavic 3 Pro:

– Higher resolution such as 5.6K or 8K 24/25/30P
– 4K 60 frames-per-second mode
– Better optics (30mm focal length)
– Faster speed for improved wind resistance
– New smart controller with O3 support

What was the greatest challenge you faced when making your recent volcano video (below) in Iceland? 

Simply, the local rules for those visiting the area. The police closed the volcano many times because of the potentially dangerous gases that it was emitting. Also, the strong wind and bad weather made flying the drone difficult.

Many people watching your volcano video may wonder how close you were to the lava flows. Were you in danger at any point?

I was always sitting right at the lava border, only about 100 to 300 meters from the volcano. One day the lava stream did come directly to the border. It was way hotter than I could ever have expected. Extremely hot. But I wasn’t in any danger. I always had my gas mask and gasometer with me.

Did you lose, or almost lose, your drone in the extreme conditions?

There was this one tight situation where the wind was extreme, blowing at around 80 kph [50 mph] at an altitude of 50 meters. To get the drone back, I needed to fly it in the wind shadow of the volcano. I needed around 45% of battery for only 300 meters of distance. I also had a drone that melted quite a bit during flights very close to the volcano. I had planned to sacrifice it at the end of my volcano tour by flying it directly into the lava fountain, but it survived. So now I keep this drone as my trophy.

To what extent did you tweak the look of the footage?

I record in H.265 10-bit DLog-M and edit using DaVinci Resolve software. Such footage cannot really be tweaked a lot because the sensor only records in 100 Mbps and there is simply not much data in the files. So besides contrast and some grad filters, I didn’t adjust the footage at all.

Another of your videos, Greenland – Land of Ice (below), has clocked up more than 10 million views since its release in 2018. It’s an extraordinary piece of work. How did you prepare the shoot?

First, I want to say that I travel to those very special places as part of my work guiding other photographers, and I have the chance to charter ships, planes, and boats especially for my group. This is very important for trips to Greenland as most places are extremely remote.

So my main business is being a tour operator and guide. I only fly my drone or use my camera when everyone in the tour group is happy and no longer needs my help. So I took this footage on four different charter tours to Greenland. I always say, “The more you go to a place, the better the chance of getting extraordinary shots.” For the other films that I have on YouTube, I wrote a plan for most of the shots so that they fit together. But nature’s light and mood you can’t plan.

You clearly put as much effort into the editing as you do into the actual drone shoot — which part of the process do you enjoy the most, the shooting or postproduction?

I really like being outside the most. I’m an outdoor guy. Being inside is always a pain for me. If I wasn’t a photographer and videographer, I would be a forest worker or something like that. So everything I do on the computer is just because I need to.

Stefan Forster

Are you able to make a living out of your video and photography efforts?

Yes, I’m a professional photographer and run a photography school and travel agency for photography tours. Due to the pandemic, my travel agency and photography school is suffering, so I invested all my energy and power in aerial cinematography thanks to agencies like Shutterstock, Getty, and so on.

What’s the hardest part about trying to make a living out of drone photography?

My income comes from many different parts. The biggest part comes from my travel agency and my photography school in Switzerland. All the rest comes from slideshows, photography, and footage sales, books, calendars, and so on.

But I can tell you that it’s very hard today to sell photographs and footage as there are so many talented photographers and filmmakers out there who give everything away for free only to get a credit at the end of the production. But on the day they want to turn professional and start making a living out of selling their art, they realize that they’ve destroyed the market by giving away everything for free or at a very cheap price.

Many people buy a drone, fly it a few times, and then don’t know what to do with it. Can you give any tips for how to stay inspired and motivated when it comes to flying a drone?

Hmm, that’s a difficult question. To be honest, I think if everyone who owns a drone is flying it as often and as intensively as I do, drones will be prohibited within a couple of years. I guess with the new drone regulations coming in Europe and also the rest of the world, flying drones will be more and more complicated, and especially as a professional, you need to spend days with obtaining very expensive permits.

So my tip is: When you fly, please don’t break the law, and don’t provoke anger in other people who want to enjoy the silence of the nature. My personal rule is that I only fly in places where I can’t disturb anyone else.

Can you share anything about other drone projects that you have in the pipeline?

A huge project that I’m currently working on is a book and a slideshow called The World From Above. I want to visit so many places where I have seen stunning textures and colors from the satellite image. So the next project is to make the first book from my aerial images. I guess I also have to hurry a bit because drones are getting banned in more and more places.

How can people find out more about your work or follow you online?

On my website, as well as on YouTube and Instagram.

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