JASON CAMPBELL PHOTOGRAPHY BLOG
10 TIPS FOR TAKING GREAT PHOTOS THROUGH AIRPLANE WINDOWS
If you don't have a pilot friend or can't afford to charter your own airplane, with a little determination and skill you can still achieve stunning aerial photography through the window of a commercial airliner.
If you have ever tried to take such a photo yourself, you might recognize how hard it is to achieve a clear, vibrant image. Some of the challenges working against you include dirty windows, sunlight reflections, atmospheric conditions (especially haze), speed and unpredictable movement of the airplane, turbulence and engine vibrations, among others.
With that in mind, here are 10 tips on how to achieve clear, sharp images through commercial airplane windows. Some of these images have been my best sellers because they offer perspectives of cities and landscapes that most photographers cannot typically achieve.
TIP 1 - Seat Selection
You don't want an engine or wing in your way, unless you want your viewer to feel like they are in the airplane with you, such as photos for a travel blog or journal.
A good idea is to research or at least speculate the flight path, and try to position yourself on the side of the aircraft where the interesting scenes will be visible.
Once you know your flight number and aircraft, you can look up detailed seat maps with reviews on seatguru.com, or in some cases your airline website, and try to get into a good window seat position. I have found in front of the wing is usually the least obstructed view, but for longer aircraft sitting in the back section can also work.
TIP 2 - Clean Window
I often use a cloth or lens cleaning paper to remove obvious smudges before shooting. If there is dirt, water or ice on the outside of the window, then you are out of luck. In cold weather conditions, shooting early in the flight may minimize chances of frost accumulation on the window, but I've found this is often hard to predict.
TIP 3 - Preparedness
Have your camera easily accessible. The plane is moving fast and there is often only a 10-30 second window to get the best shot. Some of the nicest photo opportunities happen during ascent and descent, but you are not allowed to stand up or get into the overhead compartments for your camera, and bags must be stowed under the seat in front of you. Try to have your camera in your lap or in your carry-on bag at your feet where it's easy to reach.
TIP 4 - Curiosity
Even if you are a frequent traveler who has grown accustomed to flying, whenever you get a chance, stare out at the world with wonder like a kid who has never been on an airplane before. How else are you going to notice those cool ground or cloud features passing by?
As an example of curiosity paying off, the photo at the top of this blog post was the result of staring out the window after a photography excursion to Sedona, Arizona. In the end my photos from the trip seemed pretty but generic, and the photo from my return flight was the winning shot.
TIP 5 - Foresight & Patience
If you know ahead of time you are likely to be flying past an interesting city or landscape, and you have chosen a window seat that faces the right direction, you will be more willing to patiently stare out the window for your subject to appear. I waited 20 or more minutes for Mt. Fuji to appear on a flight from Tokyo to Osaka.
TIP 6 - Shoot Through the Middle
Airplane windows are double paned and can create strange sunlight reflections, not to mention image distortion from curved outer edges. Try to shoot from the middle of the window where it is flattest, and try to angle your lens to avoid obvious scratches, light reflections, etc.
Also be mindful of vibration and keep your lens from directly contacting the window, finding other ways to stabilize your shot, such as cupping your hand around the lens and pressing into the glass.
TIP 7 - Camera Settings
Remember you are in a shaky, fast-moving airplane and will need to adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO to ensure you can capture a crisp, focused shot without motion blur. Shoot RAW and try to minimize noise and maximize workable data in the image file, understanding you may need to crop the image and do substantial post-processing (sharpening, clarifying, etc) later. It's not always a bad thing to blow out a few highlights in clouds if it results in increasing the workable data available where it counts, such as buildings, land features, etc.
Shooting in manual focus mode is needed in some cases because your camera may have difficulty focusing on distant objects when reflections or other distractions are present on the window.
If bright enough I shoot at ISO 200 to ensure extremely low noise levels such that small details can easily be preserved or sharpened up in post-processing. Since your subject is far away in generally the same focal plane, depth of field is not a large concern, but you will need enough light to have a fast shutter speed and prevent motion blur. My aerial photos here range from ISO 200-250; f/2.5-9; shutter speed 1/120-1/400, but over 1/200 is safest.
If you are shooting night scenes you are in for a challenge. Reflections from inside the airplane can be more noticeable, and to avoid motion blur you'll need a high ISO setting (e.g. 2000 or above) and your lens wide open (e.g. f/1.4 - 2.0). Different cameras have different levels of noise at different ISO settings, so get to know the acceptable threshold for your camera and do your best. Even if you end up with a noisy image it might not matter at smaller print sizes.
And hopefully this goes without saying, but don't use your flash! The light from your tiny handheld flash will not be illuminating your object 6 miles away and traveling back to your lens, unless you are in possession of some crazy technology (most likely illegal).
TIP 8 - Don't Hesitate
This is photography done with little or no control. After all, the pilot will not loop back around for you to get another chance at that amazing perspective flying by.
When you are nearing the scene of interest, assume each moment might be the best chance to get a good shot, and just keep shooting as the plane moves by, trying different angles through the window. Afterwards you'll find that out of 20 or more photos, only one or two will clearly stand out as the most attention grabbing and workable images.
TIP 9 - Anticipate Banking
You can often anticipate an airplane will bank when nearing or taking off from an airport. These moments often provide great perspectives of cities and allow you to keep your lens pointed relatively straight through the middle of the window to achieve a wide, strong image unobscured by window edges or distortion. This Chicago perspective was taken during a steep bank of the airplane shortly after departure from O'hare.
TIP 10 - Process, Process, Process
Regardless of your best efforts, the photos will almost always come out looking flat. This is largely because you are shooting through a treated double pane window, and through a lot of atmospheric haze. The end result is a photo lacking in contrast and clarity, and that needs some further sharpening and white balance adjustments (at a minimum).
If using Adobe Lightroom, as a first pass don't be afraid to pump up contrast, and to boost clarity to 100%, taking it even further with a brush or gradient tool to selectively add even more clarity and contrast where needed. In some cases saturation will also need to be increased.
I also find that the tonal contrast tool of onOne Perfect Effects is a nice touch up, and can help boost details after the photo has been clarified.
Also keep in mind that the atmosphere and treated airplane window can add a bluish tint to the photo, which can be warmed up through white balance adjustments in post-processing.
In the end, try to be mindful to achieve a believable balance of light, color, contrast and clarity. Since substantial processing can be involved, it can be helpful to get a friend's impression of the photo, or to revisit it a few days later when your perception is fresh.