Photos at 40000 feet – how to take great photos out the airplane window

One of the main reasons professional photo shoots produce predictably good images is planning.  If you shoot in the right conditions; you shoot in the right place; you shoot at the right time; then you have the key ingredients for a great shot!   But tourist photos often suffer from issues you cannot always anticipate:

  • The weather when you visit is totally out of your control
  • The time of day you visit a location is not always in your control
  • People and events in your location can get totally in your way
  • Haze in the air can be a major pain

When flying in an aircraft you have the same challenges.   You have a window looking down at our amazing world and a chance to take some amazing photos, and on the surface it sounds simple, just point out the window and shoot.  But you also have variables that can prevent capturing those great photos.

So what advice can I offer?

Firstly the good news is that the ban on using smartphones is gone ( in Australia anyway). This means that a smart phone in flight mode can be in use 100% of the time.   So now I can start taking pics, what else do I need?

Location!  Location!

Clearly you need a window seat to avoid leaning over your fellow passengers.  Then the question becomes which window seat (presuming you can pre-book or request your seat).   I recommend just forward of the wing, the reason being the wing is an awesome thing to have in your photo, as you can use the engine(s) as a great point of reference.

IMG_4640 IMG_4341If you are literally over the wing, your downward view can be obstructed during level flight:

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Although during take off you can get some great shots.   Here I am again directly over the wing as we taxi out in Melbourne

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The size of the wing can also be a big problem. The wing of an A380 is HUGEIMG_4071

Of course you can also use the wing as a fixed point of reference like I did in this trio of shots:

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Or you can be behind the wing.  One nice trick is to try to line the wing with the horizon so that you get a clear division of land and sky.   I also angled the camera down so the window looks closer to a circle than it’s actual oval shape.

IMG_3983 I love this glimpse into Melbourne as we are coming in to land.   Using the window as a frame really makes the shot.   My only mistake was not better centering the camera.IMG_3992

Of course you can also be too far from the wing.   On the Boeing 717 the wings are quite far back, so it is hard to get those magic wings into photo moments (unless of course that is what you want!).

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Night flying it’s a challenge as fast exposure shots on an iPhone rarely turn out well.  It is something I need to work harder on.

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Literally the entire descent period is magic. Descending through clouds always gives those mixed moments with sky above and ground below and layers of clouds in between. Then as you get lower the magic gets better.

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Cloud shadows can also make for some neat tricks.   It’s a pity the window was scratched as I tried to pickup the halo:

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Here is a movie of some very nice cloud reflections off the wing (for viewing, I regret shooting this in portrait rather than landscape):

Catching sunrise or sunset is also a great photo op as the light is quite unique.   Here is the sunrise:

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And of course you can always make a movie (sorry about the noise and again, I should have used landscape rather than portrait):

Cloud shadows are also a great thing to look out for if you can catch them:

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Airplane shadows are magic.   Especially if you can catch the undercarriage.  To achieve this you must be on the opposite side of the plane to the sun, which I talk about later.  This is a Boeing 717 coming into Hobart:

IMG_5428Here is a 737 coming into Melbourne.   I love the winglets.

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Hints?

  • If it’s morning and you are flying south you need to be on the right hand side of the plane. Otherwise you will be photographing into the sun.   So when I fly from Melbourne to Sydney in the morning (south to north), I will always choose seat A.   When I fly home in the evening (north to south), I also choose seat A.
  • Windows can be dirty.  While you can bring a glass cleaner (such as wipes) to clean the inside of the window, the dirt is almost always on the outside. Also the inside window is plastic which means it is often scratched. This means the newer the plane the better (something that is totally out of your control).
  • Height. At height you are a long way away. What looks clear to the naked eye will look very small in your photo. That’s because it is.  This makes photos of land features much better at takeoff and landing.
  • Distance disbelief. Sometimes you see landmarks and almost cannot quite believe you are seeing them and you suddenly think – hey that looks like the Sydney Harbour bridge – mainly because it actually is!  Don’t hesitate while waiting for the real bridge.
  • Shutters down!  Some airlines try to create artificial night after lunch/dinner has been served.   Trying to open the shutters sneakily can result in a sudden blast of light and brisk orders to lower that blind!  So get your pictures in at the start and end.
  • Blue!  Sometimes there is too much blue. The ocean is blue. The sky is blue.   What can I say… blue is the colour I see most often, roll with it.   Speaking of rolling,  during landing in particular the plane often makes some interesting banks, so that is your perfect chance to get a little land into your shot.
  • Edges.   Look for edges… where the sky meets the land or sea.   Getting the wing to add to the mix just makes it look even better.
  • Rotate!  Don’t forget you may need to rotate your camera 90 or 180 degrees to get the best shot.   On most smart phones the lens is at one end.   You may find a quick flip gives a much better angle.
  • Be prepared!   Some cities like London give a great view of famous landmarks (like the London Eye and Big Ben), but unless you fly the route regularly you won’t know when in the flight that happens.  If you are flying into Sydney, you will often get a splendid view of the harbour as you come into land.

Haze.

Haze is caused by light touching particles in the atmosphere. The more particles the more haze. Even a pristine environment has haze.   Bushfires are a major cause of haze but of course so is industrial pollution.    My first strategy is to get photos done just prior/after sunrise to avoid direct sunlight hitting the haze.  However Adobe Lightroom now has a great Haze correction tool.   Compare the before to after here:

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After Haze correction of a JPG.   Still not perfect,but certainly better.

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I am sure as soon as I post I will think of more ideas, but hopefully this gets you thinking.  Any suggestions are very welcome.

Note all images in this post were all taken by myself using an iPhone 6.    They remain my property but can used freely, provided they are attributed.

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