How to Take Stunning Pictures from an Airplane Window

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Creative Commons License photo credit: MiiiSH

Why wait until you reach your destination to start taking photos?  If you own a DSLR camera, Using the right tricks and techniques, you can capture some great shots from the moment the plane leaves the runway.
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Top tricks:

  • Choose a good seat/window
    Try to avoid seats behind the wing as the engine’s exhaust will make your photos look blurred.   Also, book your seat on the opposite side from the sun, as sunlight on the window (which will probably be scratched) will cause too much flare.   Many airlines now include seating plans on their online booking sites.   Also, make sure you clean your window before you take off!
  • Avoid polarizers
    The glass on an aeroplane’s window is already polarized so don’t use a polarizer of any kind.  Otherwise you’ll end up with cross-polarization giving a bluish/purple rainbow effect to your shot.  A UV filter can be helpful to reduce haziness created by ultraviolet light.
  • Counteract the vibration
    To help neutralise the plane’s vibration, use a fast lens that has sharp focus when the aperture is opened up.  Use at least 1/1000th shutter speed if you can, even if you have to increase the sensitivity (ISO) to achieve this.   Put your lens as close to the window as possible to reduce the effect of any scratches or ice on it.  However, never rest the camera or lens against the window as this will transfer the vibrations from the plane onto your photo.
  • Reflections from the window
    To avoid reflections, switch off the overhead lights and wear dark clothes or make a shade from a dark cloth.

Top shots:

Clouds

One thing’s for sure, there is never a shortage of clouds on a flight and they can make a stunningly dreamy picture.  To avoid a bland white photo, shoot through your reddest filter that lets in enough light at a fast shutter speed.    To add a bit of contrast, consider including the aeroplane wing in your picture.  If you’re doing this, set your camera to manual focus, and then focus to infinity.

Cityscapes

The bird’s eye view from an aeroplane window allows you to create a spectacular photo of a city when taking off or landing.   Use the long telephoto end of your lens range, but don’t expect to get a clear photo of any particular building – think large expanses.  Also, try shooting both vertical and horizontal photos and consider the composition of the image and the rule of thirds.  You won’t need a particularly narrow aperture if you’re photographing the ground from the air as depth of field won’t be much of an issue (unless you’re trying to get the plane/wing and the ground in the same photo).

Night shots

City lights at night time can make exciting shots.  The best way to shoot at night time is in a manual mode with the lens wide open and shutter speeds 1/500th or faster.   Your images will most likely be underexposed, but you may be able to recover some in post processing. If they do appear overexposed on the histogram, reduce the ISO and decrease the aperture.

Mountains

The optimum time of day to capture mountains and landscapes is the first or last hour of sunlight when the sun casts a shadow over the mountain range, accentuating the structures and shapes of the landscape.   When taking shots of mountains try using a neutral density (ND) or graduated neutral density (GND) filter to help you achieve a better exposed foreground and a sharper sky.

Top 10 scenic airports

  1. Lukla Airport, Nepal – Situated on the side of a mountain and surrounded by mountains.  Rather scary for passengers but great for photos!
  2. Chek Lap Kok Airport, Hong Kong – not quite as hair-raising as the airport it replaced, but still impressive for cityscape shots.
  3. London City airport, England – From the green landscapes to the major landmarks of London, there is a lot to spot and snap when landing in London.
  4. Paro airport, Bhutan – located in a deep valley on the bank of the Paro river.  The surrounding peaks are as high as 18,000 ft (5,500 m).
  5. New York’s La Guardia airport, USA– fabulous shots of the spectacular cityscape of NYC are on offer on the descent to this airport.
  6. Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten – possibly one of the most photographed airports in the world.  Its runway starts a mere few hundred feet off the shore and practically skims the heads of holidaymakers.  It is framed by water and the hills in the background.
  7. Queenstown airport, New Zealand – on a clear day the Remarkables mountain range is reflected in Lake Wakatipu to make a spectacular photo opportunity on the approach into this airport.
  8. Las Vegas McCarran airport, USA – the desert contrasted with the cityscape is a spectacular sight.  If you’re travelling at night, the lights of the Strip make a great photo.
  9. Gibraltar airport – The rock of Gibraltar looms on the background of this magnificent approach and a road even intersects the runway.
  10. Sion Airport, Switzerland – nestled in the Alps, a perfect approach for a stunning mountain shot.

4 Responses to How to Take Stunning Pictures from an Airplane Window

  1. jong araneta says:
    great tutorial as i am going on vacation this 19th May 2011..i’ll try this technique!! THANKS
  2. Great article…

    It brings to mind an airline flight to California many years ago. Somewhere over Arizona about 9pm at 38,000 ft. the pilot announced: “For our passengers on the right side of the cabin, you may be able to see the vague area as we pass over the Grand Canyon”.

    A man on the other side of the cabin rushed over to my side and asked if he could take a photo through my window. I smiled and said yes as I looked at his Kodak Instamatic Flash Cube Camera. And he fired off a shot.

    As he returned to his seat…I thought, night at 38,000 feet…the man said “I am glad I had a flash!”

    Go figure…

    Thanks again…nice job.

    David Rodwell

  3. […] Tutoriales y consejos para tomar fotos desde el avión: Digital Photography School; Photopoly; y Visual Photo Guide. […]

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