Shooting photos from an aircraft

Taking photos from a train is not that hard. Taking photos from the window of a plane is trickier for a number of reasons. Firstly, you can’t really wander the aisles of a plane looking for the best vantage point, and secondly, there are very few good photos to be had at 35,000 feet.

There are of course some technical issues, the biggest one being aircraft windows. Plane windows are technically made up of three panes: (i) an outer pane flush with the outside fuselage, (ii) an inner pane (which has a little hole in it), and (iii) a thinner, non-structural plastic pane called a scratch pane. The scratch pane is the part passengers can touch, and inadvertently scratch. And the windows are not made of glass, but rather a type of plexiglass known as “stretched acrylic” (the flight deck windshields are made with glass-faced acrylic). These windows are not ideal to look through, because they are never perfectly clear.

An aerial view of Laval on approach to Pierre-Elliott Trudeau Int. Airport in Montreal. Taken from a De Havilland Canada Dash 8 aircraft which was banking. iPhone 5 (4.12mm; f/2.4; 1/531).

Second is the aircraft itself. In smaller planes windows are often located closer to the centre-line of the plane, so views of the ground are better. The larger the plane, the higher up the windows are on the aircraft’s curved fuselage (largely due to the cargo space below).

Example vertical angles of view for a 35mm lens on an APS-C camera on different aircraft.

Here are some tips for shooting photographs from a plane:

⦿ Plan ahead − This means studying the route – what scenic sites will you be passing over? For example the Icelandair flight from Toronto to Keflavik (ICE604) typically flies over southern Greenland, around 5am (local time) – which from May to August is around sunrise. Sunrise and sunset are great times to try and take a shot – shots of cloud and sky by themselves aren’t exactly inspiring. It might also be good to check weather conditions along the route.

⦿ Choose a seat − With the route and time of day in mind, decide on where you want your window seat. Sitting on the wrong side of the plane at the wrong time of day, might result in you shooting into the glare of the sun. Use an airline seat map to help guide your choice, noting that the type of plane will make a difference in where you want to sit. Optimally, a seat in the fore or aft of the plane is preferable, avoiding over-the-wing seats. However in a turboprop aircraft the wings are less of an issue because they are typically above the window. In some planes the aft of the wing can be problematic because of jet exhaust blurring parts of the image.

⦿ Select an appropriate camera/lens − Smaller is often better when it comes to cameras. So a compact camera, or even smartphones are both good choices because they are both accessible and unobtrusive, and frankly using a DSLR is likely gross overkill. A wide lens is typically best – the longer the lens the more susceptible it is to vibration and turbulence, even with good IBIS. You can experiment with UV and ND filters, but avoid polarizing filters. The plexiglass panel in the window in combination with the polarizing filter actually produces an effect called birefringement, which creates a rainbow effect in an image.

⦿ Make sure the window is clean − Always make sure to clean the scratch pane before take-off – the fewer smudges you have to shoot through the better. The scratch panes may never be perfect, because they tend to take a lot of abuse.

A little bit of art, flying into Montreal. iPhone 5 (4.12mm; f/2.4; 1/343). The lens on the iPhone 5 is roughly equivalent to a 30mm on a full-frame.

⦿ Hold the camera close − You can reduce the effect of scratches etc. by placing the lens as close to the window as possible (but not directly on the window, unless you use a rubber lens hood).

⦿ Choose settings − Faster is better when it comes to shutter speeds, e.g. 1/600 to 1/2000. The further away the object being photographed, the more lenient you can be with shutter speed. A mid-range aperture like f/8 is also quite appropriate – sharpness is all relative when shooting through three panels of plexiglass. If using a smartphone cameras, the camera will handle all the settings.

⦿ Use manual focus − Sometimes the window can be a bit hazy, and this can interfere with auto-focus. Switching to manual focus usually works quite well, making sure to focus at infinity.

The best “aerial” photographs come at landing time, or when a plane is close enough to the ground to provide an aerial view. I’ve taken some great photographs of Montreal from a smaller plane, and even on the approach to Keflavik (Iceland). What to photograph? That really depends on whether you want to take some artisanal/experimental shots, or aerial shots of landscapes. Some people like to take pictures of the wings, and that makes a lot of sense given that it helps put some shots into context. The image shown below wouldn’t be that interesting if it weren’t for the plane’s curved wingtip. Clouds are also interesting, particularly if seen from above, as are human incursions on the landscape e.g. farms, and natural wonders like rivers.

Approaching Keflavik, Iceland. iPhone 6s (4.12mm; f/2.2; 1/950).

Aerial shots can be plagued by a aerial haze, which imparts a gray layer on the image. During the day, the shorter wavelengths of light (blues and violets) are scattered by the gasses in the atmosphere. Light is also reflected by particulates in the atmosphere which results in hazy skies. This can be reduced by using a UV filter, or in post-processing. Reflections can also be an issue, especially if it is dark outside – lights within the cabin will reflect back towards the camera from the three sheets of plexiglass. And no flight is smooth – engine vibration, and air turbulence will make it difficult to achieve long exposures.

The original aerial shot of Iceland with a nice layer of gray haze. (iPhone 6s; 4.12mm; f/2.2; 1/999).
The image modified with some contrast stretching, and enhancement of the blue colour channel.

At the end of the day, there is no guarantee for good photographs shooting through a window. There is every chance that some images may be soft, especially around the edges, or condensation/ice may build-up on the window, thwarting an notion of taking “good” pictures. It might be that the plane is shrouded in clouds the whole way through the journey. The best advice is to take lots of photos, and experiment.

Above the clouds (iPhone 6s; 4.12mm; f/2.2; 1/746).

If you are interested in taking photographs from a small plane, such as the tours offered by Sea to Sky Air in Squamish BC, then you will need a few more tips, and I have provided some resources below. For anyone wanting to visit Iceland, check out my post Visiting Iceland? – Beware of the glaciers.

Further reading:

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