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Photography from a commercial aircraft

Fairly decent pictures can be taken


This aerial picture of the coast of Scotland shows some reflection from the passenger jet's window.
This aerial picture of the coast of Scotland shows some reflection from the passenger jet's window.

SHOOTING AERIALS FROM COMMERCIAL AIRCRAFT

It is possible to shoot interesting pictures of surprisingly good quality from commercial passenger aircraft when you are on a vacation or business flight, but luck must be on your side, especially with regard to the weather.

SELECT THE RIGHT SEAT

You will need to reserve a window seat away from the wing so your view is not blocked, on the shadow side of the plane. If you are traveling east, you should reserve a seat on the port side of the plane (unless you are in the southern hemisphere) and a starboard window seat if your flight is west-bound.


DON'T EXPECT PERFECTION

Since you will be looking through a window that often has frost on it or scratches on the inner plastic, you can expect reduced sharpness, reflections and perhaps flare in your images, particularly if you shoot when sunlight strikes the window. The picture above of the coast of Scotland shows minor window glare that could possibly have been eliminated through the use of a polarizing filter.

THE BEST LENS TO USE

Unless you know specifically what you are after, there is no best lens, although a zoom lens comes close. A wide-angle lens will capture more of the ground while a telephoto lens will bring subjects on the ground closer. Think in terms of moderation: a wide-angle lens that is no wider than 24mm and a telephoto lens that is no more than 200mm should do the trick. But your camera's normal lens is as good as any.

TIPS TO OBSERVE

1. Load a fresh roll of film before take-off, and have another one handy in your pocket in case you shoot the entire roll and there are still good picture opportunities. Use a film speed that will permit a fast shutter speed of 1/250 sec or greater. Shooting digitally? Adjust your camera's sensitivity setting to 200 (or even 400 or 800 if adequate brightness just isn't there for a very fast shutter speed), and ensure that you have either loaded a large-sized memory card or have a spare card available.

The world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, was photographed from a small commercial aircraft. The wingtip is just visible.
The world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, was photographed from a small commercial aircraft. The wingtip is just visible.

Floating icefields off the coast of Iceland, photographed from high altitude, make an interesting picture.
Floating icefields off the coast of Iceland, photographed from high altitude, make an interesting picture.

2. Be sure your camera is ready to shoot. If you have an automatic camera, you have little to do in the way of preparation, but if your camera is adjustable, select its fastest shutter speed and choose the proper corresponding aperture opening for correct exposure. Don't worry about depth of field. It doesn't have any effect at an airplane's flying altitude, as long as you are properly focused on the ground and have nothing close by that you need in focus in the picture.
3. Attach a skylight or ultraviolet filter to your lens, if you can, to help reduce haze at higher altitudes. If you are shooting black and white film, a yellow or red filter will do the trick, too.
4. Ideally, you would bring along a dark cloth to provide shade for your camera and reduce reflections, and would even wear dark clothing. At a minimum, provide shade for your camera with your hand or a dark fabric jacket. If you use your hand, cup it around the front of the lens and press it against the window, keeping the actual lens from touching the window itself.
5. A rubber lens hood will also help to eliminate reflections.
6. Keep your camera as close to the plastic part of the window as possible, without actually touching it (to avoid transmitting vibration to the camera). Make sure the view through the lens is not obscured by the window frame.


7. Some of your best picture opportunities may occur just after take-off, as the aircraft begins its ascent to cruising altitude, or as the airplane comes in to land. This is when you can often capture a shot of the runway, other aircraft, low-altitude scenery and buildings that, after take-off, will soon be long behind you. Flights around dusk or dawn may provide you with great aerial sunrise or sunset opportunities.
8. A good rule of thumb: If a passing subject looks like it could be interesting, don't hesitate; just take its picture. The opportunity will be lost within moments, and you may regret your hesitation.
9. Don't just look down for good images. A city skyline in the distance or a mountain range on the horizon may provide a great aerial picture.
10. Once the aircraft is a mile or so above the ground, select an aperture that is one stop smaller (ƒ/8 instead of ƒ/5.6, for instance) to compensate for increased brightness. If your camera has automatic exposure, it will do this for you.
11. Pilots will often choose a flight path that takes the aircraft near a city's downtown area or above famous landmarks, such as Niagara Falls, especially on days when visibility is good. Don't be surprised if, well into the flight, the captain announces that passengers will have a good view of a city or a ground feature that is coming up. You don't want to be too quick to put your camera away.

A view of Greenland photographed with the pilot's permission from the flight deck.
A view of Greenland photographed with the pilot's permission from the flight deck.

It can be pretty crowded on the flight deck, so be careful not to interfere with the plane's operation.
It can be pretty crowded on the flight deck, so be careful not to interfere with the plane's operation.

X-RAY INSPECTION

Odds are, your camera and other carry-on luggage will be subjected to inspection before you are able to board any commercial aircraft, so we suggest you have a look at our Travel photography section for information you should have about X-ray inspections.

ASK IF YOU CAN TAKE PICTURES FROM THE FLIGHT DECK

On trans-oceanic and other long flights, the pilot may permit you come up to the flight deck to take pictures there and through the front windows. Often, all you have to do is wait for a lull in on-board activity and courteously ask a flight attendant. Take extra care not to interfere with any instrumentation or the flight crew as they carry out their functions. If you are refused, don't be offended. All airlines have tighter security these days.


You can see the curve of the airplane's window in the lower part of this remarkably-sharp aerial photo of a development property in Manila Bay in the Philippines.
You can see the curve of the airplane's window in the lower part of this remarkably-sharp aerial photo of a development property in Manila Bay in the Philippines.