How to shoot pictures from planes

A photographer up on flickr asked me how I get such nice images out of plane windows. Here’s the answer I just gave her:

1. Know the kind of plane you’re flying so you can choose a seat relative to the wing. Generally, these days most of us “plebes” sit in coach which means either over the wing or further back. Too close to the wing and you have not only wing but engine exhaust to shoot through (you have this anywhere behind the wing on most jets). The problem is, the closer to the tail you are in the plane, the worse the ride will be and you’re generally near a bathroom or a galley or both. How dedicated are you?

2. Know a bit about the route and decide which side of the plane to sit on to get the view you want. Consider time of day and the sun’s position over the time you’re flying. You want the sun on the other side of the plane so as not to flare the image or glare on the window. Knowing the plane will also give you knowledge of the seating layout. Most planes have a 3 and 3 layout which means that seat A is the left window and seat F is the right window.

3. The outside of most plane windows is a hard plastic which, over time gets scratched. If you get a heavily scratched window it will make things harder although not impossible as you’re focusing beyond the window. Also, go to the bathroom and wet a paper towel and clean the inside of the window. Between finger prints and god knows what else it can be pretty grimy.

4. Worst case, move your seat if you can.

5. Carry camera and an assortment of lenses to your seat: do not store them overhead and then bother people putting them up and down. Keep it all with you so you can shoot.

6. Many of my early aerials were with a Canon G3 which I set to “landscape” mode on the mode dial. I could do this with the 20D as well I suppose. The important thing is to not allow the lens to focus on the window and keep the flash off. The landscape setting will do this and more automatically for you or, you can do it manually.

7. If you can’t get a fast enough speed out of the lens on manual, push the ISO high. No need to worry about high quality here, you’re already shooting through plastic. You’re looking for decent quality.

8. I don’t think there’s much reason to shoot in RAW (see above) so I shoot all of this stuff in jpeg.

9. Stop down some from full open as you’re never going to be shooting perpendicular to the ground (unless the plane really banks hard, in which case you’ll probably throw up on the window.

I hope this is useful. Bottom line is that you have to put a bit of effort into planning and when you do of course there will be clouds the entire trip. But, clouds can be interesting too. I’ve also seen some fantastic shots on flickr of plane interiors and the backs of people’s heads.

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