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Taking Photographs from a Plane

Posted on Sunday 12 August 2007

You can get some stunning shots from a plane, but unfortunately, this usually involves hiring a small plane with the doors off and having heavy duty stabilising equipment to hold the camera. That’s fine for professionals, but what can mere mortals do when we want to take some pics from a commercial jet?

There’s certainly plenty of things working against us:

  1. Small windows.
  2. Restricted views – The cockpit would be ideal, but generally not feasible.
  3. Dirty/Scratched windows. This is particularly exasperated if the sun is at a bad angle to the window.

Given those restrictions, here’s a few general tips that can help improve a run of the mill snapshot out of the window:

  1. Be conscious of where the sun is. Taking an image into the sun through an aircraft window can totally wash the whole image out.
  2. Utilise any potential spare window available. On larger aircraft, the windows near the rear exit doors are generally available for viewing out of. Also check if there is a better view through the window behind on in front of you. Depending on the window positions, you may find you have access to these windows without moving from your seat. This can also be handy in getting a better position with the sun or for getting a view of something that you’ve already passed.
  3. Try positioning the camera to whatever part of the window is clearest. If you have a compact digital camera that has a swivel display (like the Canon G3), this makes the job much easier. It can also enable you to get a better view of the ground.
  4. The best time to take a shot of the ground is when the plane is turning on your side. Generally this occurs after takeoff and preparing to land.
  5. Post process the images to remove scratches and improve the colour/contrast. Most plane windows play havoc with automatic settings on most cameras, so pretty much all shots can be improved with a bit of basic editing.

The following image taken from a plane over the South Island of New Zealand is straight out of the camera (with exposure compensation set to a third of a stop under).

Here’s the same image with some Photoshop work. Using auto levels was sufficient to remove most of the murk. Some of the smears and scratches (I didn’t have the time or energy to completely remove all of them) were removed using the healing tool.

Edited Image

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