Up in the Air

Tutorial: How to take photos while traveling by plane

Travelling in the air often gives a dramatic view, different from what we see on daily life on the ground and somehow different from drone viewpoint which is limited to 100-200 m. Besides enjoying the view, we also wish to capture and share the unique perspective we witness up in the air. By a little preparation and few considerations, the results can be very appealing. The game of shooting from the air has been so fascinating that I have never put my camera in the luggage or overhead bin after I was lucky to capture the Rhine River reaching the Atlantic Ocean, back in June 2011. In the following, I share very simple instructions I apply before and during every flight I take.

Before the flight. It is crucial to consider two factors while booking your seat. Factor one is the scenery you may see on either side of the flight. You should read the topographic map of the flight (using Google earth or map), flight direction (using agency map or just common sense) and find out what features you may see on each side and decide the side that might be more interesting; curvy rivers, deep valleys, fjords, high mountains and glaciers might be more attractive than a flat area seen from such high altitude.

Before choosing the seat on the more interesting side, remember to consider factor number two: the sun direction. Depending on the time of the day, the sun can be enabler or killer of your shots. The outer side of plane windows often has some permanent scratches or gets tiny ice parcels that can be very visible in your frame when get highlighted by the sun. Unless your flight is during sunset or sunrise, avoid bookings seats on the sunlight direction. However, if your flight is during sunrise or sunset and neither of flight sides have very favorable features, choosing the sun side could bring more interesting photo subjects. The last and most obvious point about choosing the seat is to avoid booking the seats on the wings!

Sometimes all interesting seats are booked. Don’t lose hope. You can stand as the last person in the queue for boarding to the flight. Sometimes I had been lucky and some people with interesting seats have cancelled their flight. The crew was flexible too, so I could sit on the interesting spots.

During the flight. When you arrive to your seat, first check the window for any inner dirt or dust that can be removed by a cleaning cloth. If you don’t have any, go ahead with your sleeves; sometimes a great shot comes with some cleaning costs. The next step is to prepare your camera setting. To demolish the shakes of the aircraft and take the sharpest picture high shutter speed is crucial. Depending on the light outside, you may need to increase the aperture (decrease F number) and increase the ISO (use higher ISO as the last strategy). Wider aperture also means shallower depth of field that helps to blur the scratches on the window. Also try to underexposed the photos rather than overexposed. Test your setting by taking some shots before the flight begins.

When the flight starts, the first moments may offer interesting subjects that can disappear fast due to the small distance of aircraft to the ground. So be very prepared for shooting during take off and landings. However, you should make sure you are following flight safety instructions, for example turning of your camera GPS.

When the aircraft is on its highest altitude you can relax a bit since the changes will be less radical. But always watch out for potential subjects. Whenever an interesting subject appears, try to shoot twice or more and every time check the results and change the camera setting accordingly. Do not forget to shoot in RAW in order to have more flexibility in the post-processing.

After the flight. You can still improve your aerial photos when you are home. You can, to a large extend, change shadows/highlights, especially if you had taken the photos in RAW. In this step you will realise the benefits of underexposed photos compared to overexposed. Another aspect you can work on in post-processing is increasing the sharpness which may be not the best due to aircraft shakes or windows blurriness. Enjoy the result of your aerial shots!