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10 Tips for Great Photos From a Plane

Whenever I fly, I try to get the window seat. I just love seeing the world go by, reduced to the size of a map far, far below me. And if I have a camera with me, then things are even better, because I love to take photos of the amazing sights I see. Here’s a few tips that I’ve picked up that might help out, followed by a number of photos that I’ve taken after the jump.

  1. Seats in front of the wing are best for unobstructed viewing. Next best are seats at the back of the plane. The closer to the wing you get from the back, the more likely you are to have jet exhaust distort your image.
  2. Have your camera handy at all times. Stash your camera bag under the seat in front of you before take off, or put your camera on your lap before take off, hidden under a jacket or similar. On larger flights, you can get away with taking photos almost directly after take off, simply because the hostesses can’t see you from their jump seats.
  3. If your camera beeps on acquiring focus, TURN THE BEEP OFF. It’s courteous towards your fellow passengers.
  4. Try and point your camera directly out of the window. The more you point it downwards, the more the thick window glass will distort your image.
  5. The best times for great images is – like normal photography –  the early morning and late afternoon, when long shadows and dramatic light add interest to your shots. It’s not always a bad thing to be on the same side of the plane as the setting sun – backlit water and mountains can make for great shots.
  6. Try framing the scene through the window, especially if the window is unavoidably dirty. Make a feature of the window, instead of trying to hide its flaws.
  7. Push the boundaries of when you take photos (the most interesting stuff is often on early ascent or descent), but if you’re directly asked to turn the camera off or put it away, comply.
  8. Expect to do a fair amount of post-processing to your images. Shooting through those thick windows and atmosphere haze towards a very distant subject will have a dulling effect on your shots that you’re going to have to work hard to correct.
  9. Don’t worry about what kind of camera you have – you can get great shots with everything from an iPhone to the most expensive SLR, as you’ll see from the photos below.
  10. BONUS TIP: If you’re ever on a turbo-prop plane with an iPhone, try taking a picture of the blades with it: you’ll be astounded by the unusual visual effect you get!

Click on each image to view it larger on Flickr.


The mighty Columbia River near The Dalles, Oregon. Taken with an iPhone 4, the full-size version has enough clarity to see individual wind turbines on the Washington side of the river.


A small farm seen shortly after take off from Amsterdam Schiphol airport. Hazy late afternoon light and long shadows really make this photo. Taken with a Canon Digital Rebel XT.


Sunset with spectacular clouds framed by the window edge, taken on approach to Palma de Mallorca airport, Spain. Taken with a Canon Digital Rebel XT.


The city of Rotterdam backlit by a setting sun, allowing the shining water to become the defining feature of the photo. Landmarks like the Erasmus Bridge can be clearly seen to the bottom left. Taken with a Canon Digital Rebel XT.


San Francisco as seen from an LA to Portland, Oregon flight. Taken with a Panasonic Lumix TZ, an entry-level digital point and shoot camera.


Manhattan laid out beneath me, as seen from a flight from Newark to Providence. Having my camera accessible from the start of the flight made this shot possible, as this view occurred mere minutes after takeoff. Taken with a Canon Digital Rebel XT.


Mount St Helens viewed through a particularly dirty window. Taken with an original iPhone.

2 Comments

  1. Lovely! Good tips too. I never gave any thought to exhaust distortion, but I like to sit away from the engines so that works out. Had really good results shooting video recently. Especially if you can brace the camera a bit, in smooth air the plane gives rock solid motion.

    Anyone have any luck shooting from a plane at night?

  2. tbk

    On flights China – Europe I book a window seat on the right side, that way the sun does not shine into my face and I get a good view of the landscape below. I use the “aerial photo mode” on my digital camera and do “auto contrast” in xnview on each photo as postprocessing. Still, getting clear weather is a matter of good luck ….
    (The other direction, Europe – China, is usually in the middle of the night, or when opening the window shades early in the morning, I get angry remarks from fellow passengers who want to sleep and are disturbed by the light …. or even flight attendants who want other passengers to sleep.)
    Here is my collection of photos taken on such flights:
    Asia from above

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