Aerial Photography from a Commercial Airplane

Glory (Concentric Circle Rainbow)

When traveling by air, where is your camera gear? At minimum, I want to hear that it is carried into the plane with you for gear security purposes. Better yet, I want to hear that you have at least a camera and lens available from your seat, perhaps in a case under the seat in front of you.

When flying in commercial airplanes, very few people are taking pictures. It's a shame because the view can be amazing, your time is already committed, you likely already own the gear needed and there is no additional cost as you already paid for the flight. Without at camera at hand, great photo opportunities may be missed.

Before going ahead with this aerial photography plan, be sure to read the electronic device policy of the airline you are traveling with, just to ensure that this type of photography is permitted on your flight. For example, here is the United electronic device policy. In this policy, you will find "cameras" specifically listed in the "Devices that are permitted for use:" section.

Planning Ahead – The Time of the Flight

I seldom time my flights for photography-from-the-plane reasons, but sunrises and sunsets often bring the most dramatic lighting and a flight timed for these daily events can be ideal. Dark is rough, but midday can yield good photos with the right clouds present and large anvil thunderstorm clouds are among my favorites.

Planning Ahead – Selecting Your Seat Location

To photograph from a plane, you obviously need to select a window seat. You might get by with a very close friend (think spouse) sitting between you and the window, but ... it is much easier to have the window to yourself. When flying regional jet aircraft with small overhead storage bins, I usually need the larger under-seat storage area the aisle seats offer and in that case, my wife is my preferred seat partner. Without access to a window, your photography will be confined to inside the cabin and that scenario will not likely be entertaining for very long.

When selecting your window seat at booking time, make sure that you know where the wings and engines are located. Both can seriously hinder your photographic experience for that flight.

Planes generally load and unload from front to back. Get on the plane first and you are nearly assured of having overhead storage space for your camera gear. Another advantage to sitting near the front is that you will depart the plane earlier, making it slightly easier to catch your next flight or get you on your way to your final destination earlier. Unfortunately, in some cases, the time saved may only mean more time is spent waiting by the conveyer belt for your checked luggage. Thankfully, there is more room to stretch out at baggage claim. While a front seat has advantages, sitting just in front of the wing or over the wing is not a good location for photography and that the front-most seats are typically sold at a premium price is another downside.

I prefer to save money and reserve seats in the economy section of the plane and on the larger aircraft, these seats are behind the wing. To ensure that I can secure overhead storage space, I often book the flight with the airline's credit card to gain priority boarding privileges that override seat location (the credit card also provides for some free checked bags). I always get in line as soon as it begins forming for my group (or start it myself).

The wings are an obvious obstruction, but engine exhaust creates turbulence that will cause blur in images attempted to be captured through it. If the plane has mid-wing-mounted engines, the photo opportunities usually evaporate for me. Sitting immediately behind the wing does not leave enough angle of view for photography, so I choose a seat that is at least several rows behind the wing to afford a clear view (avoiding the rows just forward of the aft restrooms for other reasons).

Choosing a seat on the correct side of the aircraft can also be crucial. Airplane windows are not made of optical glass and ... direct sunlight hitting them is not pretty. If in direct sunlight, your own reflection will likely become a problem from the inside. You want to avoid these issues. Determine the direction the airplane is flying and the angle of the sun during the flight. Then choose the shaded side. However, a sunrise, sunset or expected photographic scene on the ground can make the sunny side of the plane worth considering.

Want the best seat on the plane? Become a pilot.

Camera Gear for Photography from Commercial Aircraft

First, nearly any camera will work fine for this task. I've used cameras ranging in size from the Canon EOS M3 up to full-sized 1-Series models. That said, especially if you are seated in the economy section, there is not much room to work within. I used a Canon EOS M5 on my last flight and it quickly became my favorite option to date.

A general purpose lens is often the best choice. The focal length range contained in these lenses will generally work well.

Image stabilization is a very helpful and highly recommended feature to have available for use. Vibrations are very strong in an aircraft and image stabilization can make a big difference when shooting from within them.

While you may not consider your wardrobe to be part of your camera gear, I mentioned reflections being an issue. A black long-sleeved shirt or jacket is going to be better than a white one. A black camera may be preferred over a white one (though gripping hands cover much of the colored surface). Wearing dark clothes to avoid your own reflections can be helpful and you might get away with wearing black gloves, but ... I don't recommend wearing a black ski mask for this purpose as it may not be viewed as friendly by your fellow travelers (and may gain you a security escort off of the plane).

The camera and lens intended to be used during the flight is best stored in your "personal item" (smaller carry-on bag) placed under the seat in front of you. A case adhering to the permitted dimensions should be selected and taken. I used a MindShift Gear Trailscape 18L on my last flight, It is about the largest case size manageable under the seat (I can squeeze it under the max length dimension).

When photographing landscapes, especially those including the sky, I usually use a circular polarizer filter. However, photographing landscapes through an airplane window is a definite exception to the rule. CPL filters and airline windows do not get along well together, producing a very uneven and ugly result. Leave this filter in your bag. Protection filters will function fine through the airplane windows, so feel free to use them.

Airplane Wing

Capturing the Images

Just because you have a window seat does not mean that you will want to bother photographing through that window. The cleanliness/clearness of the window is important and window opacity varies dramatically from aircraft to aircraft. The windows in a new plane are usually more clear than those in an old plane. If my window is very dirty/hazy/cloudy/etc., I leave the camera in the case and take the nap option.

The latter was the case in the first plane on my most-recent flight. The windows were very cloudy and unevenly so. Images captured through them would have been unusable for anything but a memory. In the newer plane used for the return trip, the window was quite clear and I spent hours watching for and photographing (primarily) clouds including "glory" seen in them (opening photo for this tips page).

With your photography green-lighted, take out the camera and determine your exposure. Commercial airliners frequently fly above the clouds. This means that the lighting is often relatively stable and that manual mode can work well. Manual mode is especially helpful because bright clouds can confuse a camera's autoexposure meter, causing it to select underexposed settings.

At 25,000-40,000' (7,000-12,000m) in the air, most subjects will not be close and even wider apertures will provide adequate DOF (Depth of Field). Including the wing in the frame increases DOF requirements, but if including the wing, a wide angle focal length is likely used and DOF is inherently deeper. If including the window frame in the picture, a narrow aperture should be used for sharp clouds and ground-based subjects. With bright clouds present, even f/8 often provides adequate shutter speeds at low ISO settings. An f/8 aperture usually presents a low amount of vignetting that clear skies readily make apparent.

At this elevation, subjects on the ground appear to go by very slowly. But at approximately 550 mph (885 km/h), closer clouds go by very quickly. And, if longer focal lengths are used, even the ground-based subjects will cross sensor pixels quickly, causing motion blur. If unsure about the shutter speed to select, start with around 1/250, evaluate the results and adjust as needed/desired. Selecting a shutter speed that is faster than needed will likely result in a higher ISO setting being used, but the penalty of additional noise is much preferred to the motion blur penalty caused by a too-slow shutter speed being selected.

With the desired aperture and shutter speed dialed in, determine the ISO setting needed to make a small number of the brightest pixels in a sun-lit cloud blink from overexposure. If ISO 100 is not low enough, that is a good problem. Select a faster shutter speed and/or a narrower aperture in that case.

Where should one focus? If the wing is not in the photo and there are only distant clouds (or none at all), focus on the distant clouds or ground. If there are closer clouds, focusing on them or on clouds midway between them and the ground will likely work out well. If the wing is in the frame, the ideal focus distance will likely fall between the wing and the ground or most distant clouds. If there are mid-distant clouds available, focusing on them can work. Focusing on the end of the wing itself can work with wide angles and narrow apertures.

Being considerate of those around us should always be a priority. If your camera has a silent shooting mode, I recommend using it to avoid bothering nearby passengers.

Note that if your camera has a Wi-Fi feature, it will likely need to be turned off when in the plane.

With the camera ready to go, make a closer evaluation of the window(s) (sometimes there will be two window options). Find the clearest section of window with the least amount of reflections that you are able to frame a scene through. Then get the lens as close to window as possible without touching it or risking doing so as you don't want to scratch the window and the window will be vibrating significantly. Then, explore the zoom range you have available.

With the shooting plan fully in place, start watching ahead for incoming interesting subjects. Even subjects on the ground may move through the framing sweet spot more rapidly than you expect and clouds will fly past very quickly, so be ready to grab passing opportunities. You will not have much time to do so.

Getting the camera's autofocus system to lock onto a subject through the plane window can be a challenge sometimes. Remember that camera AF systems need contrast to work, so place your selected focus point on the edge of clouds, mountain peaks, bright buildings, etc. until focus is acquired, then recompose and press the shutter release. If many images are going to be captured with the same focal length and focus distance, switching the MF mode after AF determines the ideal setting can make subsequent shots much faster to capture.

Note that if the horizon is in the photo, especially for those of us with HLDS, attention to keeping the camera level must be paid. Shooting from contorted positions can make this task more challenging and any tilt will be obvious in these images. A camera with an electronic level feature makes life much better in this regard (though I still managed to take many crooked photos on my last flight).

Post Processing

Due to the elevations commercial aircraft fly at, haze is a big hindrance for any subject other than close proximity clouds or the plane's wing. This problem is compounded by the non-optical-grade double-pane aircraft windows. Adding contrast and saturation is generally the best way to handle this deficiency, though if the not-affected-by-haze wing is in the frame, contrast must be added with care (or selectively such as with layers).

Cloudscape

Summary

Few of us will likely ever purchase a ticket on a commercial airline for the sole purpose of photographing from a window seat, but many of us fly to reach distant destinations as needed or desired. With the airline ticket already paid for, being able to take photo from the plane is simply an added bonus – one that can certainly have nice rewards.

I can probably speak for most of us when I say that sitting on a plane for hours is not great fun, but photographing from the plane can make the time go by quickly. And, while it is easy to photograph clouds from below, clouds photographed from an extremely high vantage point can add some depth and interest to one's cloudscapes portfolio.

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