How to Take Better Pictures from a Plane

Updated on May 12, 2016

While professional aerial photographers have expensive equipment including mounts and stabilisers that allow their camera to be mounted outside planes designed to accommodate them, the rest of us make do.

Amateur aerial photography is open to anyone with a camera who happens to be taking a daytime plane journey. It's possible to get decent aerial photos (weather permitting) with nothing more than a general purpose digital camera and a window seat. A DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera is best in terms of quality but even a modestly priced digital compact camera can produce photos that are worth keeping. They may not have any commercial value as the thick perspex (or whatever they use nowadays) window of the plane will reduce the quality required for commercial work, but they can still be quite impressive and interesting (even if only to the photographer).

Many people on plane journeys see some interesting views from the comfort of their window-seat, and promptly pull out their camera to shoot away at the scene below. Unfortunately, the results are often disappointing for a variety of reasons, but with a little forethought some worthwhile shots can be obtained. This article highlights some of the problems and provides tips on how to overcome them.

Making the most of available light

During the hours of daylight, there's a lot of light being reflected from the huge expanse of ground below, so that's at least one factor in your favour. The more light there is, the more you can increase the camera's shutter speed for sharper pictures (as explained below). However, the position of the sun makes a big difference to the lighting and the quality of the image. Ideally, you want to be on the opposite side of the plane from the sun, so keep in mind, not only that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but also that in the northern hemisphere it moves south too to an extent. In the southern hemisphere it veers to the north en-route from east to west.

Put simply; if you can see the sun, it's more difficult to get good shots (apart from sunrises and sunsets, where the sun itself is the main attraction). Otherwise, see if you can find an empty seat on the other side of the plane.

Mountains in Iran
Mountains in Iran | Source


Three things that commonly affect visibilty in daylight are cloud cover, haze and dirty windows. There's not much you can do about cloud cover or haze except wait until you get to a clear patch, which may or not come. Dirty windows, however, can be easily cleaned with tissues, at least on the inside. (Cleaning the outside is not recommended). That will certainly improve visibility, but keep in mind that aircraft windows aren't designed for photography. Thick perspex sheets are always going to have an adverse effect at least to some degree.

Iran mountains and city
Iran mountains and city | Source


Factors that affect image sharpness include:

  • The plane's speed
    This is not usually a problem at cruising altitude as you're so far from the ground that the speed of the plane has a negligible effect on the image. Closer to the ground, though, the speed of the plane makes a big difference, and you may need to compensate with a higher shutter speed.

  • Focus
    Focus is also not a problem at cruising altitude. Your subject is miles away, so you can trust autofocus to give the correct setting for the whole view. If one part of the scene is in focus, all of it will be in focus. That's assuming that the camera isn't focusing on a dirty mark on the window because you forgot to clean it. At lower altitudes, some parts of the scene will be much closer to you than other parts and the camera may not be able to get all of it in focus. So make sure that you focus on the main point of interest in your scene. Choosing a smaller aperture (higher f no.) is the traditional way to increase the distance range that can be in focus (depth of field), but it's usually not a good idea in aerial photography as it forces you to use a slower shutter speed exactly when you need the fastest shutter speed possible to counteract the plane's movement.

  • Window reflections
    To eliminate window reflections from light sources inside the plane, you need to get as close to the window as possible, while still keeping the camera angled down.

  • The plane's vibrations
    Vibration from the plane can make the shot unsharp and unattractive. They have to be damped. You can do that with any soft material such as your pillow or blanket. Push the material hard against the bottom of the window surround and push the camera down hard against the material . You have to push hard enough that you can feel the material pushing back with equal force. At that 'point of balance' the material will absorb most of the vibrations. Try to get as high a shutter speed as possible to reduce the effect of vibrations. The less time that the shutter is open, the less time the remaining vibrations will have to make their mark on the image.

  • Camera Shake
    Although your image stabilisation enhancement equipment, otherwise known as a pillow or blanket, will absorb most of the plane's vibrations, pressing the shutter button to take the shot can also introduce unintended camera movement. A good way to eliminate that is to use the camera's timer. While it's counting down, you can give all your attention to keeping the camera held firmly in place with both hands while pressing down on the cushioning material.

Bangkok low altitude approach
Bangkok low altitude approach | Source
Dubai - low altitude
Dubai - low altitude | Source

Post processing

There's a lot that can be done with post processing using a decent photo editor, such as Photoshop or even a freely downloadable one such as Gimp.

  • Colour correction
    The perspex glass of the plane window can cause unpredictable colour casts in the image. Use the photo editor's 'auto color' command to eliminate or at least reduce unwanted colour effects. If the colour is beyond repair, you can always make a black and white version of the image instead, or if you like the colour effect, call it artistic license and keep it as an arty aerial shot.

  • Contrast enhancement
    Atmospheric (AKA aerial) perspective is the effect where haze reduces the contrast of the image. Boosting the contrast manually or selecting 'Auto Contrast' can get rid of a lot of the haze. (There are also filters available for DSLR cameras that can reduce haze, but, as with post processing in a photo editor, only to a limited extent.)

  • Composition
    Crop the image to improve the composition, rather than using the camera's optical zoom. The image will be smaller (pixel-wise) than if you had used zoom, but zoom introduces more problems such as greater sensitivity to vibration and camera shake. Haze is also more of a problem with zoom.

  • Sharpening
    Modern photo-editing sharpening tools produce the illusion of increased sharpness quite impressively by selectively increasing the contrast. Too much, however, can also increase the graininess of the image (called noise). Usually a small amount of sharpening is recommended as it improves the image without introducing noticeable noise.

Newcastle, England
Newcastle, England | Source


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    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Lucky you Melissa - You have plenty of opportunities to take aerial photos, flying around as often as you do both as flight attendant and pilot. I hope my Hub has given you some new ideas to try. Thanks for your comment.

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Susan - I'm glad you found it interesting and helpful.

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Lizzy. I really admire amateur photographers like your dad and others of his generation, (and even our generation before we all went digital and automatic) because they really understood photography. Everything had to be figured out manually including focus, exposure, shutter speed, depth of field and more. No fancy auto settings in those days, and every shot had to count because each shot cost money in terms of film and processing. Today's technology has brought a lot of advancements, but it's also lowered the skill and knowledge level among photographers. Thanks again for your comment.

    • Melissa Orourke profile image

      Melissa Orourke 

      5 years ago from Roatán, Islas De La Bahia, Honduras

      Love, love, love this post! As a single engine pilot and as a Flight Attendant I have taken lots of aerial photos! Now I know how to improve them! Thank you! Thumbs up and interesting!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 

      5 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Definitely great information that is easy to understand and to put into practice. Your pictures are excellent examples. Congratulations on your very interesting and helpful Hub of the Day!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congrats on HOTD!

      Well done, clear explanations and suggestions. Your use of a pillow or blanket to dampen vibration is good. My father was an excellent amateur photographer, and I learned from him at an early age. He always cautioned me for sharper shots, make sure the camera's lens does not actually touch the window of the plane (or even an idling car), because that introduces shake that cannot be overcome, nor seen with the naked eye. Your pillow/blanket idea seems a reasonable balance between not touching the vehicle with the camera, and trying to hold it yourself as if you were a statue.

      Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks RTalloni - I'm glad you like it.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Congrats on your Hub of the Day award on this really useful post for travelers!

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks vasantha Tk and Thelma - I really appreciate your comments and votes. :)

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      5 years ago from Germany and Philippines

      Congratulations on the HOTD! Those are wonderful photos. Thanks for the useful informations as I love taking photos from the plane. Well done. Voted up, useful, beautiful and awesome!

    • vasantha  T k profile image

      vasantha T k 

      5 years ago from Bangalore

      Amazing aerial photographs! You have covered Iran, Bangkok, Dubai and England. Voted up, beautiful.Well done.

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Heidi - I hope you get some great shots on your next plane trip.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      5 years ago from Chicago Area

      Will have to remember this for next plane trip. I've seen some great views and would love to get some good pics. Voted up, useful, beautiful and sharing! And congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Kristen - Yes HOTD was a pleasant surprise - and this Hub certainly needed the boost.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      5 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Congrats on the HOTD, Chasmac. This is so very useful and awesome at the same time for those aerial shots. Voted up!

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Thanks tillsontitan - It's much appreciated.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      Great photos and great hub on the subject! Who can resist taking pictures out the plane window? As you've shown, the results can be beautiful!

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and beautiful.

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from UK

      Thanks GH. I hope you get good results.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      6 years ago from Essex, UK

      Long air flights are always pretty boring and I agree it's a nice idea to occupy oneself with photographing the scene outside. (Even if you can't see the ground, cloud formations can also make for interesting pictures).

      I've done this before, but always been slightly disappointed by the bluish colour cast at altitude and the lack of contrast. However, I've never yet tried enhancing those particular photos with Photoshop. After reading your hub, I'll try it!

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from UK

      Thanks CWanamaker - I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      Christopher Wanamaker 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      Wow, this is pretty awesome. I enjoyed reading this - I may never take my own aerial photos, but these are good tips nonetheless.

    • chasmac profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from UK

      Thanks very much Suzanne. It's much appreciated.

    • Suzanne Day profile image

      Suzanne Day 

      6 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

      Wow, love your photos in this hub. You have gone to a lot of effort! Thank you for explaining some handy photographic tips. I agree that too much sunlight will ruin any good photo. Voted awesome!


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