How to Take Better Pictures from a Plane
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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.