The Project

Just Say No to the In-flight Movie

Half Dome, Yosemite
Groenland Overflight 3
Dawn over North China
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Winter Moon Over Finland
Winter Over the Midwest
Mountain Lake Aerial

Taking a trip by commercial jet is an opportunity to photograph your world in a way that looks like very little you've seen published. Most aerial photography is done from low-flying private planes and helicopters that run below the cloud cover. At the other extreme we've also seen a lot of images of our earth shot from space. I've been fascinated by both these types of images for years. I also have to travel a fair amount for my work, and one day I noticed that the view from the airplane's window, which is higher than the former and lower than the latter, is different than either of them and very beautiful in its own way.

Getting worthwhile images involves technical issues, which I'll explain below, but mostly it takes patience, persistence and luck. You can have nothing but solid cloud cover under you for long stretches of time. Then a break will reveal something spectacular – but only for a few minutes. To maximize your chances, pass on the movies and video games. Read or listen to music, so you can send a quick glance out the window every few minutes. Look not only for the wide view, but also for features to zoom in on. And stay open to different types of beauty - Cloudscapes, Landscape, Landscape-as-abstract, or you might come up with a different concept altogether.

There are three types of technical issues you'll have to deal with, relating to conditions in the airplane, to optimal camera settings, and to post-processing. Here are some tips and tricks I've learned over the years.

PLANE ISSUES. Beyond the obvious -get a window seat- it matters which window seat you get. Of course you don't want your view obstructed by the wing. Plus, jet engines can leave a trail of air turbulence that causes distortion, so you'll want to be seated ahead of them. If you really get into this, you'll find which side of the plane you're on at what time of day can make a difference. You generally don't want the sun facing you, so for instance if you're flying North in the morning, the right side of the plane is best. Then there's the window you're looking out of, which most definitely wasn't designed for photography, and very often wasn't cleaned properly. I carry alcohol wipes to clean the window. But if it's very badly scratched, or made of a material that bands, game over. Finally, you will be instructed to turn off "all electronic devices" for takeoff and landing, which is just when you can get some of the most interesting views. Ummm....no comment! ☺

CAMERA ISSUES: Objects out your window move much faster than they appear to. So in the interest of speed, turn off your autofocus and just set it to infinity. And since depth of field is not a consideration, but shutter speed is, go with Shutter Preferred or, on the point-and-shoots, Sport mode. I recommend those over full manual, because lighting conditions can vary dramatically very quickly.

POST PROCESSING: Be prepared for lots of flat bluish images that don't look like what you remember. That's because your visual system compensates to some degree for the crappy window and the haze below it, but the camera doesn't. If you use automatic correction tools, you're most likely going to get a pretty psychedelic result. Fun, and some might like exactly that. I prefer to try to recreate what I saw as closely as possible, which means that, even after processing the image in Camera Raw, I usually fine-tune it with three Photoshop tools: Curves, levels, and Shadow/Highlight.

Finally, some references. In "traditional" aerial photography, the uncontested contemporary master is Yann Arthus-Bertrand. He has more books out than you can shake a stick at, and they're gorgeous. There's also at least one excellent aerial photographer showing his work right here on JPG, Dan Darroch, (http://jpgmag.com/people/ddphoto).

For the "landscape as abstract" satellite view don't miss Our Earth as Art (http://earthasart.gsfc.nasa.gov/index.htm). And there's actually one book of exactly the kind of photography I'm talking about here, "Window Seat" by Julieanne Kost (http://digitalmedia.oreilly.com/2006/02/22/featured.html), which has wonderful images and a lot of great technical information as well.

I hope this helps you get many hours of enjoyment!

24 responses

  • Hector Ortiz

    Hector Ortiz gave props (27 Sep 2008):

    fantastic...finally we could comment to the storys too....congrats...well deserve it...

  • Karen K Smith

    Karen K Smith gave props (4 Oct 2008):

    Thanks for all the info...and all of these photos are great!

  • Melissa Prosser

    Melissa Prosser gave props (15 Oct 2008):

    I love all your photos, and some of my favorites are your aerials! You must travel often, hehe.

  • Denisa Ortega Kraus

    Denisa Ortega Kraus said (25 Oct 2008):

    this is very inspiring. also a good way to overcome all those fears on the plane. beautiful picures, thanks

  • Renee

    Renee gave props (29 Oct 2008):

    Thanks for all the info, heading to Cozumel on Fri, going to try some of your tips. Check out my "out the window" theme photo :)

  • Bonnie Blanton

    Bonnie Blanton (Deleted) gave props (17 Nov 2008):

    great information and so very well written!

  • Simon Kossoff

    Simon Kossoff (Deleted) gave props (4 Dec 2008):

    another incredible story - very helpful and a great read. of course the images are masterful too!

  • Litz Go

    Litz Go gave props (9 Dec 2008):

    thanks, that was very informative essay, Congratulations for having it published!

  • Samuel Cohen

    Samuel Cohen gave props (14 Dec 2008):

    well-written essay, great photos. nice work.

  • Michel Vaque

    Michel Vaque gave props (22 Dec 2008):

    cette série est purement stypéfiante.je l'avais ratée dans son entier (mais il y a tant de photos sur JPG...) mais là j'avoue que je suis scotché! merci pour les infos très utiles d'autant plus que c'est EXACTEMENT ce que j'essaie de faire dès que je prends l'avion ! (avec un résultat bien moindre! ) c'est fascinant mais cela peut aussi etre source de frustrations! (pas le bon angle,le bon timing,la bonne lumière etc...)

  • Winston Baltasar

    Winston Baltasar gave props (24 Dec 2008):

    Thanks for the valuable tips!

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (7 Jan 2009):

    Hell...Yeah! It rocks!

  • Marek Glinka

    Marek Glinka gave props (25 Jun 2009):

    great!

  • Alex Moudeve

    Alex Moudeve gave props (9 Jul 2009):

    thanks man! ima have so many photos like these because of your tips:)

  • judy fouse

    judy fouse gave props (7 Aug 2009):

    congratulations on the publication. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

  • Željko Jelenski

    Željko Jelenski said (26 Aug 2009):

    Grat story!!!! And congratulations on the publication.

  • Matt Granz

    Matt Granz gave props (6 Jan 2010):

    I am a window seat person too. My wife and kids are not though… which works out great for me! LOL. I really enjoy the story and your shots. I also got to fly low over Half dome on a commercial jet, but didn't have a camera on me that time. I felt like I could reach out and grab it… great memories you're triggering! Thanks!

  • Linda Baird-White

    Linda Baird-White gave props (15 Jan 2010):

    Great advice...! Nice writeup and excellent photos! Quite interesting

  • Jeff Frost

    Jeff Frost said (9 Feb 2010):

    Great read, Alexis. I've always thought about taking pictures of the weird things I see out the window, and after reading this I'm going to have to pack my point and shoot into my laptop bag for future flights.

  • Kirsten Palmer

    Kirsten Palmer gave props (12 Aug 2010):

    Amazing job! Love it!

  • Evelyne Peten

    Evelyne Peten gave props (14 Aug 2010):

    je m'y suis mise aussi! merci Alexis pour tous tes bons conseils!

  • Mykola Swarnyk

    Mykola Swarnyk gave props (26 Nov 2010):

    I red this essay again with big pleasure. It is exactly what I`d like every flight, but much, much better written than I could! Thank you Alexis!

  • Lynn Pepper

    Lynn Pepper gave props (28 Sep 2011):

    Thank you Alexis for the great advice. Can't wait to shoot aerials now!

  • Lew Harford

    Lew Harford   gave props (6 Feb 2014):

    Great lesson and some interesting images.

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