Just Say No to the In-flight Movie
7 Oct 2007
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!