With mobile phones with us when we travel it is quite common to take photographs from an airplane. These images can be of an interesting landscape below, showing others you are leaving or arriving into a city or just documenting the trip you are taking.
Over the years I have traveled by airplane many times and have learned quite a bit from taking images during flights by trial and error. The possibilities of creating a unique image from a commercial airplane flight just using your phone are quite high and these 10 tips will help in the creative process.
Tip 1: Plan Ahead for your Seat
One of the first decisions you will need to make is where to sit on the aircraft in order to capture images during your flight. Of course, the best place to sit will be at a window seat but where will you want to sit? If you are flying on an airline like Southwest you will just choose your seat when you board the airplane, but will other airlines you will be able to select your seat ahead of time unless you have a discounted fare. If you want to ensure you have a window seat in a good location be sure to spend a little more than the most discounted fare so you can reserve a seat.
Depending on what the goal you have for your images during the flight, this will help determine the best location to sit. Images which you will want to obtain with the wing as part of the image work best in the middle of the airplane. Towards the back of the plane you may have the exhaust from the engines providing effects in your images. My preference is towards the front of the airplane as this will let you see what is coming to some degree as the wing is not blocking the view and doesn’t include the exhaust in the image as well. The one issue with this location is sometimes it will cost more money or they are set aside for frequent fliers.
I have also selected a middle of the airplane seat on some high wing aircraft.
On this Ravn Alaska flight I was able to put some of the branding into the image, and upon landing was able to see the main landing gear touch the runway. This is a different type of scene to capture than the majority of flights where you will not be able to the gear.
When you book your flight you will know the type of scheduled aircraft for the flight, keep in mind while not common the type of aircraft can deviate a little especially if you book your flight more than six months out. The worse thing which can happen is that you plan for the perfect seat and there is not a window in the row. I have had this happen to me before in seat 11A on a Boeing 737-900 which is common with the design of this aircraft. To help prevent situations like this I recommend using a tool like SeatGuru to help in the selection of a seat. In addition, this site will also show you where the wing is located on the plane so you can plan accordingly.
Tip 2: Consider the Time of Your Flight
When planning your seat location you also should take into account the time of day of the flight. In the Northern Hemisphere the sun will generally rise in the east, cross the sky in the south and set in the west. While the exact locations of sunrise and sunset will change during the course of the year on the the eastern and western horizon simplifying the direction of the sun will help with planning.
If your flight is heading east to west (e.g. New York to San Francisco, you will want to be on the right side of the plane as you will be facing north and will not have the sun coming in your window. If you are flying south to north (e.g. Los Angeles to Seattle) in the morning you would want to be on the left side of the plane and in the afternoon on the right side. Photographing without the glare of the sun makes it easier to capture an image from your window seat.
With the direction of the sun you start to see the glare on the layers of the window. This limits the ability to photograph in this direction due to the afternoon light.
Of course these are general rules and there will be times based on flight paths you may end up with some sun, but this is just one of the challenges you will face.
Tip 3: Research your Route
Look at the potential path your flight will take using Flightaware or FlightRadar24. These services will let you see the route your flight has taken over the past few days. Flights utilize specific routes in the sky which remain somewhat constant over time. There are changes on occasion based on enroute weather or winds but for the most part they do not change too much. By looking at the flight paths which are generally used it will give you an idea and method to plan of the type of terrain the flight will pass. I know on a flight from Denver to the New York area the flight will typically pass to the south of Chicago providing a view of the city and Lake Michigan. This is a view I enjoy seeing as I grew up just outside Chicago.
Flying into Seattle from Denver I know I will pass by Mt. Rainer but even before when you approach the Tri-Cities of Washington there will be a view down the Columbia River.
The flight paths for departures and arrivals is where you will see more variances due to weather, traffic and runway configuration. In locations like San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles it is a pretty good guarantee you will land to the west due to a dry subtropical climate. Chicago and the New York airports where the weather changes more frequently will provide a greater variance in approach routes. These approach routes can be difficult to plan for but with watching the weather and flight paths in similar conditions you can get a general idea of the approach path.
Tip 4: Get Close to the Window
When you photograph through a window and especially an aircraft window which has multiple layers of glass you may end up with a glare or reflection in your image. The best way to eliminate this is to get as close as you can to the window and when possible putting the phone on the window surface as you can eliminate the majority of the reflection, however this doesn’t totally get rid of the reflection.
Cupping your hand over the area of the phone where the lens is located will help eliminate any additional glare which could be present. This blocks side light from getting into the lens and provides a much clearer image. Even with a thin case it is possible for light to impact the image and the technique which I normally use to minimize any outside light. If you have a pop-socket or other type of case which adds to the back of the phone you will definitely need to do this to minimize the light. Once again your hand can help with this and I also carry a lens hood for my phone. This rubber device can attach to my if necessary and blocks out most of the reflective light.
Tip 5: Use the Natural Elements
Just like photographing anywhere when there are natural elements like rain, snow, fog or clouds it doesn’t mean you should be down your camera. These elements help bring additional feeling and emotion to an image which you will not get on a perfectly sunny day.
Raindrops on the window allows you to get creative with your image. By focusing on the raindrops (you will need to have your phone a little away from the window), it will put the scene behind the raindrops out of focus. It can take a little time to get used to how your phone will focus, but once you get this technique mastered it open a whole new perspective you can use while on the ground prior to takeoff or after landing.
Tip 6: Photograph in all Phases of your Trip
Most people will capture images while in flight but will not consider this while on the ground. There are many possibilities while the airplane is on the ground. From photographing other aircraft, to the various navigational signs and lines on the pavement. I would suggest spending a couple of flights watching for these items as the airplane moves throughout the airport. From here and you will start to recognize the common elements and start to think of what you can capture.
Once you become comfortable and now the various elements which you will spot you may find this quiet enjoyable. From there you will start bringing in the natural elements into the image as well to help with your story.
Tip 7: Look Ahead
This tip may seem a little odd to state as it is hard to see what is ahead. That is true, but this tip means to look ahead in what you are capturing. When you keep the phone flat against the window you are capturing images in one direction. By turning your head, you can plan for the landscape elements which will soon arriving and let you pre-visualize the scene to determine if you should capture the image.
When flying into Cordova, Alaska I was looking ahead and noticed this outflow in the mudflats near the airport. Being aware of this by looking ahead let me start to frame the scene and so I could capture the image as we flew across the outflow of water just prior to landing. With the phone in position I was able to capture a couple of images as we passed over at around 130 knots.
Tip 8: Know when to Stop Photographing
Even if you in the window seat there are times when it is best to sit back and allow others to take in the view. When flying into Seattle on many days there is a nice view of Mt. Rainer as you descend. On these instances it is quite common for fellow seat mates to want to check out the view from either the middle or aisle seat. When you sit back you allow this to happen.
When you are photographing with a phone and see another aircraft pass by they will be far enough away that you will not be able to capture it in the sky, and it is also moving quite quickly in relative speed to you thus by the time you are ready to photograph it will be well past you.
Even photographing another airplane on approach does not always work based on the distance and size of the airplane. This FedEx plane was a Boeing 777 and even zoomed into the scene it doesn’t take much of the frame.
As the day turns into night it is also difficult to photograph as at dusk you start to get more reflections from inside the cabin. While it would be nice to capture the image, sometimes you just need to leave with the mental capture of what you saw with your eyes.
Tip 9: Use Caution
When placing your phone around a window on an airplane most everything is sealed and there are not many places which can consume your phone, however still use caution. If you drop your phone it may end up between seats and could be difficult to retrieve. Likewise, in some rows window shades are designed to be pulled up instead of down. In these areas with the right force it is possible for the phone to end up inside the panels which separate the fuselage and the interior section. If the phone falls into this area it would be extremely difficult to retrieve (if at all) prior to the next major overhaul of the airplane. Turbulence can happen at any time while flying and just like it is wise to always have on your seatbelt the same is true with holding onto your phone, be sure to use a good grip.
I can speak to almost losing a phone while in Hong Kong riding the Ding Ding Tram. My phone slipped out of my hand and ended up inside the tram via a gap between the window and tram. I was quite lucky that I was able to get it back after talking to the driver and supervisor at the end of the line. Nonetheless it took around two hours of time and changed my plans for the day.
Tip 10: Have Fun
There is no perfect science to photographing out of an airplane. The weather cannot be planned, nor can the route or any issues with the window. With this said even the best laid out plan for photographing during your flight can just not happen as planned, likewise it can all fall into place at the spur of the moment. I have had flights where I didn’t capture a single image since it was cloudy the whole route or other factors like the not existent window. Likewise, I have had a handful of flights which were quite productive in my window seat captures.
This is one of those captures where I could not have planned for this to fall into place, but by being prepared and observing which was coming ahead it came together nicely.
Do you have any suggestions when photographing from an airplane? Feel free to send an e-mail or join the conversation on the Window Seat Photographer Group on Facebook. Here you can share images from your travels and also get inspired by a community of Window Seat Photographers. We are also tracking work with the hashtag #windowseatphotographer on Instagram and Twitter.