If you’re a photographer and you travel by plane, you know that some of the views from an airplane window can be absolutely breathtaking. Carrying a camera with you while flying can not only be a good diversion to kill time, but also allow you to capture some amazing images. While your fellow travelers are busy on their tablets, phones, or sleeping, you can enjoy and capture amazing views!
What is the best seat for airplane window photos?
Some seats are definitely better than others and of course we are only talking about window seats. You want the best unobstructed view you can get (or afford) and that unfortunately eliminates exit row seating.
When booking your flight it helps to know the type of aircraft (i.e. Boeing 737) but ideally you want to be ahead of the wing by at least three or four rows. On a 737, that usually means rows 6 through 9 (include rows 1 through 4 if you’re a first-class pilot). If these seats are not available, four to five or more rows behind the fender will work well.
If you move too far away, the aircraft’s rear stabilizer could obstruct part of your view. Also, keep in mind that being behind the wing means the heat from the engines can add a weird flicker to your footage.
To help with seat selection, use websites such as seatguru.com to help you research seat configuration by airline and aircraft type. Having a seat with a view of the wings isn’t the end of the world, so try to use it as part of your composition.
Know your route
There are several ways to know your flight path. First, look at Google Maps and get an idea of what is between your departure airport and your arrival airport.
There are also helpful websites that will show the actual flight path for a specific flight number. Flightaware.com is one of the most user-friendly sites that helps you track flight paths. By knowing your flight path, you can select the side of the aircraft that will give you the best opportunity for great images.
A good example is a flight from Seattle to Phoenix. If you sit on the right side of the plane, you will typically see most of the volcanic mountains in southern Washington and most of Oregon.
Sit on the left side of the plane and you’ll usually have a great view of Mount Rainier and your chances of amazing Grand Canyon photos are greatly increased!
Consider the time of day
Photography is all about light, so when you’re flying it’s a determining factor in whether you should get your camera out or not. If you’re traveling at night, put your camera away and sleep or watch a movie. An airplane just isn’t a stable enough platform for long exposure images, even at higher ISO settings.
The only exception might be if you are flying at night over polar regions where it is possible to see auroras. When flying east (i.e. Seattle to London), sit on the left side of the aircraft. When flying west (i.e. London to Seattle), sit on the right side of the aircraft. If you’re flying directly over the pole, you’re probably good on either side.
There are several online sources available that attempt to track aurora activity, such as the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. Photographing auroras can be a challenge as it requires longer shutter speeds of around 2 seconds and high ISO settings. Take lots of pictures and see what you get!
useful advice: Have a coat or blanket handy to put over your head and your camera to protect yourself from glare from inside the aircraft cabin. If you have a neck pillow, wrapping it around the lens and pressing it against the window works like a charm.
Where is the sun?
When taking daytime flights, consider where the sun will be for most of your flight. You want to avoid having the sun in your face as it makes it nearly impossible to avoid glare in the airplane window.
An example would be the early morning flight from Seattle to Atlanta. The best choice would be a seat on the right side as the rising sun will be facing the left side of the aircraft for most of the flight. The exception might be if you want to capture a sunrise or sunset (and of course all photographers love a good sunrise or sunset!).
If your window is badly scratched and you’re facing the sun, good luck. Striped windows amplify glare and make it nearly impossible to capture a good image.
useful advice: Have a cloth handy to clean your window if necessary.
Which camera to use
There’s no need to get into specific brands of cameras or lenses here, but it never hurts to have the best gear your budget allows.
My current window seat photography setup is a very simple and compact Pentax K-1 Mark II body and Rikenon 50mm f/1.7 manual focus lens over 35 years old (never underestimate the value of old glass!).
This lens is very sharp and easy to use since you just set the focus to infinity and shoot. A fast f/1.7 aperture lets you keep ISO at 100 and use faster shutter speeds for most images. The low aperture also minimizes smudges or scratches on the window due to the shallow depth of field. R
When it comes to the camera body, a higher resolution can be very useful when editing because it provides more leeway when cropping the image.
There are many very capable compact cameras that would be up to the task of airplane window photography. Some level of manual control would come in handy to allow you to better adapt to weird and changing lighting conditions (i.e. low light, high contrast, sun on your face).
What lens to use
A focal length of around 50mm is a perfect compromise between wide angle and telephoto because the field of view out of an airplane window is quite narrow anyway. A wider focal length would begin to capture more of the window frame and aircraft wing. A longer focal length would limit you too much and make it harder to get landscapes.
It is possible to take two images to combine them into a panorama but as the plane is moving you have to be quick.
A 24-70mm zoom would work fine but wouldn’t be as compact as the main 50mm setup. On rare occasions, a 70-200mm, f/2.8 zoom can be useful for more distant subjects, but you might not want to deal with the weight and bulk.
Composition for airplane window shots
While composition can be a very broad subject, it’s pretty easy to say that the traditional rules apply well in the case of airplane window photography. Leading lines (such as river valleys) and the “rule of thirds” are good basic concepts because you’re essentially shooting landscape images.
Unfortunately, you don’t have much control over the location of the camera since you’re limited by your small overhead window. It’s really a matter of how you can point your camera up or down and right or left. Due to the narrow point of view, the composition sometimes fades into the background to achieve a usable image.
The image of the mountains in Greenland doesn’t have a great composition, but the clouds, mountain peaks, and surroundings combine to make it really interesting. This is where a higher megapixel camera can pay off, as you have more options for cropping and composing the image when post-processing the image. The end goal is just to take the shot when you can and hope a better composition presents itself as the plane moves.
It may be a good idea to have your camera ready for take-off and landing as you can sometimes get some very interesting footage. Be sure to use a fast shutter speed (about 1/250 or faster) as the ground will appear to be moving faster than when you are at cruising altitude.
Airplane window photo post-processing
When shooting from airplane windows, lighting conditions sometimes cooperate and very little editing is required to achieve an acceptable image. However, this is usually not the case.
The biggest challenge is dealing with haze in the atmosphere that interferes with image detail. After experimenting with several different techniques, my current workflow uses Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, and Nik Silver Efex Pro (a Photoshop plugin).
1.Adobe Camera Raw: Decrease the brightness and increase the contrast to help bring out certain details.
2.Photoshop: Adjust the contrast levels.
3. Photoshop/Nik Silver Efex Pro: Use Silver Efex to create a high structure black and white version.
4.Photoshop: Bring the Silver Efex layer above the original layer.
5.Photoshop: Change the Silver Efex Layer blend to Brightness and reduce the Opacity to adjust the best blend of clarity and color.
6. From this point, make color and level adjustments to suit your style.
Hopefully this information will prove useful if you decide to bring a camera on your next plane trip to try your hand at taking pictures from an airplane window.
Have a good trip!
About the Author: Curtis W. Smith has broad photographic interests ranging from travel and landscape to motor sports. He’s based in Kingston, Washington and loves being outside with the camera, rain or shine. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.
Picture credits: Header photo from Depositphotos. All other photos by Curtis W. Smith.