Jan 092011
 

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If you are in a window seat when you fly, chances are you will see something you would love to photograph. Problem is, getting a great final shot can be tricky. The colors are funky. The window is in focus but the ground is not. It seems so hazy in the picture. The flash reflects in the window. And so on.

Here are some techniques I have developed, both for taking the shot and for enhancing it. Using these will yield very acceptable results about 80% of the time. Please understand that this is not a step-by-step How-To guide, but just a summary of stuff to do to get good results.

Get the best seat

Check the route the plane will likely take, decide which side will have the best view.

Morning or afternoon flights, best side is away from the sun, and not over a wing (this may be hard to figure out). Forward of the engine is better (less hot air turbulence to distort the picture). Forward is also better (more movement of the plane toward the tail).
Best time seems to be early to late morning or early afternoon. End of day has low angle light, flat colors and solid shadows.

 

 

Prepare before takeoff

  • Make sure you have all the camera settings right for this type of shot (see next section)
  • Clean the window with a soft cloth, and check for scratch marks to avoid. Don’t worry about water drops on the outside, they will be blown away at takeoff.
  • If you have a DSLR, remove any polarizing filter (they really do strange things through a plane window), and remove the lens hood (so you can get closer to the window).
  • Point-and-shoot cameras are easier to quietly grab that last minute picture before descent, and not have a flight attendant tell you to turn it off. But any camera is regarded as an electronic device you are required to turn off.

Camera settings

  • Set a wide open aperture for the most limited depth of field, so only the ground will be in focus, and anything on the window will be way out of focus and invisible. This also gives a faster shutter speed for less movement blur.
    • DSLR – set to Aperture Priority, and choose the widest aperture (which is the smallest number, like 5.6, 3.5 or lower).
    • Point and Shoot – set to Portrait (yes, portrait). That will give you the widest aperture.
  • Set the ISO rating as high as you can without the resulting digital noise (“grain”). You need to experiment with your camera to find this out. Some cameras create digital noise at ISO 400, while others are clear even at ASA 1000. Higher is better, for a faster shutter speed.
  • Your shutter speed is a factor of the aperture and the ISO. For most shots, it should be 1000th or better to avoid shake blur. If you zoom in, it needs to be even higher. If there is a lot of turbulence, I put the camera away.
  • Set to Autofocus and Autoexpose.
  • Turn the flash off.
  • If your camera has a RAW setting, and you plan to enhance it with software later, I suggest using RAW. Otherwise, use the jpeg or TIFF setting.
Taking the shot

Some of the best shots are during the climb and descent stages. However, you are not allowed to use any electronic device at this stage. And digital cameras fall into this category.

MythBusters have not found any evidence that taking a digital picture out the plane window will wreak havoc with navigation or communication. So I leave that up to you.

  • Best angle to shoot is straight out, or no more than 45 degrees down. Too much and the window creates distortion.
  • Get close to the window but do not touch it (cameras will scratch the acrylic).
  • Try horizontal and vertical for which works best.
  • Make sure the horizon is level in the shot.
  • If you are concerned about shake blur, take a few shots of the subject. That way, at least one is likely to be sharp.

Enhancing the image

Plane windows give a bluish (or “cool”) tint to the view, and flatten the contrast. You may not notice it so much, since your eyes adjust in an automatic response to make any view look “normal”. But the camera takes what is there.

If you use a point-and-shoot, or have your DSLR quality set to jpeg, then the camera will make some normalizing adjustment of contrast and color balance and color temperature. If you shoot RAW, then it is  just that, raw, or what is actually there.
So let’s sit down at your computer and open your favorite photo editing program. Since each program/application is different, I will talk broadly and assume you have some experience with that program. If the program has a histogram, that is even better. A histogram is that bell-shaped graph that shows you the distribution of light in the image.
  1. Select and apply Auto Levels (or click “Enhance”). This alone make a 60% improvement, and will (hopefully) set your black point and white point. This means that it will spread the exposure across the range that your screen will show, making sure that there is some part of the image that is pure black and some part that is pure white. You should see something like a bell curve with the tips ending at the left and right.
  2. If you need to use Recover, Brightness, Blacks, Fill, or other settings to get a good contrast range, go ahead and do this. Look at the image and the histogram.
  3. Adjust the color temperature, usually making it warmer (to the right). If you don’t have this, use a control or option that makes your image “warmer”.
  4. Straighten your horizon, and crop out wings, engines, window bezels, and aberrations (fuzzy bits at the edges).
  5. Crop the image for composition or ratio as you normally would.
  6. Apply a small amount of sharpening (not too much).
  7. Print, upload, share…
  8. Send me a copy of your “Wow” results!

Palos Verdes, Los Angeles
This image was captured after takeoff from LAX, on a trip to Dallas. I made sure that I got a left-hand side window, so I could get this view. If you look closely, you can see the snow-capped peaks on the horizon.

 

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  4 Responses to “Window Seat Photo Tips”

  1. Thanks for the heads-up. I've taken a few good photos in the past and edited them in a similar manner to what you described, but your shooting techniques/advice might make all the difference to the success rate. My previous successes have all been very hit and miss, and just a question of luck.

  2. Thanks for the tips.

  3. Great Tips and nice shots!

  4. Hi,

    I’m 5 years late, but there’s a tip for taking photos on planes. The website http://www.scapeside.com allows travelers to know by advance the best side of a flight to take pics ! Then you can book a seat that will surely give you great landscape to shoot ! Take a look 🙂

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