Every commercial airline flight is an opportunity for great photography. If you haven’t claimed a window seat and parked your camera within easy reach, you’re going to miss some amazing shots. They’ll be handed to you on a silver platter with the purchase of your ticket, along with pretzels and those tiny bottles of vodka.
See the photo above? I took that from a commercial airliner departing Newark on the way to Europe. It took me about 30 tries before Midtown vanished under my 747’s right inboard engine, but I’m thrilled with the results. If you just pay a little bit of attention to what you’re doing, you can produce exciting stuff.
Use the Right Gear. Most cameras can take decent images from an airplane. The problem with smartphones is you can’t easily dial in the right settings, though there are apps and more that can give you manual control over shutter speed (faster, particularly at low altitude) and ISO. Also, smartphones have wide-angle lenses — probably not what you want.
I recommend a point-and-shoot or DSLR with manual controls and, ideally, a 24-70mm zoom lens. That range is pretty important: if you’re shooting too wide, it will be hard to get around window frames, wings, etc. You’re also more likely to see reflections from inside the cabin, or smudges on the window.
You also don’t want to shoot with a big zoom, because airplane windows are not optical glass. It has several layers, including plastic, which introduce not only a lot of image degradation, but also ghosting — shoot at an angle through the window and above, say, 200mm and you could end up with a bit of double-vision. Plus, with a big zoom you’ll have a hard time holding the camera still.
Do Your Homework. Whenever I fly, I research route variations with different airlines, alternate airport options, and the type of aircraft. I also sort out sunrise/sunset down to the minute, departure and arrival timing options, and takeoff and landing routes — all to set up the best views of cities, natural settings, or landmarks.
Regarding selection: avoid the wings. If you’re right in front of the leading edge of the wing, know that it (and the engines) could still block half your view. Most often sitting as far forward as you can is ideal.
Right or left? That depends on where you’re flying and what you want to capture. If you’re flying to Los Angeles from the East Coast and want to see the Grand Canyon, you’ll need to sort out whether your airplane will fly north or south of it. Go to Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport: left side on arrival, right side on takeoff to grab the National Mall and the city behind it.
Set Yourself Up. Give your window a once-over. If there are scratches or smudges, check around and see if you can find one in better shape. You might be able to work with a subpar window by shooting through a clear spot in the glass; worst case, you’ll just need to make sure the camera is zoomed and focused past the scratches. (Minor marks won’t matter; numerous scratches will soften the image.) Be sure to clean the glass a bit with a clean cloth — sometimes the smudges are internal.
If your camera has a stabilization system turn it on. The camera I use on flights right now is the Sony A7RII, which has a built-in 5-axis sensor stabilizer. I’m pretty sure that’s the key element that made the photo of midtown Manhattan. But even if your camera doesn’t have stabilization, you manage by hand. Don’t brace on any part of the airplane itself since aircraft are in a continuous state of vibration as soon as they start moving. Your own body is a great stabilizer, so just hand-hold the camera and work to keep it as steady as you can. Just relax and work on staying aimed rather than still.
Open Fire! I usually shoot in shutter-priority mode, from 1/40 to 1/100, depending on how high I’m flying, and let the camera define aperture and ISO settings. When closer to the ground you want faster shutter speeds. Up high and in low light you can go slower, but not to go too slow: when you’re holding the camera by hand, it’ll be much more sensitive to movement. Experiment with manual settings, and try some in full-auto — sometimes the camera actually can do a better job.
If you’re shooting at night, switch to manual and bump up the ISO to between 2,000 and 5,000, and leave the aperture wide open and the shutter speed as low as you can without causing motion blur — generally about 1/40. Again, experiment, and zoom in on your file in the camera to see how sharp things are.