Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How to Shoot Good Pictures from a Plane

Today's topic, dear readers, is how to shoot interesting and decent pictures from airplanes. As those of you who read this blog regularly may know, I travel fairly frequently for work (although I am trying to cut down).  I also enjoy some dabbling with photography, and so one of my frequent subjects of photography is travel, particularly from up in the air while in an airplane.

One of Harriet's stuffed animals contemplates the view while traveling with me.

I have long held that if I ever stop enjoying the view from the air, then I'll know my soul is truly dead. So far, not dead (though I've had a couple of close scrapes, still).  Part of what keeps me enjoying these views is the fact that you can see so many strange and unexpected things below, if you look carefully.  Complex stories and geometry form in the ordinary landscape, even something as "flat" as the cornfields of Iowa, and there are many beautiful and mysterious things hidden in the interstices of the world.

Seeing something interesting, however, is a long way from being able to effectively capture it in your camera and to convey that same feeling of interest to others. Our eyes and brains are very good at compensating for distortions and patching around obscurations that pop out and destroy the view when captured in a photograph.  Here, then, are my tips for capturing interesting images from an airplane:
  • Sit forward of the airplane wing: Obviously, you don't want to be sitting over the airplane wing, as it will blot out most of your view.  You also don't want to sit behind the wings, however, because the hot exhaust from the engine creates large areas of rippling visual distortion.  On big planes, sitting in front of the wing may cost you a little extra if you aren't a frequent flyer, but on small regional flights you can generally pick any seat.
  • Be mindful of the window: Shooting through a window makes your life much more difficult: you need to deal with reflections of yourself, the camera, and the cabin; the rounded window frame is obnoxious to rectangular images, and the window near the border often causes significant distortion of the image.  I find that these can often be remedied by moving myself and the camera with respect to the image.  For example, with reflections, sometimes I can get out of the way, while other times I move to uniformly shadow the area that I am shooting through.  The contortions needed, however, are sometimes quite significant.
  • Takeoff and landing are key: Cameras are allowed during takeoff and landing, as they fall into the same category of "personal electronics" as music players and phones.  These are some of the best times to shoot, since you are closer to the ground and have more interesting angles on the infrastructure that you pass.
  • Haze can be helped with post-processing: when you are high up, there is an inherent haze from the amount of atmosphere between you and subjects on the ground.  This can be helped, to some degree, by post-processing; programs like Adobe Lightroom have specific mechanisms to help with haze.  They're no panacea, but they can certainly bring the image you get from your camera closer to what your eye was feeling.
  • Always, always, always have your camera out: Wonderful images appear without warning and vanish in a heartbeat, especially at takeoff and landing, and you can't exactly ask to stop or go back to find the angle that you want again.
  • Keep track of your location: It helps to know where you are, in order to be able to better interpret what you are seeing. When there is a seat-back entertainment system, this is pretty easy, since they generally have a map built in as one of the functions; without it, have a map (even the crappy one from the airplane magazine can help a lot) and keep track of the time since takeoff in order to be able to at least roughly estimate where you are.
  • Don't forget to look close to home: Despite flying into and out of it many dozens of times, I'm still finding interesting things within just a few minutes of the Eastern Iowa Airport.
  • Be prepared for possible disappointment: Despite all preparations, sometimes it's just hopeless.  Your window may be heavily scratched, smeared, fogged, or iced. There may be fog nearly down to the ground and nothing but utterly bland and boring clouds from above.  When this happens, there's nothing you can do, any more than you can about a bad sky when you're on the ground, so simply cultivate what tranquility you can.
And so, my dear readers: go out, and share your visions!  Here are a few my own personal favorites (all also already posted on my photo blog):
Snow shadows, Eastern Iowa
Peace-sign neighborhood, outside of Chicago
Boston cargo docks

Post a Comment