To be honest, it’s not a deal breaker for me. I’m perfectly happy wherever I sit on a plane, as long as it’s not in the cargo hold (although I imagine the luggage could be quite comfy to lie on). I don’t specifically request a window seat. More often than not I’m fast asleep before the plane takes off until after it lands. That usually helps me be rested enough to go out shooting as soon as I’ve checked in to my accommodation.
But every once in a while I’ll glance out of the window and marvel at the planet below me. It’s not the same view as from space but it does put our one little Earth into a humbling perspective, when mountains and cities become small points of rock and light and bring home just how small our world can seem.
Now, if I’m awake on a plane I’ll probably be reading. I’ll have a book or a magazine in my lap…. as opposed to a camera. I’m not holding or keeping my gear on or around my seat, not even a light mirrorless kit. The person sitting next to me is invariably freaked out by the shifty-looking brown man sitting next to them; the last thing I want to do is agitate them any more by littering the area with strange pieces of equipment.
So all of these pictures were taken discreetly with either my phone or a small compact camera and their quality obviously reflects this. If that means you stop reading now then be my guest. Of course have your DSLR or main camera with you if you can to get these window seat shots. I’m not taking them to make billboards out of them and discretion was more important to me than pixel-level sharpness.
Taking photos from the window seat is not always as easy as it may seem. A lot depends on the light, the cleanliness of the window or the fact that there’s a gigantic wing taking up your view! Hopefully you’ll be lucky enough not to have any obstructions.
Getting a sharp shot at night is a challenge for any small camera sensor. Obviously a slow shutter speed won’t help, primarily because there isn’t much to rest the camera on, and even if you could the plane is in motion anyway. So you have to rely on a high ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed. And with high ISOs on small sensors you might as well smear Vaseline on the window. I’m not saying it’s impossible to get the shot and you will argue that’s exactly why you need a hefty, cumbersome DSLR in your lap, but generally it’s tricky. On my phone I’ll use the ‘Night Shot’ mode if it has one, or crank up the ISO on the compact (which fortunately shoots RAW) and then clean it up in post. Obviously don’t use flash or you’ll get nice bright light reflected back at you.
If the window isn’t especially clean (they clearly forgot that you’d be in that seat with your camera) then opening up to a wider aperture and focusing on something into the distance should render any specks invisible from your shot. A wide aperture might sacrifice absolute detail across the entire frame but how much do you mind at 35,000 feet? The lens on the compact camera I used was capable of F/2.8 across its zoom range. That also helped to keep the ISO low by letting in more light. I have also had mixed results with a polarising filter to cut down reflections, with it occasionaly making things worse with a colour cast. I can only surmise that it depends on the glass itself.
And what to photograph? Well, above the clouds one might be disappointed that nothing can be seen below them, but why not make the clouds the subject? After all they form an endless variety of shapes and textures. With a limited colour spectrum up there there’s every reason to accentuate their form by rendering in black and white.
When the land does appear the clouds may actually help provide some sense of scale in their relationship with it.
Obviously much depends on the altitude of the aircraft. A higher altitude makes it easier to capture mountains and geographical features, whereas a lower altitude brings human structures and buildings into view.
Anywhere in between might present some grand vistas of entire towns or coastal outlines.
If the sun is on the opposite side of the plane then lots of interesting shadows might break up the land below.
And if you happen to be up there around sunset, who can resist the view at the horizon?
Of course a window seat doesn’t just have to be in an aeroplane. These were shots I made from a helicopter and using my mirrorless gear. So if you have the chance to get up there to specifically take aerial shots then go for it. It’s not really my thing but I’m glad I did it.
Anyway, as always this won’t teach you anything new. But as always it is only my objective on this site to encourage people to shoot more and procrastinate less. At the risk of repeating myself (I would call it being consistent) taking your own actual photos is far more exciting than reading about or viewing someone else’s on a screen and I simply want you all to have as much enjoyment and excitement as I do. While Nasim is busy working hard to complete educational videos for you I hope you will forgive this filler content. He and his team will be back soon with more worthy posts. In the meantime I hope that my continued encouragement is acceptable to you. I’m sorry if it isn’t.