Photography from Commercial Flights

I’ve been known to take a cool photo or two from commercial flight. Here are a couple of pointers for your next flight.

I always try to fly Southwest. Numerous items on this list are made possible by Southwest’s open seating policy and friendly staff. Thanks Southwest.

Choosing your seat
Step one, you’re gonna need a window. Perfectly clean windows are hard to come by so just find one that isn’t too bad and make the best of it.

Avoid the wing
Sit either in front of the wing or behind it. Choosing in front will give you a much larger angle of view and potential shots. Choosing behind the wing, you’ll lock yourself into the last few rows of the aircraft.

To the back we go!
I recommend sitting in the back. Yes, you lose some of your view but did you sit in the back of the school bus? How about the back of your college lectures? It’s like that. Bit more relaxed, a little bit friendlier and that comes in handy when you bend the rules.

Flight Path
Frequent travelers know their flight paths. We take off, loop around this way and there is a great view of “X” on the left. 

I frequently fly from Columbus (CMH) to New York (LGA) connecting through Baltimore (BWI); sit on the left. You’ll often loop around the westside of Columbus getting a nice view of the downtown. The view into Baltimore is crap from the left, if you’re interested you might switch the right side for the landing. (Hooray Southwest open seating, sitting in the back, and being nice to flight attendants!) From BWI to LGA, you should also sit on the left side. You’ll get a nice view over Brooklyn looking at lower Manhattan and Midtown. I used to fly into Newark, but I liked the view into and out of LGA better.

Flight attendants
Be nice, say hello, smile, etc. Use some of that charm you’re always telling everyone you have.

If you’re going somewhere for the first time you can politely ask the flight attendant to ask the pilot if either side will have a nice view.

Be ready!
Camera bag open and at your feet. Once the crew takes their seats for take off you can grab your camera and be ready to shoot.

Take Offs & Landings
These are your best opportunities for great images. Make them count. You are technically breaking the rules by using a camera at this point but…you were nice to the flight attendants weren’t you? Oh, and you’re in the back where there are less people? You’re smart.

The Turn
Being ready for turns is huge, you can often get a straight down look on the world. It’s cool and gives you an interesting perspective on the world.

Schedule Interesting Light
It’s really easy for the light to be flat and uninteresting when you’re that high up. I always try to schedule a sunrise or sunset in to my flight. It doesn’t always work out but why not try?

Getting a clean window is important. It’s also important to know that airplane windows are curved and blur drastically toward the edges. There can also be significant light fall off around the window frame.

Use these to your advantage or avoid them with a longer lens. Either way, now you know.

Cameras & Lenses
For the most part I’ve been using a Nikon D700 but I’ve always had nice results with a Panasonic GF1 and an iPhone. Each one has it’s pros/cons.

Bump your ISO. You’re going to want to gather more light so that you can keep your depth of field larger and shutter speed fast. I’ve found in this case it’s better to stop your lenses down a bit for sharpness than to open them up for more light.

What lens should you be using? I enjoy the 85mm PC lens on my D700. You’re pretty high up there, 85mm is a good length. If you’ve got a professional zoom thats also a good option.

Wanna Tilt?
Still enjoying the “tilt shift rage”? At these altitudes and a T/S lens, I’d recommend shooting around f8 and a tilt of 6mm. Any more than that and you’ll likely end up with all blur.

Have fun
Stop looking at what’s on the camera’s LCD. It’s gonna look like crap. Just keep shooting, keep working that window. You’ll a handful of good to decent shots worth processing and then you’ll learn from all the junk that you filled your card with.