How to shoot aerial photos from commercial flights
With more than 30 years’ experience in shooting images from the window seat of commercial airlines, Peter Hendrie knows a thing or two about aerial photography. Here’s his advice for budding artists who fancy turning their window seat into a landscape studio.
1. Get the right flight
Firstly, take into account the time of day in which the flight will be traveling over areas you wish to photograph. I choose flight times that will give me the chance of getting the best images. Flights during the early morning for a glowing light or the late afternoon for the warm tones and dramatic light are ideal.
2. Get the right seat
The first step is to research the flight path using an app. With this information, you will be able to choose which side of the aircraft your window seat should be for photographing a particular landmark or scene. For example, I used the Flight Tracker app on my smartphone to study the flight path and was then able to take photographs of Mount Fuji as seen in my book, The Window Seat, from both the inbound and outbound flights.
For the flight from Melbourne to Tokyo, I chose a window seat on the left side of the cabin and the photo was taken just after sunset.
For the flight from Tokyo to Melbourne, I booked an early morning flight and
photographed from my window seat on the right side of the cabin.
Another example is the photography of Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre. This image was taken from Melbourne to Guangzhou. The left side of the aircraft was west-facing and provided a view of the lake.
On the return flight, I chose a window seat on the right side of the aircraft, which was now west-facing. This provided me with a different angle from which to view Lake Eyre, with a different quality of light.
With most flights, seat selection is available at the time of your booking. However, for a domestic flight in Peru between Lima and Cusco, the seat selection was only available 24 hours before the flight.
The website was only available in Spanish, which I don’t speak. A similar situation occurred for a flight from Doha to Muscat. This leads to the next tip…
3. Ask for help
A few times when I was unable to confirm a suitable window seat in advance, I sought the help of the hotel concierge. In Lima, for example, I briefed the concierge that I needed his help with a Spanish language booking site at 3pm. I returned to his desk a few minutes early so as soon as the clocked ticked to 3pm, we were logged onto the site.
Of the available seats, there were only a couple that were suitable, and we were able to confirm one for me. If there are no window seats online, arrive early at the airport and ask at the check-in counter.
And if that fails, be ready at the departure gate to approach the counter as soon as the airline staff arrive and ask them for a window seat. Explain to them you are a photographer and why a window seat is important for you to have.
4. Reflections on aircraft windows
Reflections from the aircraft windows are a big problem, but here’s how you can minimise them. Firstly, it may sound strange, but wear dark clothing, without patterns, stripes and metallic buttons. If you can, also avoid light-coloured or patterned clothing as this will be reflected on the window and that will be visible in your image.
Secondly, a rubber lens hood on the camera will also help reduce reflection when it is placed on the surface of the window. Finally, use a soft cloth to wipe the window clean before you start.
5. Distortions can be visually interesting
Aircraft window are composed of layers of varying types of acrylics, plastics and polycarbonates. The interaction of these different layers creates optical effects that cause light rays to be refracted and polarised. These optical effects will influence the clarity of the colours and the sharpness or softening of details of different areas of the image.
When shooting through the aircraft window, I constantly change the position and angle of the camera so I am shooting through different parts of the window to take advantage of the variations in the refractions and polarisation.
Photographs in The Window Seat were taken during a period of three decades, using a range of cameras. The analogue photographs were taken on Nikon cameras – Nikon F2, Nikon F3 and Nikon F5. Some of my early digital images were taken using a Nikon D200.
However, the vast majority of the photographs were taken in recent years when I moved to mirrorless digital cameras. For all of these images I have used the same Lumix GH5 camera with a Panasonic 14-140mm / F3.5-5.6 lens. This lens provides all of the focal lengths you will ever need to photograph from a window seat, and has been my primary camera for the past several years because it is reliable, versatile and lightweight to carry wherever I go, whether on land or in the air.
The other advantage of a compact kit is it frees me from having to carry a large, heavy camera bag. I always place the compact camera bag on the floor, next to my feet. I leave it open so the camera can be quickly accessed. The shutter is set to a fast speed, 1/500th of a second.
7. Before takeoff and landing
Things happen quickly and you can miss something within the blink of an eye. The moments during take-off and landing present more photographic opportunities for you. Ask a flight attendant what side of the plane will have the view of the city.
For example, when landing in Doha, Qatar, the flight attendant suggested I move to the other side of the cabin, when at the last minute, there was a change in plans for which runway would be used for landing. Had I not spoken to her earlier, she would not have made this critical suggestion.
8. Extra batteries
Pack two extra batteries so they are always handy. I have two of these batteries in the small camera bag. The lesson for this tip was learnt when I had a very short transit time between two flights, which meant a few hours’ sleep in a hotel and not enough time to fully charge the camera battery.
The next morning, when I was photographing one of the most spectacular views of Dubai, my battery suddenly went flat. I had already taken some great shots but was very disappointed that the photography had come to an abrupt stop. Since then, I always pack back-up batteries for every device I use.
9. Be ready
Firstly, when on the flight, the camera bag is set down on the floor, next to my feet. The bag is open so the camera can be accessed within seconds. Secondly, just because the skies are cloudy and there’s zero visibility, don’t think you can sit back and relax, or watch a movie or take a nap.
On a flight over South America, travelling at close to 1000km/h and an altitude of 30,000 feet, there was nothing but thick white clouds so I dozed off. My wife was sitting next to me and suddenly blurted out just one word: mountain. That was my cue. Within seconds, as I glanced out the window, I grabbed my camera.
The clouds had parted and I had before me a stunning view of the Andes mountain range that was only visible for a few seconds before the clouds blocked the view again and the aircraft left it behind. Had I not had my camera at the ready (and an alert wife!) I would not have been able to get the shot.
10. Be discreet
I always put the camera shutter on silent so I won’t disturb or invite the curiosity of passengers near me. Any distraction, such as acknowledging a comment or question, could mean missing a photogenic scene that is only visible for a fleeting moment. It relaxes me to feel free to take as many photographs as I like, knowing I am not creating any disturbance to other passengers.
11. Use the entertainment screen
On the entertainment screen in the back of the seat in front of you, select the flight map and have it displayed while you photograph. When I have captured a particularly good shot, I quickly take a photograph of the flight map.
This is invaluable to use, along with Google Maps, to identify the exact location of the photograph when you are back home, editing and captioning your photographs. ❂