I never cease to marvel at the technological achievement of flight. It is difficult to believe that it took less than a century for humankind to go from its first heavier than air flight to the establishment of a reliable, safe, and affordable aerial travel network. Sadly, aviation has lost its thrill for most people. Reading a newspaper on any given day, one is likely to see an article bemoaning delays, fees, rudeness, and discomfort on planes instead of the wonder expressed when the technology was new (despite it being noisy, expensive, relatively slow by modern standards, and considerably less safe).
These days, for many people flying is simply the most convenient method between Point A and Point B, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. For me, it’s also an opportunity to experience the world’s natural beauty from a largely unobstructed vantage point, especially when the route flies over wild lands that I may never have the opportunity (or the inclination) to set foot on.
For a long time, I thought of aerial photography as the domain of the professional photographer who could afford to charter their own aircraft. Aerial photography’s challenges are numerous, especially from the window of a commercial airliner. Still, with a little practice, decent editing software, and a lot of luck it is possible for an amateur photographer to end up with some satisfying images.
Everyone can agree that photography is best accomplished in open air, not by shooting through multiple layers of dirty and scratched plexiglass. Even under ideal circumstances, shooting through such windows lowers contrast and dulls colors, especially when shooting towards the sun. In addition, at cruising altitude, there is considerable haze due to dust and other small particles suspended in the air.
On many aircraft, a majority of economy seats are at or behind the wing. Unfortunately, the wing can block some scenery. In addition, when shooting from the rear of the plane you may find certain parts of the frame will be distorted by the engine exhaust. This may not be evident during wide angle shots, but zooming in can make for blurry pictures. With particularly captivating subjects, I recommend taking multiple shots, and at different zoom ranges. Once examined on a computer screen, you may well find half your frames (or more) weren’t sharp.
Choosing a Seat
Seat choice might have an impact on one’s opportunities for spectacular photography. Although there’s a bit of luck involved with winds and such, it may be possible to research the best side of an aircraft to sit on based on typical flight patterns involving particular airports.
For instance, I learned that flying from Cusco to Lima, the towering mountains of the Andes are best viewed from the right side of the aircraft. I heard that sitting on the left side of the aircraft increased my chances of catching views of the coastal scenery on approach to Nice Côte d’Azur Airport and selected my seats accordingly during a recent flight. Flight Aware is a good tool for checking historic flight paths when planning a journey.
Light, the essential element in the photographer’s craft, is worth taking into account. If the aircraft will be in flight at dawn or dusk and other scenery is anticipated, I often try to get a seat that I anticipate will face the sunrise or sunset. Of course, the trade off is that shooting into the sun increases the chances of flare and often illuminates the grime on windows, hampering any photos of the terrain below.
The terrain itself may also be backlit if shooting into the Sun. If the flight is expected to cross a photogenic mountain range, for instance, it’s better to have the sun on the opposite side of the aircraft from your seat. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Sun will be in the southern part of the sky, so when flying westbound I prefer to sit on the right hand side of the aircraft.
There is at least one silver lining to being stuck sitting behind the wing (which is subject to distortion from engine exhaust). The wings themselves can be a decent element in a photo. I think wing aesthetics have become a little more appealing in recent years as winglets have become more common.
I’ve found that the challenging conditions discussed above make the digital darkroom essential for practitioners of aerial photography. Due to the extensive processing that is often necessary to salvage images, it is advisable to shoot in RAW.
My typical editing process starts with converting the image from RAW, then creating a Levels adjustment layer in Photoshop Elements. To save time, I typically start with Auto Levels. If the effect is too intense, I can dial back the adjustment layer’s opacity. Sometimes Auto Levels makes the colors too funky and I manually adjust the Levels instead. On rare occasion, such as editing the photos of the Grand Canyon, I find Curves useful for restoring color. There is a limit to how far you can push the editing and image degradation will eventually occur if you go too happy with the sliders.
Infrared Aerial Photography
Hobbyists who’ve caught the “infrared bug” may find that their investment in a special camera can make for amazing aerial results. For aerial work, the camera must be modified to shoot near infrared. rather than using an infrared filter in front of a conventional digital camera. Using a filter results in long exposure times that make it impractical for aerial work.
The good news is that haze tends to be concentrated in the blue part of the visual spectrum. Since infrared cameras’ sensitivity is in the near infrared (and in some cases the red end of the visual spectrum), infrared aerial images tend to be much clearer. Shadowy areas reflect almost no infrared light, making for higher contrast landscapes on sunny and partially cloudy days; results are usually not spectacular on overcast days, but then again, on such days landscapes are likely to be hidden from the sky in the first place.
Infrared images still may benefit from some Photoshop processing, but tend to need a lot less than conventional photography, as these photos of Canyonlands National Park illustrate.
Flying in a small aircraft like the BN-2 Islanders used by Vieques Air Link on Puerto Rico or a helicopter provides some different opportunities. The glass still reduces contrast, but at lower altitudes the haze doesn’t interfere quite as much. Furthermore, the subjects are closer, and it may be possible to photograph out the front windscreen as well. On larger commercial airliners, similar opportunities may exist during takeoff and landing now that rules about electronics have been relaxed.
Various airports have sights of interest nearby. Perhaps my favorite is Portland, Oregon’s approach down the Columbia River Gorge with the volcanoes of the Cascades visible on both sides of the plane. The approach to Reagan National along the Potomac River provides impressive views of the Washington DC’s sights.
So the next time you have your camera and a window seat, give aerial photography a shot…or at least be sure your window shade is up so you can appreciate the views from the air!