Taking photos from a plane

On the face of it, taking pictures from a plane during daylight hours should be easy. Just point your camera, phone or tablet out of the window and click away. The trouble with that method, however, is that the pictures are often disappointing. That’s because there are many factors conspiring against you, ranging from dirty windows to dirty weather. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to minimise their effects. Here’s some of the most common factors, and what you can do to improve your photos.

Mountains of Iran

Mountains of Iran

The window

The window acts as a dirty lens filter. Wiping the window to get rid of any marks and smears will help, but keep in mind that it’s not a precision-ground glass filter but a hunk of tough plexi-glass or whatever material they use nowadays. Safety, not transparency, is the main property of airplane windows. To improve clarity, keep the camera close up against the window so that any remaining specks of dirt will be so out of focus that they’ll be invisible. The window also produces annoying reflections from inside the plane, but they shouldn’t be a problem as long as the camera is close up against the window. If you move back from the window, you’ll have unwanted reflections and visible dirty window marks.


Dubai – Low altitude. Shadows reveal more detail

The sun

Ideally you don’t want to be on the same side of the plane as the sun unless it’s a sunrise or sunset picture that you’re after. Otherwise, the sun’s nearby presence may wash out the picture with its glare. The angle of the sun is also important. The lower the sun, the longer the shadows. Provided they’re not too long, shadows are good as they outline the objects on the ground and make them stand out more. Also keep in mind that the lower the sun, the less powerful the light, so you may need to compensate the exposure settings. There are three ways to increase the exposure and compensate for low light.

Increase the sensitivity (ISO) of the camera.
This works but decreases the picture quality and makes the shot look more ‘grainy’ – called ‘noise’ in digital photography.

Decrease the shutter speed.
Keeping the shutter open for longer lets in more light, which solves the low-illumination problem, but it gives the vibrations more chance to come in and ruin the sharpness of the image. Holding the camera steady then becomes even more critical.

Open the aperture more.
Choose a lower f no. on your camera to open the aperture more and let in more light. This is the best solution at high altitude. In normal photography, aperture settings, in addition to controlling how much light is let in, also affect the focus range (called depth of field). It means that near objects might be in focus while objects further away will be out of focus, (think wedding portraits) and vice versa, but at high altitude, it’s not a problem because everything is so far away that the whole scene will be in focus.

Auto Settings

If you use auto settings to take the picture, your camera will decide which of those options it will choose to increase the exposure. Auto settings are great as long as you know how your camera works and what decisions it will make in various situations. That way you can over-ride the auto settings when you need to and choose the desired settings manually. Otherwise, you have to take what it gives you.

Snow covered terrain

Snow covered terrain



There’s nothing you can do about bad weather conditions. However, a common weather-related visibility problem is haze. The best way to deal with haze is to increase the contrast of your pictures after you’ve taken them and transferred them to your computer for some post-processing. A good photo-editing program such as Photoshop, or a free (open source) one like Gimp, can improve the look of the pictures that have been affected by haze. You can also increase the contrast of your shots at the time of taking them as most cameras have contrast and colour enhancement controls. These can be a bit ‘hit and miss’ though, and you don’t want to be fussing with controls when you should be taking pictures. You really need to see the pictures on a larger screen in order to make the most effective adjustments, so wait until you get to where you’re going and then you can give your full attention to improving them in terms of contrast, sharpness and colour saturation, etc.

Bangkok landing approach

Bangkok landing approach

Good Luck

Luck, unfortunately, is often the controlling factor. You can cross whole countries with nothing visible underneath apart from an unbroken blanket of cloud. It happens. With a little luck and perseverance, however, you can often get clear weather and clear and, hopefully, interesting photos of ‘down below’, so always keep your camera within reach.


All images by chasmac




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  1. dianethare
    • chasmac
  2. Ed Walker
    • chasmac

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