It seems that no matter where you go on vacation, there’s always some sort of airplane or helicopter tour available to let you get a better view. In fact, as you read these words, I plan to be on vacation, booking a sightseeing charter on some small plane. (I’ll try to send you a postcard.)
Even on an ordinary airline trip, there are some cool sights to be seen out the tiny little window. The next time you find yourself boarding a plane, snap a few shots. If you’re getting ready for your summer vacation, remember to pack your digital camera and remember these tips for getting some great shots from the passenger window.
If you’re headed off for a sightseeing trip, let the aircrew know you have a camera and would like a seat that is closer to one of the large windows. That’s not always possible–in a helicopter, for example, they arrange passengers by weight–but it doesn’t hurt to ask. In addition, if you’re on a sightseeing flight, ask the pilot before you take off if you can open any of the windows. Sometimes, regulations prohibit open windows, but getting glass out of the way can dramatically improve your shots. And, at the risk of being really annoying, if you’re stuck shooting through glass, ask if you can clean the windows beforehand. I once was positioned in front a horribly dirty window, but I asked and–voila!–ground crew wiped it down for me before we took off. I got much nicer photos as a result.
Watch Out for Vibrations
So, there you are: 10,000 feet in the air and circling the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, a Hawaiian waterfall, or the Statue of Liberty. The first thing you should remember is not to lean any part of the camera or lens against the airplane itself (including the window). It might seem like a good idea to steady the camera, but the reality is that the vibration from the engine will ruin your photos. Instead, be sure to suspend the camera in front of you, careful to keep from transmitting vibrations from the wall and window to your camera.
Likewise, shoot at the highest shutter speed possible to counteract the natural motion of the aircraft. If you camera has a shutter priority or action photography mode, you can use that. The more you zoom, the higher your shutter speed should be; if you’re taking a wide angle, panoramic-style shot of the earth below you, a leisurely 1/30 or 1/60 second might be enough. But if you take advantage of your camera’s 10X optical zoom to pick a squirrel out of a tree from a helicopter that’s 5,000 feet in the air, you should be shooting at the fastest speed your camera can muster. To help your camera find a faster speed, try increasing the ISO a little.
At the distances you’ll be shooting, there’s no need to focus your camera; everything will be at “infinity.” If your camera has a manual focus mode, use that mode and then set the focus on infinity. The advantages? You don’t have to wait while the camera fruitlessly searches for the right focus before each shot, and you don’t risk the camera accidentally focusing on dirt on the aircraft window and ruining your shot. If your camera doesn’t have a manual focus control, then it almost certainly has a “landscape” exposure mode (sometimes called a scene setting). One of the things that Landscape does is set your camera to focus at infinity, so that’s a good substitute. Oh, and one more thing — for the love of god, turn off the flash. You can’t illuminate the bottom of the Gand Canyon with the flash on your camera, you can only get a huge, honkin’ reflection off the airplane window.