Vacation Photos from the Airplane Window

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. 


Plan Ahead 

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.  

Shoot Fast 

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.  

Don’t Focus 

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.

4 Responses to “Vacation Photos from the Airplane Window”

  1. Minette Says:

    Excellent information!

  2. Tim Adams Says:

    Got your site from your book about digi cameras, bought from Waterstones, UK. Haven’t been able to put it down. I came by a Canon A95 by way of it being left in my bar in London, it’s not the first and am sure it won’t be the last! I’ve had great fun taking shots until I started reading your book and and have found a new way! planning and time and a manual mode have brought a new hobby. I was given Photoshop last year but have not had enough time to sit and hack through the book or play enough to make anything decent from my pics until I read your book, it’s been a great help.
    I’m now looking for a DSLR to upgrade to:

    NIKON D80
    SONY A100
    CANON 400D
    NIKON D40
    PENTAX K100D

    been looking at these as an entry level DSLR, do you recommend anyof these or know of one better? Or maybe just buying some lenses for the A95 for the moment.
    I won’t bore anymore, regards, Tim.

  3. Dave Says:

    Thanks for the note, Tim. My advice always is: any Digital SLR is a perfectly good choice; they are all capable of taking great pictures, and if you’re just starting out, pretty much any DSLR has more features and capacity than you are capable of realistically using. That said, I have always had a fondness for Nikon, but that’s a personal preference. Good luck.

  4. krishna Says:

    Hi dave,

    I own a nikon D40, bought it to learn photography. But unfortunately i could’nt find any free online courses. Could you suggest any thing for me?
    Appreciate your help on this

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