Getting the shot
From the unfurling sprawl of the Grand Canyon to the sharp peaks of the Alps, there’s nothing like viewing the world from the skies to fuel your wanderlust. To make the most of photo ops at 35,000 feet, take tips from some expert aerial snappers
One of the great things about aerial photography is that you are never quite sure what you are going to see, even on a commercial airline flight. First, get a good window seat, but not one that’s directly over, or even a few rows either side of the wing. Ideally, position yourself near the front of the plane, so as not to get any distortion from the engine vapours. Do some digging into the plane’s flight path so you know what sights are coming up on either side – out of the left window you could be experiencing open water, while the other side catches the coastline. To prevent blurring, try photographing at a high shutter speed (I do about 1/2,000) and reduce glare by using your hand to block the reflection coming off the window’s surface.
I’ve spent the last 25 years hanging out of the sides of helicopters shooting aerial views. In a helicopter, the doors are off to prevent reflections and glare, and there are lots of safety concerns – not so in a standard aircraft. You need to ensure your lens is as close to the aircraft as possible without actually touching it. If you’re using a DSLR camera, you could try using a circular polariser filter – allowing light rays only travelling in one direction to enter the lens. You could also try a lens skirt or a large rubber lens hood, as both are great for blocking out window glare. A tip whatever the situation: set your camera to shoot in both RAW and jpeg. RAW photos are really worth the effort and give you a huge amount of control over the final image that you could never get from a jpeg. If you’re using the standard iOS camera app for iPhone, you’ll need to download a third-party app, such as Adobe Lightroom CC, to give you access to RAW.
Sunrise and sunset are what you want, as the beautiful golden light has such a special effect on a landscape. My favourite everyday lens to use on a plane would be my 24-70mm f2.8. I never go on a trip without it. While shooting aerial photos, it’s better to predict both your shutter speed and aperture setting before taking off – that way you save time in the air and can focus on taking the photographs. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the image. In this kind of situation, I try to shoot more photos than I think I’ll need, because worst-case scenario is taking your dream photo to later realise it’s blurry. Which leads to my last tip: have a memory card with plenty of space (and bring a spare!).
I fell in love with aerial photography by taking the window seat on family holidays as a child. Seeing the world from above and watching it become this mix of shapes, colours and textures amazed me as much then as it does now. If you feel the same, start by making the most of the blue hour and the magic hour. The ‘blue’ is the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset, and the ‘magic’ is the hour after sunrise and hour before sunset. This is when you’ll get the most colour in the sky. Employ the rule of thirds, a technique that encourages you not to put your point of interest right in the middle of your frame. Putting something off centre lets your eyes lead in to it. Which takes me to my next point: leading lines. Shadows, walls, rivers – let the lines lead your eye.
As you’re shooting from inside a plane window, pack a small microfibre cloth – that way you can give it a good clean before any stains from the surface ruin your shots. You’ll want to avoid shooting against direct sunlight, as the light rays will likely blur your image and give you lens flare. Take-off and landing are the most important minutes for aerial photography, as you’re close enough to the ground to have everything visible, so it’s important to be ready at these moments.