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The Red River Paper Blog
Red River Paper Blog

Shooting Super Images On Your Next Flight-Part 2

Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii. Image by Savannah Rohlede

By Arthur H. Bleich—

You’re in your hard-won window seat and have finished cleaning the window. This would be a good time to turn off the Autofocus feature on your camera. As I mentioned previously, Autofocus frequently will not do what you want it to and is not necessary for window seat pictures. You are, after all, shooting distant object  so just set the focus to infinity.

When you manually rotate the focus ring to infinity, it may go further than the the infinity mark. This to allows the focusing system to hunt before locking in when the camera is set to Autofocus  mode. So make sure to set the infinity mark at the white reference mark on the lens and not beyond it or image sharpness may be compromised. Some photographers I know tape it in place (just don’t forget to remove the tape before it’s set back to Autofocus).

Big Bird shadow. Image by Tim Bernas

Now set the ISO to 100 (or 200) for daytime shots (or from 800 up if it’s nighttime). The shutter speed should be set to anywhere between 1/300sec to 1/500sec using the Shutter Priority mode, usually marked S or TV (time value) on the mode dial. That will keep your shutter speed locked at that speed; the correct lens aperture will be automatically chosen by the camera.

However, I’ve always found that getting correct exposures can tricky in the air, due to changing light, haze and weather conditions. Here’s a tip on how to make sure you get an image that will sparkle when you print it out on the Red River paper of your choice. Use the Exposure Compensation button on your camera. This allows you to over or underexpose your image–make it lighter or darker– so you can choose the best one. It can keep the shutter speed constant while allowing you to change aperures.

Late afternoon over Antarctica. Courtesy Qantas Airways

If your camera indicates that f-8, at your pre-set shutter speed of 1/500sec, is the correct aperture, then go ahead and shoot an image at that setting. Then use the EC button to take two others– one at +1 and +2 and then another two at -1 and -2. You’ll then end up with five shots: your original exposure plus two overexposed (f-5.6 and f-4) and two underexposed (f-11 and f-16). It’s best to underexpose during the day and overexpose at night but that’s just a general rule and, in certain situations, begs to be broken.

Night shots over cities yield stunning results. Image by Colin Lloyd.

This technique is known as bracketing exposures. When using EC to bracket exposures, you’ll  be given the option to select less than full stops over and under, but I’ve found that doing so does not ’t result in a big enough exposure difference between images. So choose full stops (plus or minus 1, 2, 3 etc.).

You don’t have to do this for every shot; if you did, your memory card would fill up rapidly. Just use it when light conditions are extreme–like a bright sun slanting through dark clouds or nighttime images where the camera’s light meter sometimes gets confused.

Some cameras have an Automatic Bracketing feature that accomplishes the same thing. You set the camera to over or underexpose (or both) so when you take a shot it automatically shoots two (or more) additional images at different exposure settings. If you use that feature, again,always set it to bracket in full stops.

The ultimate view. Courtesy

The best lens to begin with is the lens you have. Experiment with different focal lengths if you have a telephoto. Any telephoto range on the short side, such as 24-70 will be perfectly adequate. If you want (or have to) include parts of the aircraft (wings, engines, etc.) then using wider focal length settings will usually keep everything in focus even when the camera has its focus locked to infinity.

If shooting ground or cloud images, choose any focal length that pleases you. However, using the maximum focal length of a telephoto may not give you the results you want and may create camera shake . If you decide to do so, up the shutter speed (and ISO, if necessary) to 1/1000sec, but even so, you may pick up heat waves or haze outside resulting in a distorted image.

Thunderstorms from on high. Image by Haley Luna

Finally, where should you hold the camera when shooting? All airplanes have engine and other vibrations so it’s not wise to place your camera directly in contact with the window. However, you should get as close to it with your camera as possible. One reason is that if there are scratches or nicks on the inside or outside of the window, getting in close throws them so far out of focus that they will disappear.

There are also internal reflections from objects inside the plane and interior cabin lights that can reflect off the window and show up in your image. Here’s a tip to handle that problem. Buy a large, soft rubber lens shade for your lens and put it in contact with the window. This will eliminate all interior reflections and act as a shock absorber (as long as it’s pliable) to dampen the plane’s vibrations. (See Resources below.) An alternative is to take a piece of opaque cloth (a sweater will do) and drape it over the lens so it extends out from it a bit and then shoot as close as you can to the window opening without touching it with the end of the lens.

Above Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. Image by Kyle Mijlof

Following the advice I’ve given you, you’ll be well prepared to take some absolutely stunning images from the air. Always keep your camera at the ready so it can be grabbed quickly. And don’t forget to give your images a bit of sharpening and enhancement in your imaging program; you’ll be amazed at how much better they can look.

Despite the hassles of air travel today, you may begin to welcome those tedious flights; time will go by faster, you’ll get a chance to exercise your creativity, and you’ll come up with some stunning images. Try it!

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you are not familiar with camera settings other than basic ones, drag out that dusty camera manual and practice the techniques I’ve suggested before you fly. Here are some essential things you should know how to do with your camera:

  1. Setting the mode dial to Shutter Priority.
  2. Setting different shutter speeds in Shutter Priority mode.
  3. Disabling Autofocus.
  4. Setting the focus manually to infinity.
  5. Using the Exposure Compensation feature.
  6. Using Automatic Bracketing (if your camera has that feature).
  7. The relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture.


You’ll find a large selection of rubber lens shades at B&H Photo. An inexpensive one will do just fine.

Michael Soroka is a former airline pilot and a  excellent photographer. If you want to go further and learn about special filters, tips on on post-processing, and more, you can can find him here.

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