Musings of an Aviation Photographer

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Spectacular Cloud Sunset - Flight from Orlando to Atlanta 2008Being an a photographer who loves aviation, I always love shooting photos from aircraft.  Thankfully, given the chance to travel a few times per year on airliners or smaller civilian single engine aircraft, I naturally take every opportunity I can get to take photos from the air of the world below.  There’s something so fascinating to me about being up in the air beyond the heights your mind can comprehend realizing just how small you really are in this great big world, and to see how the human race and mother nature creates these extravagant patterns and magnificent shapes on this planet earth. I’m always amazed at how structures, cities, buildings, etc can come together to form these intricate patterns and shapes that are never seen by the people down below.  Many times, it’s just a coincidence that they happen to look that way from the air, it really gives a sophisticated look to a simple plan.  Same with mother nature and her endless shapes and unbelievable ability to create things that can never cease to amaze anyone with everything from naturally made straight lines in deserts to snaking rivers.

While most people sleep on airline flights, especially the longer 5 hour flights from coast to coast, I’m busy snapping away everytime I see something interesting.  Trailer Park - Flight to Buffalo New York 2010You never know what you’ll find on a long flight, and sometimes the photo opportunities will present themselves in mere seconds of time giving you about that same time to capture them till they vanish.  I take time to really plan out every bit of the journey on the flights so that I can get, at least I hope, the best photos possible.  Sometimes the flights are pretty dull for taking photos if it’s a really hazy day.  I’ve had flights where almost the entire flight we’ve flow through hazy weather that really makes shooting quality shots impossible.  Those flights I get what I can and just sit back and relax, because there’s nothing you can do (unless you own the airplane and perhaps can fly under the haze).  Being in the right location on the plane and knowing what direction the flight is going so you can anticipate where the sun will be can help a lot though.

Here’s some tips when it comes to shooting out aircraft:
Seat Placement

When shooting out of an airplane’s window, it’s often about luck and strategic positioning.  Depending on the airline, most airlines out there will allow you to select your seat beforehand.  I always prefer this as I can pick just the perfect seat and the perfect side of the plane based on where the sun will be for my flight.  When it comes to a smaller aircraft when doing flights for air-to-air shoots, you don’t have much of a choice, but then again you’re not on a long multi-hour flight.  While it may seem counter productive, I always tend to try and pick the side of the airplane that will be hit by the sun for the entire journey when on an airline.  This allows me to capture sun rises and sun sets, and while it can be annoying to have the sun in your face the entire flight which also brings about several different issues to consider which I’ll describe in a bit, I think the amount of spectacular shots you can achieve outweigh being on the otherside of the plane with the sun basically to your back.  Airlines like SouthWest, however, which are first come first serve type of seating, I always try and check in early so I’m able to be one of the first ones on the plane so I can pick where I want to be.  Another thing to consider when picking where you want to be is the wing and engines.  Sometimes having the aircraft’s wing in a shot can really add to the photo, but when you want a shot of just clouds or the horizon, it can be a bit more difficult because of the wing taking up most of the window.  So this leaves you two options: sitting in front of the wing of behind it.

Las Vegas – Flight from Buffalo New York 2010

  1. Sitting in front of the wing will give you an unobstructed shot of the ground below, and if you want to you can shoot backwards a bit and maybe get the intake of the aircraft’s engine (or propeller) in the shot as well.  If you’re looking for shooting just ground shots of the earth below, this is what I’d recommend.
  2. Sitting behind the wing gives you that classic photo with the aircraft’s wing in the photo, and also allows you to shoot backward a bit to have those precious extra few seconds to capture something you might have missed.  This is perfect if you’re looking to shoot shots of clouds, sun rises, sun sets, etc.  However, there is one MAJOR drawback with sitting in this seat, which is something most people don’t realize. It only affects ground shots, but it can really ruin your photos: JETWASH.  Basically, Jetwash (or wake turbulence) is the super heated exhaust of the aircraft that comes out of the back of the engine. It’s the force that propels the aircraft forward, and is a mixture of super heated air that is being blown out of the back of the engine after being mixed with fuel and set on fire. This Jetwash is a 5 foot in diameter stream of distorted air that grows in size as it leaves the engine. What this means for you, is basically a line of distortion in your ground photos. It’s the same as heat haze, where when you shoot something in the heat of summer and it looks all blurry and distorted because of the rising heat in front of the object, and it’s the same with the airliners and the jetwash.  So if you’re looking to shoot the ground, this is not the place to be.  That being said, I prefer this location because of the view of the wing of the plane.

So choosing where you sit can really make a difference in what you’re shooting.  In future posts I’ll talk a bit more about other things to consider and pros/cons for sitting into the sun and away from the sun.

So let’s get to more photos!  Here’s some favorite shots from to recent trips I went on from the west coast to the east coast.  The first one is a short sunset flight from Las Vegas Airport, Nevada back to Long Beach Airport, California on Jet Blue in 2006.  While it was a short flight, I made sure to shoot in the direction of the sunset to get some great rays of light over the mountains.  It was a colder day, so the fox was starting to appear near the taller mountains, and upon arriving at night over Long Beach the fog was really rolling in over the city making some spectacular and hard to capture shots of the city with an eerie cover creeping over it.

Fog rolls into Long Beach - Flight from Las Vegas 2006Fog and clouds rolls into California - Flight from Las Vegas 2006Fog and clouds rolls into California - Flight from Las Vegas 2006Fog and clouds rolls into California - Flight from Las Vegas 2006

Next was from a flight from Orlando, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia and then continuing to Orange County, California in November of 2008. I was lucky enough to have one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen with some of the most amazing cloud shapes I’d seen on any flight.  The photos came out spectacular, with almost a nuclear explosion quality to the sun as it passed behind the clouds on the way down.  These are by far my favorite ‘Through the Window’ captures I’d ever gotten and have gotten since!

Spectacular Cloud Sunset - Flight from Orlando to Atlanta 2008Spectacular Cloud Sunset - Flight from Orlando to Atlanta 2008Spectacular Cloud Sunset - Flight from Orlando to Atlanta 2008Spectacular Cloud Sunset - Flight from Orlando to Atlanta 2008Spectacular Cloud Sunset - Flight from Orlando to Atlanta 2008

And I’ll end this post with some random shots of earth from a recent summer 2010 trip to and from Buffalo, New York  and Orange County, California for a business trip, which both going to and coming home were day flights, which meant 5+ hours of being able to see America in the daylight.  Sadly, the trip coming home was really hazey, so the shots were limited, but the trip going to Buffalo was beautifully clear (minus some scattered clouds) across almost the entire United States it seemed!  There was one layover in Arizona (going to New York) and Las Vegas (coming back from New York) which changed up the flight path a bit each flight, which was nice to be able to see different parts of different states!

Colorado Mountains - Flight to Buffalo New York 2010Nevada Mountains - Flight from Buffalo New York 2010Hoover Dam, Nevada - Flight from Buffalo New York 2010Colorado River - Flight from Buffalo New York 2010Buffalo School - Flight from Buffalo New York 2010Las Vegas - Flight from Buffalo New York 2010

Keep an eye out for future posts of ‘Through the Window’!

One Response to “Through the Window: Part 1”

A Fan on: 4 August 2010 at 12:41 PM

No matter where or what you shoot… AWESOME!! Love the out of the window shots. I never thought of taking my camera out on flights.