It’s 6am in Keflavik, Iceland. I just arrived from Toronto where I’m waiting for my next flight to Norway this afternoon. I left Toronto after dark, and arrived in Iceland in the dark. In the middle of our flight, somewhere over Greenland, there was a glow taking over the sky. The captain of the airplane announced over the intercom that there were Aurora Borealis outside the left side of the plane. I scrambled for my camera, my batteries, then memory cards and started photographing the northern lights from my window seat.
Normally I’d photograph the northern lights at a 8 to 15 second exposure depending on the ambient light from the moon, but it’d be impossible to do this handheld on a moving plane. I slowed down my shutter to 1/6th of a second which is the slowest I’ll take a photo handheld (anything slower and you’re pretty much guaranteeing you’ll get a blurry photo from camera shake) and then I jacked up the ISO. Ideally you want to avoid going over a certain threshold, every camera is different, I know I can push mine well beyond ISO 8000 and still have a relatively clean image, but if it’s the difference between having a shot or having NO shot, I’m alright with breaking my own rules.
After the excitement of the light show, a number of people on the plane asked if I could send them the photos I had taken. I realized that a lot of people don’t have a lot of experience taking photos from an airplane window. I wanted to write this to provide some insight so if the opportunity ever presents itself, you can be ready for it!
It was no accident I was on the left side of the plan looking north. I knew our flight trajectory and I’ve made the trip multiple times before. Even if you’ve never taken a flight before, research your route. Perhaps you’re flying over an epic landscape or have the potential to witness a phenomena like the Northern Lights. Stack the cards in your favour and do a little planning ahead to put yourself in the right position. For example, on our flight back from Norway, we will be flying over the southern tip of Greenland, which is best seen on the right side of the plane, so I’ll check in accordingly!
Keep Your Camera Close
I was actually guilty of not following this rule today, luckily I managed to still get to my camera out quickly enough. If I had planned better, I would have had my camera in my personal bag which I can have in my lap or underneath my seat. Photogenic moments usually don’t last very long when you’re on a plane, be ready for them and keep your camera close.
Timing is everything. Shoot right after take off and wait for the pilot to bank. Depending on your flight and your route, keep an eye out for iconic landscapes. The nicest view of Lake Powell in Arizona I’d ever seen was on a commercial flight, same with the Colorado Sand Dunes. If you’re not paying attention though, you’ll miss them entirely!
Turn your flash off. This is obvious for most people but I saw about half of the plane’s passengers trying to photograph out of their windows with their flashes on. So I’m putting this in here.
Manual Focus mode is critical for focusing through airplane windows. They’re usually three panes of glass with scratches on the inside and frost on the outside. Most cameras have a really difficult time focusing through them. If it’s dark outside and you can actually see what’s in focus then bring your focus to infinity and roll it back just a touch.
If I was describing how to do aerial photography I’d say a good rule of thumb is to avoid going under 1/1000th of a second with your shutter speed. You’ll have to break that rule and shoot as slow as you need to with your limit light. That being said, jack up your ISO before slowing down your shutter under 1/200th of a second. You can take away some noise from a high ISO image, but you can’t make a blurry photo sharp.
- Push your lens right against the window. The lens needs to be as close as possible to the glass so remove any lens hoods or other filters you might have.
- Do your best to control the ambient light around you, if you’re photographing a low light scene outside your window, make sure your reading light is off. If you’re shooting extra low light like I was here, make sure all of your neighbours lights are off too, they’ll thank you when they realize they can see the northern lights better as well.
- Use your spare hand as a lens hood by blocking out any leaking light from the cabin of the plane from your lens. Even if you have your lens right against the glass window, you might still have some light getting in, move your have in front of the side of the lens that’s letting the light in, and that should help.
I have a saying that I repeat to myself pretty often when I’m trying to create a photo, “if it’s not right, it’s wrong”, meaning, if it’s not good, it’s bad. It forces me to try harder and harder to create the shot I really want, without settling. When it comes to photographing from commercial planes though, you’re not going to get the same standard of photo you might wish for, but at the end of the day, I can tell friends of my exciting flight over Greenland and have this semi-OK photo, rather than no photo at all.