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Aerial photography (02/26/2006)
By Tom Hirsch

When on a trip, you want to take as many meaningful photos as possible. Most of us don't begin shooting until we reach our destination. Frequently, though, there is a period of hesitation before really getting in the groove of shooting. A few good shots can be missed because of a thing called "picture-procrastination." So why not take a few preparatory shots on the way to your destination?

The mode of transportation will have some bearing on the type of pictures you can take. Each method of travel has certain characteristics that set it apart, but there are things that make taking pictures from an airplane unique.

From a plane, things are perceived differently. You get a whole new perspective of landscapes, cityscapes, mountains and rivers. And cloud formations can be absolutely spectacular. If you fly over the vicinity of your destination, you can use the opportunity to make an aerial record of the local.

When flying, though, you should keep in mind a few factors that don't apply when taking pictures on solid ground. Not that photographing from the air is any more difficult - it's just different.

First, the down side. You can't expect to get top-notch photos when taking pictures through the window of a commercial plane. The double or triple-pane glass will cause some distortion, the window is usually tinted an unphotogenic yellowish-green, and you can bet that it'll be dirty. Even though the quality of the pictures may not be the best, by following a few guidelines you can still get some memorable photographic keepsakes of the flight.

When being assigned a seat, ask for (1) a window seat (2) on the shady side of the plane (3) in front of or behind the wing. A forward seat is best because the jet engine exhaust can distort the image somewhat.

Motion is another factor. The plane will be moving at a very high rate of speed, so if you'll want ground shots as you take off or land, you should use at least an ISO 400 speed film or a setting of ISO 400 on a digital camera. A shutter speed of 1/1000 should be fast enough to provide sharp images.

When photographing through a plane window, hold the camera with the lens close to the window, but not touching it. This will reduce vibration, and lessen the chance of window reflections.

Also, keep in mind that many autofocus cameras focus on window glass rather than through it. If your camera has a manual-focus mode or infinity-lock, be sure to use it.

When shooting from a plane, most shots will include the horizon. It's important that you keep it horizontal. On the other hand, you can get some very dramatic shots if the horizon is tilted. If you try this, be sure that the horizon is tilted considerably. Otherwise it will look like you tried to get it horizontal and blew it.

In the air, various factors can create false readings with exposure meters. Bright scenery such as snow or a light colored sandy beach can result in underexposure. The result would be lack of detail in the shadows, and colors would be muted. For compensation, on a compact film camera, use the backlight button. With an SLR or digital camera, you could increase exposure by a stop or two, or set the exposure compensating dial to +1 or +2. Try it with both settings to find out what works best with your camera. Dark scenery on the ground can result in some overexposure, but no compensation should be needed for this.

Another factor is atmospheric haze. If you're a single-lens-reflex (SLR) user, your UV or haze filter will sharpen up the images to some degree by reducing this invisible haze (the skylight or 1A filter will have little effect on haze reduction). With a compact 35mm or a digital camera that doesn't accept filters, overexposing somewhat will reduce the effect of the haze.

If you keep these factors in mind, you should come back with some good aerial photos. More importantly, you'll gain valuable experience in thinking photographically in preparation for when you get to your destination. 


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