Everyone loves to capture plane-window photos; they’re perfect for social media, they tell a great story, plus they capture the excitement of traveling to an amazing photographic destination.
But taking photos out of a plane window isn’t as simple as pointing your camera and tapping the shutter. Instead, if you want to create beautiful, sharp, well-exposed shots, you must use the right settings, wait for the right moment, and create a compelling composition.
It’s all in this article: The six tips and techniques you absolutely must know for amazing out-the-window results. That way, the next time you’re flying 30,000 feet above the ground, you’re ready to immortalize the experience!
Let’s dive right in.
1. Keep the lens away from the window
When you’re shooting out the window, it’s tempting to put your camera’s lens right up against the glass. After all, in addition to cutting down on unwanted reflections, this approach steadies the camera, right?
Not quite. While pressing the lens on the glass can help with reflections, it actually causes your camera to shake more, not less. Unfortunately, planes vibrate as they fly, and when the plane window touches a part of your lens, it’ll transmit those vibrations straight to the camera sensor (which will produce lots of image blur).
The better strategy is to keep your camera held slightly back. Tuck in your elbows, and if your lens or camera offers image stabilization, make sure the technology is active. To reduce reflections, attach a hood to the lens and position your setup as close to the window as you can get it without any contact.
(If you don’t have a lens hood, you can cup your free hand around the end of the lens or you can cover your camera with a shirt or jacket.)
While avoiding contact between the lens and the window will reduce camera shake, it won’t eliminate it entirely. But if your shutter speed is fast enough, this won’t matter; the split-second shutter will capture a sharp shot before the shake has time to cause problems. So boost your shutter speed if you can (and don’t be afraid to increase your ISO to ensure you capture a balanced exposure).
2. Switch to manual focus
Cameras often get confused when shooting through glass, especially dirty and/or scratched glass. They try to focus on the glass instead of the subject outside, which is generally not what you want.
So if your camera has the option, switch to its manual focusing mode. Then slowly adjust the focus point until you get your main subject tack-sharp.
It can help to take a test shot, then zoom in on your camera LCD. That way, you can check the focus and make adjustments accordingly.
If your setup doesn’t offer a manual focusing option, try putting your camera right up against the glass and focusing on your subject. (If your lens is close enough, the glass shouldn’t pose much of a problem.) Then lock the focus, and bring your camera back into position. While shifting the camera will technically cause the plane of focus to shift, as long as your subject is reasonably far from the plane window, this won’t make a huge difference, and you’ll still end up with a sharp shot!
(Pro tip: If you use the focus-lock method shared above but you keep capturing out-of-focus shots, try narrowing your aperture to f/8 or so. The resulting deep depth of field should help compensate for the focusing error.)
3. Make sure to shoot early in the flight
In my experience, the handful of minutes just after takeoff is the best time to shoot through the plane window. Why? A couple of reasons.
First, once you’ve been flying for a while, the windows tend to ice up or collect condensation, which will decrease image sharpness and make it tough to focus. When the plane has been on the ground for an extended period, however, the condensation and ice evaporate, giving you a clear(ish) window to work through.
Second, when you’re just taking off, you’ll see a huge variety of subjects. You can capture the airport from above (and use it to tell the story of your departure), you can capture rows of houses and cars (which often look delicate and even cute), and you can shoot beautiful buildings (if the airport is reasonably close to a city).
But as the plane gains altitude, you’ll get too high to capture lots of interesting subjects, and you’ll struggle to create a compelling composition.
Of course, you can often find interesting subjects again when the plane starts to land – but why not maximize your time behind the lens and photograph during both takeoff and landing?
4. Wait for the plane to bank
Once the plane is relatively high in the sky, it can be pretty difficult to take shots of the landscape far below. You may need to position your camera at a steep angle, which can increase the likelihood of reflections and will limit your compositional options.
Fortunately, planes don’t just sit in the sky; every so often, they bank, which – when in the right direction – will give you an opportunity to capture the ground.
This banking generally happens soon after takeoff and just before landing, and it doesn’t last long, so you need to be ready. Carefully set and lock the exposure, and make sure to lock your focus, too (it’s fine to tilt your camera so you can focus on the ground).
Then, when the bank begins, start photographing with abandon. (Your camera’s burst mode can be helpful.) Don’t stop shooting until the bank is finished!
5. Turn off your flash
Planes tend to be dark (especially if you’re flying at night), so you might be tempted to turn on your flash. (Alternatively, your camera may sense the limited ambient light and activate the flash automatically.)
Regardless, make sure to manually switch your flash off.
For one, a flash certainly won’t illuminate the area outside the plane window; no flash is strong enough to have an impact beyond 20 feet or so. And a flash will cause plenty of unpleasant glare and create blinding window reflections, so you won’t be able to see out the window and your shots will be ruined.
If your shots are turning out dark, you have a few options. You can widen your lens aperture, you can boost your ISO, you can add positive exposure compensation, or you can lower your shutter speed. If you’re on a long flight, you might also simply consider waiting until things get lighter!
6. Include points of interest in your compositions
Scenes outside plane windows can often seem quite spectacular to the eye, but when you try to capture the beauty, you end up with images that are just…boring.
This is because great photos generally need an anchor point – something that catches the viewer’s attention and gets them to engage with the scene.
So instead of just pointing and shooting, look for a point of interest that draws the eye. This can be anything: a cloud formation, another plane, a coastline, or even a setting sun. For a creative result, consider incorporating elements of the plane itself, such as a wing or an engine. And if you want to make your shots even more unique, try to incorporate elements from inside the plane, such as a person’s face, a hand, or a drink table.
That way, you’ll end up with a much more compelling image!
How to take photos out of a plane window: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture plenty of stunning out-the-window shots on your next flight!
So remember the tips I’ve shared. Practice setting up your camera in advance. And have fun!
Where will you be flying next? What images do you plan to take? Share your thoughts in the comments below!