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Tips For Shooting Time-Lapse Videos On A Plane With An iPhone

There is no doubt iPhones are becoming useful tools in the photography realm. The latest 8MP camera on the iPhone 4s has utility worth mentioning and using. I have been playing around with this device for only a month and already am becoming endeared to the ability to create time-lapse films in 1080p video quality.

As I travel often, and my frequent flyer status allows me to often choose a window seat, I have taken up the hobby of shooting time-lapse while on the plane. The subject matter is unique and the opportunities for new and varied subject matter is vast. While I would love to shoot more of these videos with a DSLR camera, the setup won’t fit every flight. Luckily, an iPhone will.

From my most recent trips, here now are a few tips to shoot your own videos followed by a link to another post describing which app I have found works well and how to use it.

Watch The Sun

Know your route and know which side the sun will be on. This isn’t vital, as great video can be taken looking toward the sun, but having the sun on the opposite side of the plane from you can help even out exposure. How are you going to know where the sun is? First, use an app like Flight Aware or their website and plot your flight on a day it runs previous to your actual flight. You won’t take the exact route as a previous flight, but it will be close.  You’re going to want to combine that data with…

Know Your Side

The Photographer’s Ephemeris or LightTrac are great tools for modeling the location of the sun at any time of the day for any point on Earth. I used to suggest The Photographer’s Ephemeris but have found the simple slider for time of day on LightTrac (thanks to a DPS reader for pointing out this app to me) to be very helpful for this type of planning. Additionally it will give shadow detail which can further help with planning. This type of plotting is a bit easier to do on a computer screen, rather than an iPhone.

I would suggest having LightTrac available on your phone and Flight Aware showing your path on a computer. This way you can move the location in LightTrac to trace the route while referencing the computer screen. This will also make you feel ultra geeky awesome and is completely optional. But some of us like planning ahead and are geeks.

Pick Your Seat

With this information in hand, it’s time to pick your seat. If you want a clean shot with nothing else in the scene, then pick a seat forward of the wing and engine so nothing else will show.

Include Something

On the other hand, it can be very useful to have part of the wing or engine in the frame to give a point of reference. For this, pick a seat slightly ahead of the engine so it doesn’t over take the view as in one of my videos here.

Use The Window Shade

Another handy trick is to use the window shade to hold the iPhone in place. This works well as long as you can tilt the iPhone down slightly in order to show more ground. If the phone is simply placed behind the whole, drawn shade and held flat to the window, it will likely be tilted up and show less ground.

Grab A GorillaMobile

Tips For Shooting Time-Lapse Videos On A Plane With An iPhoneAnother option for holding the camera in place is to use a GorillaMobile. This is one of the popular Gorillapod adjustable tripods especially made for the iPhone and, if luck is with you, can be attached to an armrest to hold the camera in a perfect location.

Be Careful Of The Exit Rows

Two things make the exit row a difficult shooting location: 1) Often no arm rest to hold the camera with GorillaMobile.  2) The window shade usually pulls up (at least on Boeing planes) and this will point your iPhone too high. This means you will be holding the camera for the length of the shoot. I have done this and it’s not comfortable after about 10 minutes. Oh, and there is the matter of a big old wing outside your window.

Watch The Ice Crystals

Find a good location in the windows where there are fewer ice crystals, if any. Many apps focus on every shot and if the crystals are too close to the focus area, they can cause erratic focusing results which make for an jerky video. You can see this a bit in my first video as the horizon dims when the plane makes a turn and the camera picks up the crystals. Dang freezing air at high altitudes!

Plug In For More Power

Those apps that focus with each shot? And use the screen continuously? They drain the battery of the iPhone pretty quickly. In this case, it is best to plug in your iPhone to a power source (your laptop, an external power source, or the power in your seat if it is available). This will allow for extended shooting on longer trips.

Be Patient

Good time-lapse not only takes time to shoot, it also takes practice and often many failed attempts. What’s more frustrating is these missed shots are almost always once per flight as it is often not feasible to ask the pilot to circle back so you can get another shot. Relax, enjoy the beauty of flight and try again if things don’t go well.

The app I choose to use to make my iPhone time-lapse videos is called iTimeLapse Pro. Its use is straight forward but if you need help, I have a post on my own blog which explains which settings will be most helpful for this specific shooting situation.

Time-lapse with an iPhone can be a lot of fun in a from a plane (or any moving vehicle). If you want to see what a full flight from San Francisco to Paris looks like in two minutes, shot with a regular DSLR camera, take a look at Beep Show’s video.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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