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

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

Another 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 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.

Some Older Comments

  • meee April 7, 2012 06:02 am

    anyone thought about those camera holders that are meant for cars that are attached on top of a car window?
    Plane windows have the gap for the blinds on the botom, it could fit in there...

    of course without the large head on top.

  • Jeff E Jensen March 29, 2012 04:53 am

    I tried this out on a plane a couple of weeks ago. I used a pencil and some tape to help position my phone so that the lens was pointing in the right direction. The shade held everything in place. Unfortunately, at some point early on, it shifted and altered the view. Because the shade was covering the screen, I didn't notice it till I was done shooting. Next time I fly, I will work thing out before hand to make sure that it stays solid.

    Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of what it looked like.

  • meee March 29, 2012 02:05 am

    I just literally translated Thema landscape orientation fro German by talking about square.
    The lens is just pretty close to the window frame like that, isn't it?
    Also don't get how to fixate the phone like that.

    I read your post about dining the screen. didn't see that zero is an option as well - nice!
    I'll give it a shot I guess!

  • Jeff E Jensen March 29, 2012 01:27 am

    meee - take a look at the link below to a post on my blog. In the screen shot image that shows the capture settings, you will see a setting for brightness. This allows you to change the brightness of the screen while shooting. You can set it anywhere from 0% to 100%. When I am shooting, the screen will stay bright for a bit and then drop to whatever setting I have determined.

    I'm not sure why you are only seeing square format, the videos I have been shooting have not been square and, the ones that I have processed in Lightroom, I have cropped the frames to 9x16.

  • Meee March 29, 2012 12:16 am

    All videos I've see are square format.
    Anyone got a pic how the phone is tightened with the window blind laying square?
    Thx for sharing your review Jeff.
    Too bad the app doesn't allow to shut off the screen... Still looking for an app that does that for android.

  • Jeff E Jensen March 28, 2012 12:11 pm

    The frames were shot at 1 second intervals for a little over three hours. The video was rendered at 24 fps.

  • YellowPinkie March 28, 2012 10:22 am

    Nice one Jeff - what frame interval did you have for that - the traffic is pretty smooth, so it can't be too long?

  • Jeff E Jensen March 28, 2012 09:32 am

    Oops, I pasted the wrong link for the video. Try this one:

  • Jeff E Jensen March 28, 2012 09:30 am

    Well, I've been playing around with this some more and have decided that I really like Lapse It for android devices. It does a solid job and gives a good amount of control. I also figured out how to get images off my device and into Lightroom. Here's a video I shot this past weekend. It is 3900 images over a little more than 3 hours:

    And, here's a brief review of the ap:

  • YellowPinkie March 22, 2012 09:45 am

    Jeff - good to know, I don't need to pull the files off, but perhaps now I might... Thanks!

  • Jeff E Jensen March 22, 2012 06:39 am

    Yellowpinkie - I have not been able to pull the files created in lapse it, I dowloaded Time Lapse Droid. It does not have as much control as the other, but I can pull the files and process them in LR4. I haven't had time to do anything other than fiddle around with it, but so far, it looks to be decent.

  • meee March 20, 2012 09:41 am

    What's the best android app?
    Especially regarding having the screen off.
    Which has manual brightness settings?
    Which does not focus each shot?

    And what's a good interval for that kind of time lapses?

  • jon coine March 20, 2012 04:46 am

    Seems like an awful lot of over planning and over thinking for something that looks pretty weak.
    And you shouldn't need to use software to know the park of the sun... Use your brains folks.
    A wing or another piece of airplane probably would have made this more interesting.
    But you shouldn't have been using your phone flat out. Camera minus wireless is fine.
    Just another example of DPS, posting amateurish work/writing with no fore thought for consequence.

  • Neil March 19, 2012 01:11 am

    the northern lights thing was awesome!!

    not from an airplane but my first attempt at time-lapse

  • YellowPinkie March 17, 2012 09:36 am

    Jeff E Jensen - Not much joy with Lapse It at the moment - I only have the free version which limits you to a 240 pixel resolution. I need to get off my fat one and do a couple of proof of concepts with it. There are loads more on Google Play or whatever the Market is called this week.

  • Jeff E Jensen March 16, 2012 04:15 pm

    Hey yellowpinkie - what kind of results are you getting with lapse it? I tried it today and I'm disappointed that I'm not able to pull the files and render the video in Lightroom. Or, maybe I'm doing something wrong.

    Has anyone tried any of the other aps that are out there? I'd like to be able to capture the images and then process them in LR4.

  • Rahul March 16, 2012 09:35 am

    With a degree in Electronics and working in Aerospace domain developing Avionics SW, I can say that the radio energy from the consumer devices in passenger area doesn't affect any flight controls. Heck, the radio frequency that cell phones and flight communication use are in totally different bands. It is surprising that the airlines/FAA have been keep enforcing this archaic rule when they also know that it is plain silly. They simply do not want to spend money to conduct a formal study in this area and get rid this one head-ache.

    But yeah, the flight crew/attendants, at least in domestic flights in US, rudely enforce and begin giving the "looks" if they find ANY electronic device in use (even my tiny mp3 player) during the landings and takeoffs.

  • Emma March 16, 2012 08:15 am

    Something that didn't even cross my mind! I'm excited to go play with this new knowledge. Thank you :)

  • Anthony Elliott March 16, 2012 05:50 am

    Zaman -- it's nearly impossible to prevent reflections because the windows are double glazed, creating reflections between the panes before it reaches the camera.

  • Anthony Elliott March 16, 2012 05:48 am

    I took some short clips using an iPhone 3GS, amongst some other time-lapses in this compilation:

    I used a free app that was limited to 50 frames, about 2 secs-worth. It also refocussed on every frame but my shots didn't turn out too bad, perhaps it is more of an issue for the iPhone 4 and 4S. I'm keeping an eye out for an app that allows you to set focus manually.

  • YellowPinkie March 16, 2012 03:44 am

    No mention of interval or frame rate for the playback. Both of these are critical for a smooth video.

    Can you give us a pointer?

    And what does Scottc think Airplane mode is for?

    There are lots of Android apps for this too, I'm currently playing with Lapse It (free version at the moment, before I spring cold hard cash (£1.27!) for the full version).

  • Phil March 15, 2012 06:27 pm

    Scottc may have been thrown off by the second video, which he may not have realized was shot with a DSLR.

  • Jeff E Jensen March 15, 2012 01:43 pm

    Peter - I downloaded Lapse It Pro, I will let you know how it goes. The reviews seemed pretty positive.

    Scottc - I fly frequently (15-20 times per year) around the USA and have always received the same instructions that Peter stated: above 10,000 feet, as long as the phone is in airplane mode, you are fine to use it. Again, it may be different where you are.

  • Peter West Carey March 15, 2012 12:05 pm

    I'm not sure where you get your information from, but the flight attendants on all my flights expressedly state it is ok to use electronic devices above 10,000' and to turn phones to plane mode so it doesn't not transmit. This has always been the case in the USA. The first video ends when the announcement to turn off electronic devices came on and I dutifully shut it off. It may be different where you live though. If you have proof to the contrary, please send it to me.

    Jeff, I see that there are a couple of apps for time-lapse on the Android platform, but as I don't have access to test them, I did not feel it right to suggest one.

    No it doesn't. I will be sending them feedback on that and not having focus lock, which would help.

  • Andy March 15, 2012 09:18 am

    So does iTimeLapse Pro allow you to turn the screen off?

  • Zaman Khan March 15, 2012 09:07 am

    that is really cool, the only thing i would add is perhaps putting the movie into aftereffects or something similar and getting rid of the shake so the movie seems more stabilized. Also getting a rubber hood for the dslr so there is no reflection from the window. I am taking a trip really soon but am afraid to do this, i don't want some random person mistaking me for some sort of terrorists by having a weird contraption up.

  • Scottc March 15, 2012 08:47 am

    I guess I'd be more interested if it weren't for the fact that phones (yes, even iphones) are suppossed to be OFF! for the duration of the flight. And no airplane mode either.

    Since I have a "thing" about an airplane I happen to be on not functioning properly, anyone I see doing this may suffer a worse than usual case of airsickness.

  • Jeff E Jensen March 15, 2012 08:16 am

    Hmm, I'm going to have to see if there is an android ap for this. I'll be in the air tomorrow.

    I'm just getting into time lapse and have started shooting a few things just to get a fell for the process. Here's my latest: