This week's column by Ctein
Lately I've been having considerable success making portfolio-worthy photographs on my airline flights. I may not have any artistic control over the scenery I'm presented, but despite that, I'd have to say that nearly half my flights have produced at least one photograph I'm happy to add to my portfolio. I engaged in such photography back in my film/darkroom days but I rarely achieved success. These days I consider success the norm. So, what's different?
Where you sit
One change has nothing to do with the photographic technology. I'm sitting further forward in the airplane. There is less air turbulence in front of the wing than behind; the closer you can get to the nose, the better. The reason I'm sitting further forward is that the combined forces of rampant security paranoia and rampant airline greed have made economy-class flying increasingly intolerable to me. Most of my five to eight peregrinations each year are by air rather than ground. I like to go places. Increasingly, I'm disliking getting there.
Consequently, these days, I'm weighting my flight choices more heavily by whether I can get a cheap first class upgrade or choice of premium quality seats than by flight times and arrivals. I'll also throw frequent-flier miles and credit card points at an upgrade; it usually gets me more value both financially and comfort-wise than a free coach ticket would. I'm nowhere near the income level where I can afford to pay list for business or first class, but cheap upgrades? Oh, yeah!
Paradoxically, looking to the "discount" airlines often produces better results. Living on the West Coast and mostly traveling to the Midwest, I've got some good options. Southwest Airlines often has the lowest prices to where I want to go, when you take into account that they still allow two free pieces of checked luggage. Paying an additional sum for priority boarding (and buying and checking-in early) usually means I can grab whatever seat I want.
My favoritest airline, though, is Minneapolis-based Sun Country (half my trips are to Minneapolis). They fly direct to San Francisco, unlike Southwest. Not only are their fares low, but when I do my 24-hour online check-in, they'll allow me to upgrade to first class (which is never sold out) for $120 each way. For an average of $150–$200 more than I'd pay for a coach ticket on some other airline, I fly first class. If I want to take any checked bags with me, which I often do, knock $50–$100 off of that modest premium.
That's the nontechnological angle. Mostly, my success rate is way up because of both digital photography and digital printing. Digital cameras let me find the sweet spots in the airplane windows. Photographing through two panes of acrylic/glass doesn't degrade image quality anywhere as much as you'd think, unless you're photographing through a ripply spot in one of the panes or it's really badly scraped up. In the film days, I wouldn't know if I had picked a good spot until I developed the film. More often than not I hadn't.
Now what I do is make a test photograph and chimp it like mad at high magnification. I go over the entire frame to see if there are any sour spots in it. If there are, I move the camera over a bit and try again. Usually I can find a usable spot on the window. As long as I always photograph through that spot, photographs look consistently sharp from corner to corner.
Working with a longer lens also helps. Wider fields of view pull in more oblique rays and those cause more problems when photographing through two layers of window. I stick with something in the 75-100mm-equivalent range. The illustration at the top of this post shows the full frame of a recent addition to my portfolio that I made with the Olympus 45mm (90 mm-e) lens. It makes a critically tack-sharp 17x22-inch print. Figure 2 is a 100%-scale detail.
Digital printing comes into play because aerial photography means photographing through a very long column of air. There's a huge amount of atmospheric scattering, and shorter wavelengths are scattered much more strongly than longer ones. That's what produces the blue shadows in long-distance photographs: green and especially blue wavelengths from all over the scene are scattered into the shadows, veiling them. It's not just a color shift, it's color-crossover. Even when you've overall color-balanced so that the whites are neutral, the shadows will be greenish-blue.
This was a nearly-impossible problem to address in the darkroom unless you did dye transfer, in which case it was merely annoyingly difficult. In image-processing software, it's readily addressed with a curves correction. Figure 3 shows a generic curve adjustment for dealing with this. Observe how far in I pulled the black point on the blue curve, a lesser amount on the green curve, and only a little bit on the red curve. I added control points up near 192, 192 so that the whites and highlights are little altered. This is just an approximation of what you'd need to do for any particular photograph, but it shows you the general idea.
Aerial B&W infrared photography is also turning out to be a big win. That'll be next week's column.
Ctein's column appears on TOP on Wednesdays.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David: "Great post. I am an airline pilot and I have taken a DSLR along on every trip I've worked since 2004. Your tips are spot on, especially the part about finding a good piece of window to shot through. Even the flight-deck's windows have their flaws. It's important to find a spot with no ripples.
"The only point where I disagree with you is the use of long lenses. Yes, long lenses help you stay clear of some of the issues associated with shooting through a window, but when I use a long lens for aerials I feel like I am not able to produce a sense of height and my pictures look flat. I advise you to pull out the wide angle and deal with the consequences. You can mitigate a lot of the flare and reflection issues by pushing your lens hood right up against the window or carry a piece of black cloth to drape around your camera.
"Your curves solution to blue shadows is quite elegant. I'm going to add it to my bag of tricks. For those who are interested, I created a video tutorial on how to edit photos taken through an airliner's window. It's kind of rambling and poorly produced but I do give away many of my secrets so it might be worth watching.
"A big part of getting good photos from an airliner is being in the right place at the right time. The same rules of lighting apply to aerial photography as landscape photography. Plan your trip so you are airborne during early morning or late afternoon. My job keeps me airborne 700 to 1,000 hours per year, so my odds of seeing something spectacular are higher than the average air traveler. Here is a gallery of some of the best aerial photos I've acquired over the years.
"For more tips about aerial photography and lots of stories, see my 'Flying the Line' series at my blog.
"Sorry for the shameless self promotion. Sometimes I can't help myself."
Dale: "Enjoyed the column very much. Another thing to consider is using the airline website to find out what equipment is being used. Newer planes tend to mean fewer scratched windows. And as a 40 week per year flyer, I can say Southwest seems to maintain windows more often. They often seem clearer."
VK: "One of my favorite landscape subjects! And technically it is much harder than people think it is when seeing the final product, because the list of things you have to worry about is huge: sun glare, far distance haze, clouds, scratches on the window, exhaust turbulence from the engines, and that your ground speed is 3 meters per 1/60 sec. Not to mention people in the aisle seat who insist in sleeping with windows down.
"Absolutely the best airline route for such photography is British Airways Flight 118. Leaves Bangalore, India, in the early a.m., and lands in London, UK, shortly after noon, and flies over some stunning places along the way."
Eli Burakian: "Folks should check out Julieanne Kost who has a great book called Window Seat with incredible photographs from commercial flights, as well as specific and general advice."