When you’re doing travel photography, it’s easy to think of your time in airplanes and hotels as an inconvenience — a chore you simply must endure to get to your next assignment. But in photography as in life, that’s the wrong way to look at any experience.
In fact, there is nothing I love more than flying. I hate the security lines, the luggage shuffle and the tiny seats, but I just love to sit back and fly somewhere — almost anywhere. And I love getting a window seat because I am absolutely fascinated by watching the clouds, the cities and towns, and the geology below. I can easily sit there for five or six hours and never take my eyes away from the window.
Naturally then, I like to take pictures of what I see.
Taking Photos from an Airplane
Taking photos through an airplane window is very simple, and while there aren’t many choices to make about technique, there are some tricks to getting good quality.
Even though the photos are obviously not as sharp as they could be, since you’re shooting through inch-thick glass, you can help the sharpness by making sure your camera is selecting a high shutter speed (1/125 or faster is good) in the auto mode; if not, try bumping up the ISO one or two stops.
Also, don’t rest the camera right on the body of the plane or the window, or the vibration will shake the camera. Instead, either hold it an inch or so away from the body or roll up a sweater to absorb the shock.
To prevent reflections, turn off the overhead light and keep the camera as close to the glass as possible. If reflections are still a problem and you’re traveling with a friend, try to coerce them into holding a dark airplane blanket or sweater behind the camera to block interior lights. Also, check to see if the window is clean inside and, if it’s not, use a napkin to get smudges off.
There are lots of things to shoot from commercial airplane windows, including geographic features (mountains and lakes look cool), rivers, sunrises and sunsets and, of course, cloud formations. If you’re obsessive like me, you can even take notes on what you think the features are that you’re shooting, and then look them up on a map later.
Room with a View
If you get to your hotel and are lucky enough to have a room with a good view, this is another excellent opportunity to make some photos.
Shooting through hotel windows is pretty straightforward, but there are a few things you can do to prevent unwanted reflections in the room. Here are some quick tips —
- Borrow some Windex from the maid and clean the window (trust me, they’ll run into the room and do it for you once you ask!); smudges show up a lot, especially on tinted windows.
- Shut off the room lights so that they’re not reflecting in the glass.
- Press the lens flat against the window if you can; this will also prevent reflections.
- If you can’t hide room reflections, have a companion hold a black T-shirt or dark towel behind you to block reflections.
- If you’re shooting at night, use a tripod or rest the camera on the back of a chair or on a table and use a self-timer to fire the shutter.
- Try to avoid shooting through dark-tinted windows.
You’ll be surprised what nice shots you can get through a hotel window if you take some time and keep a close eye on reflections and smudges. I shot the photo above from a window at the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas, looking at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino and the Strip beyond that. The shot has already been used in one of my books.
The Window Frame as Picture Frame
While shooting through windows can create challenges, it can yield unexpected benefits, too — like being able to use the window’s frame to frame your image. I shot the photo above from a tiny motel on top of a hill overlooking Moosehead Lake in Greenville, Maine.
Whatever the room lacked in luxury, it made up for with this picture-window view. All I did to take this shot was use the window itself as the frame-within-a-frame, and then expose for the scene. The inside of the window frame went black (I didn’t even have to darken it in editing), and the colors were nicely saturated.
Not a contest-winning photo, maybe — but a nice memory of waking up to this incredible view each day.