Up in the Air: Capturing photos from airplane windows

Up in the air
Up in the air

Some tips for taking great photos from airplane windows with Point and Shoot Travel Zoom cameras…

I previously posted some tips about taking pictures on high-speed trains. Elevating that discussion and even accelerating the speed, I would encourage readers to take photos from airplane windows while in flight.

Rules about when this is allowed seem to vary among airlines and countries so those decisions have to be made on an individual basis. This post “focuses” on how to take photos from airplane windows and what results can be obtained.

I have been using point and shoot travel zoom cameras (specifically the Panasonic ZS and TZ series) for many years with satisfying results. Last month, I took photos while landing at London’s Heathrow Airport. The pictures below compare one of the shots I took from an airplane window to a similar view I later found on Google Earth. If this doesn’t convince you that taking aerial photos is rewarding, there is no need to read further.

My picture over London
My picture over London
Google Earth over London
Google Earth over London

My best results taking photos from airplane windows have been obtained during daylight (including sunrise and sunset) hours when the airplane was flying at relatively low altitudes. But if you are soaring over dramatic scenery like mountains, desert, rivers and lakes, forest or agricultural land or well-known landmarks, memorable and interesting photos from airplane windows can be obtained at high altitudes.

Landscapes (Los Cabos, Paris, Rome, Zurich, Rocky Mountains)
Landscapes (Los Cabos, Paris, Rome, Zurich, Rocky Mountains)
Cityscapes (Mexico City, NYC, Barcelona, Cancun, Newark, Los Cabos)
Cityscapes (Mexico City, NYC, Barcelona, Cancun, Newark, Los Cabos)

I was even able to capture the smoking Popocatepetl volcano, just east of Mexico City.

Popocatepetl Volcano
Erupting Popocatepetl Volcano

It helps to plan ahead: Look at a map before you go so you know what to anticipate and look for during the flight. Sometimes you can use the interactive flight information map at your seat.

The map of last resort
The map of last resort

Including clouds, sky and parts of the airplane (wings and jet engines) in your photos can actually enhance them and sometimes even orient the viewer.

Winging over Los Cabos
Winging over Los Cabos
Interesting cumulus clouds
Interesting cloud formations

Try using SCENE settings such as Thru Glass, Scenery, Sports, or Sunset depending on what the conditions are, and trust what you see on the LCD screen as you take the photos. Be sure your flash is off and try using Burst mode if you are flying low and the scene (landmark) is fleeting. Quickly reviewing a set of pictures (Playback setting) may influence you to make changes.

Dirty windows, glare, reflections and weather offer challenges but that’s part of the rapture and what else do you have to do on a long flight? Staying alert and not hesitating to shoot can lead to rewarding photos from airplane windows.

Once you catch the bug, you’ll probably want to take a significant number of shots on a long flight so be sure to keep extra batteries on hand, not in your checked bag.

One last reminder: Neither you nor your pilot can control the weather. If your plane is being de-iced on the runway, all bets are off.

My view from Newark in winter
My view of Newark in winter

Do you have any favorite photos to share that you’ve taken during a flight?

Also on More Time To Travel:

This post is part of a link up to Noel Morata’s Travel Photo Discovery.

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  1. These are amazing! Especially the one of London. that could pass for a specialised aerial photo (not from a commercial aircraft’s window!)
    Thanks for the tips. I agree, it’s worth being on the lookout/be alert and not sleep through the landing stage as the shots can be worth it.

  2. I love shooting from a plane but had never thought about writing such a great post about it. I have read that some airlines have a “put-the-camera-away” policy but I have yet to encounter it. . .especially if I am aiming out the window! Great post, Irene.

  3. Thanks to all for the positive feedback. If you are in the market for a new point and shoot travel zoom camera the one I use just had a price reduction. The price of the Panasonic ZS40 camera is now less than $400 from Amazon with this link.

    Don’t know the reason for the price drop.

  4. I am leaving a second comment to give you a high five for posting! I noticed the name last week but didn’t think to comment on it. I’ve finally gotten “The Scout” to edit my posts, but don’t think he’ll ever take the quantum leap of writing one. Good work.

  5. What wonderful aerial photography! I always find it so hard to get even one good picture from an airplane and you have lots. Congratulations.

  6. Your photos are beautiful. This one of the reasons I prefer a window seat when flying. It’s especially exciting when flying into a place for the first time. I’ve attached a link to a photo I took flying into Luang Prabang, Laos. The plane was a an ATR-72 turbo prop and taking the photo froze the propellers. The river is the Mekong.

    PS: Jerome, kudos for posting/sharing your photos. Maybe one day I’ll be able to convince Mr. Excitement to chime in on Boomeresque.

  7. Excellent post,

    I’m never lucky enough to look out the window when there is a really interesting scene below – you were able to get some really good ones Irene. love the post.

  8. LOVE this post! The volcano pic is great. I too am fanatic about these sort of shots and am going to steal your idea of using the onboard flight info map as a guide (and snapping a pic as well – I frequently “take notes” via photo). -Veronica

  9. I was in London years (and years) ago and I never realized how huge the grounds were surrounding the palace – or at least I don’t remember. This was a great perspective to see. Hubby and I always choose 2 aisles seats so rarely have a window to look out of. I sacrifice looking at interesting things to be able to stretch out a bit and not have someone on both sides of me. With that being said I did have a window seat when we flew to Cabo and that’s what it looks like alright!

  10. It never occurred to me to try to take photos from the airplane but, after looking at the amazing photos in your post, I’m going to start! The contrast in detail and color between your picture of London and Google’s map makes its point with no further explanation needed and I loved your photo of the cloud formations.

  11. Wow your aerial photos are fantastic! I always have my point and shoot handy to battle boredom if nothing else. However, I have been lucky a few times and your post convinces me to keep trying!

  12. You have some wonderful shots here! I always ask for an aisle seat so my getting up constantly to go to the bathroom won’t annoy my fellow passengers but maybe I’ll reduce my fluid intake and ask for a window seat! I love the idea of using the route map to plan ahead. Thanks for the beautiful pictures and good ideas!

  13. This are absolutely GREAT pictures! I’ve always wanted to take pictures from an airplane, but somehow the windows are always so dirty or foggy that I don’t trust that anything will come out. I enjoyed reading your blog and I’ll try taking my own pictures on the next trip.

  14. W.O.W. that pic of Popocatepetl is fabulous! Though not quite as good as the one of Newark. 😉

    But seriously, though I normally only opt for a window seat when flying over the Himalayas or some such, I may have to rethink this, thanks to your tips. I did manage to get a lovely aerial shot of Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Oz – good thing too, as the flight plus a mere 2 nts. dormitory lodging came to a breathtaking $*GRAND*$! Nonetheless – it was worth it.

  15. We have a love of aerial photography in common. I’ve been scolded more than once for doing so, but it’s always worth a try. We often fly from Cape Cod to Nantucket and the low flying has allowed me to get some great shots. Thanks for all the tips, i’ll put them to good use on my next trip.

    1. We have flown from Westchester County Airport to Marthas Vineyard and got some great photos there too. I especially remember Block Island and seeing it’s great harbor. Used to be a sailor but not on Long Island Sound.

  16. Awesome photos, Irene! I haven’t used my point and shoot in eons but they are absolutely fantastic for great photography just as you can see here! So beautiful 🙂

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