““When I made the film The Invention of Lying, they gave me a private jet for getting back and forth between New York and London. I thought, ‘I will never use it’ but I ended up using it every weekend. You turn up, right, and the airport is completely empty. I mean, there’s just someone at the desk and then the pilot, who says, ‘Are you ready to go?’ and you say, ‘Don’t you want to see my passport?’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I suppose I’d better.’” ”
Business jets give you better views of the Earth than you can ever get from an airliner. All you need to capture these glorious vistas are a camera and some basic knowledge about techniques. Here are few tips to get you started.
Opt for an SLR
Single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) give you the most control and allow the use of a variety of lenses and filters. However, point-and-shoot digital cameras, with their increasing resolution and sophistication, also produce great photos. Their built-in zoom lenses and automatic programs (e.g., landscape, portrait, night, closeups and high-speed action) simplify picture taking.
Select the Right Resolution
Select a resolution that suits the way you plan to use the images. Camera memory cards may hold thousands of pictures at the lowest resolution setting (100-200 iso). Use this setting if you plan to e-mail the images or post them online. But if you want to print your photos, use the highest resolution possible (800 iso or higher). Otherwise, your prints will likely appear grainy. Travel with extra memory cards so you can snap away without worrying about running out of storage space.
Check the Windows
When shooting air-to-air or air-to-ground photos, professional photographers typically work from airplanes and helicopters that allow them to shoot through open windows or camera ports, eliminating the distortion that can result when shooting through acrylic. While you most likely don't have this option, you can ask that the airplane's windows be cleaned inside and out before the flight. Also, check the windows for scratches or yellowing and then shoot from the clearest window.
You'll want to take particular care, too, because the window can create reflections of the camera or photographer that show up in pictures. SLR camera bodies are typically black, which minimizes the problem, but many point-and-shoot cameras are silver and more likely to create a reflection. Check in the viewfinder or view screen to assure there is no reflection. If there is, drape a dark cloth over your head and the camera to eliminate the problem. (Be careful, of course, not to obscure the lens.)
Choose Your Subjects
An aircraft provides lots of interesting photo ops, most strikingly city skylines and landscapes on departure and landing and details of the Earth's geography from above. Even from five miles in the air, mountain ranges, lakes and large canyons can make dramatic photos.
Keep in mind that the best time to take photos using natural light is during the first few hours after sunrise and before sunset. Because it passes through more atmosphere than at other hours, this "liquid light," as some pros call it, is warmer and the shadows it creates add more definition and contrast. It's best to have the sun behind you, so shoot from the side of the airplane away from the sun if possible. Direct sun also brings out scratches on the windows, another reason to shoot from the shaded side of the airplane.
If you want to capture images of natural wonders, check your route on a map before the flight. If such landmarks are along the way or within a few miles, tell the pilot or whoever's arranging the flight beforehand. The flight crew can usually accommodate requests for deviations and the extra flight time required will be negligible. Keep the camera perpendicular to the window to minimize distortion. If shooting toward the ground, ask the pilot to bank the airplane so you won't have to tilt the camera as much.
Be attentive to other exterior photo ops as well. Cloud formations, rainbows and the shadow of the aircraft against clouds and sunsets are often breathtaking. Use the zoom to frame such scenes as tightly as possible.
Avoid Blurred Images
Blurring is a common problem for aerial photographers. The camera is moving relative to the subject, and engine vibrations can be transmitted to a camera in contact with the aircraft. Unless the photographer compensates, the image won't be sharp. So don't rest the camera against the window to steady it. Use the fastest shutter speed possible. Select the "shutter priority" setting and choose a high shutter speed (125th of a second or faster), or open the aperture as widely as possible. Though this takes practice, you can try tracking the shot as a skeet shooter leads a trap, especially when shooting air-to-ground at low altitudes.
Aerial light creates special photographic challenges. A bright sky imparts a bluish cast on everything. Haze muffles colors and detail. Flat midday light creates too much contrast between the Earth and sky. A variety of filters address these problems. A polarizer-many a photographer's favorite filter-can cancel out the blueness created by clear, sunny days; make sky and clouds "pop"; and remove reflective glare. Haze filters can reduce the light reflected off particulate matter in the air that creates the visual component of haze. And a split-density filter can darken the sky while leaving the ground unfiltered. Warming rose and magenta filters can help compensate for harsh, flat light.
Use Flash Sparingly
Don't use flash when shooting out the window. The flash won't be strong enough to illuminate anything beyond perhaps the wing root, and it will reflect off the window. Do use flash when shooting a portrait of someone seated by a window or a still life of that catered fruit platter with the window behind it.
Tweak Your Shots
Digital photography allows almost unlimited capability to manipulate images. Many cameras come with software that will let you size, crop and play with color and contrast. Some, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel Photo Paint, allow more fancy tweaking. Finally, remember the most important rule is that there are no hard-and-fast rules. Open your mind, look through the viewfinder and if you like what you see, shoot first and ask questions later.
Great photo opportunities can begin before you get on the airplane. Why not commemorate the flight with a picture of your traveling companions and the aircraft? Start by framing the shot to get the aircraft in the picture. Standing about 30 degrees off the nose is usually a good position. (You can shoot from the tail end of the aircraft if sunlight so dictates.) Once the airplane is framed, bring the people into the foreground. Getting a few feet off the ground-on a small ladder or tug-can help give the photo depth. If you want to be included in the picture, set up the shot and ask one of the flight or line crew to take the picture, or use a tripod and the camera's timer.