When taking photos from a plane, what are ways of improving the quality of your photos? I've noticed two main issues:

  • When photographing through the plane window, you'll often get reflection and off-colors.
  • When opening the window (say in a small, private plane), you'll still get hazy photos that do not have very intense colors.

What are ways of improving aerial photos? These could be tips when making photos, or tips about image editing to improve them. I"m using a Canon Digital Rebel.


4 Answers 4


to avoid reflexions when shooting against a window, you must be really close to it (but pay attention to possible vibrations) and cover as much as possible the space between the tip of the lens and the window plane, with a lens skirt for example.

Seen from up above, the atmosphere plays tricks on colors. To reduce these, use a UV filter (will improve in some ways color rendition) and mostly a polarizer filter which, when setup, will deepen the blue skies.

Depending on atmosphere conditions, you will most likely have to do some post-processing to adjust contrast and hues.

EDIT: as Juhele pointed out, the polariser filter can play tricks through some kinds of windows. It's better to use it in situations where you can open the window :)

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ in case of standard big planes like Boeing 737 the windows has some special foil or coating on it as it produces some crazy rainbow colored moire on the images. I had this experience with Hoya HD Pro1-D CPL and I think it does the same with Hoya HD. So in my case removing polarizer also removes these artefacts. \$\endgroup\$
    – Juhele
    Jun 18, 2012 at 6:57

Strangely enough I'm a private pilot and also a part-time professional photographer. Thought I'd give my two cents...

Lens selection I use a 70-200mm IS 2.8 L and sometimes switch to my 17-55 2.8 for the "experience" photos. I would like to say IS is a must, but I squeaked out some good photos with my kit lens before I built up my lens collection. The plane will be flying slow, so the engine will be at low RPM, and therefor you will have more vibration than normal flight. Still, I find the best photos are taken around 80 knots (slow). You can get sharp images at 1/500 and slower without problems.

Filter/Window As others have mentioned, a polarized filter is plus. The reason that you may have better color shooting through the windows is because there is usually a UV or polarized coating on the windows. This is why the FAA frowns upon pilots wearing polarized sunglasses (looking through two polarized surfaces doesn't go well). Unfortunately, you have to choose between window open with a filter, or window closed with no filter or just a UV filter. The best results will be with window open. Worst case scenario (through window) make up a shroud that you can position around your lens to eliminate any reflections on the glass. Some gaffers tape and cardboard can look pretty professional, just ask some of the DIY studio photographers ;) Also, only use the side window unless your goal is to get the dash in the picture. It's unsafe to compose an image out of the front and at the shutter speed needed to avoid the prop, you won't have a good image.

Image stabilization Make sure to leave all IS on. If you have a lens that allows strafing IS, don't use that mode. Remember, the IS senses movement of the lens. It's technically staying still in the aircraft during unaccelerated flight.

Aircraft position Most of my photography is around 2000ft AGL (above ground) or below. When working with structures, remember your elementary 3D art classes. Shadows don't come straight at you, they generally fall back and off to the side. You need them for depth, so don't shoot at noon or directly between the sun and your subject (noon rule goes away the further you are from the equator).

Plane selection (I don't bother to try helicopters because I'm not licensed to fly those) While I shoot with a C172 or C152, try to find a C177 or another high-wing plane w/o struts and retractable gear. If you aren't doing the flying, your pilot will greatly appreciate not having to do your composition for you (which would happen if you have struts). Plus you will have more "time on target" as we call it in the military.

Weather. Regardless of everything else, you need good weather. If your subject is on the ground, you'll waste money if the skies are more than 50% clouds (waiting for the lighting to move. If your subject is the experience (aircraft in the picture or lots of sky), you will want around 25-50% clouds. Zero clouds with sky in your picture rarely looks good. While on the ground it looks nice, in the air you are looking through a lot more "sky" when viewing horizontally and the color isn't the same as on the ground. Meteorology demonstrates that vertical cloud development is mid-late afternoon, so plan accordingly. "Poofy" clouds look amazing from an aerial perspective.

Time of day Golden hour doesn't apply in aerial photography. If you are on the ground, you get nice soft lighting and soft shadows, but from the air you are trying to demonstrate depth, in which case those shadows are your friend. It's a lot more about aircraft position rather than golden hour for lighting. Your canvas is much larger than a person and your perspective is unique only to this type of photography. Tip: if you want some clouds in your shot without the sharp shadows on the ground, ask your pilot to look out for weather with visibility around 10 miles. This means that the weather is giving you an artificial diffuser :) Rarely you can also shoot good shots with a very thin overcast.


Change the time you go flying. Shoot in the golden time, right around sunrise and sunset. The sun will be your friend then, rather than washing out all the color like it does at noon.


I have the possibility to fly about 2 times a year in a helicopter in altitude 100-500 (depends on fly mode), speed is about 100-200 km/h, when performing some monitoring. I can take also some photos.

I agree, there is a big problems with shooting through windows, which are often dirty. To avoid reflections, I always put the lens as close to the window as possible, but avoid touching it because of the vibrations.

When it is possible, I open the window - it improves the quality very much. But still, you have to shoot in high speed mode (could be one of those motive programs like Sport or Motion). The most useful seems to be the 18-55 kit lens which has optimal range for me and is also quick.

Also tried my Tamron 70-300, but I had to use shutter speed smaller than 1/250 s to have useful photos.

And finally, I did not found any method the deal with the low clouds or mist/smog. The polarizer helps much to improve the photos made through open windows, but when the weather is poor, there is probably no help.


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