I need to take a photo of a plane that flies over my house. Can someone recommend an inexpensive setup which would enable me to get photos good enough to see the numbers on the plane?

The plane comes at random times.

I welcome your suggestions.

Also, I am entry level amatuer at photography.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How close is the plane? That might make a difference. Are you able to operate the camera yourself, or do you expect this to happen automatically? \$\endgroup\$
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 1:13
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Also, what equipment, if any, do you have already? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 14:46
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ If your goal is to identify the source of an annoying aircraft and possible lodge a complaint against it, call your local airports - they take noise reports very seriously. You don't need a photograph really, unless there's some argument about it - but if you haven't called anyone, there's no argument yet. The only way to photograph the tail numbers from the ground is with a good telephoto lens - but you may be able to "enhance" a relatively lousy image well enough to read the numbers - they are very clearly written. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jasmine
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 16:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ what type of plane is this? Is this a Cessna (or similar) that someone is flying? or is it a private jet? or is it a commercial jet? These are very different sized airplanes likely flying at different altitudes and speeds liquefying requiring different approaches to try to photograph (if its possible at all). \$\endgroup\$
    – user13451
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 23:37

3 Answers 3


IMO this will be somewhat hard (but not impossible)

  1. Planes do not fly at random time: All planes have to register a flight plan with the local authorities and will follow that flight plan; and follow corridors (traffic lanes); so if you have a plane flight number, you can have its position (see below)

  2. Elevation/Distance: The higher the plane is the longer the focal (zoom) of the lenses you use have to be (especially if wanting to read the plane numbers).

  3. Field of view of longer zoom will be smaller (the "area" the lens will look at); thus making tracking difficult if done automatically (even manually)

Have a look at a site like : http://planefinder.net/airport/ to track planes in real time.

If wanting to do this automatically: (I've not done this, so I'm putting down ideas, but it looks hard)

  1. You will need a stable tripod with a mechanical head that can be programmed to move the camera in a proper position.
  2. You will need a motorized zoom lens.
  3. You will need to tether the camera to a computer
  4. Zoom out
  5. Take a picture
  6. If picture contains a "plane" (have computer do analysis on image to find out if there is something that looks like a plane)
  7. Zoom the lens in that area (be careful, the plane is moving, so you will have to track the movement)
  8. Take another picture. (goto 5)
  9. Take picture and look at plane number.

If wanting to do this manually: (sooo much simpler and cheaper).

  1. Use the web site above to check if the plane is near your location.
  2. Use your camera and zoom in on the plane as it passes over you
  3. Take picture and look at plane number.

Equipment :

No need for a fancy camera body (unless wanting to take night pictures)

You will probably need a Telephoto Zoom lens, something like a 50-300 mm zoom, which should be enough for most cases.

You could even use a "bridge" camera.



As other users have mentioned, this depends highly upon the height of the plane. Having taken a few photos of a plane flying above recently, I can share with you my results. For this effort, the plane was presumably cruising (I'm in so-called flyover country). If the plane is closer to the ground, you're in a much better position than I was.

This was taken at ISO 100 at 300mm (fully extended for this lens, not exactly optimal territory).

uncropped plane pic

Even at 300mm, the plane is quite small in this photo. Here is a cropping of just the plane: cropping of plane

I played around with settings briefly, but the data just isn't there. As a result, if you're trying to get a plane while quite high up, you'll need something significantly more powerful than 300mm. Depending on the prominence of the numbers (I can't even locate where they would be in my photo), a 600mm or more may get what you want, but even that could be difficult. Of course, if your goal is to just get the information on the plane, rather than necessarily getting a photo of that information, there much better ways to do this, as described by other users.

Assuming you already have a DSLR camera body, you could probably rent the necessary lens for the day or a weekend or such to save money if you don't need the lens afterwords.


I'm guessing this would be a lot harder than it looks. I just got a picture of a plane taking off from my local airport by accident in a shot the other day and I'm guessing the plane was only around 5 miles away since that's how far the airport is and it came out looking microscopic! Best bet would be find out ahead of time what airport the plane is taking off or landing at and take a picture of it at the airport. If you just want to know what airplane it is without having to take a picture you can just use an app like Flight24 for iPhone and you point your iPhone camera at the plane as it is passing overhead and it'll tell you all the details about that particular plane!


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