Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Experiments in Airplane Photography - Part I

Recently (Can't say when because there's no WiFi here aboard UA395) I saw an article online that offered a simple, but useful suggestion on how to improve photos taken from an airplane. I've been meaning to try it out, and today I finally got around to do so.

Shortly after takeoff from IND on UA3473, the plane banked slightly (See tip #3 in the article above) and I pounced at the opportunity.

I confess intentionally copied the composition of the example photo (hence the inclusion of the engine). The composition adds depth to the photo.

But even without the engine, the photo is much better than my usual regrettably dull airplane photos (I've kindly refrained from including one of those lackluster photos in this post).

One improvement in this photo is that the top of the photo isn't faded the way such photos usually turn out. In hindsight, I now recognize that my previous photos suffered because they inevitably grew increasingly desaturated from bottom to top. Including the horizon in the photo was essentially a sure-fire recipe for a bland photo. Taking the photo when the plane banked as the article suggested took care of that.

The banking suggestion also helped overcome another problem I've had with these photos. Ever notice that windows in commercial jets inevitably slope upwards? That tiny design decision practically forces photos to include that boring, desaturated horizon. I wonder if there's a reason for that design. I read recently online (therefore it must be true) that airplane windows are intentionally rounded. They have a nasty tendency to fail otherwise.

Full disclosure: I enhanced the photo in Photoshop (increased the saturation, adjusted the levels to darken the midtones). I've found that combo to be a tremendously effective tool for improving photos in general. In the case of this photo, that combo helped two ways. First, it lessened the lingering traces of that annoying bottom-to-top desaturation problem. Second, the combo eliminated a another recurring problem I've had with airplane photos: glare and shadows cast on the window.

I'm hesitant to include this next version of the photo, because some anti-Photoshop fanatic out there is likely to accuse me of having cheated in the photo above.

To you, whoever you are, I Photoshop to make my photos more asthetically pleasing - prettier, if you will.

More often than not, my goal in photography is artistry as opposed to accuracy. I'm not attempting to document. I'm attempting to capture the feeling of the moment as I experienced it when I took the photo. So there.

But take a moment and examine the engine again in this un-Photoshopped version of the photo. Two things are going on: There's a shadow reflected from seat 1A dividing the engine in half diagonally, and running perpendicular to the shadow there is glare streaking across the engine.

Previously I've figured out that one method to reduce shadows and glare in the airplane windows is to shove my camera lens as close to the window as possible. Another method I've figured out is to cloak myself with a piece of clothing such as a jacket. That second method kind of makes me look like one of those old-time photographers hiding underneath the black fabric on the back of an old-fashioned large format camera - except that doing it on a plane makes me look more like a dork than say Ansel Adams.

I have a theory about shoving the camera lens up to the window: Even though the optics are better and the pixel resolution is higher in my 30D, I'm more likely to get better photos with my iPhone 4S, surprisingly. I'll be taking both on our upcoming trip to the UK. I'll try there. I doubt I'll be able to do so on the outbound flight since I'm stuck in an aisle seat. I can't complain too much, though, since that seat is in business class. Oh wait, yes I can... Alicia's seat is in first class. :-)

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