If you’ve ever wished for a pastime that could make your hours at the airport or on the plane more endurable, how about aircraft photography?
No matter how jaded you’ve become from your travels over the years, you might still think — as I do — that seeing a big commercial jet lift itself into the air is a pretty majestic sight. Since so much of your business life is spent in and around aircraft, you might like to document it — for posterity, for your office wall, social media posts, or just for your own enjoyment — with photography.
I’ve been taking pictures of jet aircraft for decades. I’m not a “planespotter” — I don’t sit outside the airport fence in a folding chair waiting for some action — but I’ve found that you can get good aircraft pictures from inside some terminals, from inside the plane, or from areas just outside the airport.
First, a word about equipment: For the best results, don’t rely on your phone’s camera — carry a real camera, preferably a DSLR with good resolution. And equip it with a medium-range zoom lens. Even from a good vantage point, you’re probably not going to get too close to the planes when they’re taking off and landing (to my mind, those are the best shots — but not the only ones). In any case, a zoom will bring you in closer. I keep an 18-135 mm. lens on my camera, and it seems to be great for most situations.
UPDATE: BEST photo submitted here
Here are six things I’ve learned about capturing great aircraft shots:
- Your results depend largely on opportunity and luck. Airport configurations vary considerably, and even at the same airport, takeoff and landing runways can change from day to day, so you can rarely be sure that you’ll get good views from the terminal. But sometimes you can. Once you’re checked in at the airport, walk around your concourse to see what’s going on outside the windows. If it’s a linear concourse, walk down to the big windows at the end. I’ve had some great luck at LaGuardia’s main terminal and more recently at San Diego (both airports have runways fairly close to the terminals, since they are surrounded by their cities with no room for expansion).
You can boost your chances if you happen to be at an airport that offers an outdoor terrace or observation deck. These are making a comeback at a number of locations; here’s a list of possibilities worldwide.
- Keep your camera ready for action. If you do find a spot with good views of the runways, you’ll only have a few seconds to get zoom in and get shots of an aircraft as it takes off or lands — no time to fiddle with camera settings. Don’t be shy — stand right up next to the window. As far as I know, there are no rules prohibiting photography at airports, and the ACLU seems to agree. (Even taking photos of TSA checkpoints shouldn’t present a problem, according to the agency’s blog.)
- Watch for good views of aircraft taxiing up to the gate, or parked at the gate. Consider a photo with the aircraft in the background, and waiting travelers in the foreground — a little tricky from an exposure standpoint, but you can keep the travelers in silhouette.
- You might not like the next tip, since business travelers seem to be addicted to aisle seats. But if you’re in a window seat, you can sometimes catch good shots through the aircraft window as the plane makes its way from the gate to takeoff. Again, keep that camera ready because any opportunity that presents itself will be fleeting. Shooting from a window seat is about the only way to get a nice photo of aircraft all lined up waiting for takeoff during a busy period.
- Don’t put your camera away once you arrive at your destination and start to leave the airport. Some of the best vantage points for landing and departing aircraft are from the rental car lots. I waited years for the chance to photograph a 747 in the air from a reasonably close vantage point, and I finally got my chance while I was standing outside in the Hertz lot at LAX, when a Korean Air 747 came in for a landing almost directly overhead. I also got some great shots of inbound planes from the parking lot of a Whole Foods near the Las Vegas airport.
- If you’re semi-serious about this kind of photography, buy some photo editing software and learn how to use it. At the very least, you can crop and enlarge your plane shots. If you have photos of aircraft against a plain blue sky, it’s pretty easy to cut-and-paste, removing the plane from the original photo and then inserting it into another one; that can make for some amusing or interesting possibilities.
–by Jim Glab
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