a bird's eye view of Namibia's sand dunes from a small charter flight over the sand dune sea

Three tips for Photographing out of an Airplane while on Safari

Ahh, the great sand dune sea of Namibia…just one of a million scenic shots you can get from an airplane when you’re on a safari that utilizes chartered camp-to-camp flights in Africa.

Even though the plane ride is primarily utilitarian, when there are no roads or distances are too great, these short flights can offer some spectacular views…and unique photographs!

If you are planning on a safari where you’ll have these internal flights from camp to camp (e.g., Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, etc.) read on to make sure you are ready to get some incredible photos during your trip’s flights!

Opt for your ultra wide angle lens

a view from above of namibia's great Namib desert

Although the flights are indeed scenic, you won’t have too much choice of exactly what is outside your window and how easy the window access will be.  Thus, go for a wide angle or ultra wide angle and plan to crop the photo later on the computer.  Yes, you’ll probably get the horizon line all askew, and yep, you’ll probably get some unwanted elements in your photo, like seat backs or edges of the window.  However, it’s rather easy to crop your photo to remove these after the fact.  And in some cases, parts of the plane are actually really nice to get in the frame, as it helps to add context.

For instance, in the above photo, part of the wing is in the shot.  It’s a bit clunky, but at the same time, it helps tell the story and add context to what’s going on.  Without the wing, it could look like you were taking an abstract photo of the top of a latte you just ordered.

In addition, having your ultra wide lens means that you don’t necessarily need to see through the viewfinder to get the shot.  This is a technique I’m famous for, by just extending my arm and “reasonably” aiming the camera and firing.  I crop these photos and straighten them in photoshop, but nevertheless I get the shot.  Works well for me and, with practice, it’ll work well for you.

Pay attention to your focus and metering points

a bird's eye view of botswana's okavango delta

Because many shots out of the window of an airplane require you to just “point and pray”, by holding the camera and taking a few shots without really framing your shot or seeing through the viewfinder too well, you run the risk of unfocused shots, or shots that weren’t properly metered for the right light.

While you can absolutely get away with pointing and praying, you do need to be a little deliberate about where the camera focuses (which is usually where it meters, too).  If you accidentally autofocus to the rim of the window, guess what, the landscape will be blurry.  Same thing if you focus on the wing…it will also meter for the shiny white wing, making the landscape below artificially dark.

Some of this is unavoidable.  But, if you find this is happening too often, try and set your camera on manual mode so that it doesn’t fluctuate the metering.  To do this best, try really hard to take one good, perfectly lit shot of the ground below.  Then, review the photo to see what settings the camera was on (shutter speed, f/number, ISO).  Then, manually dial these settings into your camera.  Be careful, though, for if the lighting changes dramatically (e.g., the sun comes out from behind a cloud), you’ll have to readjust.

Similarly, if you’re getting inaccurate focus time and time again, try extra hard to get one perfectly focused shot on the ground below, and then set your focus to manual.  This locks in your focus, so you can fire away getting the same perfect focus each and every time.  Be careful here, too, for there are pitfalls.  If the plane ascends or descends significantly from when you first set your focus, you may find that your focus needs to be readjusted.

Keep a telephoto lens handy

a view outside of the window while flying next to the himalayas

Sometimes you have to make lemonade from the only photo opportunity you have.  This isn’t from Africa, but instead on a scenic flight I was on in the Himalayas.  It was challenging to say the least.  However, with my telephoto handy, I was able to isolate a small angle from this scene to get the photo below.

a view of the himalayas from an airplane window

There are a lot of other ways I would have shot this, had I been in a plane with no walls, but that doesn’t exist, so I just had to make due.  Nevertheless, the telephoto saved me and rescued a neat shot out of a difficult angle.

I hope that these tips are helpful and if you have any additional thoughts on how to take great photographs out of airplanes or while on scenic flights, please let us know in the comments below.