In Preparation for Landing, Please Return Your Seat Backs to Their Full Upright Position… and Take Out Your Cameras!

By Vladimir Brezina

Like everyone who travels often enough by airplane, I’ve seen breathtaking things from the plane’s window: towering cloud formations, lightning storms, the brilliant colors of sunrise and sunset, and the map-like pattern of land and water sliding into view below.

But until yesterday, I’ve never taken out my camera. Looking out through a misted, scratched window at a cramped angle not under my control, the photographic situation didn’t seem too promising.

Still, I’ve always been tempted in one case—when landing in New York City. When landing at LaGuardia Airport, especially, if the wind is right the plane flies along the length of Manhattan, offering spectacular low-altitude views of the city.

So yesterday, when it looked like we were following that flight path once again, I got out my camera. And I was not disappointed!

One of the pleasures of landing in New York, for Johna and myself, is that we happily recognize all the spots where we kayak. It’s like zooming in closely on Google Maps’ satellite views, only live.

Here’s the southwest corner of Staten Island sliding into view…

… then the beach just under the Brooklyn end of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where we had that little incident last year

… Erie Basin, the site of another of our recent adventures

… and then the classic aerial panorama of Manhattan comes into view.

We wheel low over Queens…

… buildings and trees slide by with increasing speed

… and we land over the water—the runway appears disconcertingly only at the last moment—at LaGuardia, with the Manhattan skyline in the distance.

So it is possible to take reasonable photos from the window of a commercial airliner! You should

  • Sit in a window seat
  • Don’t sit where a wing or an engine is in the way
  • Make sure the window is not scratched or misted
  • Get the pilot to fly along your desired route…

Seriously, I know there are photographers out there who do take spectacular photos from plane windows. What are the less obvious photographic tricks?

(A few more photos are here.)

22 responses to “In Preparation for Landing, Please Return Your Seat Backs to Their Full Upright Position… and Take Out Your Cameras!

  1. I’ve flown in this way many times, and it is always such a thrill, trying to pick out buildings where friends and family live. Love the photos – never occurred to me to try!

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  2. Ah, serendipity. I’m glad it worked out for you. I usually end up in the wrong spot for pictures because I want to be in the exit row or very near it. That fear of flying has yet to go away.

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    • Yes, unfortunately—for photography, at any rate—the exit rows are over the wings.

      But if you can sit in a seat that allows photography, the biggest uncontrolled variable is the flight path, which, in the case of Manhattan, obviously matters a lot. As I understand it, which flight path is used at any particular time depends largely on the wind. Kind of like in kayaking…

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  3. Brings back happy memories of NYC. Not been over to the States for a while. This might just spur me on!

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  4. dianne - life as i see it

    oh wow, how beautiful.. ; )

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    • It can be, on the right day. One time I remember flying over Manhattan completely covered in fog, with just the Empire State Building poking out. That was one of the times I didn’t take out my camera… But I believe I have seen a photo just like that by someone else.

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  5. i’m ALWAYS glued to the window when i fly, trying to figure out location. usually i can’t get good fotos, but there is joy in just seeing as well as pain in realizing i’m on the wrong side of the plane! my most memorable views were seeing agadez, mountains, and huge yellow trucks on the sahara as spotted from 37,000 feet . . .

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    • Yes, don’t you just hate it when you are sitting on the left side of the plane, and the Captain announces “In a few moments, those on the right side of the plane will have a magnificent view of the Grand Canyon”…

      It’s quite amazing how much detail you can see from 30,000+ feet. Over the sea, I often see whitecaps. (Those waves might be just a little too big for kayaking…)

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  6. i live in boston and kayak around the harbor islands. i love looking down on them when we are coming into logan and picking out all my routes. a window seat is always a must when i fly.

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  7. breath-taking shots!
    we once took a helicopter ride over Manhattan – unforgettable …
    East River + Queensboro Bridge / heli-flight

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  8. Love taking photos out the window of a plane. Love the ones you have here – so clear and such a great view.

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  11. Thanks for liking my post on Laughter. I’m glad that your “like” led me to your and Johna’s blog, as I have learned much from it in only the last half hour!
    Photographing from the windows of airplanes and other moving objects is indeed a challenge (might be a good topic for a challenge). All of my travels around Mexico are by bus, and I have taken some surprisingly OK shots! Clean windows are a definite bonus!
    I look forward to enjoying more of your inspiring adventures and photography!

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    • Welcome, Marilyn!

      Given a seat by the window (which does not necessarily provide a great view because the seat rows are usually out of sync with the windows), and a clean window, taking photos out of the window of a plane might even be easier than taking photos from a moving bus, because the apparent movement of the ground (and clouds) is so much slower from a plane…

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