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Aerial photography

27 Jan 2011 4:31AM
I shoot a lot of photographs from the flight-deck of aircraft, and although I am getting there as far as PP work goes, I still have several things I would like to improve. I am wondering if we have any experts here on optics? More specifically, the effect of shooting through laminated glass at different angles, and how to mitigate these effects, either in the camera or in Photoshop?

One of the main problems is that I am often shooting through the front windows, which are generally angled at about 45-70 degrees to the plane of the lens vertically, and up to 30 degrees horizontally. I can generally get around the problem of reflections by shielding the lens, or by placing the sun-visor over reflecting objects. A polariser is no use as the glass is laminated. However, pictures taken at these acute angles generally look quite soft, especially at longer focal lengths (at extreme focal lengths (200mm+)focus is not possible at all unless the lens is perpendicular to the glass). I have experimented with apertures, and it seems wider apertures help with removing the effects of dirt and scratches on the glass while smaller apertures generally seem to work better with longer focal lengths. I use single point focusing or manual focus. I have a UV filter on the lens, mainly for protection (the windows filter UV anyway). I was wondering if anyone here has any ideas how I can get better quality shots: one thing I have been wondering is whether the size of the the front element of the lens will affect the quality of the photograph. At the moment I use a Sigma 18-250, which has some obvious compromises with it's large range, but it's that range that makes it such a good lens to use on the aircraft (changing lenses is not really an option). I've not noticed much improvement in quality using different lenses anyway. Shooting through the side windows I don't have the problem of angles as much, but the glass is not as good optically.

Another problem is that pictures taken from the aircraft (especially in haze and at high altitude) have a very narrow dynamic range, often only from about 50 to 200 when viewed on the histogram, or 70-230 when I expose to the right. At the moment I get round this by use of selective levels adjustments in CS5, but am wondering if there is anything else I can do that will improve the dynamic range? I used to have a compact that shot TIFF's that seemed to handle dynamic range in these conditions better than my Pentax K7 does with RAW.

If anyone has any ideas I would love to hear them! At the moment I am not sure if I need to change my technique, buy a new lens, or maybe even a new camera! Or perhaps just accept that what I am getting is a good as I can get? However, I am sure I can improve somehow, and would appreciate any input.

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StrayCat Plus
11 17.0k 3 Canada
27 Jan 2011 6:15AM
You are getting haze; try a haze or UV filter, should help. It's not the glass, it's the altitude. You get basically the same effect in mountains, and by using a UV filter, the clarity is much better. You can try levels in editing to reduce the haze, should help quite a bit. I worked with a First Officer who could get a shot of a pilot in another aircraft at over 30,000ft. as we passed, and with a bit of processing on the PC, you could recognise the features no problem.

I have taken quite a few shots of the Grand Canyon, as we climbed out of Phoenix, and it was mostly haze, till I adjusted levels on the PC.

Good Luck
Sooty_1 5 1.4k 218 United Kingdom
27 Jan 2011 8:36AM
Why not open the window and eliminate the glass altogether?


On the other hand, the "glass" (plastic) window won't help at all. With longer lenses, you can get a long rubber hood and press this against the "glass" if you can get close enough to it, but a lot of the problem can be the optical qualities of the "glass" itself. At any other angle apart from 90 deg, you will get flare and possibly internal reflections from the laminated layers. What sort of aircraft are we talking here? Commercial airliner, light aircraft or fast jet? It will make a difference to the advice!

27 Jan 2011 4:13PM
Thanks for the replies! It's a commercial airliner, so opening the window is not an option. I don't think a UV filter will do anything, as the glass of the windows blocks UV anyway. At the moment I use selective levels adjustments using layer masks, which does improve pictures dramatically, but this often introduces noise, and sometimes odd colours too.

Getting clear shots of other aircraft is not a problem, the distance and therefore haze is much less than shooting the ground from 30000+ feet. I also usually will have the lens more perpendicular to the window, as the majority of shots of other aircraft are taken from below, so refraction is not such a problem. The problem of refraction (and haze) while taking shots of the ground is the one I am really having trouble with. I've been wondering if a tilt-shift lens could be used to reduce the angle between lens and glass, or if this would just give me large areas that are completely out of focus?
Sooty_1 5 1.4k 218 United Kingdom
27 Jan 2011 4:48PM
As long as you shift the lens but don't tilt it, your plane of focus will stay the same. To reduce the angle with the glass, you would have to tilt upwards, which would take your plane of focus way too far out the wrong way.

PS...I was joking about opening the window! At 30 000 feet, I want cabin pressure and conditioning, thank you.

User_Removed 6 1.4k England
27 Jan 2011 7:49PM
30000 feet is the major problem even if all other variables were controlled.

From an optics perspective, to successfully shoot through glass you need to make conditions where you are shooting the subject from the side that has the most lighting. - Obviously the frontal windows of a plane are not great for this.

Reflections from laminated glass in use in planes will always be a problem, you can however reduce them.

The best solution that comes to mind at your level (e.g. no low altitude open window stuff) would be to cover the window with a light-blocking hood, a-la slate camera style fabric. This would very much increase image quality.

You could suffice with a large lens hood (or a coat jacket), but do not allow it to touch the window, as the vibrations from plane will play havoc.

The next tip is to shoot early in the flight, and wait for the plane to bank... Some of the best aerial to ground shots are done through side windows of a heavily banking plane.

A tilt shift, nor an increase frontal element size will not help much (technically they would, but its bothersome - you have other factors that effect things more.)

Polarising filters are a big no=-no the windows as you said are polarised anyway, so you will get X polarisation meaning some lovely PURPLE.

But 30000 feet is far too high for clear images of the ground. - but the fabric hood / lens hood is the winner here.
User_Removed 6 1.4k England
27 Jan 2011 7:56PM
Also depending on what the window is made from, a tonal adjustment in photoshop should correct most of the "strangeness" you get.
27 Jan 2011 10:49PM
Thanks for the suggestions! I get more problems from refraction due to the angle of the glass than from reflections. I often use the detachable sun-visor to shield reflections and the glare shield is painted with non-reflective paint. It's the bending of the light by the glass that is more of an issue. I have been wondering if there is some way of correcting this using the lens correction feature in Photoshop? What I really need is a computer guru too design me a plug-in Grin!

As for shooting at lower levels that's not really practical as I am generally a bit busy then.
User_Removed 6 1.4k England
28 Jan 2011 4:45PM
Upload an example of the bend and I can create a batch action to correct it for you. - that is assuming its the same every time.

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