Photographs Through Junk: How to take better pictures through a messy airplane window.

posted 1999-Dec-12

I was flying from Saint Louis to Philadelphia one beautiful fall day, and I was looking out the window, observing some wondrous landscapes. I can't begin to describe the fascinating geometric shapes into which the land had been carved by the agriculture in the area. Seen from the macroscopic view of the plane, it was marvelous!

Precisely because I couldn't describe it, I badly wanted to take a picture of it. (As well as several other views along the trip.) I was frustrated that I didn't have my camera with me, but I consoled myself saying "Well, it wouldn't have turned out well anyway...it looks good to me, but this window has all these miniature abrasions (which plane windows always seem to have) which would have crapified the picture something fierce."

And thinking of that, I kept shifting my view back and forth between the landscape and the window, watching the marks come into focus and then be blurred away.

Which reminded me of the time I discovered that while looking through a window screen is annoying (because there's this nasty miniature GRID in the way!) if you take a nice camera and focus on something other than the screen, you don't see screen at all.

[For those not optically-inclined, I'll eventually put up diagrams better explaining why this is, but suffice to say that the larger the diameter of the lens focusing the image, the better chance you have of 'averaging out' any obstructions which aren't in your desired focal plane.]

And this made me realize, "Hey! When I use the f-Stop on my camera to open or close the iris, I'm effectively changing the diameter of the focusing lens. So if I want to take a picture through something messy (like a screen, or an airplane window) I should crank that aperture as wide open as possible [lowest-numbered f-Stop] to help the image ignore that junk in the way!"

While I got a little sad again because I had just lost the sour grapes that were consoling my on the lack of my camera being present, my spirits were lifted by the further revelation that the wider-open the aperture, the more light comes into the camera, and hence the faster your shutter speed should be to help compensate. Which is nice because with the shaking of the plane and the shaking of your hands and the ground sliding along below, you want that camera shutter moving as fast as possible to help freeze time.

Summary: to take good pictures when there's stuff in the way, crank open the iris of your camera and hopefully you can avoid the nasties in-between.

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