I’ve been photographing from the windows of commercial jets for a long time; as far back as the 1970s and early 1980s, when I did some work with a small regional airline that flew into remote locations in Far North Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula and the islands of the Torres Straits. This airline flew these Douglas DC-3 planes really low because they weren’t pressurised. They had very large windows that were great to shoot out of and it was one of the few chances to get up in the air and photograph things from a different perspective.
A few years later I would fly a lot between Tokyo and Sydney so I would get specific seats, at the back of the plane on the left side, to photograph the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean. The idea really evolved over many years, shooting a few images from commercial planes every so often, sometimes from remote locations where you couldn’t hire small planes or helicopters such as the Solomon Islands or the Kingdom of Tonga.
It’s really only in the last three years that it has become a project in its own right something that I plan and work on. It happened because my son moved to Washington DC. My wife is originally from California and has family there so I started flying across the US from LA or San Francisco to DC and New York. I began photograping the cities, suburbs, desert areas of Arizona and New Mexico, the mountains of the west and the agricultural areas of Kansas and Oklahoma. I got so much material that it formed the beginning of a collection and it’s now something I’ve been working on fully.
Some of my favourite shots are of the US. The deserts and arid regions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah with the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert and surrounding areas that are wonderful to see from the high elevation. I also like the agricultural patterns of the Vietnamese rice paddies and Spanish olive and citrus orchards. There are the Romanian, Czech, German and northeast England shots, too, with their wheat, canola and sunflower fields.
The city shots near airports that I take when landing and taking off look good and are from locations that would probably be hard to fly in as the airspace around these locations is heavily restricted. These images make a nice series when placed next to each other, with their own characteristics and architecture.
It’s not easy shooting out of an aeroplane window You take what you can get when taking photographs from commercial planes. It’s very different from hiring a helicopter or small plane. For a start you’re shooting through a sheet of Plexiglas that gives you a soft image. This was something that I found difficult to work with in the early days but have recently incorporated it and it can be an advantage as the image looks very painterly. Also you’re working from a much higher spot than when you are in small planes, helicopters and today with drones. This makes for patterns that are much more visible.
It can be difficult to get a suitable window seat away from the wings and the engine fumes, and to get a window that’s not badly scratched and is positioned next to your seat. Sometimes you can be in between two windows, which can make it difficult to use either.
Economy seats right down the back are often the best but the seats in front of the wings are also good.
Reflections are a problem so I tend to wear dark shirts and avoid stripes and bright colours. I also use rubber lens hoods so I can place the lens on the window and reduce reflections.
Sometimes everything happens right but then all you see out of the window is thick cloud. I sit back and try and enjoy the flight and, who knows, the clouds might clear and there’s a great shot there. I guess it’s a little like fishing: get everything right and in place and then be patient and wait.
For more information on Peter Hendrie’s ongoing project, visit peterhendrie.com