Aconcagua (and photographing through airplane windows)

Aconcagua, #1. Argentina, 2014
Aconcagua, #1. Argentina, 2014 (Aconcagua in shadow, middle ground. Cerro Mercedario in sun, background.)

This summit (22,837′) has special meaning to me as I once stood atop it back in 1997. Not much air up there. (Thanks Gary and Tom, for a challenging, fun, and successful expedition!)

As we departed Mendoza yesterday afternoon on the short flight over to Santiago, Chile, we were treated to some great views. The lack of the usual high winds at altitude (and, therefore, the heavy Andean mountain turbulence) allowed the pilot to fly quite a bit lower on the cordillera crossing than I have normally experienced. The light wasn’t perfect for photography, but you take what you can get.

Some tips on shooting through airplane windows (big airliner type)…

1) Do some research beforehand to find out what side of the plane you need to be on to see the sites, or for the best light. Ask the airlines for information, they can sometimes be helpful–maybe even change your seat for you if you tell them what you want to do (they did for us on this trip!).

2) Try for a window seat in front of the wing. Behind the wing can block your view and the thrust coming out of a wing-mounted engine distorts the scene somewhat.

3) Shoot as straight through the glass as you can. Sometimes the plane will turn (dip the wing, essentially) and give you a nice direct line onto the landscape below. If you know the routing, you can anticipate these turns. If the plane stays straight and level you’ll have to make due, but realize that the more angle with which you shoot down through the Plexiglas, the more distortion is induced.

4) Pick your lens beforehand. I like the 70-200 (full-frame) as I can zoom in a bit to isolate sections of the landscape.

5) Shoot at the fastest shutter speeds you can get, bump up ISO if necessary (I go up to 200-1600 range), use VR (VC, IS, whatever it is called on your camera). Don’t brace against the window as vibration can be transmitted to your camera. Use an f-stop that is sharp for the lens you have chosen (I used f/5.6 with my 70-200 f/4).

6) Shoot several frames to try to get at least one sharp version–especially if you are bouncing around a bit.

7) Expose properly–check your histogram and adjust as necessary.

8) Now the big factor…post-processing. Your images will come out flat, dull, and very low contrast. You’ll need to up the contrast BIG time in post (In the two images posted here, I used 100%–slider all the way over–in Adobe Camera Raw). Try some clarity and sharpening, too.

9) Finally, don’t expect miracles. Shooting through those thick pieces of glass definitely ruins image quality. Don’t expect to get 20×30 prints from your experience. But, if a web view is all you need, you might be surprised at the result.


ABOVE – A view of Aconcagua (mostly in shadow) from the south. Being in the southern hemisphere, and given the steepness of this side, the south face is technically the most challenging and dangerous as you can probably see (generally, north faces are the tough ones in the northern hemisphere…think Eiger Nordwand). The left curving glacier valley in the shadow that leads to the South Face is the Lower Horcones Glacier and constitutes the approach from this direction. The actual summit is the right hand of the two high points. The standard route (our choice in 1997) comes up the other, northern, side. The huge sunlit mountain in the background is another South American giant, Cerro Mercedario, at 22,000′ only slightly lower than Aconcagua. Metadata: D800, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO200, 70mm with 70-200 f/4 Nikkor lens.

BELOW – Here is a better view of the tourist route. The approach starts at the Puente del Inca area and comes up the valley that is on the bottom right and in dark shadow. The Plaza de Mulas base camp (14,400′) is at the head of that same valley, also in shadow. From there, the route generally climbs the slope to the right that is fully sunlit up toward the summit. The final part of the “tourist route” is not visible as it is just behind that western-oriented ridge. Metadata: D800, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO200, 112mm with 70-200 f/4 Nikkor lens.

Aconcagua, #3. Argentina, 2014
Aconcagua, #3. Argentina, 2014

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