Photographs through windows

When travelling by train, bus or aeroplane we frequently see views that would make great photographs. In this post I display a selection of pictures I have taken through windows while travelling in Finland between May and October 2017.  I also explain some tricks-of-the-trade that hide or attenuate the effects of the optical imperfections of windows. To see them at higher resolution, click on the tiles.

Dealing with reflections and the usually not very clean windows can be a challenge, as well as movement. I describe below some tricks-of-the trade that in many cases make it possible to take technically acceptable photographs through “imperfect” windows.

  1. Avoid strong light shining directly onto the window from the outside, if possible. There is not much we can do in this case except using a window on the opposite side of the vehicle.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  2. Avoid light from shining on the inner side of the window at the site through which you are taking the photograph through. In an emergency we can use one hand as a shade, but the best solution is to use a flexible lens hood made of black rubber that can safely sit against the window, even allowing some angular movement. These lens hoods are available as screw-in accessories that are attached to the same thread on the lens rim as filters.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  3. The use of polariser filters to control reflections is problematic, especially in aeroplanes as the windows may have coatings that generate colourful optical artefacts in combination with such filters. If the reflections originate from artificial lamps, the filter will be anyway ineffective in suppressing them. Many polarisers absorb a significant amount of light, which can be an additional problem when we are in fast moving vehicles. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  4. To make invisible the dirt, small scratches and on aeroplanes also the small ice crystals that frequently accumulate, we need to make sure that they are completely out-of-focus. Keeping the camera objective as close as possible to the window, and using a large aperture (i.e. f/1.2 to f/1.8) is very effective. If the window is dirty, overall contrast can decrease significantly, but this can be corrected when editing the photographs. The effect is similar to that of haze if the aperture is large, but much worse if the aperture is smaller (f/9.0 in this example).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  5. To stop the movement when travelling at fast speed by train or bus, use fast shutter speeds (i.e. 1/1000 s to 1/15000 s) and avoid including in the picture objects that are less than a few tens of meters away. This example shows motion blur not only in the bush near the railway track but also rather far back into the field, while the trees at the back are sharp. The weather was cloudy and hazy and I had to use a shutter speed of 1/640 s, and aperture f/1.8 as I wanted to keep ISO at a low value._A220522
  6. To avoid distortion, do not use a “silent” electronic shutter (it would seem reasonable to use the “silent”-shutter setting to avoid disturbing other passengers, but its use will not result in usable pictures in fast moving trains or buses). When using such shutters, with current technology, capturing one frame takes a significant amount of time, much longer than when using a mechanical shutter. If movement is very fast some small distortion can occur even with mechanical focal-plane shutters as used in cameras with interchangeable objectives. The shape of the distortion will depend on whether the camera is held in landscape or portrait orientation. I seem to have deleted all the examples I had.

Two pictures taken on the same flight through the same window using the same camera and objective as for the three “bad” ones shown above (aperture f/2.0 for the two pictures below).

Camera: Olympus E-M1 (Mk I); objectives: M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8, M.Zuiko 25 mm f/1.8, Sigma 30 mm f/1.4 DC DN. No filters were used on the objective, except in the example with the polariser. I used either my hand as shade or a rubber lens hood from B+W. The widest of these objectives, the 17 mm M.Zuiko is equivalent to a 34 mm objective on a full-frame camera, in other words a moderate wide angle lens.

The most important accessory for taking pictures through windows costs less than 20 €. You need to buy one matching the filter thread size of the objective(s) you will use, and be aware that with wide angle objectives some generic lens hoods may cause vignetting. The one shown here is from B+W, a well know German brand. This lens hood is stiff enough and does not collapse too easily when putting it in contact with the window. I have many years ago successfully used a similar lens hood from Hama. Some other similar filters are softer and collapse more easily, making them unsuitable for this particular purpose.

All illustrations and text are of my own authorship, and copyrighted.

(c) 2017 Pedro J. Aphalo



  1. Pingback: More on taking photographs through windows – Photo rumblings and whispers

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