One of the few joys I find in my frequent business travel is that I get to look out the window. OK, let me be more Serious: I enjoy taking aerial photos of the landscape. Whatever. Now that, of course, requires that I actively seek out window seats (on long flights, this has the downside of requiring me to climb over two fellow passengers to reach the aisle, but that’s really their problem more than mine).

What I’ve found over the years, using a Nikon D80 and D90, with telephoto and DX 18-105 lenses, is that the landscape, particularly of the southwestern United States, takes on a wildly abstract and interestingly non-geological appearance when viewed from the air. It’s likely a combination of the nature of the landscape itself, coupled with distortions resulting from the extreme angle at which “down” pictures must be taken through a tiny airliner window when the photographer is strapped in inches away from the plexiglass, along with the modest processing the images go through in PhotoShop. But whatever the reason, the results can look more like Jackson Pollock than Google Earth, and I love that.

Aerial view of Green River, Canyonlands NP, UtahAerial View, Great Salt Lake, Utah

I’m not sure what to call this. “Aerial photography” always sounds to me like someone with too many pockets on his shirt rented time on a Piper and flew around taking fabulous pictures leaning precariously out an open doorway. Snapping photos while twisted around in a 17-inch wide coach seat, lens pressed against a scratched 16×11 plexiglass window, holding the camera at a wrist-aching angle, doesn’t really qualify, at least in my mind, as something as exotic and professional-sounding as “aerial photography.”

Nomenclature aside, though, it’s something that I like to do, and that makes the frequent business trips I take much more creatively stimulating. I don’t mind that I make something of a spectacle of myself–a bald, middle-aged guy contorting himself and clicking his camera rapidly out the window like a nine year old on his first flight. I may not be leaning precariously out an open airplane window, but from time to time I brazenly defy the order to “turn off all electronic devices” and take photos with my digital camera during final approach and landing. I am terribly sneaky about this, waiting for the flight attendants to go to their seats before surreptitiously pulling the camera back out and shocking my row-mates with my flagrant scoff-lawery. My Nikon has yet to interfere with Boeing’s complex electronics, however (to the best of my knowledge) and does not seem to have brought down any planes. I do apologize for putting my fellow passengers at risk, but sacrifices must be made for art.

Aerial View of Seattle, with Space NeedleAerial view of UNLV's football stadium, Las Vegas NV

The biggest challenge I’ve found to this sort of aerial photography is picture quality. There is simply no way these puppies are going straight from the camera onto the web. At thirty thousand feet, even on a clear day, there is haze and glare that simply must be Photoshopped away. The image below shows the before (on the left) and after versions of an aerial view of southern Arizona. As you can see, there’s a lot of nasty haze and glare that the camera picks up that my eye, at least, doesn’t really register. The “after” image looks pretty much like what I recall seeing.

Comparison of original v Photoshopped aerial image of AZ desert

Here’s how I do it. There may be better ways, different adjustments to make, but I’ve found through a lot of trial and error that the most natural-looking and final image, the one most faithful to the actual appearance of the landscape, is achieved through two steps. First, a basic manipulation of RGB layers. Then some tweaking with contrast and desaturization (to eliminate the over-coloring that can result from the contrast change).

In manipulating an aerial photo to eliminate haze, the first step in Photoshop is to go to Layers and select “New Adjustment Layer” and “Levels.” That will pop up a window asking you to name your new layer. The default is fine, so click OK. That will open the RGB adjustment window. Simply drag the black pointer that’s on the left side of the display slowly toward the right, until it is directly beneath wherever the graph begins (usually with a simple horizontal line), and click OK. Here’s how that should look:

RGB adjustment

Now you’ll need to save the image as a JPG, since all this diddling with levels will have autosaved it as a Photoshop file. Once that’s done, open your new image and make any necessary adjustments to contrast, spot fixes, etc. You’ll likely need to adjust saturation down; these adjustments often result in colors that are a bit too vivid. Remember how that landscape looked while you were peering at it through your camera? Try for that. The goal (well, at least my goal; others may have different goals of course) is to illustrate how the natural landscape resembles abstract art, as accurately as possible.

Aerial view of AZ desert from 38,000 feet

Of course, as I said earlier, sacrifices must be made for art. I have, I must confess, occasionally wiped out entire small towns, farmsteads, and roads that interfered with the abstract image I was trying so hard to recreate naturally. I justify such artifice by telling myself that the goal is to show the abstract landscape, and the manmade objects mess that up. In any case, don’t be afraid to carefully spot-heal away villages or random buildings that distract the eye and give away the game.

There’s something else I love about my obsession with window seats, and that is this: It makes me look out the window. On long business trips I could, of course, pop open my laptop and peer obsessively at Excel spreadsheets. I could (and do, of course) turn on the Kindle and read, or plug my ears into my iPod and bounce in my seat while Lady Gaga tells me to “Show Me Your Teeth,” immediately followed by somebody singing about being the very model of a modern major general (I’m eclectic in my music). I could (and sometimes do) take a nap. But mostly I can look out the window, at the surprisingly consistent beauty and interest of the landscape below. Sometimes, there are even surprises:

Aerial view of natural geological formation somewhere in southwestern Colorado, due east of Egnar and south of Naturita. Coordinates 37.91219123585559,-108.597316688116.

The desert southwest is particularly photogenic, I’ve found, but there’s a majesty in the irrigation circles that dot the flat land like checkers on a board across the midwest. There’s the mystery of small cities drifting beneath the plane’s wing, filled with thousands of people who have no idea who I am or that I’m staring down at them. The old and rippling landscape on the eastern side of the country is beautiful, and the oceans, while a little monotonous, occasionally spring a surprising reef or island or some enormous ship going from someplace to somewhere. It’s all out there, a fabulous world beyond my window. Oh sure, I whine and complain about having to travel to cold and boring cities to sit in endless meetings in anonymous hotel ballrooms, but really in this case, as in so much else in life, the treasure is in the getting there. Right outside my window, as long as I keep looking.

shadow of jet on clouds, with rainbows circling