Always Get the Window Seat

The following post is by Atlanta based photographer and writer Zach Matthews, who explains why it’s worthwhile to photographers to get the window seat when flying. Learn more about him at the end of this post.

Back in 2006, I went on my first assignment as a magazine writer. The Cloudveil company had just come into the fly fishing market (my area of specialty) and American Angler wanted me to cover the event. As the proud owner of a (then) new Nikon D70, I took every opportunity to take pictures, including candids of myself in my new role as a fancy journalist.

As we gained altitude on the Salt Lake City to Jackson, Wyoming leg of our flight, I snapped a shot or two out of the airliner’s window. Your modern airliner, say a Boeing 767, has double-paned window glass. The exterior skin has a thick glass plate, while the interior is a thin piece of Plexiglas, with an inch or two of space between. Generally, the interior pane will be very scratched, possibly distorted by oilslick defects, and in some cases flaking to pieces. That doesn’t mean you can’t take a picture through it, though—just as when shooting through chain link fencing, if your point of focus is far enough out, the glass will blur to a misty gray fog.

Fast forward three years. I received an assignment for an article on Google Earth and how we fishermen can use it to locate remote creeks. The editor and I agreed that a spread intro of a real photo with Google Earth-like graphics would make a commanding opener. The only problem is, you need quite a lot of perspective to make a Google Earth map—even a fake one—make sense. I scrolled back through my archive and kicked up the shot I had made out the airliner window over Salt Lake City.

The shot was a six megapixel vertical image, as you can see. Those of you familiar with print media will know that most magazines are printed at 300dpi and are about seventeen inches across. A vertical six megapixel image can be stretched to cover one page, but not two. Still, I liked the image, so I came up with a solution: I would mirror it and then carve out a lot of white space.

As you can see, the mirrored image looked like a Rorschach ink blot, or maybe the world’s most extreme continental rift. A few swipes of the cloning brush later, with some healing around the edges, and I had a plausible, albeit unusual, landscape.

Next step: touch up the color scheme to remove the blue shift from the window pane. Voila, a halfway decent aerial shot of a mountain!

Now all I needed to do was copy the Google Earth graphical user interface. Google is kind enough to include its placemarks in the program as separate PNG files, so I was able to pull those out and simply enlarge them (PNG files are vector graphics which can be mathematically enlarged without loss). The navigational graphics, unfortunately, would have to be duplicated.

As you can see, while not perfect, they were at least close enough to escape any but close scrutiny; as my dad always used to say, “Good enough for government work.”

Finally, I needed to get back some white space and (and also hide my imperfect cloning). Some careful examination of the Macintosh environment and one pointer arrow later, and I had a workable graphic design.

The magazine’s photo editor wasn’t particularly thrilled with my first attempt, since I’d missed the margins he needed and miscalculated the exact size of the magazine (those guys measure down to at least a sixteenth of an inch). Fortunately, I’d drawn everything in Macromedia’s Fireworks program—the now-disfavored web design interface I was most familiar with. Everything was scalable, so a few simple math problems later, we had our design.

As you can see, it all turned out rather nice. The angry badger, incidentally, was the editor’s suggestion.

For a close up look, pick up a copy of the March/April edition of American Angler magazine, on newsstands now.  For the record, I have now used this out-of-the-airliner technique to publish photos in national magazines at least three times, in places as far apart as the Bahamas and Brazil. While these images will never match the quality of a dedicated ultra-light flying photographer, aerial photos are rare enough that they nevertheless are still engaging, and very marketable. Next time you’re flying commercial, be sure to ask for the window seat!

An intro to Zach’s Googling the Backcountry article is found here on

See more articles from Zach here at Photography Bay:

10 Tips for Breaking into Commercial Magazine Photography

How To: Single-Image HDR

Zach Matthews is the editor of The Itinerant Angler, He is a Contributing Writer with American Angler magazine,  Along with his wife, Lauren, he has published photos and writing in American Angler, Fly Fisherman, Backpacker, The Drake, and Fish and Fly.  He lives and practices law in Atlanta, Georgia.



  1. Christian says

    As far as I know, PNG files are lossless compressed bitmaps, not vector files. I use PNG frequently when I’m unsure wether I have to re-edit an image. JPG in this case would lead to recompression and additional detail loss.


  2. says

    That’s a fair point, Christian. Working as I usually do in the Adobe Fireworks format, I forget that PNGs are not typically considered vector graphics. However, within Fireworks, the program’s meta data allows for infinitely-resizable vector graphics, especially if they are drawn in Fireworks itself. This link will explain:

    However, I think you’re probably right with respect to the Google graphics being raster images.

    Thanks for the comment,

  3. Ramses says

    When I was a photo editor for geography text books, I regularly used to get requests for Google Earth like imagery. Hard to get the real stuff, because of Google’s terms of use. So, really interesting option, this. My one hesitation for this solution would be: wouldn’t using the icons also infringe on Google’s copyright? Dunno really, just wondering…

    Interesting write-up however!

  4. Ramses says

    Thanks for the heads up, Zach. Google seem to have become more lenient then before. I used to have call the regional headquarters evry time for permission :)