How to Photograph Stars from an Airplane

Meteor, Saturn, and Stars over Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri.

Theoretically you should not be able to get clear star photos from a moving plane. Engine vibrations are transmitted by the wings to the fuselage and you get blurry pictures during the long exposures. And I have a lot of blurry star photos taken at night from a plane to prove the theory is usually true.

But I made a discovery on one of my night flights. There are moments that it “feels” like the engines are throttling back (technically speaking I don’t know what is really going on, just how it feels), all vibrations stop for a few seconds, and it feels like the plane is gliding or floating. It is during these “gliding” seconds that sharp photos are possible if you are ultra steady. The shutter was open for 1.6 seconds.

Be sure your lens is focused at infinity. If you are using a zoom lens it will focus past infinity so you need to figure out where infinity is. See the links below. You will need a really high ISO to get your shutter speed down to something more reasonable. I used ISO 12800.
The view out the window is to the south-southeast. If you click on the image to see a larger version of this photo, you can make out I-29 between KC and St. Joseph.
As luck would have it (some say Mother Nature does special things for a prepared photographer), a meteor fell from the sky as the shutter was open.
For the astronomically curious, Sagittarius (the “Archer”, also nicknamed the “Teapot”) is above and to the right of the meteor. Scorpius (the “Scorpion”) curves around the left and top of the wing tip, and Saturn is above the back of the scorpion.

Photo Data: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF 20-105mm lens at 24mm, f/4, 1.6 sec, ISO 12800.