Photograph of the Milky Way Taken Out the Window of an Airplane Above the Atlantic


One of the standard cliché Instagram shots that gets ridiculed on occasion is the plane wing photographs, usually accompanied by some clouds or a sunrise or sunset. And while we agree that taking a photo out the window of your commercial airplane is tacky and overdone, the photo above by astrophotographer Alessandro Merga is a big fat beautiful exception.

The impressive image was captured on June 7th during a transatlantic flight from New York City to London while Merga’s flight was somewhere over the vast expanse of water we call the Atlantic ocean.

On the one hand, this seems like the most logical place to take a beautiful milky way photo: you’re about 36,000 feet in the air and there’s practically no light pollution. But the logistics of capturing this photo go way beyond that, because you’re in a tin can that is hurtling along at about 600mph… only 161mph slower than the speed of sound. So how did he capture this:


He told us how he overcame these obstacles when we caught up with him over email:

The only solution was to make an exposure as short as possible, but capturing enough light, so I used a Canon 28mm f/1.8 wide open, setting my Canon 450D (Rebel XSi) to 1600ISO (the max) and trusting that I could maybe push the luminosity in post. I took 93 exposures all the way up to 30 seconds, of which only one turned out well (a 10 sec exposure).

To obtain the highest possible stability I put the Gorillapod between the armrest and the fuselage, covering myself and the camera with a blanket to block all reflections coming from inside.

There’s no denying it’s an impressive shot given the challenging situation it was taken in. It also goes to show that even ‘cliché’ images like the airplane wing shot are worth attempting if you can pull off something truly dazzling.

Click on the image at the top to see the full-res version, and head over to Merga’s website if you’d like to see more of his work.

(via APOD)

Image credits: Photograph by Alessandro Merga and used with permission

  • Neato!

    Despite the window shot being tacky, it’s still a fun photo to shoot for personal reasons. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I love that we can fly 600mph, in a big metal can weighing several hundreds of thousands of pounds, 10 miles in the sky and have it float so delicately. It’s beautiful and being able to participate in that is also beautiful.

  • tonyc0101

    I don’t get how the stars aren’t streaking from a 10 second exposure @ 600mph tho.

  • C Jacobs

    So yeah, the picture he took looks nothing like this. This photo is the result of postprocessing.

  • Paul Pond

    Very simple. The light is million light ways away. and the earth isn’t that tiny. I don’t know the physics but it is simple in my mind. :)

  • sheldonc

    Most photos are the result of post-processing. So what’s your point?

  • james

    Our planet is rotating at 1000mph and you can take milky way shots from the ground.

  • Hunter

    Think about how much more noticeable camera shake is on a 200mm than a 35mm. It’s the same principle because the stars are very far away. A light-source coming from much closer to the plane (for instance another plane at 500 meters) would cause a light streak at 10 second exposure.

  • SteveGJ

    You have it roughly right. The distance plays a part, and it would be all that mattered if the plane was traveling in a straight line. However, it’s not – it’s following the curve of the Earth, which means it’s rotating with the Earth, and it’s that rotation which causes “star trails” on long photographic exposures (typically of several minutes). The degree to which this is amplified or reduced by the plane’s motion will depend on the speed and direction in relation to the Earth’s rotation, the latitude and where the camera is pointed. However, 10s will not be sufficient to show “star trails” at the speed of a commercial airliner.

  • Hunter

    he says he took it with post-processing in mind. It’s impressive that he was able to capture the information to make post-processing possible!

  • Hunter

    Nothing about the logistics of speed makes this impressive! We are moving at a rate of thousand miles per hour (at the equator) photographing the cosmos from earth and can take exposures many minutes without the discernible light streaking due to rotation of the earth. It’s the problem the photographer notes with glass reflection on a commercial airliner.

  • Adam Cross

    think about how fast the earth is spinning, it’s faster than that plane. You can take 10 sec exposures from earth without star trails so from the plane it’s not a problem

  • Marcello Cavalcanti

    but a 10sec exposure time being in movement (the airplane is not still) would not blur the image?

  • yamaha83

    not for something so far away at that focal length

  • Mark Zee

    Claps for your attempt.. You did a great job Alessandro :)

  • Jay


  • Zos Xavius

    the stars are actually moving faster than the plane in relation to them. as fast as the earth is rotating in fact. this is why long exposures result in trails.

  • Zos Xavius

    Yes! Another genius comment by the experts that read petapixel!

  • David C

    I’m surprised the huge amount of camera shake from turbulance and engine vibration through the fuselage didn’t have a significant impact. I’m also surprised at the level of detail, I used almost the same lens/camera combo on Mauna Kea in Hawaii but with a 550d (so at least comparable to the 450d he used, if not a bit better) and didn’t get results remotely similar even though I was stationary using a weighted tripod. While I’m not outright calling it a fake, from personal experience I’m surprised he has achieved that using the equipment he claims to have used in the vibrating environment of a plane. How did the gorillapod not transmit the constant vibration of the fuselage into the camera?

  • slyman

    to the people talking about the movement of the plane, consider this, if they were traveling west in a straight line, he’d actually be able to get a longer exposure before there were apparent star trails because they’d be traveling against the spin of the earth.

  • John C.

    I agree with your comments. I’ve taken many night photos on a tripod with different exposure times, different ISO’s, using an intervalometer, and never got even 1/2 as close to what he’s accomplished. I noticed he has a few composite photos on his website. I’m thinking this image is many photos combined. And considering he used an outdated camera makes me also believe this is too good to be true. Just my 2 cents.

  • Kris J Boorman

    You could say its… Neato.

  • Andrew Ian Chan

    Unfortunately, he wasn’t. Article says he went from New York to London, which makes his airplane in line with Earth’s rotation.

    He would actually encounter trails at a much shorter exposure.

  • Andrew Ian Chan

    10s at 28mm isnt enough to significantly expose those star trails

  • Andrew Ian Chan

    I once took a photo of the sagittarius teapot in the same vicinity while on an airplane out over the South China Sea…. Maybe I should find it again and see if I could bring out some details out of it.

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  • Silly Goose

    There’s a setting in your camera called RAW mode. You should start using that instead of JPG.

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  • Jason Mayfield-Lewis

    I’ve just made a tragic realisation. As I was looking at this photo, the only thing I could think is ‘That looks like an Airbus winglet’… A330? I’m so sad…

  • Neato!

    Because, science.

  • Edgar Allan Bro

    This comment is a result of idiocy.

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