With 300 people trying to sleep seven miles above the ground at 550mph, a night flight can be a strange experience. While cabin lights are dimmed, the crew silently patrol aisles of blanket-wrapped, headphone-wearing, eyemask-clad passengers – but one of our most frequent flyers thinks they might all be missing a trick. Paul Williams has long been captivated by what he can see and photograph out of an aircraft window during the night. And the results are extraordinary.
By just lifting that window blind (or, of course, using the electronic adjustment on our 787s) you might just tick something off your bucket list – the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. At certain times of year, on certain routes, the lights can be seen from north-facing windows of our planes. These ethereal curtains of green, red and sometimes purple light are caused when particles of solar wind, deflected by our planet’s magnetic field, collide with our atmosphere. It’s one of the greatest spectacles on earth.
Getting started with stargazing
Paul’s work in the technology sector has given him the opportunity to make frequent visits from London to New York and San Francisco over the years, often flying with Virgin Atlantic. Paul has never lost his love of travel, but a trip to northern Finland to learn how to hunt and photograph the Northern Lights changed how he thought about those long evening and night flights to and from the USA. Since the flightpaths arc north over the Arctic Circle, would it be possible to view the Northern Lights from the aircraft window – with a vantage point above the clouds? The answer, as these incredible photos will testify, is a resounding yes.
Since that day, Paul has become an expert on photographing the beautiful phenomena that occur in the skies outside our aircraft windows. His work has been picked up by several online publications such as Huffington Post and ITV. He has even had the ultimate accolade; one of his photographs became a finalist in the prestigious Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards and was displayed at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
It has to be dark for your eyes to see the Northern Lights – so using some clothing around your head to block out reflections is important, and it is easier once the cabin lights have been dimmed. If the conditions are right, look carefully and you may see what can start as a thin grey ‘rainbow’ above the horizon – as your eyes adjust, you might see pillars gradually forming, or waves of movement. If the solar stream is strong, your eyes may see the green of the aurora, and if you are very lucky you may make out some red too, or get dancing sheets of light that fill the entire view left to right and horizon to space! Whereas the most sensitive receptors in the human eye only see black and white, the camera sees all colours, so long-exposure photographs can show the true vivid colour of the aurora more easily.
And don’t just look for the Northern Lights – you can see meteorites (“shooting stars”), satellites glistening, or even rare stratospheric ice clouds.
In-Flight Entertainment – The Book
Paul recently produced a book of his best work – In-flight Entertainment – which includes some of the stunning images taken from the windows of our aircraft. Featuring the northern lights, thunderstorms, meteorites and stars, the book would be a fantastic addition to any coffee table, with all proceeds going to his chosen charity Big-Change.org
Supported by Virgin Unite, the independent charitable arm of the Virgin Group, Big-Change is a charity set up by Sam and Holly Branson and their friends to support and create positive change for young people. Having previously completed a marathon for the Prince’s Trust, Paul was looking for a new charity challenge and was introduced to Big-Change through the Virgin Disruptors in Education programme. In 2016 he took part in the Strive Challenge, a hiking, cycling, swimming and running challenge described in this post as one of the most difficult things he has ever done.
Paul’s top tips for photographing the northern lights on a night flight
- Use a small flexible tripod mounted on a backpack to support the camera, and clothing or blankets to cut out all reflection in the window.
- Paul uses a Canon 6D and a 24mm prime lens with a super wide aperture (F1.4). He then sets it on high ISO (normally about 3000) and sets manual focus to infinity (there’s more to this than meets the eye).
- Use a remote shutter release to take the pictures. The photos in the book had exposures of between half a second and eight seconds. With a more ‘normal’ aperture (F2.8-F4) you would need higher ISO and/or 15-30 second exposures – tricky to hold steady on a moving aircraft!
- Before any flight, check websites and apps for northern lights predictions as well as moon phases, meteor predictions and satellite activity.
- Request a window seat on the north side of the aircraft (left hand side on the way back from the USA, so an ‘A’ seat).
- Be patient!
- Follow Paul on Twitter at @pcwilliams to see his latest photographic adventures.