Close friends and I spotted spotting at JFK in 2013.
Photo: Mark Szemberski via NYC Aviation.
Early in my youth, I assumed my interest in plane spotting had spurred my developing interest in aviation. Living next to a smaller commercial-service airport, I was not exposed to anything other than what served Worcester. I would spend some days and hours scrolling through sites like Airliners.net, clipping photos and hanging them throughout my room. However, time went on. As I got older, I realized my intrigue dove far more profound than just the aircraft itself.
I did not begin spotting for myself until I commenced studies on the outskirts of New York City at an aviation institution in Long Island, New York. My dad allowed me to borrow his camera, which was predominantly sitting idly. After some convincing, my fantastic roommates and I ventured into Queens for the first time to spot John F. Kennedy International Airport, a.k.a. "one of the most excellent airports in the world." Suppose you are unfamiliar with New York City airport system. In that case, JFK is the gigantic international airport that welcomes most international traffic in and out of the greater New York City area.
At first, the traffic was distant - it appeared we had chosen the wrong spot. However, within half an hour, the traffic configuration changed, and the aircraft we had to that point in our lives only seen from afar were flying only a few hundred feet above. We made a hobby of spending many weekend days over the next couple of years, taking in what was an unparalleled traffic mix within the United States (okay, a possible exception is LAX).
I took advantage of opportunities that would present themself. In the spring, the Port Authority typically closes a runway down at JFK for an annual 5k. We signed up to "compete," proudly coming in dead last. At school, for baseball, we would be in Raleigh-Durham for our annual tournament. I found a spot behind a treeline next to the interstate with a decent view of traffic arriving on Runway 23R. I still get made fun of to this day, me walking out from the shrubbery like in Field of Dreams.
It was not until I started my summer internship at Boston Logan International Airport that I concentrated on bettering many artistic aspects of my photography. I was fortunate enough to intern with several individuals who enjoyed capturing Logan's sights and sounds in their spare time. These friendly people taught me various lessons about the importance of planning, paying attention to lighting, and the importance of post-processing (more importantly, they also taught me that work does not always have to be so serious). By this point, I had my own Canon T3i Rebel with a couple of lenses that got the job done, more than enough to capture solid photos.
After graduating, I took a few-year spotting hiatus since most of my time was spent working. It was not until I took my first job in Airport Operations that I could revisit my hobby. A great benefit of the job is that it is mainly reactive - not all ten daily hours are spent at 100%. Thus, it allows more than enough time to snap a shot or two as time permits don't There are just responsibilities that come with the job you have to be careful of, such as posting photos that may contain sensitive information or protecting the privacy of your clients.
Tips, tricks, and everything in between.
The sooner you undertake any form of photography for yourself, the sooner you will feel comfortable, and, as with anything, the required effort will only make you better.
Sometimes, the best photos are the ones you choose not to take. As much as I want you to explore the hobby, try not to force it. If the weather is not cooperating, there is nothing you can do. If the flight is delayed or canceled and you can no longer get the shot you came for, all you can do is laugh. These moments will be more than made up for in the future photos you didn't know you would get.
I should also mention that you will inevitably meet some pretty cool people along the way. Although I am dark on social media, I can still keep in touch with most I have met. For example, I met a gentleman in Barcelona named Enric, who taught me much about how aviation works in Europe. We keep in touch and exchange pictures to this day! The world of aviation is a lot smaller than you think.
Photoshop. I guess it does not have to be Photoshop, but you will need to learn to process photos (which will require more practice than taking them). It used to be that Photoshop was unaffordable to most at an outrageous cost, but now the latest version is available through subscription plans with Adobe. Who knows? Playing with Photoshop may spark an interest in digital design. I know software exists similar to Photoshop, which some people prefer; I can't speak to them since I have never used any.
Either way, this is non-negotiable. What I am saying may sound like a generalization, but I am not exaggerating - photos in their "raw" form are never the final product you see online. Luckily, it is hardly ever more than a few adjustments that take a little "stick time" to get the hang of. There is plenty of information online for those looking to learn post-processing for themselves.
Equipment. You do not need the latest and greatest technology to take quality pictures. As the saying goes, "The camera is only as good as the person behind it." That being said, you do not want to limit yourself to outdated technology, either. Research and find a camera that you feel is "right" for your budget. The best part about purchasing a camera is that they do not require frequent investments - what you spend is subject primarily to how involved in photography you become.
If you have ample resources, I highly suggest looking at some of the latest models in mirrorless technology. It was the best investment I have made to date. Granted, I was fortunate enough to get a family deal through Sony for the A7iii, so determine your cost/benefit analysis. I could even see myself making photography as a side hustle one day!
Privacy. Every aircraft has an owner who may not want their property photographed. Although I find that while this is certainly possible, a case like this is an extreme outlier. After picking the mind of several aircraft representatives, I feel strongly that most do not want to be exposed publicly (i.e., you explicitly mention who and what is on an aircraft). Blurring out every tail number is a lot of work and compromises the final result. Walking the line for privacy is an art in and of itself, but for the most part, pilots love to have their work captured. Often, spotting will allow us to network, as sharing a photo with a crewmember can spark an exciting conversation.
Lighting. As I previously mentioned, don't feel compelled to force anything. This goes for lighting, as well. An intimate knowledge of expected traffic flows will go a long way toward getting the right shots. For example, if you know preferred taxi routes, maybe project in your mind spots along the road with the sun at your back. During the winter, the days are shorter. However, the lighting always seems strong. Inversely, during the summer, the middle of the day makes for some problematic spotting.
Inclement weather is not impossible to shoot in. However, it would be best to compensate for the reduced lighting in Photoshop or Lightroom. As depressing as the weather can sometimes be (particularly in the northeast), it can also bring a little variety. Two items of note for low-lighting; prioritize parked or slow-moving shots as motion can be difficult to cleanly capture and ensure you do not overexpose the photo during post-processing.
Setting. Do your best to plan out prospective locations in advance. I like to use the highly-functional PhotoPills app, which provides a map that depicts lighting and detailed sunrise/sunset information. There are also websites, such as Spotterguide.net, with well-developed guides to help you scope out an airport you may be unfamiliar with. If I am in a terminal with my camera, I try to position myself in a spot where traffic passes in good light. There is always a way to put yourself in the best position, so do what you can to keep the light behind you.
Remember, we live in a post-9/11 world - not everyone will understand what you are up to. As I take my camera with me, the more places I go, I spend equally more time double checking that I my "t's" and d y "i's." If you are on public property, that is primarily their problem, not yours. However, it is entirely possible to meander onto private property inadvertently. I find that proactively communicating your intentions instead of leaving others to guess will go a long way in quickly building trust.
Platform. Even if your photos are for personal use, taking up storage on your hard drive will add up over time. Not only that, but my work was entirely lost after my computer failed. With advancements in cloud storage, there are several hosting sites to consider. These are a few I have had experience with and can speak on:
Google Photos - My hosting platform of choice. The biggest thing for me is you can select your audience, which I keep primarily private. The interface is seamless with a great mobile app. Further, those invited to the album are notified via email whenever you load a batch.
Google Drive - I had used Drive for some time before realizing Photos was a thing. It was not bad; it kept everything organized, but not much else.
Flickr - I had spent much time on Flickr and grew a decent following. However, I began to worry about the repercussions should a client have a problem with my photos. Combined with their hiking of premium costs, I deleted my account.
I bet there is at least one spotting website you have in mind that you would love to post to. These sites have teams of screeners that subjectively approve or deny a quality, and in the beginning, it may take several drafts before you crack the code. Just know that this could stress your hobby - it did for me. One website suspended my account out of nowhere, accusing me of photoshopping out a fence, which was laughable.
So, as proud as I was to have my work publicly acknowledged, I felt the pros no longer outweighed the cons and moved my photos to an independent photo hosting platform. Once I shifted venues, eliminating the anxiety of accepting my photos, I returned to enjoy the hobby.
Aircraft. Of course, you will want some variety. I love where I work because we see a traffic mix that is difficult to compete with. You would be surprised how your appreciation for different aircraft will change over time. For example, I did not care about any business jets. Once, my friend Ryan mentioned excitedly that a Hawker was next to land, to which I responded it was an excellent time to change batteries.
Fast forward to today, when things have completely changed. I can name every bizjet known to men and often who their owners are. My favorite aircraft to catch are private airliners, such as Boeing Business Jets or the Embraer Lineage 1000. They are often hard to find; fortunately, they are a regular part of our fleet mix.
While remaining open-minded, try to glance at FlightRadar24 to see what configuration the airport is running and, more importantly, which aircraft you would like to target as subjects. Keep in mind airport projects that might impact your plans. For example, between the Spring and Fall seasons, LaGuardia will often close down one of their two runways for Saturday maintenance.
You probably already know which aircraft you would like to spot. I suggest basing your plans on the airplanes early on. For example, let's say you are in the New York area. If you like the Airbus A220 yet have not spotted many, the first step would be analyzing the arrival and departure boards on FlightRadar24 for all three airports. Eventually, you would find that there are only two A220s that visit JFK each day (for now), but the aircraft is pretty standard down the street at LaGuardia. Newark is subject to A220 aircraft. However, I do not believe they have any scheduled at this current time.
So, that is it. There is probably more content I will think of later, as is always the case. Either way, I'll be sure to bring it to you.
Planespotting is a straightforward hobby but will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of our industry. I will take some time to recover after my recent stretch of traveling, but I would like to focus more on advancing my spotting hobby, catching aircraft and airports worldwide. If I had to have a top three, at the moment, it would look like this:
Madeira-Christiano Ronaldo (LPMA).