As excited as you may be to charge up the camera and head for the airport for your first experience with plane spotting, I highly recommend first obtaining some background knowledge on aviation photography. Trust me in that plane spotting is not a lot of fun when you’re just staring at planes without a clue as to what’s going on.
The first and probably most important skill is knowing how to recognize aircraft. Almost every dedicated plane-spotter is able to determine the manufacturer and model of an airplane just by looking at its characteristics. Some are even able to distinguish between different variants of a model, for example the 777-200 and 777-300. While this sounds like a pretty hard skill to master, it becomes second nature after a bit of practice, and will make your plane-spotting experience much more interesting. It’s not much fun going to the airport to look at planes when all of them appear to be the same. To help you master aircraft recognition, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide. This is essentially how I learned to distinguish between planes. You can also check out my basic aircraft recognition guide on my blog (coming soon).
Next, I highly recommend reading up on basic knowledge regarding airliner operations. Know what I mean when I use the terms APU, anti-collision lights, landing lights, ILS, or apron? If the answer to that question is yes, then you’re all good to go!. If not, I suggest you take a look at AeroSavvy, a blog written by 767 captain Ken Hoke. It’s an informative and entertaining blog that will definitely teach you all you need to know.
Finally, take a look at your camera. Is your camera type and/or lens suitable for aviation photography? If your only lens is a wide-angle prime or your only camera is the one on the back of your phone, then chances are you’re missing the right equipment for aviation photography. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need a $1000 high-end DSLR to take decent photos. Even a low-end point and shoot will do fine. For aviation photography, your camera or lens (spending on if you’re using a point and shoot or DSLR) should have a decent zoom capability. My experience plane spotting in Hong Kong tells me that a 300mm focal length on a full frame and 200mm on APS-C cameras is enough, although the more the better. If you want to take airliners.net quality photos, then a high quality lens is very important, in fact much more important than the camera body itself. Next time you’re camera shopping, save some money on the camera body and don’t go cheap on the lens. Once your equipment is ready, you’re all set to go plane spotting!
Be sure to plan out your spotting location and time spent at the airport very carefully the day before. You can use apps like FlightRadar24 to see all arrivals and departures for the day, so you can plan out which planes you want to catch. You can also use it to see the flight number, aircraft type, and registration of any flights near you, which is really helpful when you want to know more about the plane that’s taking off or coming in to land. It’s a good strategy to keep a journal of each plane that you’ve shot to help match up aircraft registrations and flight numbers when you’re back at home. Good luck, and happy spotting!