This is how one avgeek turned his hobby to a job


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(CNN) — If asked to pick an icon of beauty, most people will choose a landscape or a city skyline.

Laird Kay would, however, say that an airplane is a good idea.

The avgeek, who fell in love as a child with planes on vacation, has always seen them as both objects of beauty and convenience.

Kay’s photographs show airplanes as birds in mid-flight. They are then frozen on the runway, and photographed from above. Their wings are so high that their noses look like curious eyes. Even details such as rivets, insulation, and exhaust pipes are beautiful in his photos. He says planes are “beautiful pieces of sculpture.”

Kay’s tale is one of many that tells the story of a man who made his hobby a career. The most remarkable thing about Kay’s story is that, despite being employed by Air Canada, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, he used to be a pilot and his hobby.

A secret avgeek past

Kay's work has involved going to an Air France production line to see A220s being built.

Kay’s work involved Kay going to Air France to witness A220s being constructed.

Laird Kay

Kay says that he has always been an aviation geek and has always loved photography. He fell in love with the sport when he was a child after he flew his first 747 flight.

He says that “regular” life was what he experienced. He trained to become a designer and spent the next ten years designing wine cellars. He didn’t forget his first love, photography. After 12 years of being in the design business, however, he decided to make a change.

His plan was to focus on architectural photography and interiors. Kay started out freelancing in photography, focusing mainly on interiors and product shots. Kay began to take his photography further and found himself at airports for his first time. He combined his photography skills with another early love, airplanes.

He said, “I’d been a passive lover for planes since childhood.” “I had always been happy to get on planes and would often arrive before takeoff. Everything about the airport experience was wonderful to me.

He went spotting for his first time, and now he is active. He says that there are many places in Toronto you can go close to the airport and be right under it during its final approach.

Kay’s photographs of planes landing in Toronto, which he posted to Tumblr, were very unique. His background as a designer allowed him to concentrate on the details and shoot them in ways others of us would not see.

He focuses on details and presents them as sculpture.

He is a keen observer of details and presents them in sculpture.

Laird Kay

He says, “I was doing very close crops, focusing attention on details people don’t get to see — underneath the wings, rivets — not your usual planespotting photos.”

“Everyone can have what they want to photograph. Some people would like to have every Air Canada registration number in order to create a catalog. Some people take photos because they know their loved one is on the plane. I was astonished at the beauty of the machines.

After 18 months of operating his Tumblr website, he received an inquiry from Lufthansa asking if he would be interested in working with them. He was asked to film the delivery flight of their Boeing 747 in retro livery. It traveled from Seattle to Frankfurt.

Kay said it was his favorite plane. Kay also got an insiders’ view of it — “The economy cabin had not had the seats installed, so it was a completely empty space,” he says. It was also the catalyst for a new job.

“I began doing more and more photography of aviation,” he said. “More airlines would discover me on social media, and want to work alongside me, so I began pitching other companies, too.” His idea was to “showcase the beauty of the aircraft” and the brand.

Kay has evolved over the last eight years into an experienced aircraft photographer. He now makes up the bulk his business.

A maintenance worker polishing a private jet.

A maintenance worker polishing a private aircraft.

Laird Kay

He has photographed everything, from private aircraft to factories. He’s photographed everything from private jets to airplane factories.

He has worked at airports from Santiago de Chile, Paris Charles de Gaulle and covered airline food, liveries, and assembly lines.

Kay’s style hasn’t changed despite his move from Tumblr to Instagram.

He says, “I love photographing the details people don’t take the time to notice.”

“We are all familiar with flying. But there’s still magic, beauty and wonder in it.

“I enjoy the textures and curves of the window casing, the pattern of seatbelt buckle against my seat. All the people involved in the design are extremely thoughtful. It’s all I want to show it.

Kay actually calls his work “product photography on an enormous scale.”

He says, “You are photographing the vastness of the plane but not the details of the seat or cloth.

He often has the opportunity to shoot crews and airports.

The $570 Million question

Changing a lens above a million-dollar plane has its stresses.

There are stresses when you have to change a lens on a plane worth a million dollars.

Laird Kay

No matter how much you love the industry, being an aircraft photographer can have its downfalls.

Kay is sometimes forced to shoot in the rain. He says, “You go with it.”

It can be difficult for someone who isn’t good at heights (as he isn’t), You can see the shot he did from above for Lufthansa. He photographed planes with their new livery.

He was then put on a cherry picker, raised to 10 feet above the planes and parked on the asphalt.

“I was looking down on an A380 changing a lens, thinking, ‘If I drop this lens, that’s €500 million ($570 million) of damage that’s gonna happen. It was amazing and I loved the photos that I took, but it made me sweaty just thinking about it. It turned out to be his favorite shoot.

It has also been a masterclass for logistics to work on shoots.

He says, “It’s made it incredibly appreciate how complex airplanes and airlines are.” It’s a dance orchestrated to get these airplanes back and forth on time and loaded. Even the logistics involved in organizing a plane [for the shoot]This is extremely difficult. It is difficult for them to want their aircraft to make money. Having one sitting idle for the whole day is not an option. Every shoot I take, I learn something.

Planes without the skin

Shooting production lines gives him a different view of aircraft design.

Photographing aircraft production lines gives him an entirely different view of the design process.

Laird Kay

Things slowed down for all of aviation during the pandemic. Kay spent time waiting for the industry’s recovery to get back on track. He redesigned his website and learned more about video. Kay also designed “aviation-inspired wallpapers and products”, which he hopes will soon become available. To recall the good times, Kay also listened carefully to airport sounds.

Now, everything is back to normal. He’s been on two shoots in Los Angeles and has flown Air France in Paris for the first-time. One of the highlights was taking photos on site of their A220s. He had previously shot the identical planes on Quebec’s assembly line during the summer.

He says that it was “fascinating — like an enormous laboratory, so neat, clinical, and exact” and that the highlights were seeing the workers put the planes together by hand and the “wonder of all the work that goes in to them.”

“Seeing how beautiful they look even with the skin off — insulation, wiring — it amazes us that people can make something so beautiful,” he says.

Airlines tend to fly him to the job — “Great to understand the passenger experience on a plane I’ll shoot” — and then give him time to adjust before taking a sunrise to sunset shoot.

He said, “It is tiring but enjoyable — people who work at airlines are plane geeks, so they love it as well.” It’s no surprise that fellow enthusiasts are willing to help. He actually met his assistant through avgeek groups for a Lufthansa shoot, Christian Engels in 2019.

The sky is the limit

Kay advises photographers to find their own aesthetic.

Kay encourages photographers to discover their own style.

Laird Kay

Where can an aircraft photographer go next in the world? Kay says the sky is the limit. He would like to photograph planes in motion. This means he will shoot from one plane as another flies next to him (although technically it is some distance away).

He’s been able to fly from an open-doored helicopter above airports and container ships, but he would love to be able to fly over planes. He admits that it is terrifying and that he must prepare himself for heights. However, once he’s there he can concentrate on getting the shots.

He says that if you are interested in following his path, it is best to get on the runway.

He advises, “Start taking photos, and find your unique voice through your photos.” It was a hobby for me. I didn’t know it could become a career.

“I am still fascinated by the wonder of flight. I’m fascinated at how we have created this magnificent machine that can take us around all of the world. How many people were involved in the design of it, from the location the rivets to how the window curves. And how that’s changed over time.

“I love making planes look beautiful.”

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