What’s It Like To Be A Pro Aviation Photographer? Q&A With Laird Kay

by Chris Dong

One of the coolest aviation experiences I ever had happened this week — when I was chauffeured to my flight as part of the Lufthansa First Class Terminal experience. I marveled at all the planes close-up in its natural habit on the runway, including a Lufthansa Airbus A380. (More on that in a future post.)

Then, there are the hobbyists and professionals that do this every day — not being chauffeured, but doing the hard work of photographing and capturing aviation content for all of us to gawk at.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Laird Kay, an aviation photographer who has worked with airlines and airports around the globe. He’s partnered with major airlines like Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, collaborated with brands like Airbnb and Rimowa, and even has his own clothing line, Very Plane Clothes (clever, eh?).

So what is it like to be an aviation photographer, and how does someone get into it? Let’s get started.

How did you get started in aviation photography? 

LK: I’ve always been passionate about planes and I’ve always loved photography. After 12 years of being a Wine Cellar designer, I wanted a change and thought I should try combining my passions of aviation and photography, and seeing if I could make it a career. And I did.

After about a year of posting images on social media, I got an email from Lufthansa asking if I’d like to collaborate with them, and it’s been growing ever since. That was a few years ago, and now I’m currently shooting a campaign for Lufthansa.

Lufthansa Airbus A380 wing | Image by Laird Kay

How do you define aviation photography? Just taking photos of planes? 

LK: People photograph planes for different reasons. Some people want to collect images of entire fleets of airlines, some photograph planes on which their loved ones are passengers.

I like to photograph the details that most passengers don’t get to see, like the pattern of rivets, the details of the flaps and slats extended for landing, and the graphic shapes of the turbine blades.

A340 belly | Image by Laird Kay

How do you go from novice to hobbyist to professional aviation photographer?

LK: Find your own aesthetic, and refine your own style. To me, airplanes are like giant sculptures, and that’s how I treat them and photograph them. I want my images to look like graphic design meets photography meets industrial design.

When you’ve found your aesthetic, and have a style that sets you apart from others, get in touch with magazines, blogs, and future clients who you think would like your style, and go from there. It’s a lot of hard work, and takes a lot of hustle….but it happens. And when it does, it’s awesome.

777 wing | Image by Laird Kay

What type of camera and equipment do you use? 

LK: I’m a Nikon user. I’ve got two D850 bodies (you always should have a backup body during a photoshoot), with lenses from wide-angle to super zoom. Lenses are very expensive, so I often rent lenses that I can’t afford to buy when I’m doing a photoshoot.

Air France cargo aircraft | Image by Laird Kay

What do you do as a full-time aviation photographer? 

LK: The time spent doing actual photography, with camera in hand is about 10%. The other time is spent editing photos, and making connections and introductions that will hopefully lead to the next gig.

What is your favorite aircraft and livery? Favorite airport? 

LK: Oh, very tough question. My favorite airplane will always be the 747. It’s a design icon, and it’s the plane that made the world a smaller place, and to me, it still represents the romance of travel — the experience of climbing the stairs to the top deck is perfection.

For favorite livery, I have a few. I love the modern design of Etihad, the bold sexiness of Virgin Atlantic, the timelessness of Lufthansa, and that Red Roo of Qantas always makes me smile.  And my favorite airport…hmmm….the experience at Singapore’s Changi is magical, and I can’t wait to return and see The Jewel.

aviation photographer

Virgin Atlantic 787 belly | Image by Laird Kay

What’s been your best experience as an aviation photographer?

LK: I was very lucky to be on board the delivery flight of the Lufthansa retro livery 747 from Seattle to Frankfurt. There were only about 50 people from Lufthansa on the plane, and when the plane took off, the captain did a wave with the plane, tipping the wings from side to side. Of course, this would never happen on a passenger flight, but all of us just cheered!

Plus, the airline had not yet installed the seats in the economy section, so we were able to wander about an entirely empty cabin during the flight. Talk about legroom!

aviation photographer

Lufthansa Airbus A350 winglet | Image by Laird Kay

Any other parting words of advice for someone trying to get into the aviation photography?

LK: The only advice that I can give is the same advice someone gave me. Take lots and lots and lots and lots of photos.

The only way to refine and improve your skills is just to keep taking photos. And experiment, so that you aren’t taking the same photo again and again. Try different settings, try different angles.  Sometimes shots will work out, sometimes they won’t, but you’ll always be improving.

777 landing gear | Image by Laird Kay

The above photos are some of Laird’s favorites he’s taken. You can follow him on Instagram @LairdKay and find more of his work on his website LairdKay.com

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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