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Planespotting – What Is It And What Equipment Do I Need?

Planespotting – What is it and what Equipment do I need?

Planespotting explained. Hallo, my friends. In this article, I would like to deal with one of my favourite things to do. I want to explain planespotting to you! I will illustrate, what the ever-lasting hunt of aeroplanes means, and what equipment and tools you need, to become a successful aircraft-hunter. Have fun!

What is Planespotting

I guess, that all of you know, what “to spot” means. Just to be sure. To “spot” is to see, notice, or recognize a certain object. It is obvious that, in this instance, a planespotter is a person that likes to spend some time watching flying aluminium cans.

Some men (or women!) do not only watch those planes. They also love to take pictures of them, or to even film them. I count myself as one of those persons. This has the main advantage, that I can use my own aeroplane pictures for my website, instead of having to rely on boring stock photos.

Planespotting at Frankfurt airport

The basics: What do I need for Planespotting?

If one considers to buy a new camera for planespotting, one should think about some quirks, that most aircraft have in common. First but foremost: flying planes often move fast. Very fast! Secondly: The objects of desire can be quite far away from you, the photographer.

Basically, it is possible to go planespotting with any camera. I do, however, recommend to invest in a digital single-lens reflex camera, or better known as DSLR. On the one hand, DSLRs have the main advantage of a higher resolution due to its larger sensor. On the other hand, you will have less problems with shutter legs, when using modern DSLRs.

Shutter lag is the term for the delay between pushing the camera’s shutter button and hence triggering the shutter and the actual process of the photograph being recorded

As a result, the time for the camera to focus and actually take the photo is shorter with DSLRs. This is of huge importance for planespotting. Nothing is more annoying than a perfect moment that vanishes because the camera is busy with itself (I learned that the hard way :D).

Another cool feature of DSLRs is, that you can easily swap lenses for other styles of photography. This is something that most compact- and bridge cameras are not capable of.

A380 planespotting at Dusseldorf airport

More alternative cameras for plane spotters!

Another very suitable alternative are so called mirrorless cameras. They conquer the world of digital photography since a few years. Those cameras are capable of breathtaking shutter speeds. Also, they are a bit lighter than their big sisters.

Buying the right camera for you is, of course, also a matter of budget. But! Way more important than sinfully expensive equipment and a top-notch camera is something else. You. Ingredients like a good composition and a nice editing are significantly more important than a show-off camera. Get the basics of photography right! This is something you can control!

I have seen lots of plane spotters that take amazing aircraft pictures with a cheap compact camera. On the contrary, I also know lots of photographers, who take not-so-good images with their 4.000$€¥ Canon EOS 5DIV. Always think about that. You take the photo. Not the camera.

What manufacturer makes the best planespotting camera?

I will not dive into this discussion. It does not matter if it is Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Pentax or another brand. Every camera has its own quirks, advantages and disadvantages. Visit a shop you trust and try some cameras out. Apart from the image quality, it is also important that you feel comfortable with your planespotting camera’s design and haptics. However, I personally shoot with the Canon EOS 750D Digital SLR Camera*. It offers a great bang for the buck, but can be kind of weak in low-light planespotting. That is the reason I might upgrade to a full-frame system. I have tried out the Canon EOS 6D Mark II Digital SLR* and was quite amazed!

Lufthansa Embraer 195

Planes are quick! That is why a good autofocus comes in handy!

Planespotting lenses

Airports are well protected by fences, moats, and many other means of security. This makes sense, since not every normal citizen shall enter the field. Bud sadly, it also means, that our objects of desire, namely the aircraft we want to photograph, are quite far away.

That is why an optimal lens for planespotting has a focal length between 50mm to 600mm. Some people even use 1000mm or more! The focal length totally depends on your position at the airport and your distance to the aircraft and, of course, on the composition you would like to achieve. Personally, as a good starter lens on a Canon System I would recommend the Canon EF-S 55-250 mm f/4-5.6 IS STM Lens*.

If you want to go a step further, the gold standard of lenses is the Canon EF 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens*. It offers a good focal length as well as an excellent sharpness. If you go planespotting with a Nikon system, a good lens to start with is the Nikon JAA829DA AF-P DX Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-6.3G ED VR*.

Retro Condor 767

You do not always need lenses with huge focal lengths. At points like FRA’s new North-Western runway, even 50mm can be sufficient.

Other planespotting equipment

Most airports in Europe have designated spotting sites and even small hills for planespotters, that offer a nice overview of the airfield. But some awesome positions are not that easily accessible. Since fences of airports can be quite high, I recommend you to always keep a small ladder* in your car. It won’t cost you much and saves you lots of frustration, trust me. 😉

Also, keep in mind to have one or two spare batteries for your camera in your bag, especially of you film the planes. The camera’s battery can drain really quick in cold weather, too.

If you are a fan of filming or long exposures during darker times, you require a good tripod for planespotting. The Albott Camera Tripod* is a good option for beginners. For intermediates with a higher budget, I warmly recommend the Rollei Compact Traveler *.

Of course, you might want to save your pictures. Since I take a series of pictures often, a fast SD card is useful. This is even more important if you want to film in Full-HD resolution. I have made good experiences with the SanDisk Ultra 64 GB*. Planespotters with a full frame system require a fast CF card like the SanDisk Extreme 64 GB*.

FedEx Boeing 757 freighter CGN

This photo of a FedEx 757 freighter would not have been possible without a ladder

Useful apps and websites for planespotting

In the following, I would like to list some useful apps and websites for planepspotting, that I personally use. They all facilitate your life as an aircraft photographer. 🙂

  • Flightradar 24: In my opinion, flightradar24 is the by far most useful application for planespotting. With this app, one can track all aircraft movements around the airport and even filter all traffic for the airport you are at. Flightradar 24 also offers departure and arrival schedules as well as detailled aircraft information, like its registration, livery, height and speed. This is my most-used app on spotting days. Here’s the link for Google Play and iTunes.
  • Live ATC: Live ATC let’s you listen to the real-world live air traffic control. This can be quite useful to keep aware of the current movement situation. Keep in mind, that listening to ATC is not allowed in some countries (like Germany and Austria), however. Here’s the download link for Apple and Google.
  • Windy: At large airports, it can become quite annoying to note, that you stand on the wrong side of the runway, since the wind has changed directions and another runway is in use. With the right app, you can prevent such cases. Windy offers information on the wind’s direction, speed and much more. Here’s the link for Google Play and iTunes.
  • This is the website to go if you go planespotting at an airport you have never been before. The site offers nomerous detailled guides for many airports worldwide. it out!

Planespotting of bulgarian air charter md82

Planespotting is not allowed everywhere!

Now that you have the right equipment, you are eager to go outside and take pictures of some planes. But keep one thing in mind! Planespotting is not desired at every airport. At Paris CDG, for example, one has to acquire an approval and a special card that indentifies you as a planespotter. At airports like Dubai, planespotting is even strictly forbidden.

In my humble opinion, planespotting is a great hobby. You get to know like-minded people, you get outside often, and you are always on a hunt. I hope that this article helped you a little bit. If you have any questions concerning the matter, contact me anytime.

More aviation know-how will come every week on pilotstories. In the meantime, feel free to subscribe my email newsletter and to follow me on Facebook and Instagram. My free aircraft wallpapers are available here!

Cheers, Aaron

*links flagged with a star are affiliate links. If you buy an article via this link, you support me with a small commission, without having to pay more for the product. I only recommend products I have tested myself and I like personally!

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