This is how an avgeek made his hobby into a career



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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.

As a child, the avgeek fell in love with airplanes while on vacation. He has always considered them to be both beautiful and useful.

Kay’s photographs show airplanes as birds in mid-flight. They are then frozen on the runway, and photographed from above. Their wings rise, and their noses appear like curious beaks. He captures details such as rivets and insulation in beautiful photos. He says planes are “beautiful pieces of sculpture”.

Kay’s story of how he turned his hobby into an occupation is fascinating. 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 has been involved in the construction of A220s by going to Air France’s production line.

Laird Kay

Kay says that he has always been an aviation geek and that he loves photography. He fell in love with the sport when a 747 flew his first time as a child.

He says that “regular” life was what he experienced. After becoming a designer and training for his trade, he ended up designing wine cellars for a decade. He never lost his love for photography, and after twelve years in the design industry, he decided that he wanted to change.

His plan was to focus on architectural photography and interiors. Kay began freelancing as an interior and product photographer. Kay started to explore photography and soon found himself in airports. He combines his photography skills and his love of 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. The airport experience was amazing 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 said, “I was doing very precise crops, focusing only on details people can’t see — under the wings and the rivets — rather than your typical planespotting photographs.”

“Everyone has the right to photograph what they like. 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 running his Tumblr site, he received an email from Lufthansa in 2015 asking if they would work with him. They asked him to photograph the delivery flight of their Boeing 747, with retro livery, from Seattle to Frankfurt.

Kay loved it. He also got an insider’s view of the aircraft. “The economy cabin hadn’t had the seats installed so that it was completely empty. Planes are enormous without seats,” Kay says. But it was the catalyst to a new career.

“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: “To showcase the beauty and brand of the plane.”

Kay has become a skilled aircraft photographer over the past eight years. This now accounts for the bulk of Kay’s business, with the help of interiors, industrial, and architecture shots.

A maintenance worker polishing a private jet.

A private jet’s maintenance worker.

Laird Kay

He’s taken photos of everything from private planes to aircraft factories. He has photographed the production line of Air France’s A220s and leaned out from a helicopter window to photograph LAX airport.

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

Kay’s style has not changed despite his move from Tumblr to Instagram.

He said, “What I love most is photographing the details people don’t take the time to notice.”

“We all know the experience of flying, but there is still magic and beauty to it.

“I enjoy the textures and curves of the window casing, the pattern of seatbelt buckle against my seat. Consider all the people involved in the design process. Every touchpoint is thoughtful. It’s all I want to show it.

Kay describes what he does as “product photography at a large scale.”

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

He is often able to photograph crew members and airports as well as behind the scenes processes such as loading and unloading.

The $570 Million question

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

It is not easy to change the lens of a plane worth millions.

Laird Kay

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

Kay may have to go out for a shoot when it rains.

This can make it difficult for someone who doesn’t like heights as much as he does. He photographed planes in new liveries from the sky for Lufthansa.

That one was put on a cherrypicker and raised 10ft above the planes. He was then parked on tarmac.

“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 was his favorite shoot.

Logistics has been an art form when working on shoots.

He says, “It’s made it incredibly appreciate how complex airplanes and airlines are.” It is a ballet to get these planes from one place to the other, on time, loaded, and back again. Even the logistics of organizing a plane [for the shoot]This is extremely difficult. They want the aircraft to be able to earn money. It’s not easy for one to sit still for an entire day. Each shoot is a learning experience.

Planes with the skin removed

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

He captures production lines to get a different perspective on aircraft design.

Laird Kay

The pandemic caused things to slow down, as it did for everyone else in aviation. Kay designed an “aviation inspired wallpaper and products” while he waited for the industry back to recover. To recall the good times, Kay also listened carefully to airport sounds.

Things are now 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 said that it was “fantastic — like a large laboratory, so clean and clinical and exact.” He also mentioned that “the highlights” were “seeing workers put them together by hand” as well as “the wonder at all the work that goes into making the planes.

He says, “Seeing how beautiful these are even with the skin removed — the insulation and the wiring — it amazes my that people can create something so beautiful.”

He is often flown by airlines to do the job — “Great for understanding passenger experience on the plane I will be shooting” — then he gets a day in the destination for acclimatization before he does 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. Through avgeek circles, he actually met his assistant to a Lufthansa photo shoot in 2019, Christian Engels.

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. Kay wants to photograph planes moving, he said. He wanted to shoot from one plane while another flew “next to him” (although technically, it’s 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 says, “It’s scary, and I have to prepare myself as someone who doesn’t like heights. But once you’re there, you’re concentrating upon getting the shots.”

If you want to follow his example, it is best to get on the runway.

He suggests, “Start photographing and finding your unique voice in photos,” he says. “It was just a hobby for myself — I didn’t realize it could be a career. It has been a wonderful experience.

“I’m still fascinated by flight. It’s amazing to me how this machine can take us around the globe. I am also fascinated by how many people were involved in its design, from the location and curve of the window to the placement of the rivets.

“I love making planes look beautiful.”

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