How This Avgeek Turned His Hobby Into A Job

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(CNN) — When asked to choose an icon of beauty, most people might think of a landscape, a city skyline, or a work of art.

Laird Kay, on the other hand, would say an airplane.

The avgeek – who fell in love with airplanes as a child on vacation – has always viewed planes as objects of beauty, as well as convenience.

In Kay’s photos, airplanes become birds in flight, frozen in time on the runway and photographed from above. Their wings soar, their noses look like curious beaks. His photos even make details like the rivets, insulation, and exhaust pipes look beautiful. Airplanes are, he says, “beautiful objects of sculpture.”

Kay’s story is fascinating, that of a man who turned his hobby into a profession. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that, although he is now employed by Lufthansa, Air Canada and Virgin Atlantic, until a few years ago he worked in a completely different job, and airplanes were his pass. -time.

A secret avgeek past

Kay’s job was to go to an Air France production line to see the A220 being built.

Laird Kay

“I’ve always been a fan of airplanes and I’ve always loved photography,” says Kay, who fell in love with aviation on his first flight on a 747 as a child, “at when they let you into the cockpit.”

But, as he says, “normal life happened.” He became a designer, trained in his profession and ended up spending a decade designing wine cellars. But he never forgot his first love, photography – and after 12 years in design he decided to try pivoting.

Interior or architectural photography was the obvious choice, and his plan. He started working as a freelance photographer – mostly interiors and product shots. But as Kay took his photography further, he found himself hanging out in airports for the first time in his life, combining his photography skills with his other first loves – airplanes.

“I’ve always been a passive airplane enthusiast,” he says. “I was incredibly happy to board and arrived well before takeoff. I loved the airport experience – everything about the travel experience was magical to me.”

But now he’s gone from passive to active, scouting for the first time. “There are some fun places in Toronto where you can get close to where the plane is landing – you’re directly below on its final approach,” he says.

Kay’s photos of planes landing in her hometown of Toronto, posted on Tumblr, had a very specific aesthetic. He used his designer background to focus on the mechanical details, filming them in a way those of us without an analytical eye would never notice.

He focuses on details and presents them as sculpture.

He focuses on details and presents them as sculpture.

Laird Kay

“I was doing really tight crops, focusing on details that people don’t see — under the wings, the rivets — not your typical airplane spotting shots,” he says.

“Everyone has what they want to photograph. Some people want to get all Air Canada plane registration numbers so they have a catalog. Some people take pictures because they know their loved ones are on the plane. I was fascinated by the beauty of the machines.

In 2015, after 18 months of using his Tumblr, he received an email from Lufthansa asking if he would work with them. They wanted him to shoot the delivery flight of their retro-colored Boeing 747, traveling from Seattle to Frankfurt.

Not only was it his favorite plane, and not only did Kay get a glimpse of the plane — “the economy cabin had no seats installed, so it was a totally empty space, planes are huge without seats,” he says — but it was the catalyst for a new career.

“I started doing more and more aviation photography,” he says. “More airlines would find me on social media and want to work with me, and I started introducing others as well.” His idea: “highlight the beauty of the plane” as well as the brand.

Over the past eight years, Kay has evolved into a seasoned aircraft photographer, which now forms the bulk of his business, supported by industrial, travel, architectural and interiors shots.

A maintenance worker polishing a private jet.

A maintenance worker polishing a private jet.

Laird Kay

He has photographed everything from private jets to aircraft factories. He leaned out of the open window of a helicopter to photograph LAX airport in Los Angeles, photographed the Air France A220 production line and shot a campaign for Virgin Atlantic.

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

And though he quit Tumblr — he prefers Instagram these days — Kay’s aesthetic hasn’t changed.

“What I love is photographing details that people don’t take the time to notice,” he says.

“We all know the flying experience, but there is always magic and beauty.

“I love finding the curves and textures of the window casing; the pattern of the seat belt buckle against the seat. Think of everyone involved in the design process – every touch point is incredibly taken into account. I just want to highlight it – ‘I see what you’ve done and love it.'”

In fact, Kay calls what he does “large-scale product photography.”

“You photograph the vastness of the plane, but focusing on the small details of the seat, the fabric, the stitching and so on,” he says.

He often happens to film crew and airports, as well as behind-the-scenes processes like loading and unloading.

The $570 million question

Changing a lens on top of a million dollar airplane has its constraints.

Changing a lens on top of a million dollar airplane has its constraints.

Laird Kay

Whatever your love for the industry, being an aviation photographer has its downsides.

Sometimes it rains when Kay has been flown in for a shoot — “you go with it,” he says.

And for someone who isn’t good at heights, as he isn’t, it can be tricky. Take the shoot he did for Lufthansa, photographing planes in their new livery from above.

For this one, he was put on a cherry picker and lifted 10 feet above the planes, parked on the tarmac.

“I was watching an A380 changing lens, thinking, ‘If I drop this lens, it’s 500 million euros ($570 million) in damage that’s going to happen. It was fantastic and I love the photos I took, but I’ve got sweaty palms just thinking about it.” It ended up being his favorite shoot.

Working on sets was also a masterclass in logistics.

“It made me incredibly sensitive to the complexity of planes, airlines and airports,” he says. “It’s an orchestrated ballet to get these planes back and forth, on time and loaded. Even the logistics of trying to organize a plane [for the shoot] is incredibly difficult. They want airplanes to make money – having one sitting idle for a whole day isn’t easy. Every time I shoot, I learn something new.

Planes without skin

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

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

Laird Kay

During the pandemic, things slowed down as they did for everyone in aviation. As he waits for the industry to pick up, Kay has revamped his website, learned more about video and designed “aviation-inspired wallpaper and products” that he hopes will be available soon. . He also listened to the sounds of the airport to remind him of the good times.

Now things are back to normal. In the past few weeks alone, he’s been filming in Los Angeles and flying Air France for the first time for a job in Paris. Part of that was photographing their new A220s in situ. He had shot down the same planes in the summer, on the assembly line in Quebec.

“It was fascinating – like a giant lab, so clean, clinical and precise,” he says, saying the highlights were “watching the workers put them together by hand” and “the wonder of all the work who goes on airplanes.

“Seeing how beautiful they are even without the skin – the insulation, the wiring – it amazes me that people can build something so stunningly beautiful,” he adds.

Airlines tend to bring him in for work — “Great for understanding the passenger experience on the plane I’m going to photograph” — then give him a day in the destination to acclimate before doing shooting from sunrise to sunset.

“It’s tiring but fun – people who work for airlines are passionate about planes, so they love it too,” he says. No wonder other enthusiasts often offer to help. Indeed, he met his assistant for a Lufthansa shoot in 2019, Christian Engels, through avgeek circles.

Sky is the limit

Kay advises photographers to find their own aesthetic.

Kay advises photographers to find their own aesthetic.

Laird Kay

What’s next for an airplane photographer? The sky is the limit, in Kay’s case. He wants to photograph planes in motion, he says – shooting from one plane, while another is flying “beside you” (though technically that’s at some distance, of course).

And while he’s already been photographed from an open-door helicopter over airports and container ships, he’d also like to do it over planes. “It’s terrifying, and I have to think of myself as someone who doesn’t like heights, but once you’re there, you focus on shooting,” he says.

For those who want to follow in his footsteps, the best thing to do is get out on the trail, he says.

“Start taking photos and find your unique voice in your photos,” he advises. “Honestly, it was just a hobby for me – I had no idea you could make a career out of it, and I’m incredibly lucky that you did.

“I’m always fascinated by the magic of flight. I’m fascinated by how we created this beautiful machine to take us around the world, by the number of people involved in the design process, from the location of the rivets to the curve of the window and fascinated by its evolution over time.

“I love making airplanes sexy.”

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