The Plane Spotters Toolkit

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Written by: Jason Rabinowitz
The plane spotters toolkit. Cleaning pen, cell phone battery recharger, SD card reader, and more!

So, you have decided to start plane spotting. That’s great, welcome to our hobby! You have already picked out a great camera and lens, but what else do you need to become a master plane spotter? Sure, you could just sit near your favorite airport and hope something good flies by, but you can do more….much more.

What does the typical plane spotter carry to help spot that awesome plane you saw posted in the NYCAviation forums? How did he get to the right spotting location, get the shot in focus, and upload it within a matter of minutes? Read this guide and you too can become the envy of all NYCAviation forum members soon enough!

Start Your Day off The Right Way, By Starting Yesterday

Your best spotting day might actually start the previous day. If you have plans to head out spotting the next day, the best way to prepare is by checking for incoming aircraft the night before, using tools such as ACARS, or Planefinder and FlightRadar24.

Checking the night before a spotting trip will give you an advance heads up of what aircraft are coming in for the day, and might just provide you with the motivation to get out there at sunrise. There is nothing worse than getting to your spotting location and hearing you missed a Tu-154 by 5 minutes.

Now that you have an idea of what to expect the next day, charge up those batteries, format your memory cards, and pack your bag! But what else should be going in that bag to make your day of spotting easier?

The Essentials

Sure, your camera bag holds your camera and lenses, but it should be holding so much more. So, what must a plane spotter have ready to go for a long day out at the airport?

If you plan to be out for the entire day, your phones battery will die before the sunlight, it’s a fact. If you are sporting a phone with a removable battery, you should have one ready to go. An iPhone user should have a battery re-charger ready to go, such as the Mophie Juice Pack or other generic battery charger.

Plane spotting can be a dusty, dirty adventure, keeping your lens spotless is a must. You don’t want your photo rejected from a site because there is a dust spot on the image, do you? Pick up a cheap lens cleaning pen from any big box store for a measly $10. Additionally, think about picking up a rubber bulb dust blower to blast the dust off your lens real quick.

One totally low-tech essential that all spotters must carry is identification. The sad reality is that plane spotter are occasionally hassled by law enforcement. While most encounters with law enforcement are friendly, you may just end up with that officer who spilled coffee on himself on his way to work, and is looking to mess up your day. Always, always carry identification.

The essential plane spotter apps: LiveATC, FlightAware, Planefinder

The essential plane spotter apps: LiveATC, FlightAware, Planefinder

There’s An App for That

It’s no secret that plane spotting has gone high tech, and these apps will help you along every step of the process.

One of the best and most used apps in the plane spotters arsenal is LiveATC. Sure, you can carry an old fashion radio scanner, and deal with frequencies and antenna placement all you want, but why? LiveATC puts radio communications from across the globe right onto your phone. For example, at JFK, LiveATC 17 different frequencies, all labeled for you and ready to help. Listen in to the approach frequencies to get an advances heads up on which runway the plane you want to spot will be landing on.

For live tracking of aircraft, there is always the often used Planefinder and FlightRadar24. We recently took an in-depth look at both of these apps, detailing their strong points and weaknesses. Which one you use on a daily basis is purely a matter of person preference. Whichever you use, these apps have become invaluable tools to plane spotters, showing exactly what plane is where, making sure you don’t miss that special you’ve been looking for. Don’t forgot about Flightaware, which is great for tacking specific aircraft registrations that may not be on other apps.

One detail to be mindful of is that FlightRadar24 taps into the expansive Planespotters.net database, showing up to date photos of most aircraft. Planefinder, however, uses their own photo database, which is often out of date with some mistakes. It never hurts to check both apps.

Nobody wants to take a back lit photo, and of course, there is an app to help prevent that. Sun Angles for iOS tells you which way the sunlight will be facing, so that you can easily adjust your locations to get that perfect, sun bathed shot.

Plane spotting at night is a whole other game, but produces awesome results.

Plane spotting at night is a whole other game, but produces awesome results.

Shooting After Dark

Just because the sun sets, doesn’t mean your spotting day needs to end. Night photography is an entirely separate game, requiring a different set of skills and tools.

Obviously, you are going to need a tripod unless you are a big fan of paintings like Starry Night. To get great night shots, you will want to keep your camera as steady as possible. Remote triggering of the shutter is your best friend at night, and there are several ways to accomplish this.

A cheap $10 remote control can be purchased from amazon, and it may just make all the difference in the world. Adjust your camera as necessary, and click away for those awesome long exposure shots.

On the more expensive and full featured end of the spectrum, we once again go digital. Triggertrap Mobile, which runs for $29, makes many special shooting modes a snap. Connecting to your phone, you can opt for the traditional long exposure, or opt for a more creature star trail shot, HDR time-lapse, and traditional cable release.

Exporting Pictures in the Field

Imagine, just for a minute, that you happen to capture a once in a lifetime shot, and you want to share it right that instant. The photo of that A330s twisted landing gear isn’t doing you any good on your cameras SD card.

For less than $5, iPad owners can purchase an SD card reader, and import their photos anywhere. The iPad is able to work with RAW images, and can even be imported into Photoshop Express, which is free in the app store. From there, you can tweak your shot and email it to anyone in the world, without ever leaving your spotting location.

At the end of the day, it’s amazing how much spotters now rely on new digital tools. However, the basics are still the same. Tracking, shooting, processing, sharing. Hopefully, some of these tools will help you get that awesome shot that make your friends say “damn, how’d you do that?”

About the Author

Jason Rabinowitz


French Bee A350-900 landing on Runway 24R at LAX during golden hour.

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  • Oh…you’re talking about aviation photographers. Actual ‘spotters’ use binoculars and notepads to right down tail numbers. There is a difference. 🙂

    • @Matt,
      Are you “old school”, Matt? Now a days most spotters also use DSLR-cameras, digital dictaphones, of course the binoculars or spotting scopes, notepads/tablets/laptops, radio scanners and such. At least over here in Europe (UK, Germany, The Netherlands) we do. Most spotters these days went digital in cameras and such and are still actual spotters.:)

      • I spent some time chatting with a large group of ‘old school’ spotters near In-N-Out at LAX (and on Imperial Hill) a few months back, and they were all using binoculars and notepads. I’m sure there are spotters that use cameras these days, but there are also still a lot that do things the old way.

        As an aviation photographer, I’m taking photos for the photos – not to log the tail number. That’s where I differentiate between spotters and photographers. 🙂

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  • Johann

    Hi guys,

    it’ll probably sound quite odd, but here in Germany we aren’t allowed to use ATC scanners, therefore we also can’t use any Apps. Well we are allowed to use scanners, but don’t share them. I used to not use a scanner, but now I wanna start using one. Do you know a good scanner that is not too expenisive but still works ???