High-flying hobby: Inside the fascinating world of plane spotting


A Malaysia Airlines Airbus 330-300, registered 9M-MTE, the exact plane that brought the first batch of Covid-19 vaccines to Malaysia. — ARIS ZARIL

For most people, an aeroplane is just a means for getting across large distances, preferably to a vacation spot. But for some, it holds a deeper fascination.

Aviation enthusiasts, especially plane spotters, enjoy photographing different aircraft types, capturing their unique designs and liveries.

And like any hobby, it can be relaxing, allowing them to spend time outdoors and enjoy the sights and sounds of aircraft taking off and landing.

In fostering Malaysia’s growing aircraft spotting community, airports and airlines play a supportive role. For example, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang constructed a dedicated outdoor plane observation deck, Anjung Spotter, in 2019 that’s open to the public.

Anjung Spotter Observation Deck at KLIA offers plane spotters a dedicated space to observe plane landings and takeoffs. — AZMAN GHANI/The StarAnjung Spotter Observation Deck at KLIA offers plane spotters a dedicated space to observe plane landings and takeoffs. — AZMAN GHANI/The Star

One enthusiast, Aris Zaril, says he regularly receives requests from airlines to feature his images on their social media pages, which he readily allows.

Aris started dabbling into the hobby in 2021 as the pandemic was ending and international travel was starting back up.

“There was nothing to do during Covid-19, since we were only able to move around within a radius of just a few kilometres. The airport was within my reach, so I just went there to spot.

Weather plays a big part in how challenging a session can be, says Aris, as spotters have to deal with both photographing a moving object and keeping the shot clear in the event of rain. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The StarWeather plays a big part in how challenging a session can be, says Aris, as spotters have to deal with both photographing a moving object and keeping the shot clear in the event of rain. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star

“Back then, there were very few planes – about two an hour. Now you can see a plane every five to 10 minutes. So it’s especially exciting for those like me who have not had the chance to see certain aircraft yet,” he says.

A freelance photographer by trade, Aris says he has always had an interest in planes since childhood, even dreaming of becoming a pilot as he grew up. Unfortunately, his eyesight fell short of the requirements.

Spread your wings

At its core, the hobby and community as a whole are centred around a common interest in planes, with spotters having a preference for certain models or being on the hunt for specific liveries (paint jobs), as well as showing a keen interest in aviation history and aircraft technology.

Some liveries can be exceptionally rare, often used for only a limited time. For instance, Eva Air, a Taiwanese airline, introduced planes decorated with four different themes by Sanrio, the company that owns the Hello Kitty franchise. Aris is aiming to get a full collection and is only one short.

A Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, registered A6-BLV under Etihad Airways, sporting a special livery for the 2022 Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. — ARIS ZARILA Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, registered A6-BLV under Etihad Airways, sporting a special livery for the 2022 Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. — ARIS ZARIL

Before diving into the hobby, he began by joining local social media groups like The Spotter’s and Just Aviation Spotter on Facebook to learn from experienced members and get helpful advice to get started.

“I think it’s a very niche thing, but it’s a hobby that is surprisingly quite widespread internationally. We want to capture our favourite planes in photos and share them for others to see.

“At the same time, we get the chance to see aircraft that do not usually land in our home country thanks to the photos and videos shared by the international community,” Aris says.

As a novice plane spotter, he says that while some veterans may be lukewarm towards mentoring beginners, there are others, like the veteran Ahmad Yassier Loqman – an “otai” or old timer in the community – who eagerly impart their extensive wisdom.

Ahmad Yassier, who started his journey in 2012 and has frequented airshows since the age of two in 1992, is a prime example of this enthusiastic community.

Ahmad Yassier Loqman says what's more important than gear is the skill of the person using it. — AZMAN GHANI/The StarAhmad Yassier Loqman says what's more important than gear is the skill of the person using it. — AZMAN GHANI/The Star

“My father was a spotter too and was also my mentor when it came to aviation photography. Ever since I was little, he would take me to airshows like Lima (Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition) and subscribe to monthly aviation magazines for me to read.

“But you don’t need to be especially knowledgeable about aviation to join in on the hobby,” he says.

Ahmad Yassier says anyone, even children, can join in so long as they have an interest.

“We don’t want kids to get hooked on their gadgets all the time, so you will see parents bringing their families for plane spotting quite regularly.

“Kids sometimes come up to me and ask what kind of aircraft just landed, and other times people will ask more specific things like when will a particular aircraft, like the Emirates A380, be landing,” he says.

Each spotting session can vary from just a few hours long to lasting over half a day, depending on the number of planes that are being photographed and their schedule.

Spotters commonly use tracking websites and apps such as Flightradar24, RadarBox and FlightAware to monitor aeroplane movement in real time and expected arrival times. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The StarSpotters commonly use tracking websites and apps such as Flightradar24, RadarBox and FlightAware to monitor aeroplane movement in real time and expected arrival times. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star

Spotters commonly use tracking websites and apps such as Flightradar24, RadarBox and FlightAware to monitor aeroplane movement in real time and expected arrival times.

As sometimes there may be a slew of flights featuring unique liveries or aircraft models that rarely land in Malaysia, while on other days there could be just one or two, spotters usually check in advance before making their way to the airport.

Additionally, there are instances when planes, such as private jets or military aircraft, are not displayed on these trackers. This can lead to pleasant surprises for spotters who happen to be on-site when they land.

Pok Nik says successful spotting requires photographers to consider the sun's position and adapt by using alternate locations or angles. — NIK MAHMOOD FARIDPok Nik says successful spotting requires photographers to consider the sun's position and adapt by using alternate locations or angles. — NIK MAHMOOD FARID

According to enthusiast Nik Mahmood Farid, better known as Pok Nik in the community, tracking tools have become a game changer. In the past, they had to rely on printed airport arrival and departure schedules, which may not have accounted for last-minute changes.

Also, they could not monitor the flight of the aircraft or obtain additional information like they do today. And before the days of social media, their haunts used to be aviation forums, such as Malaysianwings.com, which is still online today.

Preparing for takeoff

Both Aris and Ahmad Yassier recommend using a dedicated camera, preferably with a zoom lens, to have more control over shots.

“Even though Anjung Spotter is a nice spot, it’s still a bit far from the runway, so you’ll need a lens capable of zooming in for the shots you want, or otherwise your reach will be limited.

“If you’re looking to take night shots, then you will also need specific gear due to the poor lighting, which my current setup can’t handle,” Aris says.

Plane spotting enthusiasts gathered at Anjung Spotter Observation Deck to photograph incoming flights at KLIA. — AZMAN GHANI/The StarPlane spotting enthusiasts gathered at Anjung Spotter Observation Deck to photograph incoming flights at KLIA. — AZMAN GHANI/The Star

He uses a midrange Nikon D750 DLSR camera with a 70-210mm zoom lens, while Ahmad Yassier uses a pricier setup: a Canon EOS R6 Mk II with a 100-550mm zoom lens.

Aris also uses his smartphone to capture tracking footage of planes as they land, although he often needs to use a 3x zoom to capture a clearer shot of the aircraft.

He shares photos from his plane spotting sessions on his Instagram page, @raptor.aviation, and posts videos on his TikTok account, which also goes by the same handle.

Ahmad Yassier advises newbies to start by saving up and buying used photography equipment to familiarise themselves with handling a standalone camera and get used to lining up shots as planes come in.

“My father mentored me in aviation photography, but if you asked me to shoot for wedding photography, then I’d be starting from zero again.

“What’s more important than gear is the skill of the person using it. Whether your equipment is expensive or not, it’s about how you develop your skills.

“Capturing planes requires a great degree of skill because you need to track them as they move to get good pictures.

“Getting used to panning after planes and learning the right focal length for each location is difficult, so make sure to get a lot of practice,” he says.

Ahmad Yassier also shares his photos on his Instagram account at @ahmadyassier, and in The Spotter’s Facebook group.

However, he has since set his Instagram account to private, requiring other users to request approval before they can view his photos or follow his account. He did this because his images were being stolen and reposted on other accounts.

“Even watermarking my photos did not solve the problem, since they would just remove it before uploading them again,” he says.

Pok Nik also feels that all it takes to participate in the hobby, which he feels is growing in Malaysia, is a passion for aviation. His advice for beginners, especially those who are young and have a limited budget, is to use their mobile phones. He urges them to check out online resources to maximise the capabilities of their devices.

One such resource is spotterguide.net, which compiles information about various airports around the world, including KLIA and Subang Airport.

It features details such as runway size, including recommendations for camera focal length when taking shots, maps of the airports and locations for spotting, and even nearby accommodations.

Trials and turbulence

Aris emphasises the importance of safety measures and being mindful of the environment when aircraft spotting, highlighting a case from 2021 where a spot had gone viral and started attracting crowds.

“The spot went viral because you could get selfies with planes coming in for landings close up and clear in the background.

“Non-spotters would turn up and leave behind trash from the food and snacks they brought, which became a safety hazard since birds would gather, increasing the risk of bird strikes (collisions with an aircraft that could result in a crash).

“In the end, the area got cordoned off, so no one could go there for photos anymore,” he recounts.

Pok Nik adds that successful spotting also demands careful consideration of the sun’s position and heat haze, requiring photographers to adapt by choosing alternate locations or angles for the best shots.

One of Malaysia Airlines' former flagship aircraft, the Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger plane, was captured in 2022. — ARIS ZARILOne of Malaysia Airlines' former flagship aircraft, the Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger plane, was captured in 2022. — ARIS ZARIL

Weather also plays a big part in how challenging a session can be, says Aris, as spotters have to deal with both photographing a moving object and keeping the shot clear in the event of rain.

Ahmad Yassier underscores a similar concern, pointing out the harm that heavy rain could have on equipment.

“I’ve spent about RM30,000 for the photography gear for spotting – so when the weather is bad, I have to balance keeping it safe and out of hazardous positions with getting a good shot,” he says.

However, for some in the community, the risk may be worth taking, as rainy landings look stunning when photographed, with Aris saying that one of his most liked posts on Instagram was of one such landing.

But it shouldn’t be all about likes and feedback on social media, as Ahmad Yassier feels that it’s more important to see growth in skills than be caught up in getting affirmation online.

For those in the community, the joy of aircraft spotting comes from photographing their favourite planes. Every spotter has their own favourites, and capturing the perfect shot of these aircraft is what truly matters.

Among the hobbyists, some pursue a specific elusive aircraft, similar to chasing their own “white whale” or Moby Dick.

For Aris, it’s the Antonov An-225 Mriya, which was the largest cargo plane in the world until it was, sadly, destroyed in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

He now aims to take pictures of the Antonov An-124 Ruslan, a smaller cousin of the larger An-225 Mriya. This aircraft has been to Malaysia twice before to deliver the last batch of LRTs for the Kelana Jaya line.

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!

Photography

   

Next In Tech News

Apple to ‘pay’ OpenAI for ChatGPT through distribution, not cash
He taught at MIT, worked at Morgan Stanley, and convinced Bill Ackman and Galaxy to back his RM940mil crypto fund by his early 30s. His future is now in jeopardy
Samsung chief Lee discusses cooperation with Meta, Amazon and Qualcomm
Meta hit with complaint in Norway for training AI on user data
Reliance's Jio Platforms clears hurdle in bid to launch satellite internet in India
Abortion groups say tech companies suppress posts and accounts
Waymo updating robotaxis after self-driving vehicle crashes into pole
Bill Gates says he was a ‘misfit’ as a kid who clashed with his parents and almost got kicked out of college
What happened to the likes? X is now hiding which posts you like from other users
Alphabet hit with Austrian privacy complaint over alleged browser tracking

Others Also Read