Guest Post: Plane Pics – A Spotter’s Story

Today’s guest blog post comes from Leighton Matthews … Leighton was a natural choice to ask to be a guest blogger, as Leighton is a professional photographer, airplane junkie and a huge Rush fan (pretty much sounds like I just described myself). You can follow Leighton on Twitter at @PacificAirPhoto and check out his photos online at

I am always curious how people got into photography or became interested in airplanes … so below is Leighton’s story on both!

Happy Flying!

Plane Pics: A Spotter’s Story

They can be found near runways the world over, sitting in or on their  cars, cameras, scanners and coffee cups close by. If asked, they can  easily list the last 20-odd aircraft that landed, the frequencies in use and recite the phonetic alphabet. They are… The Hardcore Plane Spotter. And I’m one of ’em. Kinda.

As far back as I can remember, I have looked up to watch airplanes.  Growing up in Vancouver, I relished every opportunity to visit Vancouver International Airport (YVR), see the planes, hear the awesome whine of jet engines and smell the sweet scent of jet fuel. As a teen, I had books, models & posters of aircraft (the latter had to find space in between my Rush posters & tapestries). Then, at 17, I received my first SLR camera (a Nikon EM)  as a grad present from my Mom and the die was cast. Yes… I was becoming a fine young AvGeek.

Years later, after repeated attempts at Rock Stardom and a stint in a Rush tribute band, I met LCDR A.J. Shower, USN – Retired. My Mom had met this former A-4, RA-5C & Naval ferry pilot through her American cousin and, during their brief time dating, I was exposed to aviation in a way I never thought I would have been… Not everyone gets to do  an aileron roll in a Beechcraft Bonanza! Anyway… I was hooked. I had to be part of this.

Fast forward to present day… Here I am, Husband, Dad, owner of my own photo studio… and Private Pilot!  Now, as you might imagine, with a family and my own business, I don’t get nearly enough time to go flying and, as self-employment can often feel more like self- UNemplolyment, my log book hasn’t seen too many new entries in the

last few years. However… I am very good at living vicariously! So, as I live 10 minutes from YVR and 20 min from ZBB (Boundary Bay Airport where I did my training), I get several chances a week to grab my camera bag & scanner, hop in the car, grab a coffee enroute and spend a few hours indulging in what my fellow pilot buddies and I call “runway therapy”. Few things can smooth out a rough day like being overflown by a 747 at 150 feet.

So, you might wonder what I do with the photos I take while plane spotting. Well, it depends. The “kinda” part of being a spotter means that I don’t shoot every single aircraft and log the reg, time of day, runway, wind direction and relative humidity at the time. No, that’s just a bit too hardcore, even for me… but my photos still have purpose. Some days, I simply feel like taking a few pics to share via Twitter, something to give my online friends a taste of my day, my airport.  Other times, it’s about the scene.  A unique look to the skies or a special quality of light when aircraft are taking off in the right direction, will nearly always see me heading out to try to catch something special. Maybe I have something artistic in mind, maybe it’s a special livery or an unusual visitor to YVR (the 2010 Winter Olympics were great for old Soviet iron!) or maybe I just need to get out and think airplanes.  It all makes me happy.

Despite the nature of my studio’s business, I have been fortunate, in recent years, to get photographic work that doesn’t involve coaxing 6 adults, 10 kids and a Cocker Spaniel into all looking (never mind smiling) at the camera simultaneously.  First, I started selling  prints of my aircraft images and the sales were very encouraging…  Two of my images of the Airbus A380’s maiden visit to YVR were purchased by the airport authority for use in a poster to commemorate  the day… Then, an av-writer friend’s suggestion that I tag along  with my camera led to having the cover of a Canadian helicopter magazine and subsequent coverage of events ranging from the christening of a new hangar at YVR, to the historic first flight of the 787 Dreamliner…  Finally, in a few weeks, I will launch a new website, completely dedicated to aviation photography… and it’s about time!

It all comes down to this: I love aviation, I love photography.  When I combine the two, I love my work.

So, as my professional “focus” shifts, I’ll no doubt have greater opportunities to be in & around, shoot and maybe even fly aircraft.  But even so, there will still always be the need to find time to sit beneath an approach path and watch with child-like fascination… Camera, scanner and coffee close by.



  1. It is a small world indeed and if you ever meet “J” again remind him of Mablethorpe and Gilbraltar and aeroplanes with phantom faults and all the seasons in a day.

  2. Based on that comment, I would say that most photographers shoot for their own artistic style and hope the client is willing to accept it, and pay for it. There is a bit of give and take because at some point you have to take photography clients and gigs in order to pay for new equipment. Sometimes you would pass on a project if you could not express yourself visually, but money gets in the way as usual.

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