Aviation Photography

jet landing at OHareThis weekend, I took a bunch of aircraft photos from outside O’Hare’s western fence. I hoped I might also get a photo of a train or two, but I ended up focusing on planes landing at sunset. After posting them on my flickr account, I started getting some interesting questions from folks on twitter, facebook, and email. They wondered if I got hassled by the TSA or police as I took the pictures. One person even asked if it was legal to take pictures of jets in the first place.

The simple response is: no, I wasn’t hassled and yes, it’s legal to take pictures of airplanes. Aviation photography isn’t inherently dangerous to anybody.

I think the questions I received show the continuing fears our society feels even this long after 9/11. Combine that with a lack of understanding as to what photographers can record and people will be suspicious. I fully understand how people might (and probably should) question some guy like me who is standing on the sidewalk with a camera and fairly large lens taking pictures of planes landing. People might get nervous thinking they had just seen some terrorist. I understand. I do.

On this particular day, nobody said a word, but I did get a few odd looks. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps it was the camera with long lens. Perhaps it was just the weird guy standing on the side of the road. Who knows why they looked at me, but if anyone was nervous they didn’t tell me. I saw two or three police officers but they didn’t even look. To be fair, I was in an area that commonly draws photographers so they may not have even cared having seen my type so many times before.

That said, I was prepared for the questions that didn’t come: I love airplanes and love taking pictures of them as a hobby. Yes, it’s a camera and not a weapon. Yes, I’m on public land taking pictures of planes in public airspace. No, I’m not a terrorist. Yes, I have a business card if you want me to email you a link to what I post. Did I mention I’m a flight instructor?

If none of that worked, I had one more answer up my sleeve: “Would you like to see my ORD Airport Watch ID? Now, I know you are thinking “You need an ID to take pictures? I thought you said you said it was legal? What gives?”

ORD Airport Watch is a cooperative program started by the Crime Prevention Unit within the Bensenville Police Department. By volunteering to have a background check and paying $10, the Bensenville PD will vouch to any of the regional law enforcement agencies that I’m not a threat and am there just to take pictures of planes and trains. From their website:

This crime prevention initiative is composed of people who have an interest in various aspects of aviation and who spend time in the vicinity of the O’Hare Airport to observe the various airport operations.

Some members also combine their aviation “spotting” activities with their photography hobby to produce very interesting photos, some of which are found on various internet sites dedicated to aviation topics. The Bensenville’s Airport Watch Program members also assist on occasion at various area events related to aviation in surrounding airports. From time to time, the Watch enjoys familiarization tours of aviation facilities primarily at the O’Hare Airport.

At the same time, Airport Watch volunteers provide the same sort of security as the Neighborhood Watch Program. Members monitor aviation procedures, the condition of the fencing, wildlife activity, parking lots, suspicious behaviors and flying debris (FOD) while they enjoy their favorite pastime.

They are simply an extra pair of eyes and ears outside the perimeter fence. Their task is to “Observe, Record and Report”.

While I don’t legally need any ID to take pictures, I also don’t need to be hassled when I do. When I heard about the program, I debated long and hard about joining an organization that I don’t think should need to exist. By my thinking, I shouldn’t need to register with anyone in order to take the perfectly legal photos I take. Still, I want the kind of national security that only comes from local, county, state, and federal police and law enforcement agencies asking questions of the people who are hanging around airports and train lines. Heck, I’ve been known to ask people what they are doing hanging around airports.

Security is a balance and as long as the police understand the needs of the photographer, then I hope they do stop and ask me what I’m doing there. It’s their job and we are safer for it. If having a $10 ID will help make that process simpler, then money well spent. I’ve spent more on the right to take pictures at a one-day visit to a botanical garden… and I wasn’t a threat there either.

As long as I’m not required to register, then I’m in favor of this kind of program. Now I can just concentrate on trying to take nice photos knowing I shouldn’t be hassled.


If you want more information about or wish to join the ORD Airport Watch program, you can email Officer Joel Vargas at jvargas@bensenville.il.us or call 630-350-3455. You can also apply in person at Aviation World ORD which is my favorite aviation store. Even if you don’t want to join, please stop by and visit them. They are plane and train spotter friendly with a nice place to sit and watch in their front yard while you listen to ORD tower over the loudspeaker. You should be sure to step inside and pick up a little (or big) trinket for yourself. Find them at http://www.aviationworld.net/aw_usa/ or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AW_ORD

reposted on http://blog.mytransponder.com/?p=261

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2 Responses to Aviation Photography

  1. mike says:

    Thanks Joel… and thanks for putting together the ORD Aviation Watch organization.

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