Behind the lens: Interviewing Austin’s planespotter community: Brett Spangler

Welcome to the wild, wild world of aviation and flying objects in the Texas sky. In this exclusive interview, we dive into the world of planespotting with one of Austin's most talented photographers, Brett Spangler.

Also known as atx.spotter on Instagram, Brett is a passionate photographer who’s captured not only beautiful photos of aircrafts at AUS, but also the attention of thousands of followers and the airport itself – you’ll find that a lot of Brett’s photos are sprinkled on our Instagram grid. Join us as we look into this passionate planespotter’s favorite moments at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and the inspiration behind his photos.

How did you first get into planespotting, and what sparked your interest in aviation?

I grew up in Dallas and lived less than a mile from Love Field, so the sound of jets taking off and landing was the sonic background of my childhood. Airplanes have fascinated me since I was very young and that fascination has only grown as I’ve gotten older…

My creative outlet pre-COVID was cooking, and I poured myself into creating elaborate meals for my friends and competing in culinary competitions (three-time winner of Austin’s own Quesoff, for example). Once everything shut down and everyone was stuck at home, I needed to find something else that scratched my creative itch.

I thought planespotting could be a good creative outlet and an opportunity to be close to airplanes again. I started following a few planespotters on Instagram and watched live streams from various airports on YouTube. Eventually, I was inspired to buy a camera and try my hand at planespotting.

Can you share a memorable experience or a particular moment that solidified your passion for planespotting?

My first trip to the AUS Family Viewing Area sealed the deal and I fell in love with planespotting at that moment. I raced home after spending a few hours in the hot, humid afternoon taking pictures of aircraft (Southwest, American, and United 737s, A320s) coming and going, excited to see what I had captured. The vast majority of the pictures were terrible, but I was hooked. I went out again the next day, and multiple days the following week.

Photos from Brett’s early planespotting days:

Photo of an American Airlines plane arriving at AUS. Downtown Austin is in the background.
A private jet is departing from AUS with the Air Traffic Control tower in the background.

How has planespotting evolved for you over the years, both in terms of equipment and your approach to capturing photos?

I started photographing planes using a Panasonic G9, a micro 4/3rds (M43) camera, smaller and lighter in weight than DSLRs, but larger and more capable than point and shoot-style cameras. The G9 was a good all-around camera at the time… Because of the joy planespotting brought me, I started dipping my toes into other types of photography, like night time planespotting, landscape photography, and astrophotography. I tried other camera bodies in an attempt to find one that fit all my changing needs… [I] bought my first Sony camera body in 2022. I’ve been a Sony mirrorless shooter for the last year and a half and absolutely love my current setup: Sony A7RV and either the Sony 100-400mm GM or Sony 70-200 GM II.

Over time I became more interested in … learning new photography techniques… Now my planespotting is more intentional and I try to focus on shooting when there are unique aircraft, lighting conditions, interesting compositions, or situations where specific photography techniques can be used, like panning.

Photos captured with new photography techniques applied:

Photo of an American Airlines plane taxiid at AUS. Vibrant colored lights are underneath it.
A clear photo of a United Airlines plane waiting to take off from AUS at dusk.
A Southwest airlines plane speeding as it departs from AUS. The plane is clear, while the background is blurred due to the speed of the aircraft.

What about aviation fascinates you the most, and how do they influence the type of planes you spot?

The fact that a machine weighing in excess of 800,000 lbs can fly through the air at almost the speed of sound will never stop being magical to me. Often, the sharpest shots we take as spotters are when an aircraft is taxiing or parked at the gate, but what I love most is catching aircraft in the air. You can’t see the graceful, curving flex of a 787’s carbon fiber wing when it’s sitting on the ground; they were born to fly and look their best doing what they were built to do. 

A photo of an aircraft in the sky as it departs from AUS.

Are there particular aircraft or airlines that hold special significance for you, and if so, what's the story behind that connection?

I was Executive Platinum on American Airlines for a few years when I lived in DFW in the late 90s and early 2000s. Their bare metal aircraft will always have a special place in my heart. I’ve flown on pretty much every modern aircraft since the mid-90s, including many that have been retired by the major US airlines (MD8xs, DC10/MD11, L-1011 TriStar, 727, etc.), but the 747 will always be my favorite aircraft. There is just something magical about the “Queen of the Skies'' that other aircraft can’t quite match. The A380 is a beast, the 787 is a marvel of engineering, the A350, A340, and the 777 are all amazing aircraft, but, in my opinion, none of these airplanes ignite imaginations or changed the world quite like the 747 did when it rolled out of Boeing’s Everett WA factory in 1968.

The “Queen of the Skies,” Boeing 747:

Photo of an Atlas Air boeing 747 as it lands at AUS. Downtown Austin is in the background.

In what ways has planespotting shaped your perspective on aviation? Has it changed your understanding of the industry or the technology behind it?

The complexities of airport operations and air travel and the sheer logistics involved with… a massive machine and flying it halfway around the world is fascinating to me. The fact that there are over 45,000 flights a day, on average, in the US alone is crazy. The amount of technology and people involved to make it happen safely is mind-blowing. I think it’s difficult for folks to understand how much goes into getting a British Airways A350-1000 turned around and back on its way to LHR in less than three hours. It’s amazing to me that 22 million people and 141,527 tons of cargo flew through AUS in 2023 and I photographed much of it.

Where do you planespot from? What factors contribute to getting the perfect shot?

There are a couple well-established spots for plane spotting at AUS, namely the Blue Garage, which faces 18R/36L [runway], and the Family Viewing Area, located very close to 18L/36R. The Blue Garage is my favorite place to spot because of the unique shots you can take of aircraft landing in front of downtown Austin. Downtown is like 6 miles away … and it appears quite far away to the naked eye. But when you are shooting with a big zoom lens, the long focal length compresses and exaggerates whatever is in the background and makes it appear as if the downtown buildings are right behind the runway...

The Family Viewing Area [FVA] allows you to get much closer to the aircraft using 18L/36R, so you don’t need the big zoom lenses... The aircraft arriving 18L/36R often touch down right in front of the FVA and you can get amazing shots of aircraft tires kicking up white smoke as they land...

Photos taken from the Blue Garage at AUS:

Photo of a British Airways aircraft readying for take-off with Downtown Austin in the background.

An American Airlines aircraft waiting to take off with DOwntown Austin in the background

Photos taken from the Family Viewing Area at AUS:Photo from the Family Viewing Area of a KLM aircraft at AUS. The Barbara Jordan Terminal can be seen in the distant background.Photo taken from the Family Viewing Area of planes on the airfield at sunset. The ATC tower is to the left.

Tell us about the planespotting community.

One of my favorite things about planespotting is the community. I’ve met a ton of people since I started this hobby and built some very real friendships with a few of those folks.

AUS has a couple of fantastic spotting groups on Facebook. One of which, “Austin Plane Spotting,” has over 700 members, several of which work at AUS in various capacities and share tips with the group. We share our photos with one another, chat about photography tips and gear, discuss best places to spot, and share details whenever interesting aircraft are inbound. We’ve even had a few organized meetups at the FVA and there are frequently ad hoc gatherings to catch special aircraft visiting AUS.

Are there any photos that hold more sentimental value for you?

There are a few planespotting images that do hold sentimental value for me, like shooting British Airways return to AUS in October of 2021. I was invited to take pictures with the awesome crew from the AUS media team, but the weather was heavily cloudy and there were rain showers off and on all day. The rain broke just before BA191 was scheduled to arrive, thankfully, and I was able to get some decent shots of British Airways' beautiful 787-9 Dreamliner landing on 18R. To top it off, the captain of the aircraft reached out to me on Instagram after I posted the shots to ask if I would share the original images with him as a keepsake of the trip. It was awesome!

British Airways, October 2021:

Photo of a British Airways aircraft on the airfield.

Another big one getting to photograph Copa's inaugural flight to AUS. Myself and a couple of other spotters won a contest held by AUS got to photograph the celebration at the gate as well as Copa arriving from the ramp. The weather was iffy all day and of course it started to pour just before Copa landed, but still got some great pics of the arrival.

Copa Airlines launch event at AUS, July 2023:

Photo of Panamanian dancers performing in the terminal for the Copa Airlines launch at AUS

Does anyone else in your family planespot? Will you teach it to your son?

My wife loves to travel, but doesn’t share my fascination with big metal birds or photography. She appreciates and supports my love for planespotting, but has no interest in participating. I hope to get my son, Griffin, into planespotting in the future, but right now he prefers garbage trucks and big rigs to 737s and A320s.

What are your planespotting plans in the future? Any upcoming planes or flights coming in that you're excited to photograph?

I like to take planespotting trips when able, and plan to hit LAX later this year for a few days of solo spotting. I travel to Vancouver frequently for work and plan to take my camera with me more often on those trips in case I have the chance to get away to YVR. I have family in DFW and always make a point to hit the Founders Plaza at DFW Airport whenever I’m up that way, and really want to get out to IAH sometime soon.

The most exciting time for spotting at AUS are the days before and after the Formula 1 US Grand Prix at COTA [in October]. We get multiple heavy cargo planes visiting Austin before and after the race, tons of charter flights, and a crazy influx of business jets from countries all over the world. It’s a spotting dream for those few days in October, and I usually take some time off at work and spend the entire week at AUS spotting.

Plane arriving at AUS during the Formula One races in October:

Photo of a large aircraft landing at AUS during Formula One.

How do you track planes and know when to come to AUS to photograph them? This could help the incoming generation of planespotters…

It’s easier than ever to keep tabs on aircraft, thanks to apps like JetTip, FlightRadar24, and FlightAware; social media plays a big part as well. The folks in “Austin Plane Spotting” on Facebook are also really great about sharing news, schedules, and rumors on interesting or rare aircraft visiting AUS. Instagram has a large planespotting community from all over the world, and it’s a great place to engage with pilots, ground crew, airlines, and airplane lovers of all ages, who are usually more than happy to share airplane news and other spotting related info.