Architectural Photography Q+A With University of Lancashire Student

I recently received an email from a student at the University of Lancashire in Preston, England, asking for a few minutes to answer some questions for a report he'd been working on. What I initially thought would be a five-minute email ended up turning into an hour-long type-a-thon! The student asked some wonderful questions and really got me to give up some good insight into my job and life, and as a result, I figured it was interesting enough to share with the world. I get asked most of these questions on a fairly regular basis, so it is good to make it permanent here on the blog. Enjoy! And thanks for the wonderful questions, Kaiz!

How long have you been an architectural photographer? 

Five years

If you don't mind me asking, what made you go down that particular route? 

I have always been interested in art and design, having studied painting, sculpture, graphic design, and digital art all through my formative years and in college. A chance encounter led to me meeting my first architectural client, and I found that it was the perfect marriage between my love of design, art, and photography. Or perhaps that is a ménages à trois, more specifically...

First things first, what's your process when you're out on a job? Do you give yourself some time to get familiar with what your shooting?

The process is mostly the same. I'll do a walkthrough on the day of shooting with the client, or a scout day beforehand to get familiar with the location. From there, it's a matter of finding the correct composition, glamorize the space with lighting at the right time of day, and then transform the composition with furniture movement and staging. After that, I try to translate the language of the architecture in post processing to bring elements forward using value, light, color, and so on, to create the finished image. It's a lengthy process.

How long does a shoot last? Do you go back and do re-shoots and if so, how many times? 

For most residential projects, a shoot lasts one or two days. For commercial projects, things can last as long as a week. I'll go back to capture different light at different times of day if necessary, and try not to mess it up so bad that I have to do a re-shoot :)

How close do you you work with the architect and do they have a say in the final outcome? 

Some architects want to be there to art direct everything, and some trust me completely. But at the minimum, we are having a face-to-face meeting or a walkthrough before the shoot to go over everything before I even take a single picture. It just depends on the architect/client.

Are there any other contemporary photographers within the industry that inspire you? 

This may be weird but I try not to follow other architectural photographers' work. I am afraid that if I look at it too much, it will influence my style and pull my photographs away from the vision that I created in my head. But If I have to answer, I do really like Scott Frances' work, Frank Meyl's work. Julius Shulman is another big influence, not so much in his post-processing or vision, but in the way that he transformed the genre and went against the grain of what was the 'industry standard' at the time. He was really the first to add light and transform the composition in front of him.

I've just recently submitted my dissertation which tried to answer the question on whether Architectural Photography has as much to do with the photographer's vision than the architectural details? Do you believe that there is some truth in that? 

In my opinion, it's really not either. I have some architects who want me to photograph little details that took forever to design, but who cares about details? People want to see how the house works, how it flows, how it's used, and how people live in and make the space their own. It's not JUST about the photographer's vision, either. I think my job is simple, and I don't want to get all preachy about vision this and vision that. Our job is to show what the building looks like, how it's used, and add a little zing to get people interested in it. I might take some flack for that but it's how I work - I'm personally trying to get away from shooting details and make more interesting photographs that show the space being used, working as a home or space.

Moving on, Is it often necessary to make changes to an interior in order to archive the desired result? For example, to swap the sofa or the commode, to select and hang a few pictures or arrange a delicious meal in the kitchen?

Every picture needs staging. It's like photographing a beautiful woman - you can either make her look terrible and shoot her straight on with flat light, a double chin, and no retouching, or you can pose the model properly, light her with great shadows and highlights, and retouch just enough to really make an incredible, evocative photo.

And following up on that, how does photographing the interior differ from the exterior? Are there any technical aspects that should be considered in terms of lighting and framing when approaching interior shoots? 

Well, mostly I make sure I take my shoes off before photographing an interior. But seriously, I don't think there's a huge difference - I do mostly the same process for my interior and exterior shots, especially with regards to framing. I could take a half hour just finding the perfect shot, inside or outside.

Speaking of the technical aspects, how much of a role does post-processing play in your practice as an architectural photographer? 

Post processing is huge. And I don't get why people think it's this terrible thing that architectural photographers need to avoid, to show the space just as it is - because as soon as you take a picture, even without post processing, the space isn't what it is, by the very nature of transforming a three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional image. Post processing is so important to evoke a mood, create a feeling, bring out textures, lead the eye around. I think of it like this...artists who paint photo-realistically; I think it's really cool and impressive. But I've never wanted to hang a photorealistic painting on my wall. No, I want a little abstraction, a little interpretation, some mood, some imperfection, some drama. I'm an artist, not a Xerox machine! I can't help it.

Are you in favour of the inclusion of people in architectural photography or do you believe that the architecture itself should be the main focus? 

Of course the architecture should be the main focus, but sometimes you need a person in the shot to show how the space is used. A person in the photo doesn't necessarily need to change that, it can be a great, subtle addition without diverting attention. A person in the shot can also make an image SO much better by adding a touch of humanity and scale.

I was reading an article that Hufton+Crow did, where they explained their reasoning for the inclusion of people in their photographs, expressing their belief that it adds a sense of realism and a true visual account of the buildings primary function. Do you believe that to be the case? 

I wouldn't say so much that it adds realism, but it adds scale and humanity more than anything. A human to anchor the scene can do so much when it comes to telling the story of the architecture. It can really soften the scene as well, and people can also be used to add motion and a place for the eye to go in the image. Adding people adds great dynamic to a photograph if done well.

Looking at your work, it's fair to assume that your clients are satisfied with what you've produced. I'm certainly envious but how do most of your clients find you? If you could suggest just one marketing tool to the beginner photographer what would it be?

Most of my clients find me via the internet. As far as one marketing tool...I would say make sure that your clients learn about who you are. I don't get why so many photographers insist on being this mysterious, artsy, boring persona - people are going to be spending 12+ hours a day with me. Why would I want them to think I'm weird as hell? If I'm shopping for someone that I'm going to spend so much time with, you better believe I want to know that they're going to be fun to hang out with. This is probably just as important as the images in my mind.

A lot of Commercial Architectural Photography has to do with self promotion and marketing but how do you get your name out there? Through word of mouth, social media or some other way? 

All of the above, plus being a really nice person, having a good sense of humor, etc. There isn't just one way to do it, nor is there a book on it, but all of the above are definitely necessary in 2015.

In terms of cost, how do you decide how much is enough when charging clients for a particular job? 

There are a million things to look at here. Right now I am trying to standardize my rate across the board to simplify everything a little bit. And honestly, I have no idea what I'm doing when it comes to pricing. 

Do you find there are times when commercial shooting becomes boring and routine? And, if so, what does it depend on?

I would be lying if I said that it didn't. Just like any job there are gigs that just pay the bills and gigs that get me REALLY REALLY REALLY excited! Of course if I was perfect, I would get just as excited to shoot a Jack-In-The-Box bathroom elevation as I would to be the photographer of record on a new NYC highrise! But I am not perfect. But it depends on a lot of things - are the clients really fun? Is the job really exciting? Is the pay good? There are a lot of ways to get excited.

What are the most exciting and challenging architecture photography projects you’ve been involved in?

I just came back from nine days in Mexico working for one of the most prolific architects in Latin America. It was absolutely incredible in every way - experiencing a new culture, beautiful architecture, wonderful food, and an epic location all in one. I will look back when I'm 80 and tell tall tales of that gig. 


What special skills and equipment would you consider essential when photographing architecture? What would your advice be to anyone thinking about taking up architectural photography?

Well, there are lots of special skills involved in finding composition, creating the right staging and styling, adding the right lighting, and finishing it off with good post production. Not to mention the business side of things. As far as equipment goes, you can check out my equipment list here - but my advice for anyone looking to get into this is to work hard and be brave. You may not be the best, but you CAN always be the hardest working guy out there, and that will take you really, really far. As long as you're not a giant asshole, that is.

Wine Country Pre-Fab with BluHomes in Healdsburg

Apologies for the lack of blogging lately! I haven't been in Los Angeles much at all, with trips to San Francisco, NYC, Dubai, Mexico and somewhere else that I forget, it's just been an absolutely manic yet totally exciting winter for me.  At the end of 2014 I was worried that there would just be no way for me to top the amazing year that I've had, but damn if I'm not off to a great start this year. 

I'm getting back on the train to write about a really amazing shoot I did up in Healdsburg, about 2 hours north of San Francisco, for BluHomes. Set amongst gently rolling hills and the calming rows of vineyards, shooting this place was like a little preview of heaven. Tranquil and idyllic are the words that come to mind. In many cases, I get clients praying for perfect weather, but the soft fog clinging to the ground made for some incredible ethereal moods and provided an amazing soft light over the two days we shot the home.

For most of these images, lighting was relatively simple, with only one or two lights working their magic. One of my favorite parts of this shoot was just how amazingly quiet everything was - you could hear the shutter click from a good 200 feet away at twilight. Things just seemed to echo and hang around with the mist. 

After two days of shooting, it was a quick wrap-up and back to LA - and from there, a quick turnaround to give a talk on CreativeLive's PhotoshopWeek in Seattle - seen here (link to the talks here)


And less than a week later, off on a nice long-haul to London and Dubai, whose pictures will be posted up shortly as I get through the edits.


Aerial photography of the labor dispute at the Port of LA and Long Beach

As anyone who follows my work knows, I'm fascinated by industry and infrastructure. For the past few weeks, a labor dispute has been unfolding at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. After flying over the area while coming in to land at LAX, I saw all of these giant container ships anchored offshore and instantly knew that I had to photograph it. 

The next day I called my pilot and said 'when is the soonest we can go up?!' Less than 24 hours later we were in the air. It was one of the most exciting experiences I've had doing aerial photography - being that far out at sea, with the huge swells underneath you, and these massive, massive container ships everywhere was like living a scene out of Walter Mitty's life.

Cargo ships have been backed up for weeks on end at the ports of LA and Long Beach amid a labor dispute.

The size of these ships blows the mind; many of them are over a thousand feet long.

We photographed them from anywhere between 200 and 5,500 feet, and even at this height the enormous size was something else entirely.

The haze and setting sun created an ethereal mood to all of the pictures

Cargoes from around the world are backed up right now

I've never seen ANYTHING like this, even rush hour at the 405 doesn't look so bad.

Colorful and massive, this ship is over 1000 feet from end to end.

From this angle, the scale and size of the city and ships becomes quickly apparent

I have teamed up with PurePhoto.com to make fine art prints of these images available for sale, to view or purchase prints and size options, click here.

Interiors Photography: Sunset Strip Highrise in LA with NYID

While working in Los Angeles, you get to see a very, very wide variety of different architecture and interiors, and every now and then something comes along that you know you'd just never see anywhere else. Such was the case on a recent shoot with NYID, KLEAN, and White Rabbit Partners.  Natalie Younger designed a gorgeous, unique, and jaw-dropping space for KLEAN and White Rabbit and I was excited to have been able to photograph it. 

A soft, inviting, pastel palette at KLEAN was contrasted by an unusual and striking combination of dark wood with grey and black flooring at White Rabbit. Custom made fixtures and furniture throughout created a very interesting setting for these offices.

Photographing the White Rabbit "wing" of the building presented numerous challenges, and it took nearly the entire stable of grip and lighting equipment to pull it off. In order to retain the balance between window views of LA and dark interior, some serious thinking went into composing and lighting. For the darker and moodier shots towards the end of day and at twilight, I ended up using heavily gelled Profoto B1 lights to add warmth to the wood and keep a light brown/red hue in them, and complimented it with bare lowel hot lights to add texture and a little bit of depth here and there. The daylight shots were achieved using just the Profoto B1s, naked on a stand or with an umbrella where appropriate.

Fighting the setting sun on this image was more difficult than the end result makes it look! There were about 2500 watts of light being pumped into this scene when all was said and done.

One of my favorite images from the shoot, above. Lit with a single hot light, it brings the texture of the hand-made cabinetry to life. What's amazing is that cabinet is made from hundreds of individual pyramids of wood which were handmade and arranged randomly, the depth of the piece is just incredible and I tried to bring that out with the lighting.

Lit with a single Lowel GL-1, and one of my favorite recent shots!

Stay tuned for more, I was quite busy right before the Christmas break and have plenty of blogging to catch up on. Looking forward to a new year and some great opportunities coming up!

The gear post: What does Michael Kelley use to create his work?

Architectural photography is a haven for gearheads, and I frequently get asked what I'm using. So a few days ago I figured I'd lay it all out and put it to rest once and for all. I rigged up a rather hilarious setup in my living room to shoot this, and took a few hours to lay it all out. Note that due to the limited space, I couldn't put literally EVERYTHING out, so in many cases I refrained from putting duplicates down.  In a few cases, I just have bags and bags of it (grip stuff) and I figured you didn't need to see 5 umbrellas, 8 batteries and 15 CF cards. Click the photo below or click here to head over to the new gear page and see what I'm using.

The list is always changing and evolving, so I will try to keep it updated every few months or so. Maybe in a year I will update the picture, but as it stands, that took a good 3-4 hours out of my day to do! My back didn't love me after it - but hopefully you get some good insight as to what I'm using to create my photos.

Recent press for Michael Kelley Photography

It's been a crazy few months with lots of great new opportunities, so I figured I would round up a few of my favorite bits of press and throw them up on the blog. Very exciting to see my work getting out there and around, and in some notable publications too. Many thanks to the teams at 805 Living, BluHomes, PurePhoto and all of these magazines for being so great to work with and letting me play around with some of the art direction. 

I'm quite a bit humbled and also a bit ecstatic to see my name in some of these bigger publications...always a trip to see your work while waiting in line at the checkstand at nearly every store you go to!

Ventura County From Above: On assignment with 805 Living

A few months ago I was invited by 805 living to shoot a huge feature for their 10th anniversary issue. Having seen my aerial work of the city of Los Angeles, knowing that Ventura County was just a quick hop north, they asked if I would be willing to give their county the same treatment that I've given Los Angeles with my aerial series. 

You can imagine that I just about jumped off my seat with a resounding "yes!" when that question came up. 

Flying from Camarillo Airport, we'd be flying over nearly all of 805 county - from Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks all the way up to Santa Inez and San Luis Obispo. Working with the guys from Orbic Helicopters (Ken, who has over 17,000 hours of experience...unbelievable) we burned through over 5 hours worth of flight time and came home with some awesome images. While only a small selection made the final cut, I love the edit and think it sums up this corner of California beautifully. I'm very, very excited and humbled that they were able to give me such free reign with the assignment and let me take up so much magazine real estate! For those counting, that's twelve full-page images and the table of contents. Truly awesome to see this in print! It's tough enough to even get a single page, so this picture-heavy story was just fantastic.

They also let me do the writing on this one, so I can tick off the 'write an article for a major publication' box off my bucket list! Two birds, one stone here. A nice way to go.

805 Living was also the first magazine to publish my series of photos on the Malibu BluHome, which led to BluHomes picking up the images for their national advertising (you can see one of the images in the bonus shot I uploaded of the BluHomes ad - first inside page! spread! again!). I owe the 805 Living guys some drinks for that one too. Great to have a magazine show such faith in your work.

To see the full issue and read all of the text, head on over to their digital edition by clicking here.