A long way from Los Angeles

I have not written much at all on here, which I simultaneously regret and also enjoy. I had one of the most productive summers of my life, so am loathe to say that I was 'too busy' to write up here, because I believe people who say they're busy just can't manage their time properly (wink wink) so let's just say I put myself under enormous pressure to pull off a ton of projects in a short amount of time, because, well, if not now, then when? Here's a quick recap of what I was up to since the last blog post.

I taught an architectural photography workshop in the Bahamas, in which I taught 20+ aspiring interior and architectural photographers everything I know:

Right after the Bahamas, it was time to buckle down and focus on getting my Kickstarter campaign off the ground. That alone was one of the most intense and focused periods of my life, and I'm happy to say that it succeeded. Those who know me know that I am my own toughest critic; and while the campaign did well I know we couldn't have possibly reached everyone, so I'm even happier to announce that the book, LA AIRSPACE, has been noticed and picked up to be published and available to the general public through retailers thanks to Angel City Press. So yes, that is extremely exciting on all fronts. Successful Kickstarter, followed by my first published book. Just awesome.

In addition to the LA AIRSPACE Kickstarter, I suppose that this is as good a time as ever to announce that some of my image from the LA AIRSPACE project and my Architecture of Iceland project have been awarded a spot in the Luerzer's Archive 200 BEST Ad Photographers Worldwide 2016/2017 edition. This has been a career goal of mine, so to say that I'm excited is a little bit of an understatement. I'M FRIGGEN STOKED! 

Sometime during the Kickstarter campaign in June, I made off to Brazil for 8 days to begin the biggest assignment of my life, which will take me all over the world to airports on every continent. The second (I actually photographed in Dubai International earlier this year) airport and first on this summer's mega-trip is the Sao Paulo/GRU Airport in Brazil. What an experience that was; at the risk of turning this into a travel blog, Brazil surpassed my expectations in every way. Had a wonderful, if not stressful, time watching the weather and hoping for the best, but in the end it turned out fantastically, nailing our shot on the last day we were there with some legendary light giving us a nice hand. 

After Sao Paulo, it was back to LA for a sum total of something like ten days to wrap up the Kickstarter,and  shoot a really cool assignment with America's Styrenics here in LA. 

After a whirlwind week it was across the country to South Carolina for a brief family visit, and then off to Amsterdam for 6 days, Frankfurt for 5 days, Zurich for 5 days, Innsbruck for a weekend, Munich for 5 days. Quick flight to Tokyo for a week, overnight to Syndey for another week, then across the little pond known as the Tasman Sea for 18 days in New Zealand to photograph (you guessed it) more airports. I was fortunate to get access to amazing never-before-photographed locations at many of these airports, which was so much fun to experience. The enthusiasm and help that these airports offered in terms of helping me find the best locations for each assignment was just amazing, and is going to make for some really unique images. Here are a few behind-the-scenes snaps...


At some point during this assignment, Air New Zealand arranged for me to get a ride in the jumpseat of one of their mainline flights between Auckland and Queenstown. More to come on that front when the entire project is wrapped, but let's just say that was the absolute coolest moment of my entire life. Not sure how I can go much higher than this, honestly, I think I've peaked :)


Two months later, back in Los Angeles and immediately into shooting some pretty great architecture and interiors. Restaurants, residential, and pretty much everything in between have been on tap.  Here's a quick rundown of some of the architectural gigs I've been on since wrapping up the first half of the airport project:

Even got the chance to go to Indiana to photograph classic British cars under a 30 foot Chimera softbox. The absurdity continues - this was so much fun and with any luck this won't be the last of my automotive and transport based work. Here's a quick sneak peek at what I was up to...

Who knew that there was a crossover market for the architecture-aviation-and-automotive enthusiast? Going to start calling myself AAA Photography or something equally cheesy.

A couple more architectural shoots to wrap up October, and then it's travel time AGAIN, this time to Cuba for eight days to guide a tour around the island. My head is spinning too, don't worry.

And for a little icing on the cake, I learned I've been invited back to Dubai in February to teach at Gulf Photo Plus. For those interested in workshops, this will be my only one for the foreseeable future after my Cuba workshop in a few weeks. And that's that. I will try to be a little more pro-active on here, but I've got buckets of editing to do to catch up! More to come...


LA AIRSPACE Kickstarter: Halfway done, 86% funded!

I have neglected the blog on this site for the past month, which is rather unfortunate, considering all that has been going on! I recently decided that the time was right to wrap up and publish my work featuring the city of Los Angeles as photographed from a helicopter. The project is named LA AIRSPACE and as the title mentions, we are 86% funded on Kickstarter as of today! We've got half of the campaign left and I'm so excited with the progress we've made so far.

The book has been two years in the making, and has had me in the air covering Los Angeles in all four seasons. The book is being designed, printed, and put together right here in Los Angeles. Everything involved with the creation of the book, right down to the helicopters that we flew in, is locally tied to the city of LA. 

I'm so proud of the work we've done on the campaign - and so happy to have such great support from not only LA but all over the world.  It is so exciting to finally see this come to life, and to be lucky enough to have so many people willing to collaborate with me and back the project - just amazing!

To check out the Kickstarter campaign itself, click here. I've also been blogging about the process every week on Fstoppers. Those two posts (more to come) can be found here and here.

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.