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The Planespotter: An Interview With Aviation Photographer Mike Kelley

Photographer Mike Kelley has always been fascinated with aviation. “Even before I was able to make any sort of money photographing planes, I was always spending time at airshows, going to the airport to do some spotting, or loving the experience of flying,” he says. “As my career as an architectural photographer progressed, I was able to invest more time and money into actually creating artistically interesting images of aircraft.”

He sits down and answers a few of FlyerTalk’s questions and tells us of his love of Iceland’s eerie landscapes, which airport is his favorite to shoot, and how to photograph planes in Dubai when planespotting is illegal.

How did you transition from an architectural photographer to one with so much focus on aviation?

Living near LAX, we have a very scenic airport to photograph, so it seemed like a logical progression. But for many years it was just something I did for fun, until my Wake Turbulence (above) image was released, at which point it turned into a major part of my career.

Obviously, you’re an aviation fan. Can you talk a little bit about what the experience of doing a Pan Am photoshoot was like for you?

That shoot was wild on so many different levels. First, obviously, seeing Pan Am brought back to life in such detail was really incredible. There were many times where I walked off the set and it was actually weird to be in a warehouse because your brain had convinced you so thoroughly that you were actually in a plane at 35,000 feet. In terms of logistics, there were so many moving parts that it’s honestly a miracle that I was able to pull it off at all. Between wardrobes, catering, set design, lighting, composing the actual photo – it was really intense! Directing 20 people around that tiny set was also very, very difficult, we ended up taking a bunch of seats out so we could fit the camera and crew in for many of the images. We were all totally sick of being on top of one another after that shoot, but I had a blast and hopefully the results show that.

You published a book of aerial images of Los Angeles. How did that idea come about? Are there any other projects like this in the works?

Well the original idea was honestly pretty simple; I wanted to spend some time in any type of aircraft taking photos, and it seemed like good business sense to offer aerial photography for my architectural clients. After the first photo flight I actually liked the artistic shots much more than the commercial ones, and after a few flights I started to piece together a body of work that showed the amazing infrastructure and layout of LA. It’s really a thing of terrible beauty from above, and so fascinating to photograph. So that’s actually the origin story of the book.

You have traveled around the world photographing airports. What was this experience like? Can you pick a favorite airport?

It was a ton of work, but it was also such a great adventure. Part of it was totally exhausting, and another part was completely refreshing and thrilling. The process was actually really complicated for many of the images. It varied a bit from airport to airport, but overall it took at the bare minimum three days at each airport followed by a couple weeks of post production for each image. The first thing I had to do, was in some cases, spend days driving and walking around perimeter roads to find the best spot, which is often uncharted territory. It was really important that I not only capture the planes but the spirit of each location – so for example, in Amsterdam I wanted to capture the lowlands and canals, and in Germany I tried to capture iconic things like the autobahn. Sydney, the beaches. In addition to wanting to incorporate some local flavor, I had to make sure that the spot I chose had the sun behind my back for the entire day so that the lighting would be even over the course of the chosen time period, so this greatly limited my options. In a few cases I opted to shoot early in the morning to capture ‘rush hour’ at some of the more busy airports, e.g. Dubai and Heathrow.

A few airports were especially tricky. Planespotting is actually illegal in Dubai, so I had to go through the proper channels and contact someone who worked at the airport who’d allow me to set up on the tarmac. Easier said than done! Same with Auckland. I made that image from otherwise inaccessible airport land, and it helped to have previous work to show. Surprisingly, I wasn’t questioned at any airport when I photographed from public land either, and I definitely used some, shall I say, interesting locations.

After I found a spot, I had to wait for a day where the winds, weather, and light all cooperated. Since planes usually take off into the wind, this meant waiting for a day that had steady winds in the direction that worked best with my chosen spot. If the winds switched halfway through the day, the entire day would be a wash. Similarly, if the weather changed dramatically throughout the day, it also made it exponentially harder to composite the images together as the color, lighting, and exposure on all parts of the scene changed with cloud cover and sun. The Frankfurt images for example were both ridiculous in the amount of time I spent compositing them, perfectly matching exposure, sunlight, cloud cover, and so on, to keep things looking realistic. So the ideal situation was a great spot showing the planes, some local flavor, the sun behind me (or consistent cloud cover) and solid, steady wind for an entire day. Easy in a place like LA where it’s always sunny. In a place like London? You gotta be kidding me, right? It actually took three trips to London to get images I was happy with because the constantly shifting weather and winds. Same with Tokyo. Turns out they’re not lying when they say Mt Fuji is a fickle, fickle beast. It’s only visible on the clearest of days, so I had to take 2 trips to Japan to get the image I wanted.

Post production was also pretty tough. I’d do basic color and exposure correction, then I’d select a background image, and then stack all of the images with aircraft cut out on top of the base layer in Photoshop. I’d then remove or add the planes one at a time. Some were a complete nightmare, e.g. Tokyo’s Haneda Airport photo. For that I was in a boat, and using a tripod to line up my images was obviously completely useless. I had to hand-stitch the entire background together and then use reference points to get the planes where they should be, but that’s what I get for shooting from a boat: it was either that, or don’t get a picture in Tokyo!

My favorite airport to photograph has to be Tokyo Haneda – seeing the iconic Mt Fuji in the distance while we were bobbing around on a little 15′ Boston Whaler in Tokyo Bay was just totally surreal. I’m weird, I know, but it was one of my life’s most amazing experiences, especially after gambling so much to make it to Tokyo and get the shot.

You did a photography project in Iceland recently. What drove you to Iceland in the first place and what was that experience like?

Iceland, and all of the North Atlantic for that matter, is another little fascination of mine. I love the eerie landscapes, the windswept mountains, the dark and cold ocean. The way that people had to brave the elements to live there before modern times is absolutely incredible to me, and this is reflected in a lot of the historic architecture seen throughout the region. Photographing that was another real challenge but totally an awesome adventure. I go back every few years to add to the project and it’s something I’ll hopefully be able to do for years to come.

What can we expect from you in the near future? What have you been working on recently?

I would love love love to see this in a gallery or exhibition somewhere, so I’m trying my best to get these out there in hopes that’ll happen – they’re just amazing printed big. I’d love to do some more commercial aviation photography, too – work for airlines, airports, aircraft interior design companies, that sort of thing. I’m very much looking forward to taking a little bit of a break though. I often found myself up at 2, 3, 4am working on these and juggling all the personal work with my day-to-day interior and architectural photography was pretty tough.

Is there a dream project related to aviation that you haven’t been able to fulfill yet?

My Airportraits series was actually my dream aviation project for the time being. For now, I would really like to focus on shooting more commercial and advertising related projects for airlines, manufacturers, that sort of thing, so I’m going to devote some time to pursuing those clients. Now that I have the body of work hopefully it comes a little easier!

[Photo: Mike Kelley Photography]

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