Photography, more than being a purely literal portrayal of reality, often requires the hand of an artist to blend the truth with their own vision. That’s what Mike Kelley does with his popular “Airportraits” series.
With Airportraits, Mike captures the busy routes of many major airports in photos that depict dozens and dozens of planes as if they were all taking off or landing at once. It is, of course, digital slight of hand; he composites multiple photos into one image so that the giant jet planes are in concert together like a flock of birds.
Photo by Mike Kelley.
By day, though, Mike is an architectural photographer whose travels have allowed for his unique side projects. Lifehacker editor-in-chief Alan Henry recently spoke with Mike about his photo series, and we decided to dive a little deeper. Here’s how Mike Kelley works.
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Current Gig: Architectural photographer — that means I usually photograph homes and buildings for architects, designers and a good amount of resorts.
One word that best describes how you work: Intensely
Current mobile device: iPhone 6 and iPhone 5 (one for domestic, one for international)
Current computer: iMac 27″ 5k with everything maxed out
What apps, software or tools can’t you live without?
Flightradar24 on my iPhone, I love seeing what’s coming and going above me. iKiteSurf, because I’m hopelessly addicted to kiteboarding, and SunSurveyor which instantly tells me where the Sun is going to be at any time of day, any location on earth. Super useful for photography. Obviously there’s Photoshop and Lightroom, which is used on every project I shoot. A solid tripod — I personally use Really Right Stuff — is the basis for almost every one of my photographs. Camera doesn’t really matter, as long as it takes the picture when I tell it to! And Spotify, even though I think the UI is dreadful, it’s still better than iTunes.
What’s your workspace setup like?
Home office that alternates between utterly pristine one week and the next, looking like a bomb was detonated until I have a breakdown and make it spotless again. Standing desk that is in “sit mode” 95 per cent of the time until I read an article about how bad posture is killing me.
Photo by Mike Kelley.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Delegate tasks to people who are better at those tasks than you are. And for the love of all that’s holy, let those people do their jobs without micromanaging them.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Gmail’s “tasks” popup in my inbox. I’m a simpleton.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
External hard drives. I can see at least 25 of those orange rugged LaCies in my office right now. I’m constantly travelling and I’m a total backup freak, so every assignment I shoot requires location backups of hundreds or thousands of 50mp+ files. I go through them like water, and they give me peace of mind. If I travel halfway around the world to get pictures, I don’t care what happens to the camera gear as long as I come home with the pictures.
Regarding the Airportraits, each photo is clearly taken individually, but do you take them all over the course of a single day?
London Heathrow. Photo by Mike Kelley.
The images are taken over a set time-frame depending on the effect I was going for. So, for example, in London Heathrow, I wanted to capture the morning rush of arrivals that descend upon Heathrow for the first three hours of the day. The light at this hour has an amazing warm ethereal quality to it, so I set my camera up and shot every plane between about 6AM and 9AM to capture this effect. Obviously the colour and quality of light change throughout the day, and it would be impossible to mix harsh overhead daylight with morning light and retain that soft, golden feel. Most of the images however are taken from maybe 10AM until 6PM or something like that to capture as many flights in consistent daylight as possible.
Sydney. Photo by Mike Kelley.
The exception to this was Sydney, as Sydney has such a complicated runway usage program, I had to capture those departures over a few days because the weather was so shifty when I was there, I couldn’t get the planes to take off in the same direction for one solid day, so this had me going back to the same spot for multiple days.
And what equipment do you use to capture the shots?
I used a Pentax 645z with a 45-85mm lens, or a Canon 5DS R with a bunch of different lenses — tilt shifts, standard zooms and telephoto lenses, depending on the effect I was going for. All of the images are also panoramically stitched from multiple shots, so many of them are well over 100 megapixels, which means the file sizes are just enormous.
I also notice that you’ve visited a ton of beautiful locations around the world — do you have any favourites?
In terms of places to visit, I absolutely love London and all of the Britain, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. I’m pretty sure I’m going to retire in New Zealand, it’s just incredible. My favourite photo, though — too hard to choose. It’s like asking me to pick a favourite child! I like all of them for different reasons and all of the stories behind each of them.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?
Booking airfare. (Is that an every day thing?) The secret is being able to play a game of chicken with the airline. Much easier to do when you’re travelling solo, but if you know the games they play you can often snag premium cabin airfare for pretty cheap, provided you can find the time to fly it. This is especially true for points bookings — on a few of these trips, I waited until literally the last day before travel to get discounted first and business class tickets using points. But it definitely takes some balls to do this, when the alternative is a multi-thousand dollar ticket, or roughing it in coach for 14 hours if the airline doesn’t stick to historical patterns.
If all that doesn’t count, cooking steak. I make the best damn steak in the world. The secret is salt and cooking it at a low temperature in an oven and finishing with a sear. Check out the “reverse sear” method to learn more.
What do you listen to while you work?
Death Cab For Cutie and Sigur Rós pretty much on repeat for 90 per cent of my waking hours. The other 10 per cent consists of Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist which doesn’t really change anything for me, I just like pretending I’m more musically cultured than I really am
What are you currently reading?
Andre Agassi’s Open — I recently finished it and was sad to see it end. The opening chapter might be my favourite thing in all of literature. Also, The Little Book of Quiet perpetually sits on my desk and I reference that fairly often to help me chill out.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
I know it sounds crazy but I absolutely love flying, no matter where I’m going or what cabin I’m in. It’s such a great opportunity to recharge without any distractions, zone out entirely. Like, even if I wanted to work, I can’t because the internet is so slow or there’s no internet or I’m so happy to be eating aeroplane food I can’t pay attention.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I never set an alarm unless I have an early morning assignment, which I try to avoid. Instead I sleep as much as I humanly can, which doesn’t quite sound like a good answer, but I find that I’m SO much more productive when I’m well-rested. I can get a whole day’s worth of work done without interruptions if I’m well-rested, whereas if I’m tired, I can’t focus at all and just end up spending the day on Reddit. If I sleep 10 hours I can power through work like nobody’s business.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ____ answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Work hard and be brave. From one of Casey Neistat’s old long-form videos, which I still think are gold
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
Someone once snarkily told me that I’d never be able to make a career out of taking pictures of architecture. I proved them wrong. Then someone said I’d never be able to make money taking pictures of planes. Proved them wrong too. Apparently the number one way to get me to do something is tell me I can’t do it — so don’t get any ideas!
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