For most of us, simply grabbing a quick snap or our plane at the gate, or perhaps the wing through the window by our seat is enough to satisfy out thirst for photography. Not for Mike Kelley, though, oh no. He camped out at some of the busiest airports in the world to photograph planes all day long as they took off and landed.
These shots were then composited to create some of the most amazing commercial airline images you’ve ever seen. With the camera locked off on a tripod, shooting images for hours at a time, each composite shows the passage of time compressed into an instant. It’s an incredibly ambitious project and we wanted to know more. So, DIYP got in touch with Mike to get some insight into this work.
Some of you may have seen Mike’s photo above from 2014. It showed an 8 hour span of planes taking off from LAX in a single frame. Little did he know at the time he posted it to Reddit just how viral it would become. DIYP spoke with Mike about that image and how the project has evolved since then.
I’m actually an architectural photographer by trade, and in that line of work I’m doing a lot of compositing: blending lighting, time of day, and people, as I photograph buildings. Believe it or not, architectural photography requires a lot of Photoshop in many instances, so I’ve been working with photo composites for years now in order to give my photos an interesting look and feel.
So that brings us to the original image from LAX, conceived in 2014. I’ve always been fascinated by aviation and one day while out at LAX plane spotting, decided that I wanted to try capturing multiple takeoffs and putting them together into a single image to show their flight paths and the sheer volume of traffic departing LAX. To do this, I used some of the same techniques that I use to photograph architecture, mostly simple pen-tooling and layer masking. The crazy thing is that the first image was originally supposed to just be a proof-of-concept to see if the idea had any legs. I put it on the internet as kind of a “hey, check this little thing out that I did, it’s kind of cool” and it just went crazy viral.
Indeed it did. I must’ve seen it shared a dozen times a day on my timeline for a week after it was initially posted. It stills shows up at least a couple of times a month. So how did this single image turn into a series?
The inspiration behind the entire set of images was somewhat simple given the success of the original. I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder, and I knew the idea had legs, so it was sort of something that had to be done. There are a ton of amazing airports, airlines, and airplanes out there that I wanted to photograph, so the plan was set in motion to try and capture as many as possible.
Since I’m obsessed with airplanes, travel, and seeing new places, it was also a great excuse to get me out of my comfort zone a little bit. At the time I started the project, I had been photographing architecture for about five years straight and a break was in order, so it was also a nice change of pace!
The initial idea was to capture aircraft movements over a set time at some of the world’s most well-known airports, in a style similar to my first LAX image. This proved to be very difficult for a number of reasons which I initially didn’t realize at first. LAX made everything super easy for me – with an observation point that had a perfect view of the airport and the sun in the perfect spot throughout an entire day.
Not the case at every airport! So the first thing I had to do, was in some cases, literally spend days driving and walking around perimeter roads to find the best spot, which is often uncharted territory. Even though plane spotting is pretty popular, I had to look a bit past the well-known or designated spots to find a location that would work well.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, etc.
With the security concerns surrounding airports over the past couple of decades, securing access to some of them must’ve been difficult. Mike told DIYP about some of the challenges he faced, and how he overcame them.
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 – it helped a lot to have connections for that one. I’ve taught workshops at Gulf Photo Plus for a few years and have a great network of friends there as a result, who ‘knew someone who knew someone’ who were able to make it happen.
Same with Auckland. I made that image from otherwise inaccessible airport land, and it helped to have connections from previous projects. Surprisingly, I wasn’t questioned at any airport when I photographed from public land either, and believe me, I definitely used some, shall I say, interesting locations.
Mike told us a about the equipment he used on the original LAX shot, what he learned, and how his technique has evolved since then.
Once I had my spot and the weather and everything else in place, it was time to shoot the pictures. My biggest regret with the original LAX image was that it was shot with a Canon 6D, only 20 megapixels, yet I had a ton of requests for large prints and the 20mp didn’t hold up that well. Like I said, it was supposed to be a proof of concept!
So for the actual project I made sure to have plenty of megapixels for printing large. I used either a Pentax 645z or a Canon 5DS-R, and in addition to using those high megapixel cameras, I actually pano-stitched many of the images. So the resulting files in some cases are well over 100mp, which can handle printing huge, which I’m really happy about. On many of them you can zoom in so far that you can read the registration on the aircraft and see people’s faces in the windows.
Using a higher resolution camera and stitching multiple shots together certainly makes sense if you need to print huge sizes. It’s interesting the number of issues that stitching can resolve. Whether printing large, simulating a larger format camera, or overcoming the minimum focal length of your lens to create panoramics, it’s a useful technique.
Stitching isn’t always easy, though, especially when you have this many photos to sift through, shot at different times of the day. Mike went into some depth on his post processing techniques with us.
Post production was also pretty tough. Using Lightroom, I’d do basic color and exposure correction, and then I’d select a background plate. Next, I’d stack all of the images with aircraft masked 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!
For each plane that you see in the final images, I actually had 10-15 shots of each as it passed from left-to-right through the frame (or right to left, etc), and I selected the best image of each plane depending on how it fit best in the frame. It was important to me that I keep everything realistic whenever possible, so I wanted to have as many options as possible to make sure I could give each image movement and color. Kind of hard to explain in text, but it was very tedious!
After I had all my planes in place, it was a matter of matching the brightness, color, and doing global adjustments like color grading and contrast. Some of the Photoshop files have hundreds of layers to make this possible. I think a few of the files were anywhere from 12-16gb in size.
It’s a fantastic and intriguing set of images. What went into creating them is just as interesting as the images themselves. Here are more of Mike’s images from this series.
Thank you, Mike, for sharing your work, time and insight with us. Hopefully this isn’t the end of this project, and we’ll continue to see it grow around the world.
You can find out more about Mike and his work on his website. If you want to hang some of these images on your own walls, you can purchase prints here. To keep up with Mike’s work and adventures, you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram, or reach out to him through Twitter. Images used with permission.