My Photo Went Viral, And Nothing Could Have Prepared Me For What Happened After

My Photo Went Viral, And Nothing Could Have Prepared Me For What Happened After

A little bit over a week ago, I went to Los Angeles International Airport to make a photo. It was a clear day, and I didn't want to waste it sitting inside. Being an aviation fan myself, as well as an occasional pilot and aerial photographer, watching planes, to me, is hardly the worst way to pass the time. As it turns out, making this photo would lead to one of the craziest weeks of my entire life.

The finished photo, named "Wake Turbulence," has been on NBC, NY Daily News, Fox, The Daily Mail, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, KTLA, The Atlantic, Fast Company, Gizmodo, and too many other international news outlets to count. It's been stolen, bought, I'm sure sold, and generally abused by the entire internet at this point. It was on the front page of reddit for a good day and a half, and completely overwhelmed my inbox. I've been called a terrorist, an awful photographer, a Photoshop hack, a genius, I've made a pilot tear up, I've gotten calls from reps and agents looking to work with me, I've gotten calls from aircraft manufacturers and airports to shoot for them, and about a thousand other awesome (and horrible) things.

From east to west, local and foreign... From east to west, local and foreign...


Here's the story of how the image was conceived, built, and how it spread through the internet.

In the beginning...
Most people know me as an architectural photographer; as I've been making a living in the genre for most of my post-collegiate life, and have been writing and teaching on the topic for awhile now. I had been toying with the idea of making this image after seeing a similar photo by Ho-Yeol Ryu which explores a comparable theme, though was not shot over a single day at one airport.  I knew that there were a few airports in the world that could naturally create such an image, and LAX was one of them. With countless international and domestic departures every day, there was no reason that I wouldn't be able to make an awesome image that realistically showed an entire day's worth of airplane traffic at LAX.

So, this image was in my head for a bit, but I needed the perfect conditions to pull it off, so there it sat, collecting cobwebs in my brain.

March 31st, 2014: months, or even years, after I had initially planted the seed, I woke up to miraculously clear conditions and a somehow wide-open calendar. If you've ever been to LA, you know that there's either smog or a marine layer constantly over the city. If there's no smog, there's a marine layer, and if there's no marine layer, there's smog. So when I saw that I could see forever in every direction, I knew I had to take advantage of the day. For some reason, my brain decided that today was the day, and it got me out of bed in time to rush over to LAX to find the spot to pull this off.

I had originally planned on stay there for only a few hours, but when I began to see the progress that I was making and just how cool this image would turn out to be, I ended up staying there for far longer. 6, 7, 8 hours later and I'm horribly sunburned and starving, but had what I considered to be an incredible set of images that I could use to build the final piece. I remember how excited I was looking at all the planes on my rear LCD, scrolling through them with my camera's thumbwheel created a sort of timelapse of all the takeoffs that got my heart veritably pumping (alright, we've confirmed that I'm a true dork...)

From humble beginnings... From humble beginnings...

I returned home and began to work on the image, which turned out to be both incredibly simple and incredibly complicated at the same time. Using the pen tool and the same techniques that I teach in my tutorial 'Where Art Meets Architecture,' I began putting the final image together piece-by-piece. Cut, paste, copy, duplicate, nudge, merge, curves, saturation, scale, it went on and on. Like I said, I wanted to make a realistic representation of the activity at LAX, so I was sure to keep the planes in their takeoff configuration. Pitch angle, altitude, etc, all remained relatively accurate to what you would see if you went to LAX and watched the takeoffs.

The Picture Goes Live...

After I finished the shot, I posted it, at 2000px resolution, without a watermark or any identification other than my reddit username to a small community of aviation fans as sort of a 'hey, check this out!' I had no expectations whatsoever that this would get anything more than a few comments and a 'whoa, cool!'. I went to bed on Monday night satisfied that I had created a somewhat interesting image that I might frame for myself, but that was it.

And how incredibly wrong I was. I woke up to see that my image's popularity had skyrocketed; so much so that it had become the 11th most popular item on Reddit for the day and the most popular aviation-related image ever posted on reddit. My email inbox overflowed with requests to use the images on news sites. My facebook wall exploded with people asking 'Mike, is this your picture?!'

I was getting calls at all hours of the day from every corner of the globe. Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, New York. I attempted to sleep that second night but the excitement was too much for me, as I'm already a light sleeper to begin with. I just stayed up and continued to answer emails and calls, providing anyone who needed an interview with an interview, trying to negotiate rates for publication, knowing that it wouldn't last forever.

After a horrible night's sleep, I was back at it again. I was contacted by an agency who agreed to sell and license the image on my behalf, which took some stress off of my back. They've since put the image in so many more places than I could have imagined - and gotten me paid for it. Trying to bill publications for the use of the image was just insane. And to those of you wondering, yes, many of the larger online publications are happy to pay you for original unique imagery when you ask them!

But that's not even the fun part...

Sure, the media attention, coverage, and money was (and continues to be) great. I loved it all. But what's even cooler is that I have been contacted by people, companies, and organizations that I never expected that I'd be in touch with. Airports, local and abroad, have contacted me with an interest in hiring me to do work for them. Airplane manufacturers and leasing companies have been in touch. I've already been granted access to places I never, ever thought that I could get (on the ramp at LAX? The control tower? You kiddin' me?! Nope!) and I have set up plans with a few of these companies and airports to create more images similar to 'Wake Turbulence.' This image truly has created opportunities that I never thought possible.

Showing prints to LAX Showing prints to LAX

So how and why exactly did this image go so 'viral'?

I have some ideas, but to be honest I'm not 100% sure. I think it comes down to a few things. First, I posted it to reddit, a site known for spawning some of the web's most viral images, stories, and videos. If something is posted to reddit and gets traction, it will be picked up by news sites around the world and propogated throughout the web.

But you can't just "post something to reddit" and have it show up on the front page of the internet the next day. In addition to posting it there, I posted it, for better or worse, without a watermark at a relatively large size of 2000px wide. Now, of course this is going to cause plenty of headaches down the road (and I've got a great lawyer on retainer for when that problem does arise, and believe me it already has). The reason I think this is so important is that people just aren't going to share images with a watermark plastered across them. The internet, and its userbase as a whole, hate advertising. Watermarks get in the way of the image, and for some reason, whether psychological or otherwise, it seems that people are more likely to share content without a watermark. Imagine listening to a song and halfway through the song it faded out and someone said 'by the way, purchase this track on itunes! It's by So and So!' Yeah. That would be annoying. People are more likely to share content that is easy to share and offers an unimpeded visual experience.

I guess there are two sides to the watermarking and size coin. On one hand, I gave people a huge image that they can look at and enjoy at high resolution. There's plenty of detail. They enjoy that - so they're going to share it. It probably got an incredible amount of eyes on the picture. How many times have you seen an image and thought 'oh, cool, but it's tiny so I can't see anything?' Even our own Fstoppers here can be a culprit of that. There's so much detail in the picture that you can easily get lost looking at it for a few minutes, and releasing it in that high resolution immensely improved the viewing experience because it lets you digest so much more information.

Another reason I think it went so viral is that so many people could identify with it, and as a result it had great global appeal. There are airlines from around the world featured in it, and I was sure to scale back some of the presence of American carriers (single-aisle domestic planes make up the bulk of LAX traffic) so that it would have a more wide-reaching appeal. So many countless people in countries around the world have been bitten by the travel bug - and this image speaks directly to that. Planes going to all corners of the globe in one shot, heading to their home country, or taking them to visit some far-off relatives. The imagination can truly run free.

Combining all these factors with the perfect, bright photography conditions that day, which paint Los Angeles and LAX as a beautiful, global, vibrant and international city really helped this image take off, no pun intended (okay, what else could I have said there?)

Some final thoughts

Honestly, this image has eclipsed everything I have ever done from almost every angle. I am no longer 'Mike Kelley the architecture guy' but to all my friends and relatives, I'm now "the guy that took that one picture of the planes at LAX and was on the news for a bit". I continue to get calls daily about interviewing me or purchasing prints. Every day, someone sends me a link to another news site or feed using the image.

And you know what, to be honest, I don't mind seeing the image get out there. It's opened so many doors for me that I can't even believe it. I have no idea what the future holds for me and aviation photography, but as a long-time passion of mine, I couldn't be more excited to see what opportunities come out of this picture that I accidentally released at high-resolution, sans a watermark.

For those interested in learning the techniques used to create this image, I teach all of them (and more) in my comprehensive tutorial, Where Art Meets Architecture, which was published in collaboration with Fstoppers. In addition, I'll be teaching at the Atlantis Resort in June at the Fstoppers Workshops (and I'm also giving away an entirely free slot at one of my workshops!). Feel free to come on down and pick my brain about anything from architectural photography and airplane photography to being the biggest nerd the photo world's ever seen.

Log in or register to post comments


Congrats on everything. Shows that all it takes is one creative, unique photo to really launch a photographer's career.

Val Volfson's picture

not really unique, there are many like it out there including this one -

The entire time I was reading this story I had this photo in mind. Kept wondering why this old photo suddenly got all this attention. Thanks for reminding me it's not the same photo/guy at all. I was planning to do my own version of this myself, just never got around to it. Too bad.

Mike Kelley's picture

You should probably read the article.

It's amazing the number of people that just comment without reading the article. That's the internet nowadays. It clearly that Ho-Yeol Ryu's photo above was the inspiration for his photo, and that he wanted to make a photo that was more realistic than Ryu's.

Val Volfson's picture

ive read the article - i was simply commenting on this post, how this photo isn't unique in any way... he copied someone elses idea with slight changes - lets put a crown on him? THAT is what's wrong with the internet.

How about he was inspired by someone else's idea - who he gave credit to in the article. He shared it and the internet took it from there. I've known Mike in the RE circles for a few years - he's not looking for a crown.

Wow bitter. He prefaced the article with this was just something he was doing on his off time, he gave credit to the inspiration behind it, and did not attempt to make money or garner fame from the photo. Sounds like a case of jealousy to me.

Except now he's selling prints and cashing in right.

I kinda agree a little, although mikes is more "realistic" with the pitch an altitudes (obviously i know nothing about that stuff, so take mikes word for that) and that is the main difference between his and the original, i don't think that had anything to do with his going viral and the original shooters not.

Its just luck mikes went viral, i can all but guarantee people didn't share it because they seen an airplane that "had business" being at that particular airport, or that their angle of flight was more realistic. It was a case of luck, Ryu's image is every bit as cool, if not more so (i prefer his tbh, with the tilt shift look and deeper colours).

Mike Kelley's picture

Fair points, but I think people will relate more to an image that is more 'real' - people can see and relate to it far more than something that is a completely manufactured scene. It's tangible - which helps people relate, and thus, helps them share, which results in virality.

Just my take on it.

Don't take my comment as a slur Mike, i think your work is amazing, your architecture work is out of this world !!!

What have you done of note? Yea thought so..

Val Volfson's picture

Looked at your posts and saw you made this post 6 days ago "oh god its a reboot mishmash remake!!! CAN NO ONE BE ORIGINAL IN HOLLYWOOD EVERRRRRRR?" - my take on this photo is the exact same position.

Hans Klett's picture

Have you trolled on Tesla's website for making a better looking electric car since it's been done before.

Val Volfson's picture

No I haven't - cars and photographs have nothing to do with one another.

Hans Klett's picture

Ahh...I see. So what about National Geographic? Seems like there are lots of similar photographs among the many editions. What about 500px? I see so many similar images there. Is it not ok to take inspiration from someone else? Mike's version of the image is incredibly unique. He took a good idea and made it significantly better. If there are only 2 of something in the world that counts as innovative and unique in my book but I'm done wasting my time with you. A wise man once told me to never get in an argument with an idiot as they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.

Val Volfson's picture

no one is arguing with you...

I agree with everything except the significantly better part, and that's no knock on Mike. The images are just two different things. When I saw the Homato work I was struck by how beautifully the planes resembled a flock of pigeons. Mike's image had a different goal and a different message, but Homato's incredible body of work is equally deserving of attention. Thanks to Mike for including the link to the image, but do yourselves a favor and check out the rest of the site while you're there. Stunning stuff!

Hans Klett's picture

That's the beauty of art. It speaks to people on all levels and usually triggers a love, hate or meh response. There are cherished works of art out there that make me scratch my head but I value everyone's opinion. I personally would hang Mike's image over the other one as it's just cleaner and more visually interesting to me but that's just my own preference. Both works are very creative and unique. I know I shouldn't use that word as it will fire up DaVolf again but his position is quite clear. Everything has been done before so nothing is unique. What a sad view of the world.

Well said Hans. Everyone views art differently, and that's what makes it so special.

Mike Kelley's picture

Hans, great reply and thanks much for the kind words! Art is what it is - nobody is forcing anyone to like it. I love that the piece is so divisive, I love how art can be such a topic of conversation and get so many pepole engaged.

Say that to the Luxury 4 Play Photography guys...

it is unique, because it's actually realistic

The point was that he linked this same photo in the article (3rd link of the "In the beginning..." paragraph), and therefore it looked silly that you said there are many like it out there including this one.

Val Volfson's picture

yes thank you for pointing out my shortcomings. I appreciate it. My position on the photo stands.

Maybe people wouldn't be so quick to point out your shortcomings if you weren't so quick to point out others' shortcomings. I doubt anyone really cares much about your position at all, and even less that it stands.

Val Volfson's picture

This is a public forum for discussion - I am discussing. Thank you for your feedback.

You're welcome! Glad you took it to heart.

Luckily for you only a small percentage of your shortcomings are transparent online.....just my insignificant observation.