Creating Compelling B&W Aerial Images in Backlit Situations

For a bit over a year now, I have been taking regular flights over the city of Los Angeles, photographing the city from a helicopter. I get a lot of questions about how I'm editing the images to get the look and feel that I am, and the answer is actually quite simple. Using only carefully considered exposures and Lightroom adjustments, I've come up with a consistent and somewhat unique look for the project.

In contrast to Dani Diamond's method of underexposing images then correcting them in post, I deliberately overexpose to pick up as much shadow detail as possible, while at the same time being careful to not blow out any part of the image. I find that this allows me more latitude in post, expoiting the raw file as much as possible, to get both deep and detailed blacks, all the while retaining highlight detail in the brightest parts of the image. Being that LA sits right on the pacific ocean and is constantly bombarded with direct sun, this method has proven to be extremely helpful for retaining all of the detail that makes these images so interesting to me. 

To see more images from the project, check out my LA Aerials page on my website, and be sure to check out the upcoming Fstoppers Workshops, where I'll be teaching all about how I shoot and giving talks on my personal work.


Mike Kelley's picture

Michael Kelley ( is a Los Angeles-based architectural and fine art photographer with a background in digital art and sculpture. Using his backgrounds in the arts, he creates images that are surreal and otherworldly, yet lifelike and believable. A frequent traveler, Michael's personal work focuses on the built environment of unique

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"I deliberately overexpose to pick up as much shadow detail as possible, while at the same time being careful to not blow out any part of the image."

To me, this just means properly exposing the photograph. Lovely images.

Aaron, while what you're saying holds some truth, watching the video reveals that Mike is deliberately overexposing these images by quite a large amount.

Just saw one of Mike's photos in a full 2 page spread for Dwell Magazine's current issue. Congrats Mike!

Thanks EP! Funny that you recognized it :) Appreciate it!

Thanks Mike for sharing! I am a fan of these aerial photos!

Aaron and Brethorst, I believe that's ETTR (expose to the right) on Canon. Images on Canon sensors and Digic processors retain more in highlights than in shadows (can't lift them as well as on the Sony sensors) or something like that.

Canon sensors simply have lower dynamic range than Nikon (Sony) sensors. Digital files, by their nature, have more available information in the highlights than anywhere else. Canons simply lack shadow information.

Mike. I love your work, both aerial and architectural. I bought your course for architectural photography and find it very good as I would like to explore that market more. On the other hand, I am about to publish my first aerial photography book this spring. If you have a chance to comment my aerial pics that would be cool. You can find some of my pictures there:

some real stunners there Laurent!

Beautiful stuff Laurent!!

Awesome work Mike! This series has actually made me want to give Aerial photography a try this year, just a matter of finding the best deal or a flight buddy to split the cost XD Have you thought of doing some aerial photography while you are in the Bahamas for the Fstoppers workshop?