FS Original: Mike Kelley Shows the Secrets to Shooting Architectural Images

It's been a while since we've released an Fstoppers original video, so today we want to take you behind the scenes with Mike Kelley. If you've been following Fstoppers then you know he's been a writer with us for a while and is also one of the most talented architectural photographers in the country. Mike's workflow and style is truly incredible and the amount of hours he spends on creating just one image is - as cheesy as it sounds - a work of art.

Back in July, Lee Patrick and I had the pleasure of spending an entire month with Mike to produce his upcoming DVD tutorial which will be released by the end of this year (so be sure to put it on your Christmas list!). After WPPI 2013, we headed to Scottsdale, Arizona to film Mike "doin' his thing." It's crazy to think he used to be a professional snowboarder turned professional photographer. We spent two days filming and talking about his process. While he shot and put together multiple images for this client, Mike calls the most important image of a shoot the "twilight image." If you're an architectural photographer or looking to get started, this is the one image that you must know how to master.


As Mike will tell you, a lot of architectural photography is moving furniture and waiting until you have that perfect 5 minute window. Once he's got everything ready to go, he'll take a speedlight on a monopod and go around and flash several different details of the exterior. Once he's finished, all of those images get put into one image and we're going to show you how he does it. If this original and the DVD isn't enough, or you just want to meet Mike and see how charming he is in person, then head over to our Fstoppers workshop website and sign up to learn from him hands-on in the Bahamas in May 2014. Mike has also put together a complete gear guide of every single thing he uses to create his amazing images.

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OOOOO Can't wait for the DVD! I hope it's not 1000 bucks. =) Love Mikes work, very inspirational.

For you? $999. Kidding, we plan on $300 like our other two. The exciting thing for me about this product is that its so specific and nobody is doing it so you could take the technique, book just one job and pay for it on the first day. Every other genre of photography is so saturated right now but there are only a handful of photogs in the world that can do work like this.

Ouch! What about for us loyal fans who don't troll and have purchased other products from you guys in the past? WINK WINK! I smell a hell of a coupon code in my inbox straight from Lee! =)

As always we will take care of those who have purchased from us in the past by giving you guys a coupon code and access to purchase the product before anyone else :)

what about coupons for people who never purchased your products because they are still sceptical because of the price, or people who go to university, or people who celebrate easter?;)

Gah, I wish I had the talent and patience of Mike...

I just found 2 days ago an Artike about Mikes work on the http://strobist.blogspot.com/2011/09/mike-kelley-two-speedlight.html awsome work.

Thanks for sharing, Phily! Fun to look back at that article. Still the same technique, but very refined now.

Brilliant tutorial! Thanks so much Mike and fstoppers!

You're welcome Nicholas!

GREAT! Thank you!

Thanks Shannon! You're welcome.

Great video! Informative, well paced, and a great example. Mike, you're a pro on camera and behind it!

What an amazing amount of work that goes into his photos, but the results are spectacular!

Thanks, Ian! Glad you like it :)



Congrats to Lauren for filming and editing her first Fs original completely by herself.

She did a great job!

I've clicked on the link to the video but just get an error message.

It's great to see an artist putting real light into use to help accentuate architectural nuances, at a time when many others settle for the HDR treatment. Mike, out of curiosity, how long would you say does it take you to style, frame, light, and edit a shot like this? Thanks again for sharing your insight. I'm sure you've heard this before, but the results are top-notch.

New York | San Diego

Hi Michael, thanks for the kind words! This shot sorta worked like this:

Choose composition: 10-20 minutes (6pm)
Stage and style - 30 minutes (6:20-6:50)
Begin shooting, add flash, continue shooting all the way until dark: probably a good hour or so (7:00-8:00pm)
Strike and load out: 30 minutes (8:15-8:45pm)
Post for this shot was pretty complicated. I would say a good six hours. I played around with it a lot to get the look I desired.

What I'm curious about is, what your fee is per hero view? I'm guessing not all potential clients have the budget for all this production. I appreciate your amount of effort for the final image though! I used to do interiors with layers masks and RAW smart objects, either with house only lighting, or also supplementing with Arri fresnels. But the clients don't seem to want to pay for all the work involved, so I had to evolve. Maybe I need to find higher paying clients, or expect less.

Depends on the job, really. It's rare that I'm shooting JUST a hero shot without some sort of other work going on that day or location. The right clients are out there, it's just a matter of referrals and finding the people who are after this kind of work.

you could probably get all the same detail out of a single D800 file rather than that 1Dx or 1Ds3. just D&B the highlights in.

That's what is unique about Mike's process....he is adding light that is not there in the scene. You can't create his type of images with HDR, dodge and burn, or bracketed compositing alone....it simply won't work. We are about to release a full multi hour tutorial showcasing Mike's entire workflow so you will be able to see just how different an image looks that has been "HDR'd" vs "Mike Kelley'd"

i'm not talking about HDR; i'm talking about D&B. I'm pretty sure I could get it looking very close, if not identical. You just need a file that can hold up to D&B without showing artifacts.

A lot of what Mike does requires directional light which would obviously be impossible with just dodging and burning but I'd love to see someone attempt this genre of shooting all in post. I'm sure you could still create a killer shot if you are patient enough.

The point isn't to add brightness alone. The texture, depth, shadow, and color that flash brings out of an object cannot be rivaled by dodging and burning. Otherwise, I would be dodging and burning!

Light is a much more powerful tool than many give it credit for. Think of it this way - sure, you can dodge and burn a model's face, but would you want to shoot a portrait in flat lighting and just dodge and burn everything in post to make it look good? Wouldn't you prefer to add some rim lighting, play with modifiers, different ratios? Light adds so much!

Is this final image intended as architectural for a magazine, or as a promo pic for a high end home sale? If It's intended for a magazine - it's brilliant. If it's intended as an advertising image, then I have some minor issues with the adding of false flames into a gas fireplace and cloning out the other building.

I believe this was taken for an architect so it just shows what the builder is capable of building. That's why removing the house in the background isn't a big deal because it doesn't affect the craftsmanship of the builder. However, if this were a real estate image for listing agent then yes, it might be unethical to remove things that are infact in that view.

I am architect and found disturbing the cloning of the house in the landscape background, because that building is part of the landscape, it is a true, deleting it would be lying. But this is not the case because the client wasn't an architect but a builder, so the emphasis was in the craft of the building and not in the architecture (that have to include in my point of view the honesty of see how the architect resolved the relation of the home with the natural and artificial environment).
Said that I think I would preferred that the home in the background was unfocused and not deleted, but that is just a personal taste and the work of the photographer and the builder is very nice.

It's for a custom home builder. I find it interesting that you would have a problem with altering the image for advertising purposes. I'm looking to show the work in the best way possible, and adding a fire and removing a large home that was a distraction in the back does that. The builder isn't trying to sell the land or the house, he's just trying to show the work that he does in the best way that he can. No need to show someone else's house in the background to do so.

My issue would have been if this, exact property was the one intending to be advertised and sold - as in a high end real estate shot (I chose my words poorly the first time). If it's for the builder, showing off his work, the removal of the other distracting home isn't a problem (and the flames in the fireplace become a minor thing then).

Sorry for the dumb question, but how did you seamlessly remove yourself from dozens of frames without a trace?

You simply highlight the part of the image that is "lit" and delete the rest of the image (which would contain mike). It's actually incredibly easy and quick and Mike goes over it in detail in this "DVD" which I am currently putting the finishing touches on

Yeah, I did think of that briefly but then I though if the entire session lasts 5 to 10 minutes, my ambient exposure would change slightly during twilight which tends to happen pretty fast, the sky would darken slightly as well... I might end up with a collection of "slices" that I'd need to match... but thanks Lee. I'd be interested in the DVD. as always appreciated.

If you look he feathers the edges of the "lit" parts so they blend.

Ahh cool, thank you.

The magic is in the blending mode. If you use a "lighten" layer - the blending can take only seconds. You still want to be careful when masking, but the blending mode is the secret sauce.

Great stuff Mike. Just wondering why the need for the PW Plus III's for triggering when the CamRanger app can trigger the shutter?

He's currently at a shoot so I'll respond for him on this. I believe in the video he was talking about using wizards to trigger the camera if you don't use the CamRanger. The editing made it confusing. Keep in mind you still have to have a pocket wizard on the camera that triggers the flash in his hand even if you do use the cam ranger.

Okay that makes since. Yes, definitely knew the other set of PW's was needed.

It's amazing how people change over time. I remember just a few years ago when Mike was arguing with me at POTN about how architectural photographers don't need TS lenses.

Everyone adapts to find easier ways to accomplish the same thing. We filmed with Mike for a week over the summer and while he used them a lot, he didn't actually use the tilt feature all that much.

Tilt isn't necessarily all that important when working with 21mm and shorter lenses in architecture. It starts to matter more with 24mm lenses and longer. I don't know what kind of gear he uses but that's just my experience.

I still don't think you need them at all to create good images. Just makes life a hell of a lot easier in tough situations (and gives you a lot more breathing room in the easy situations!)

I wouldn't want to go back to shooting without them but I could still create good pictures using conventional lenses, I am positive of that much.

I'm certain that it's possible to take great pictures with a shoebox camera and a pinhole lens, but that's besides the point...

The point is that the profession of architectural photography existed before you decided to throw your hat into the ring. There are certain bare minimum standards (like shooting with perspective control) that you should respect.

What do you make of someone like Iwan Baan who regularly shoots without tilt shift lenses, disregards straight verticals, and often shoots architecture in a documentary style? He is probably one of the most published architectural photographers today and his work speaks to the minds of the world's top architects, all while disrespecting the so called bare minimum standards.

Again, I stress that while tilt shift/perspective control lenses are an important tool that can open a lot of creative doors and compositional possibilities, they aren't completely necessary for creating good images of architecture. Neither are a truckload of lights, or a full-frame camera. Nothing is really necessary to create compelling images besides a camera and a lens. It's going to be a bit harder, sure, but not impossible. If your work satisfies the needs of the client, or fulfills your creative vision, then it is a success, regardless of how it was made. I've delivered plenty of images shot on non-pc lenses to happy clients who are none the wiser - either because I fixed it in post or worked around the limitations imposed on me.

"There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs..."

When a typical tourist visits Las Vegas and takes a snapshot of the Bellagio from somewhere nearby and on ground level then the picture is going to portray the hotel as "keystoning." The perspective distortion wasn't done on purpose and it wasn't a creative decision on the part of the point-n-shooter because he never understood perspective control in the first place. Any deviations in his photographs are due to pure ignorance rather than creative expression.

If a professional architectural photographer makes a creative decision to distort perspective then that is only possible because he recognizes that there is a correct way to portray perspective in the first place. In other words, rules (or minimum standards) must be understood prior to any possibility of consciously breaking them.

Any photographer that creates an image while disregarding minimum standards cannot justifiably claim to have made the decisions as a form of creative expression. On the contrary, he can only reasonably claim that they were made out of naivety and ignorance.

YES!!! I'm so ready for this DVD...

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