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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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.

Mike Kelley's picture

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.

jeff calbom's picture

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.

jeff calbom's picture

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.

Patrick Hall's picture

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.

Mike Kelley's picture

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.

Mike Kelley's picture

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.

Matthew Odom's picture

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

I assisted Mike on a big architectural shoot and let me say that his technique is bar none one of the best that I've seen in person. He really has his technique down pat! If you're serious about learning architectural photography, I highly learning from him!

Oh My Goodness. please bring the dvd out ASAP.
I skipped on the wedding dvd because of the price but as an architecture student at uni, this would really help with my architectural photography unit I'm planning to do next semester!
perfect example of what I wanted to learn!
Thank you Mike and Fstoppers!

Paul, When you say "at uni" are you saying Univ of Northern Iowa?

no haha I live in Australia. I'm guessing you study there? :)

How easy/hard would it be to use this technique - 1 trigger and flash, but have the results recorded by 2 cameras with different compositions at the same time? Obviously the flash wouldn't then be on TTL, but if you know that the light source 4ft from the walls provides the kind of light you want - it should be fine to use that way...... Any thoughts?

Jaron Schneider's picture

I'm not sure what you're asking... do you mean you want to capture the same shot from two angles? So cut your shooting time in half, but still intend to composite later? If so, I think you could probably do it without too much trouble.

1 shot framed as per the video, another shot framed from a completely different angle - say from the opposite side of the pool. 2 shots at twilight, on the one day. There would still be plenty of comp work for each of the shot sequences of course, but you'd be able to both angles at once.

Jaron Schneider's picture

I think you could do it for sure, but it would take more hustle. Right now Mike uses CamRanger, so if you wanted to do that too you would need to have two running at the same time to two different iPhones/iPads. Otherwise you'd be running around back and forth to each camera to verify the light is where you want it. Unless CamRanger can run two cameras at the same time, which I'm not sure if it can.

Is it me, or is there no audio on this video?

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