Israel: The Most Incredible Photo Destination You've Never Thought Of

Israel: The Most Incredible Photo Destination You've Never Thought Of

Back in February of this year, I was invited on a trip that I had never expected to go on. Kinetis, a non-profit based in Israel, invited myself and five other incredible photographers to travel to Israel to document and share what we found. To be honest, Israel was never a travel destination for me.  I have always been drawn to colder climates, I’m not a very religious person, and frankly I just don’t really know enough about the country for it to have ever held any power over me. It never really made great sense to me as a photographic destination either, nestled between sparring countries and set amidst a relatively barren desert.

But alas, who am I to turn down a free trip to a far-off destination?  I knew it would be an adventure and that is something that I’m always up for. So in the beginning of May, I packed up my bags and got ready to fly the 17 hours from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv.

Who, exactly, is Kinetis?

Good question - and one that I had as well! Since I’m always slightly skeptical of anyone who wants to fly my crazy self around the world for work, I quickly learned that Kinetis is  a non-profit based in Israel who wants to show the world a different side of the country. Not just what you see on TV, or what you hear about in the news, but they want to show the world the incredibly interesting day-to-day of Israel, the thriving artistic culture, the modern and cutting edge technology, and the beauty and character that often gets overlooked by the western media. They often bring bloggers and opinion makers to the country and show them what the media isn't covering. In the past, they've had wine bloggers, architecture bloggers, art bloggers, motherhood bloggers, technology bloggers, etc, and this round, it was time to invite some photography bloggers. I'm going to take this moment here to also mention that Kinetis did not pay me to write anything, nor did they stipulate that I had to write anything at any time. They just wanted people to share honest opinions of Israel, whether as they were traveling or after the fact and it had all settled in. 

Who else was going?

As I mentioned, I wasn’t alone on this trip. With me were Rebecca Litchfield, one of the most prominent Urban Exploration photographers anywhere, Adam Lerner, a highly successful NYC-based commercial photographer, Jared Polin, all around character and owner of, Simon Pollock of Digital Photography School, and Ben Von Wong of, well, VonWong fame. It was definitely a very unique bunch, and between us we had quite a varied skillset, well poised to capture everything that we could. In addition, we were led around by the guys from Israel Geographic, who scouted locations and arranged permits where necessary to let us get the shots we wanted, and the local knowledge was invaluable in a foreign country that I'd never been to before.

Being that I am an architectural photographer, I’m going to cover my travels from that point of view. I was often out on my own trying to capture some admittedly crazy shots while the rest of the group enjoyed a dinner or the beach, but on the upside I feel that my somewhat lone-ranger approach to this type of shooting lent me a great insight to experiencing the country as a photographer on my own.  Sadly, I did get to miss a few of the bigger dinner events and group tours, but like I said, I really feel that I got a bit of a different view so I think its worth mentioning.

On the road

Being that I would be flying from LA to Tel Aviv, then from Tel Aviv to Iceland, then from Iceland for two weeks and lastly to the Bahamas to teach at the first ever Fstoppers workshop, I had to pack as light as I realistically could so I wouldn’t be killing myself schlepping tons of gear all over the world. I opted to bring three lenses: a 17mm TS, 24mm TS, and a 24-105 F4L. I eventually caved and decided that I ought to bring my Fuji x100s, as well, in an effort to still make photos when I wasn’t feeling up to carrying all that stuff around. In my checked luggage, one flash, some pocketwizards, and a huge tripod.

I initially landed in Tel Aviv with Ben Wong around 10pm, (minus my luggage, which somehow got held up in Turkey...another rant for another day) and we were whisked off to Jerusalem to get settled for the first night. Since I was naturally entirely unable to sleep and all my gear was held up in god-knows-where, I woke up pretty early the next day and took my newly-purchased Fuji X100s out for some test shots and to get a feel of the city. Since it was the day after the Israeli independence day celebrations and everyone was probably sleeping off their hangovers, it was eerily quiet and made for some interesting shots of an empty city that’s usually bustling with people and cars.

So it begins...

We had made plans to be led around the old city of Jerusalem, so after waking up and attempting to shake off the jet lag, we all met up and began to explore a bit. Thankfully it was around this time that my luggage showed up and I was able to start thinking about making some pictures. If you’re not familiar with the old city of Jerusalem, let me set the stage a little bit for you. It is utterly chaotic, moving, historic, beautiful, ugly and fascinating all at the same time. As a result of this, it really makes for some incredible photography. Kitschy merchandise everywhere, mere feet from some of the most historic and revered sites on planet Earth, mixed in with an incredibly eclectic and diverse group of people bringing it all together. Not to mention a thousand new smells which permeated every street and building from all of the open air markets and street food vendors. There’s a very unique energy here, something I haven’t experienced in extensive travels through Europe, North America, and Oceania.  

Old City, Jerusalem - Full of energy and life

Jerusalem rooftops

Jerusalem open-air market

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. One of the most interesting subjects I have ever shot, and one of my more ambitious light painted projects, with thousands of people pushing and pulling to get around underneath the frame. At least nobody would steal the camera ;)

After 48 hours exploring Jerusalem, it was off to the Dead Sea. Unfortunately (or, rather interestingly) we experienced what I’ll refer to as absolutely Biblical rainstorms. Apparently it rains basically never around these parts - and our guides and fellow photographers were left equally perplexed. Thunder and lightning, fire and brimstone. Seriously. Roads were washed out, trees knocked over, and plans cancelled. I was scheduled to shoot some incredible ruins at Sunset (Masada, if you’re familiar) but sadly we had to cancel those plans. Many other group members got skunked on their shoots too - but, in the end, I think we came out with some interesting alternatives.

Post-rainstorm at the Dead Sea...quite ominous, calm, yet interesting.

I ended up hiking up the side of the plateau on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea, where I had been informed that there were some Byzantine-era ruins. I could only see a tiny speck of what may have been some crumbling rocks, but after about an hour’s worth of hiking made incredibly difficult by a combination of jet lag and travel flu (with tripods and lights slung over my shoulders, mind you) I was greeted by something that was actually incredibly interesting. Not that I should have expected any less from this region, but I was pretty bummed about our rain predicament. Anyway - things shaped up quite nicely for my impromptu shoot, and I was lucky enough to create this image of what I later found was a flour mill on the edge of the Dead Sea. Used from around 200AD until 700AD, this mill was a stopping-off point on journeys that travelers made through these parts. Set near the tiny oasis of Ein Gedi, water ran down from the plateau above and to the right of us, and provided the power to mill the flour for much of the region.

Ruins of a Byzantine-era mill on the shores of the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi. A pretty grueling hike in incredibly humid, hot weather with a full-size tripod, monolight, and cameras. Quite happy with the spur of the moment shot, though!

After a slightly harrowing hike back down, and noticing the somewhat ominous clouds still overhead, we made the decision to forego our planned camping and head back to Tel Aviv. While slightly disappointed, I was also excited as I knew there were plenty of locations in Tel Aviv that I wanted to see and photograph and I’d be happy to have the jump start on it.

Back to the city

Waking up to (finally!) blue skies and great weather, we hit some of Tel Aviv’s historic Jaffa waterfront. While for me this wasn’t a photographic hotspot due to time of day and lighting issues, it was still very interesting to walk around and take some snapshots. One of the things I found most fascinating about Israel is the juxtaposition of new and old architecture (of course, I am the architectural photographer guy after all!) Everywhere you looked there was a building that was either millennia-old or built within the last few years - and if it wasn’t, it was built in one of many local styles - including the recent Bauhaus style - of which Tel Aviv is the largest practitioner in the world. This, of course, leads to plenty of opportunities for creating some great architectural photography. Just walking around the city allows you to create an amazingly diverse set of photos.

Modern architecture on Rothschild Blvd, denizens enjoying the calm downtown area

And if you ever get sick of cities, you’re in luck - Tel Aviv has one of the greatest beaches I’ve ever been to. Easily accessible and bursting with photographic opportunity. Most of the group took took a few opportunities to shoot models while I (of course) tended to the architectural side of things. I was hellbent on capturing the beautiful golden light over the Mediterranean, and was lucky enough to be able to get my hands on a Gigapan Epic Pro to make a couple of Gigapan images which show the scale and diversity of the city.

The Gigapans of Tel Aviv

If you're not familar with what a 'Gigapan' is, let me explain. It's a machine that mounts on a standard tripod and takes hundreds of photos of a given scene at a long focal length, in order to capture as much detail as possible. It pans side to side and up and down, capturing everything and then later, seamlessly stitching it all together to create an image that is in some cases over a thousand megapixels in size (really damn huge!). You can then zoom around and check out details that would be impossible to capture using traditional methods. 

I am by no means a Gigapan expert, but my feeble attempts with the technology still yielded some great results. Both of the images below are clickable and will bring you to the Gigapan site, where you can zoom around and see everything in great detail. Many thanks to PhotoTeva for setting me up with the gear for this!

Having never used the Gigapan before, I was quite impressed at its capabilities! Tel Aviv made a great subject for this kind of thing, with so much going on between the city and the beach below.  I was absolutely astounded at the level of detail this thing produced, even while only using a 200mm lens on a full-frame camera to control vibrations and shake. Unfortunately we were on a wooden rooftop which kinda nixed my plans to take a twilight as everything was swaying like crazy in the wind, but I did get some neat golden-hour shots which hopefully show off some of what Tel Aviv has on tap. To be completely honest, it reminds me of Los Angeles, but...well, better. Less traffic, kinder people, and better beaches! Of course this is a simple way of looking at it, but really, I can’t sum it up any other way. It’s an absolutely incredible beach city with plenty of things to see and photograph.

Rothschild Blvd architecture

Beachfront park in Tel Aviv

Old and new in Tel Aviv - a city constantly growing and modernizing

Full of life at sunset

Pre-sunset surfing on the shores of Tel Aviv

While in Tel Aviv, we had the pleasure of meeting some extraordinary photographers who call the city home. Ziv Koren, a world-renowned photojournalist and Canon ambassador gave us a seriously cool tour of the studio and an incredible pep talk. He regaled us with amazing stories and told of his access to Canon gear that I'm pretty sure had us all hyperventilating with excitement. At Tel Aviv's Google branch, Jared/FroKnowsPhoto gave a very well attended talk to a few hundred Tel Aviv based photographers (check it out here) which had us all laughing and periodically tossing in our candid advice.

But for yours truly, one of the highlights was a great tour of the city by one of Tel Aviv's most well-known architectural photographers, Ilan Nachum, who's guidance and advice are responsible for probably half of the good pictures in this post. When the growth and expansion of the city is explained by someone who has been on the ground making photos there for most of his adult life, everything comes together wonderfully. I was able to get some great shots that would have definitely not been possible otherwise.

Linear panorama of Tel Aviv industrial district, which unfortunately is not done justice by web resolution. Shot by walking about 150ft with Fuji x100s to create distortion-free wide angle image

On the last day of the trip, I made it my mission to photograph some of the cutting-edge architecture compared to some of the older architecture of the city in one go. Starting off in the port of Jaffa, I used a Mamiya/Leaf Credo 80 setup that was graciously provided for the days’ project. Jaffa is a bit frenetic, just like Jerusalem - street vendors, prayer groups, and lots of commotion, which made for (once again) some different shots, unlike anything that you really get to shoot in the states, especially with the old architecture.

Found myself falling in love with the Fuji x100s on this trip! Great for quick snaps...

From Jaffa, I took what was bar-none the most insane cab trip of my life to the Design Museum Holon. The museum at Holon, designed by Ron Arad, was on my short list of ‘architecture in Israel that I need to photograph.’ The museum, which celebrates the abundance of natural light in Israel, as well as it’s incredible design talents and creative energy, is wrapped in an undulating steel structure. Painted in a crimson red and deep orange, it’s an incredibly striking and humbling building to explore. Architectural details emerge as you walk through the nest-egg like interior, unfolding themselves to reveal some very graphic and interesting photographic possibilities. As if the wonderful historic countryside and diversity of Tel Aviv hadn’t done anything for me yet!

Design Museum Holon

Interesting lines and shapes everywhere

As the sun moved around the sky above, a myriad of graphic compositions appeared above, and true to form, the bountiful natural light stuck around all the way until twilight, when the museum came alive with the help of the beautiful sunset, ambient light, and added light.

Ah, back in my territory! Our frequent readers will know how much I love twilight.

Putting it all together

Okay, so, cool. I went to Israel and photographed some architecture, big whoop! I know that at first it sounds like something so simple, but I was sincerely impressed at all that this small country had to offer. Not even in terms of photography, but in addition to that, there were so many things that happened that would make me return in a heartbeat. I had countless people bend over backwards to help me out, asking nothing in return. Even if they weren’t involved with the photography side of things, people just wandering around were asking questions, seeing if they could help. It seemed that everyone I encountered was genuinely interested in what we were photographing, why we were there, what was going on, etc. Really quite a different experience than here in the states! Remember, before this trip, Israel had never been big on my must-do list, if it was there at all. I honestly look forward to the day I get to go back. It’s not a matter of if, just when. I know that I made some incredible friends in my short stay and I imagine that if you go and make an effort to talk to people there you will have much the same experience.

If you have the opportunity to check out Israel, don’t hesitate. There’s an incredible amount of diversity of photographic subjects, helpful people, and a plethora of things to keep you entertained. The size of the country means that it can be toured in a relatively short window of time, and you’ll span many different subjects from day-to-day. While I was only able to show you a sliver of all the subjects that Israel has to offer, I hope that it was something different and inspired some creative juices to flow! Lastly, if you’re interested you check out the writings and photos of my colleagues who also came on the trip:

Simon Pollock:


Von Wong:

Rebecca Litchfield:

Adam Lerner:​

A million thanks go to Kinetis for organizing this eye opening trip, as well as to everyone who helped in some way, most notably, PhotoTeva, who supplied gear and tons of advice on what to do and where to shoot. Roie Galitz, the owner, (and also the owner of the Galitz School of Photography) is an all-around good guy and if you're interested in some amazing photo tours to far off destinations, I'd highly recommend his company. And to everyone else who put me up for a night, drove me around to some half-baked shoot, or gave advice on what to photograph and how to get there, I can't thank you enough - you made the experience amazing, and I hope that it shows in the photos.


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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Epic photographs Mike!

Stunning images, actually makes me want to go there right now!

Great photos...those TS lenses give your overall architecture shots such a polished look.

Thank you for such a wonderful review of my country, without the mention of politics!! Israel has so much to offer :)

Great article Mike! Glad you finally posted it...
Oh yeah, and awesome photos!

No pictures from Old Jaffa? How could you?

"invited myself and five other incredible photographers" - well deserved self confidence! :)
Great photos though !

wonderfull photos Mike ,thanks!

I went to Israel a couple years and go and loved it !!! Felt safe and the people were very friendly. I would go back in a heart beat, So much history and photo opportunities

Amazing story and photographs!

I've enjoyed reading your post.
You have one mistake. under the photo of Ein Gedis mill, you wrote that it is a structure from the Byzantine era. but it is actually from the Mameluke era, about over 600 years after the Byzantine era ended.

Good stuff mate. Feels like a lifetime ago now!

Very nice! Glad you were able to make this trip... But since you didn't get to the Galilee and Golan Heights, you will just have to come another time to photograph those beautiful views!

Beautiful images, but I wonder if you ever thought about the ethics, of photographing Tel Aviv in such a flattering manner?

I went to Israel and Palestine (and a lot of the settlements) a few months back, and I chose not to publish a single glamorous picture of Israel. The israeli military harassed me and the journalist multiple times during our stay, and with the situation as it is at the moment, I didn't feel like portraying Tel Aviv as the beautiful and glamorous city Israel would like the world to see. I know you're not a journalist, but I think photographers should be more aware of their role, when they say yes to assignments like this. You're being used as a political tool. And that's fine, if you're aware of it. But you need to make the decision yourself.

Hi Kasper, not everything about Israel is glamorous - you're certainly right. But Michael is simply photographing what he sees. Most of the places he photographs are devoid of people and where there are people, any Israel regardless of being Jewish or Arab can be there. Why not show what he sees? I've never had truly bad experience in Israel as many times as I've gone and I believe the country and people there are beautiful (Arabs and Jews). Simply because there are negative aspects does not negate the positive things.

Whether you want it or not, photographers are being used to portray Israel (and Tel-Aviv) to the rest of the world. Most people, even people living in Israel, has no idea about the current state of the conflict.

It's so easy to say, that you're just a photographer, and you only care about buildings, lights, models, whatever, but I suggest that you carefully consider what you want to show, when photographing (and publishing) photos from a place filled with conflict.

People like to blame the established media outlets for a lot of things. But this the new media. This has way more viewers than most regional (and in Denmark, national) newspapers. So showing pictures from this part of the world, has to come with a degree of responsibility. At least that's what I think.

But yet again. The pictures are very beautiful and everything, and thumbs up for that. We need beauty in this world, to handle all the shit that's going on!

Have you been to Bethlehem? There are beautiful homes there but should I not show the world that even Palestinians have access to luxuries as any other people? It does not negate the violence in the culture but I have the sense that this distaste of Israel is undeserving.

Nice, but this is subjective specially if you are Jewish :)

Beautiful images, Mike. Don't let the "politicians" distract from the images.

Incredible locations and stunning imagery!

Israel is best