Mike Kelley's Composite Photos of Planes Are Fascinating and Beautiful

74,545 miles, 25 flights, 93 days of travel. Mike Kelley's passion and dedication to his "AIRPORTRAITS" project is astounding, as are the results. Take some time to admire the beauty and variety of planes as they traverse airports across the world. 

Mike Kelley is an architectural photographer first and foremost, but that doesn't stop him from pursuing his love of aviation. In fact, his expertise in architectural photography suits him well to the genre: the ability to composite and blend scenes with varying lighting and elements is what lends the images in "AIRPORTRAITS" their surreal and fascinating characters: they're composites in time, not in space; every plane occupied that particular space in the sky, and to see the sum of all those that did is arresting. 

"Wake Turbulence" (Los Angeles International 25L and 25R)

The series began with "Wake Turbulence" in 2014. On a day plane-spotting, Kelley decided simply to composite multiple takeoffs to reflect the massive traffic that passes through LAX, and given the initial image's viral success, proceeding with a full series seemed like a foregone conclusion. After choosing a set of airports based on their notability and traffic density, he set out a round-the-world trip to put together more images. 

"Morning Heavy Departures" (Dubai International 12R)

"Missed Approach" (Frankfurt am Main 25L)

Kelley notes that the time to put together each composite varied greatly depending on environmental factors that affected both the wait time and post work. Much of the time, this meant a great deal of scouting — days in some cases — ensuring that the essence of the location was captured along with the planes themselves. This was further complicated by the technical aspect of keeping the sun to his back the entire time to create proper lighting. One the proper location was found, it was a waiting game, as the weather, prevailing winds, and sun all needed to be working in unison with one another to ensure that planes were taking off in the same direction (planes typically take off into the wind) and that lighting was relatively consistent from plane to plane. Such waiting games often meant multiple trips to the same location — three to London and two to Tokyo, in fact.

Once the shots were captured, the post-processing portion entailed files on the order of 12-16 GB with hundreds of layers. Striving to keep the images realistic, Kelley chose from multiple frames of the same plane, using whichever shot best suited that particular plane to the composite. From there, the task became matching exposure and color, as well as global adjustments. Despite the mountains of work before, during, and after these captures, I think it's pretty clear the final results were worth it. The composites are striking, and their visual notability underscore the sheer complexity and density that is characteristic of global airports.

Interested in purchasing prints? Check out the full project on Kelley's website, and be sure to check out our architectural photography tutorials featuring him in the Fstoppers store!

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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So cool to see him turning one great piece into a series of amazing composites. I have attempted a couple of similar composites and can tell you that it's a whole lot more work than you would think to create these photos.

Thank you Ian. Appreciate the kind words, and yes - making these things is no joke in terms of time commitment!

Amen to the amount of work involved. I have done composites of motocross jumps with all the riders sharing the same airspace.

All these photos are phenomenal, yet there's an incredible quality gap between the first photo on the second row and all the rest (in a very good way). Who would have thought that a photo of an airport could be so outlandishly fricking gorgeous.

The thumb (detail of the planes) is such an amazing images and would be such great pic to hang on a wall. Love the series, just a pity that the weather didn't always work out well. Would have loved to see with a more consistent clear background like in the LA image.

I've had the privilege of seeing a lot of these as they came to be and have spent a bit of time with them each. Honestly, I love to moody images. I think it adds more depth and intrigue to the images. As for the grid concept, that would be awesome -- and in this case, I see why you'd want them more uniform. But man, they look so good as they are! ;-)

That day to night image is incredible! Awesome stuff!