A little bit over a week ago, I went to Los Angeles International Airport to make a photo. It was a clear day, and I didn't want to waste it sitting inside. Being an aviation fan myself, as well as an occasional pilot and aerial photographer, watching planes, to me, is hardly the worst way to pass the time. As it turns out, making this photo would lead to one of the craziest weeks of my entire life.
The finished photo, named "Wake Turbulence," has been on NBC, NY Daily News, Fox, The Daily Mail, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, KTLA, The Atlantic, Fast Company, Gizmodo, and too many other international news outlets to count. It's been stolen, bought, I'm sure sold, and generally abused by the entire internet at this point. It was on the front page of reddit for a good day and a half, and completely overwhelmed my inbox. I've been called a terrorist, an awful photographer, a Photoshop hack, a genius, I've made a pilot tear up, I've gotten calls from reps and agents looking to work with me, I've gotten calls from aircraft manufacturers and airports to shoot for them, and about a thousand other awesome (and horrible) things.
Here's the story of how the image was conceived, built, and how it spread through the internet.
In the beginning...
Most people know me as an architectural photographer; as I've been making a living in the genre for most of my post-collegiate life, and have been writing and teaching on the topic for awhile now. I had been toying with the idea of making this image after seeing a similar photo by Ho-Yeol Ryu which explores a comparable theme. In Ryu's image, planes are cut and overlaid amongst one another creating a river of aluminum that resembled something of a takeoff by hundreds of planes at once. His picture was definitely pretty cool, but to most aviation enthusiasts, it's less than perfect for a number of reasons. Planes that had no business being anywhere near Hannover (his airport of choice for the shot) were scattered throughout the frame and the random placements, attitudes and pitch angles looked cool, but were completely unrealistic. I knew that there were a few airports in the world that could naturally create such an image, and LAX was one of them. With countless international and domestic departures every day, there was no reason that I wouldn't be able to make an awesome image that realistically showed an entire day's worth of airplane traffic at LAX.
So, this image was in my head for a bit, but I needed the perfect conditions to pull it off, so there it sat, collecting cobwebs in my brain.
March 31st, 2014: months, or even years, after I had initially planted the seed, I woke up to miraculously clear conditions and a somehow wide-open calendar. If you've ever been to LA, you know that there's either smog or a marine layer constantly over the city. If there's no smog, there's a marine layer, and if there's no marine layer, there's smog. So when I saw that I could see forever in every direction, I knew I had to take advantage of the day. For some reason, my brain decided that today was the day, and it got me out of bed in time to rush over to LAX to find the spot to pull this off.
I had originally planned on stay there for only a few hours, but when I began to see the progress that I was making and just how cool this image would turn out to be, I ended up staying there for far longer. 6, 7, 8 hours later and I'm horribly sunburned and starving, but had what I considered to be an incredible set of images that I could use to build the final piece. I remember how excited I was looking at all the planes on my rear LCD, scrolling through them with my camera's thumbwheel created a sort of timelapse of all the takeoffs that got my heart veritably pumping (alright, we've confirmed that I'm a true dork...)
I returned home and began to work on the image, which turned out to be both incredibly simple and incredibly complicated at the same time. Using the pen tool and the same techniques that I teach in my tutorial 'Where Art Meets Architecture,' I began putting the final image together piece-by-piece. Cut, paste, copy, duplicate, nudge, merge, curves, saturation, scale, it went on and on. Like I said, I wanted to make a realistic representation of the activity at LAX, so I was sure to keep the planes in their takeoff configuration. Pitch angle, altitude, etc, all remained relatively accurate to what you would see if you went to LAX and watched the takeoffs.
The Picture Goes Live...
After I finished the shot, I posted it, at 2000px resolution, without a watermark or any identification other than my reddit username to a small community of aviation fans as sort of a 'hey, check this out!' I had no expectations whatsoever that this would get anything more than a few comments and a 'whoa, cool!'. I went to bed on Monday night satisfied that I had created a somewhat interesting image that I might frame for myself, but that was it.
And how incredibly wrong I was. I woke up to see that my image's popularity had skyrocketed; so much so that it had become the 11th most popular item on Reddit for the day and the most popular aviation-related image ever posted on reddit. My email inbox overflowed with requests to use the images on news sites. My facebook wall exploded with people asking 'Mike, is this your picture?!'
I was getting calls at all hours of the day from every corner of the globe. Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, New York. I attempted to sleep that second night but the excitement was too much for me, as I'm already a light sleeper to begin with. I just stayed up and continued to answer emails and calls, providing anyone who needed an interview with an interview, trying to negotiate rates for publication, knowing that it wouldn't last forever.
After a horrible night's sleep, I was back at it again. I was contacted by an agency who agreed to sell and license the image on my behalf, which took some stress off of my back. They've since put the image in so many more places than I could have imagined - and gotten me paid for it. Trying to bill publications for the use of the image was just insane. And to those of you wondering, yes, many of the larger online publications are happy to pay you for original unique imagery when you ask them!
But that's not even the fun part...
Sure, the media attention, coverage, and money was (and continues to be) great. I loved it all. But what's even cooler is that I have been contacted by people, companies, and organizations that I never expected that I'd be in touch with. Airports, local and abroad, have contacted me with an interest in hiring me to do work for them. Airplane manufacturers and leasing companies have been in touch. I've already been granted access to places I never, ever thought that I could get (on the ramp at LAX? The control tower? You kiddin' me?! Nope!) and I have set up plans with a few of these companies and airports to create more images similar to 'Wake Turbulence.' This image truly has created opportunities that I never thought possible.
So how and why exactly did this image go so 'viral'?
I have some ideas, but to be honest I'm not 100% sure. I think it comes down to a few things. First, I posted it to reddit, a site known for spawning some of the web's most viral images, stories, and videos. If something is posted to reddit and gets traction, it will be picked up by news sites around the world and propogated throughout the web.
But you can't just "post something to reddit" and have it show up on the front page of the internet the next day. In addition to posting it there, I posted it, for better or worse, without a watermark at a relatively large size of 2000px wide. Now, of course this is going to cause plenty of headaches down the road (and I've got a great lawyer on retainer for when that problem does arise, and believe me it already has). The reason I think this is so important is that people just aren't going to share images with a watermark plastered across them. The internet, and its userbase as a whole, hate advertising. Watermarks get in the way of the image, and for some reason, whether psychological or otherwise, it seems that people are more likely to share content without a watermark. Imagine listening to a song and halfway through the song it faded out and someone said 'by the way, purchase this track on itunes! It's by So and So!' Yeah. That would be annoying. People are more likely to share content that is easy to share and offers an unimpeded visual experience.
I guess there are two sides to the watermarking and size coin. On one hand, I gave people a huge image that they can look at and enjoy at high resolution. There's plenty of detail. They enjoy that - so they're going to share it. It probably got an incredible amount of eyes on the picture. How many times have you seen an image and thought 'oh, cool, but it's tiny so I can't see anything?' Even our own Fstoppers here can be a culprit of that. There's so much detail in the picture that you can easily get lost looking at it for a few minutes, and releasing it in that high resolution immensely improved the viewing experience because it lets you digest so much more information.
Another reason I think it went so viral is that so many people could identify with it, and as a result it had great global appeal. There are airlines from around the world featured in it, and I was sure to scale back some of the presence of American carriers (single-aisle domestic planes make up the bulk of LAX traffic) so that it would have a more wide-reaching appeal. So many countless people in countries around the world have been bitten by the travel bug - and this image speaks directly to that. Planes going to all corners of the globe in one shot, heading to their home country, or taking them to visit some far-off relatives. The imagination can truly run free.
Combining all these factors with the perfect, bright photography conditions that day, which paint Los Angeles and LAX as a beautiful, global, vibrant and international city really helped this image take off, no pun intended (okay, what else could I have said there?)
Some final thoughts
Honestly, this image has eclipsed everything I have ever done from almost every angle. I am no longer 'Mike Kelley the architecture guy' but to all my friends and relatives, I'm now "the guy that took that one picture of the planes at LAX and was on the news for a bit". I continue to get calls daily about interviewing me or purchasing prints. Every day, someone sends me a link to another news site or feed using the image.
And you know what, to be honest, I don't mind seeing the image get out there. It's opened so many doors for me that I can't even believe it. I have no idea what the future holds for me and aviation photography, but as a long-time passion of mine, I couldn't be more excited to see what opportunities come out of this picture that I accidentally released at high-resolution, sans a watermark.
For those interested in learning the techniques used to create this image, I teach all of them (and more) in my comprehensive tutorial, Where Art Meets Architecture, which was published in collaboration with Fstoppers. In addition, I'll be teaching at the Atlantis Resort in June at the Fstoppers Workshops (and I'm also giving away an entirely free slot at one of my workshops!). Feel free to come on down and pick my brain about anything from architectural photography and airplane photography to being the biggest nerd the photo world's ever seen.