My Photo Went Viral, And Nothing Could Have Prepared Me For What Happened After

My Photo Went Viral, And Nothing Could Have Prepared Me For What Happened After

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.

From east to west, local and foreign... From east to west, local and foreign...


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, though was not shot over a single day at one airport.  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...)

From humble beginnings... From humble beginnings...

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.

Showing prints to LAX Showing prints to LAX

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.

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Previous comments
Chris Blair's picture

Mike, congrats to you. I know you’re not an overnight
success, because I have been following your stuff here on Fstoppers for a
while, but how wonderful that things are really starting to jump in a positive
direction for you. Enjoy the extra work and never let up, even those at the top
still fight to stay relevant on a weekly basis.

Limor Garfinkle's picture

Mike, congrats for that! This just shows that a true artist photographer is always observing ways to make incredible images, even outside of your main specialty. A photographer shouldn't be a prisoner of their specialty. Good for you!
I'm super excited about my decision to join your two-day workshop in the Bahamas this summer!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks, Limor! Appreciate the kind words. Looking forward to meeting you in the Bahamas - it's going to be an awesome time.

Craig's picture

Rock On Mike! Thanks for sharing your experience with this image. Great to see a creative and unique photograph get the attention it deserves - and the photographer too.

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks, craig, I appreciate the kind words!

Phil Bautista's picture

Hard to figure an X-gamer for a nerd but whatever rolls your boat.

Lauren Schmidt's picture

I LOVE this photo. I've wanted to do this myself, only at the aviation college where I did my flight training to show the sheer volume of trainer aircraft going in and out every day. I only wish the A-10's still flew out of that airport! ;) The aviation industry never worked out for me and then I found photography. I've wanted to combine the two ever since.

Great job, both on the execution and the brilliant way you've handled the attention since then. You've totally inspired me to try my hand at combining my passions and doing more photography projects for myself and not just when a client writes me a check.

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks, Lauren! Glad you like it - cool to hear from a pilot.

David Lalush's picture

Amazing story Mike, with a background in Architecture I have always found your work to be inspiring. It's great to see how a side project can turn into something huge like this and garner much more exposure than imaginable. I have used photography at a catalyst for enjoying the outdoors but sometimes the business side of it can take away from the enjoyment of it all. Again... congrats and keep up the great work!

Shawn Clabough's picture

Mike, How many images of each takeoff did you take?

Mike Kelley's picture

3-10 depending on how cool the plane was.

DaniGirl's picture

Loved this photo when I first saw it last week and love it more hearing the back story. Well done! :)

Sam Merkel's picture

The last sentence really got me and was totally not what I was expecting. That must have been the best mistake you've ever made

Furtin's picture

Mike: check out this image and tell me, who stole from who? It's from 2007 by the way.

Just saying.

Mike Kelley's picture

I'd explain how this photo is different than the one you linked but unfortunately I can't use crayons on the internet.

And by the way, it's from 2005.

Low_Budget_Dave's picture

Good picture and good article. I am not sure what you should say to those people who don't understand the word "inspiration", but you seem to be doing a good job.

For in-depth conversations, you might want to point out that long before Michelangelo carved 'David' illogically nude, Donatello had done almost the exact same thing. Some people prefer the earlier work. Other people like to view each for what it is. To date, none of the critics have made anything that approaches either one.

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks, Dave. Great points, and of course, I just try to stay above it :) I just wanted to have some fun and got a nice little bonus out of the whole thing. Isn't art funny?

reddit kid's picture

Never heard of it, never seen it. But yeah congrats on the success. well done. I now hate you for all your success..... kidding, no really.

Rebecca L. Bolam's picture

I think it's a great image and you deserve the accolades. And for those who say there's similar images out there, and imply that they are less impressed as a result, think about how many Classical Sonatas have been written...
If so many composers use the same musical structure for a piece, does that make every Sonata less "special"?
And as far as watermarks go, I try to place a small unobtrusive one in my images to make people aware that I care about protecting my intellectual property, but hopefully it's not too distracting.
Anyway, great job, Mike!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks Rebecca! And of course, agreed - inspiration, adapting, and building on the work of others is what helps art grow as a whole and is the source of constant new works.

kulltur's picture

feel like doing the video art version with me?

alphat0ne's picture

The first time I saw this photo, I thought: how lucky he is. I was taking photos of a sunset from the top of a parking garage in Culver City, just a few miles away from LAX, and I got chased by an LAPD helicopter both on foot and in my car, simply because I was taking photos from a high vantage point. The experience has put me off shooting "sensitive" areas (like LAX) because I don't want to be harassed. It's sad, but so far, I haven't been able to shake the feeling that I'll get in trouble again.

Mike Kelley's picture

Damn! You should try out this spot where I made the above pic. It's in el segundo and there are always tons of photographers and the airport/police are totally cool with it. Always a few guys up there shooting!

Jerry Johnston's picture

Mr. Kelly, I love your photo. Where can I purchase a signed copy of the photo you took at LAX? Please let me know.

Jerry Johnston

Limor Garfinkle's picture

It's amazing how some people's jealousy such as (DaVolf ) completely blinds them! He didn't even bother reading the article, or he lacks the ability to understand what he reads. I believe he owes someone an apology!

I'm sick to my stomach reading the negative comments. The greatest artists of all time were inspired by their peers or artists that created previously. Gauguin inspired Van Gogh who then in return inspires Matisse. And the list goes on and on.

Mike has been an amazingly inspirational photographer and artist, and is making a real difference in the industry. His work speaks for itself. And he has been extremely generous in sharing his process with all of us.

Keep it up Mike, fans of your work are looking forward to your future creations.

Tracy Antonioli's picture

Thank you for sharing this story. I'm viewing it from a different perspective -- I'm not a photographer, I'm a blogger. And as a blogger, having something 'go viral' is kind of like the dream-come-true. Yet this is the first piece I've found that talks about what that process really looks and feels like. Really interesting, and a great read. (Also: I love that you admit to being a dork. We are the best kind of people, after all.) (Also also: this makes me hate LAX a little less. But only a little.) ;-)

kulltur's picture

I have done something similar in 2008 in Mexico City but in video.
Different approach, different results, different consequences... same vehicles...

always loved your photograph(s), tough!

Best wishes

Donovan Walker's picture

Great work, sir.

Samantha Owens's picture

This photo is gorgeous, and obviously took a lot of time and effort to make. I'm glad that you've seen some rewards from something that was just a fun thing. Your passion for photography comes through in your writing. Thanks for sharing it, another great addition to the Internet, I say. :)

Elliott Cowand's picture

Nice article Mike. I'm particularly interested in hearing more about
your experience with limiting the piracy of your image once it went viral. Before you worked with an agency, how did you know what was a fair price for broadcast rights? Did you also notice that once one outlet uses it that others latch onto it from them without your permission? Elaborate on the business/ marketing side for us.

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