How I Photographed 'Wake Turbulence:' Eight Hours Of Airplane Takeoffs In One Shot

How I Photographed 'Wake Turbulence:' Eight Hours Of Airplane Takeoffs In One Shot

I love aviation and I love photography. So the other day, inspiration struck and I ran to LAX to capture a photo that compresses eight hours of airport traffic at one of the biggest airports in the world into a single frame. Here's how I did it.

Even though I'm an architectural photographer, a lot of my personal work is focused on aviation photography and aerial photography. I'm based in Los Angeles, which is a city steeped in aviation history and technology. Over the years, Los Angeles and Southern California have played host to some of the largest aviation companies and activities the world has ever seen. From designing and building Lockheed's top-secret reconnaissance planes to building some of the first large-scale passenger aircraft and having Maverick buzz the tower only a short drive south at Mirarmar, aviation is everywhere in this region. Our main airport, Los Angeles International (LAX) is one of the busiest airports in the world and countless airlines use it as a focus city for both international and domestic operations.

On Sunday, it was a beautiful, clear day in LA - one of those rare days where you just can't be inside without feeling like a totally depressed dork. The sun was shining, the wind was calm, and there wasn't a bit of smog in sight (No barking from the dogs and no smog!). I had to get out and do something. The day before, I was with my friend David Huff at LAX for lunch and some plane-watching, but the smog was out in force so nothing too special happened in terms of photography that day. Since I am generally interested in making photographs that aren't just snapshots of a single moment, I had a thought that it would be interesting if I could capture more than one plane in flight at once. And from there, this idea was born.

The colors of LAX! The colors of LAX!

This has been done before, yet slightly differently. Ho-Yeol Ryu created a similar piece set at Hannover airport. This showed that what I wanted to do could be done, albeit quite differently. Ryu used planes of all liveries and countries, and took a bit more of an artistic approach in his rendering. My intent was to capture only planes that flew out of LAX - highlighting and emphasizing what an incredible airport that this city has. It's really fascinating to look at all the planes heading in different directions, ferrying people all over the world, all originating from Los Angeles. In this shot alone, there are planes heading to destinations on six continents - either direct or via multi-stop routes on the same flight number. Guangzhou, Auckland, Frankfurt, and on and on.

In order to capture the shot, I set up a tripod and photographed every single plane that flew across my frame anywhere from 3 to 10 times. Using sandbags to ensure that the camera didn't move and coming as close to peeing myself as I ever have in my 26 years of existence from not wanting to leave my camera unattended, this resulted in over 400 images from which the composition is built, but not all of them were used. Here are a few of the individual, completely unedited, frames that I used to put the entire thing together, so you can get an idea of how many different frames it took!

Delta 747 Delta 747

Singapore A380 landing on 24R Singapore A380 landing on 24R

China Cargo - must be empty! Very early rotation for a 747 China Cargo - must be empty! Very early rotation for a 747

As you can see there were a number of issues to contend with. Heat haze, the changing angle of the sun, and other traffic on the ramp all had to be mitigated. The best way I found to do this was using masks and selections in photoshop to isolate every single plane in the final image and then piece them all together one by one, nudging them slightly so that they all lined up. I took some liberties with the positioning of each of the planes in order to make a more compositionally interesting photo. True aviation geeks may say this is sacrilegious, but it makes for a more interesting and easy to view shot. Everything is still somewhat accurate in terms of pitch angle and takeoff sequences, but like I said, in order to make it 'read,' I had to take some liberties.

And that's how it was done! PurePhoto, who sells all of my fine art works, has graciously agreed to offer prints of the shot in 18x36", 27x48", and 36x64" sizes on Hahnemuhle archival fine art paper, which can be seen here. I have to say, the shot is truly stunning in large format and anyone who appreciates aviation, infrastructure, travel or imagination could easily spend countless hours getting lost in it.

Still with me? Here's an interesting aside. At the time of writing this post, this image has received over 350,000 unique hits on reddit, totalling over 110gb in bandwidth. This makes it the most popular aviation-related image in reddit history! Not bad, for a nerd like me. The original reddit thread can be seen here, and the gizmodo article which gives a good breakdown can be seen here.

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21 Comments

I saw this on imgur earlier today!! so cool!!

Mike Kelley's picture

Ha, yeah, those were the humble beginnings. If only I had known it would go this viral!

Bob Bell's picture

Great shot, congrats!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks, Bob!

this is so cool! Thanks for sharing!

Shayne Thomas's picture

Wow Mike! Amazing work! As a huge fan of aviation as well as your architectural work, I have to tip my hat off to you! Well done!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks, Shayne! We share some great interests. Appreciate the kind words.

What an awesome shot! Congrats from KS (The Air Capital of the World)

Awesome work!

"Our main airport, Los Angeles International (LAX) is one of the worst airports in the world and countless airlines continue to use it as a focus city for both international and domestic operations, despite the fact that airport management and the TSA don't believe that anyone would ever want to be in transit only through this airport."

Fixed it for you.
Sorry, great post, but I couldn't help myself on this part.

Mike Kelley's picture

LAX is a funny airport. Some terminals (1, 3) are crazy! The traffic and cabbie situation can be a bit wild too. However, the new international terminal (TBIT) is amazing and winning awards. Their friendliness towards plane spotters is unbelievable. I just wish they would figure out the transit issues and update the old terminals!

Jerrit Pruyn's picture

Come visit NYC, they are bad.

JFK is bad, yes. As bad as LAX? Not even close.

Great work, Mike, and thanks for scratching my creative itch for the day!

Mike Kelley's picture

No problem - I know the feeling all too well! Get out there and make art!

Amazing job Mike!

Mike Kelley's picture

Thanks Joe! Appreciate it :)

A lot more impressive if he did it on one sheet of film.

how can i order a print? seriously! i just moved from el segundo and always loved looking up at the planes.