Mike Kelley Baiting with Light
New England native Mike Kelley was into photography in a big way, but one day something fortuitous happened. While at the University of Vermont, Kelley ran into Dave Schmidt, who is an employee of LPA, makers of PocketWizard. Schmidt is also a shooter in his own right, and was photographing for a local ski resort. He also happened to have a prototype of the PocketWizard MiniTT1® on top of his camera. Kelley noticed, and the two began a conversation.
“I just kept bugging him and bugging him and eventually he caved and gave me an internship at PocketWizard,” Kelley recalls, laughing. After graduating from the University of Vermont with a double major in Environmental Studies and Studio Art, Kelley moved to Lake Tahoe to try his hand at professional snowboarding. This didn’t transpire, but proved fortuitous in a different way professionally.
“The first day I moved out to Lake Tahoe, I herniated a disc in my back,” he says. With this incredibly painful injury, Kelley was laid up for the entire winter. Through an acquaintance, he met someone who helped him arrive at his career in photography—shooting a subject he never thought he would. A Tahoe luxury real estate broker’s photographer had just quit. Kelley was asked if he could take photos of homes.
“I said, ‘Oh, yeah. Sure. I do it all the time,’” Kelley recalls. “I’d never done it in my entire life, but I wanted to get in there to see what I could do. I knew I’d come out with something relatively good, but what I didn’t know was how demanding interiors and architectural photography were.”
With a week before the scheduled shoot, Kelley studied nonstop on using flash for interiors, architectural photography concepts in general, and other areas he felt he needed to brush up on. His first assignment turned out to be an $8 million luxury home.
The client was thrilled with the images and made Kelley their photographer for all listings. This success was the beginning of his new career. He quit a minimum wage retail job and began marketing to new clients. He also worked toward constantly improving his work.
That was two years ago. Recently, Kelley cut ties with his Lake Tahoe clients and moved to Los Angeles. One may wonder why he chose this course of action, and the reasons are larger than photography or professional life. His injuries prevented him from snowboarding as much as he wanted to, and the winters with ten to fifteen feet of snow began to wear on him. He had torn his AC ligament twice, which compounded the disc problem. “I just realized I wanted to be healthy and enjoy some nice weather while I’m still young,” Kelley says.
Primarily shooting a seven-year-old Canon EOS 5D, Kelley also has a Canon EOS 1D Mark III. “They’re both pretty dated cameras, but I love them,” he says. “For fun, I do a lot sports [photography] here and there—air shows and that kind of thing—which is why I have the 1D Mark III. I like the speed, but I like the 5D. You don’t need a fast camera for interiors.”
Canon wide-angles are the lenses Kelley relies on. “I have the 17-millimeter tilt-shift and 17-40mm, as well as a 50-millimeter f/1.4, for interiors. Those are the three lenses I use the most,” he explains. “I have a 70-200mm as well and a 15-millimeter fisheye and a 24-millimeter prime. For the most part it’s the 17-millimeter tilt-shift and the 17-40. Those do the majority of my architectural work.”
To light interiors, Kelly currently sticks to speedlights. “I’ve got a pair of 430EX II’s and some beat-up 550EX’s. I’ve gotten so used to using the PocketWizard FlexTT5®, MiniTT1® and AC3 Zone Controller. I know what I’m doing with the lights I have. On one hand, I would really like lights with more power. On the other hand, I’m so used to working with what I have, I haven’t really made any changes to that system.”
As for lighting modifiers, Kelley relies on several pieces he’s put together himself Strobist-style. He sets up light stands and boom arms, adjusting his lighting rigs accordingly. He dials in the power on each one via the AC3. “Lighting interiors is quite unlike anything else in photography, in my opinion,” he says. “It’s really kind of like caressing the image rather than blasting it with light like in a portrait.”
Kelley happily shares how his off-camera lighting practice saves him significant time on site. “I use the MiniTT1 and the AC3 on the camera, the FlexTT5 on the flash units, and those are really helpful for interiors,” he says. “That’s where they’re a huge time saver, Instead of running back and forth to the lights and wasting time, I can just sit there either at the camera or the computer and spin some dials and change the lights. It really cuts down the amount of time you spend on-site. It’s just so, so easy to use that little unit. I probably could not live without it at this point, so that’s the big time saver right there. I don’t think a lot of architectural photographers use that piece of equipment. I think it’s more of a portraiture type of thing, which I find pretty interesting because I can have lights 50 feet away in another room entirely and to go back and forth adjusting the ratio every time would just add endless amount of time to a photo shoot.”
After locking his camera down on a tripod, Kelley takes a series of exposures. He then builds them up in a single Photoshop document, masking out a layer for each exposure and erasing portions of each mask to reveal the perfect exposure for each part of the subject matter. With his Photoshop chops built up during his college days, he also had a background in graphic design and digital art, all which help him in his postproduction work.
Lest readers think this process is some easy way to cheat reality and fix everything in Photoshop, Kelley knows how to get his RAW images as correct as possible while still shooting. “It’s a process of getting the exposures set,” he says. “In fact, I know exactly how the light will behave given the surface or the subject, and I can just adjust the power up and down when I’ve been looking at the camera to double check it. It’s taken a while to figure out that method, but I think the results are worth it.”
To those critics who might suggest Kelley is altering an architect’s intentions by manipulating light all around a structure inside or out, Kelley has a logical response. “I heard a quote one time,” he says. “‘The eye is a miracle and the camera is a machine.’ In real life, you could see all these lights and how they light the house up, but in a picture you can’t really see that. I’m just enhancing the light and making it look more like it would if it were real life, especially with the exteriors. If you take a single exposure, the range of exposure is just all over the place. I use the opacity slider to kind of make it look more natural, but also at the same time like, ‘Wow, you would never get that with a single exposure.’ But it doesn’t look so far beyond the realm of possibility that it’s a complete fake.”
When first arriving at a new assignment, Kelley will spend up to two hours walking around a new location taking test shots from a tripod. He’ll explore angles and make sure he has everything he’s looking for by reviewing the images on his MacBook Pro.
Kelley gives the edge to exteriors over interiors when weighing which is his favorite. “Exteriors are usually the places where you can get the most wow factor,” he says. “Interiors are a huge part of the game, so you can’t really neglect them, but exteriors are definitely my favorite.”
Indoors or out, this photographer takes the time to present any property in breathtaking light. As The New York Times wrote of the importance of high-end professional real estate photography, “These photos are the bait that lure clients to your Sunday open houses.” Mike Kelley creates bait of the highest caliber, and at such an early stage in his career, his art is only going to get better.