Stunning composite images show an armada of airliners
By Stephen Dowling28 October 2016
Thousands of airliners take off and land every day. Photographer Mike Kelley’s composite photographs show just how busy some of our biggest airports are.
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The new face of air travel
At any moment of the day, nearly a million people around the world share one thing in common – they are in the air, in hundreds and thousands of airliners which have helped transform travel and trade. Our desire to visit new places, and the realities of international business, mean many thousands of aircraft take off and land each day. Los Angeles-based photographer Mike Kelley has captured just a tiny fragment of this aerial armada in an ambitious project called Airportraits, taking photographs of plane after plane to create composite images of a day in life of the world’s busiest airports.
Los Angeles International
“I've always been fascinated by aviation and one day while out at LAX [Los Angeles Airport] plane spotting, decided that I wanted to try capturing multiple takeoffs and putting them together into a single image to show their flight paths and the sheer volume of traffic departing LAX,” says Kelley.
“The inspiration behind the entire set of images was somewhat simple given the success of the original,” says Kelley. “I didn’t want to be a one-hit-wonder, and I knew the idea had potential, so it was something that had to be done. There are a ton of amazing airports, airlines, and airplanes out there I wanted to photograph, so the plan was set in motion to try and capture as many as possible.”
London Heathrow, departures
Kelley’s pictures include some of the most recognisable airports in the world, including London’s Heathrow and Tokyo’s Haneda, complete with Mt Fuji looming over it. “I mostly chose airports based on their setting or how iconic they are on a global scale,” Kelley says. “Heathrow is obviously one of the most well-known, for better or worse, airports in the world, set on the edge of what is probably the most famous city on earth. Haneda is the busiest airport in the world, and you can see the iconic Mt Fuji on a perfect day – I wanted to tie these amazing locations together with their air traffic in a way that hadn’t been seen before.”
It’s worth bearing in mind that the photos don’t show the entire traffic – the planes shown here, at London’s Heathrow, are just a tiny fraction of the more than 1,400 which take off and land each day.
After Kelley’s Los Angeles photo, which was taken in March 2014, “the next location after that was Dubai, which was pretty tricky as I had to make special arrangements to photograph the airport. After that, I came back to LA for a while before setting off on an around the world trip which started at Amsterdam Schiphol.” For each shot, Kelley would often spend at least eight-to-12 hours a day shooting the aircraft.
The pictures require Kelley to spend several hours in one spot, taking shot after shot on his digital SLR of each plane as it lands or takes off. “It really depends on a number of factors, mostly the weather and position of the Sun. Sometimes it can take a day of shooting and a day in Photoshop, and in some cases it took weeks of waiting and then months of tweaking in Photoshop to get everything just perfect.”
Sydney Kingsford Smith
Kelley had to make sure the light was as even as possible during the entire day’s shooting. “After I found a spot, I had to wait for a day where the winds, weather, and light all cooperated. Since planes usually take off into the wind, this meant waiting for a day that had steady winds in the direction that worked best with my chosen spot. If the winds switched halfway through the day, the entire day would be a wash. “Similarly, if the weather changed dramatically throughout the day, it also made it exponentially harder to composite the images together as the color, lighting, and exposure on all parts of the scene changed with cloud cover and sun.”
London Heathrow, arrivals
The shoots required enormous patience. “The ideal situation was a great spot showing the planes, some local flavor, the sun behind me (or consistent cloud cover) and solid, steady wind for an entire day. Easy in a place like LA where it’s always sunny. In a place like London? It actually took three trips to London to get images I was happy with because the constantly shifting weather and winds. Same with Tokyo: turns out they’re not lying when they say Mt Fuji is a fickle, fickle beast. It’s only visible on the clearest of days, so I had to take 2 trips to Japan to get the image I wanted.
After the shooting, the editing and compositing would begin, with Kelley painstakingly layering the image of each aircraft onto the backdrop of the airport. “I actually had 10-15 shots of each as it passed through the frame, and I selected the best image of each plane… but it was very tedious! After I had all my planes in place, it was a matter of matching the brightness, colour, and contrast.”
Auckland International Airport
It helped that Kelley is an ardent aviation fan. The project has taught him “mostly that I have more patience and focus than I ever knew about. I can operate on far less sleep than I thought I could. And that I can eat all sorts of strange airplane food… I always knew that people were generally willing to help, but the amount of selfless giving that was directed at me from so many people – pilots, air traffic controllers, airports, land owners, everything – was truly awesome. It was great to reinforce that.
“I've learned a ton about how aviation works,” he adds. “When you sit and watch aircraft for an entire day at airports all over the world you suddenly get a much better feel for how schedules, timing, turnarounds, and all that operate. I used to be sort of into it, but now I can basically look up in the sky at any given moment and tell you what kind of plane it is, where it’s coming from, and where it’s heading.”