One of the greatest things about digital photography is that it is not beholden to time. Photographers are easily able to manipulate shots and remind viewers that the world is not stagnant.
With this in mind, photographer Mike Kelley set off on a global journey to photograph the flight paths at world-famous airports. Kelley’s photographs, taken across the U.S., Europe, Asia, South America and Australia, showcase the marvel that is modern flight and the airports that keep it all organized.
Kelley, who is an architectural photographer by trade, said that the idea for the project came about while he was plane spotting with a friend one day back in 2014.
“I've always been fascinated by aviation and one day while out at LAX 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,” Kelley told Travel + Leisure.
Kelley created a composite with the images he took that day and posted it to Reddit. It went viral and Kelley knew that he had a good idea. So he booked a trip around the world to photograph the flight paths at some of the world’s most iconic airports.
“Since I'm obsessed with airplanes, travel, and seeing new places, it was also a great excuse to get me out of my comfort zone a little bit,” Kelley said.
The process was time-consuming from start to finish. Once Kelley arrived at an airport, he sometimes spent days just trying to find a good shooting location. It was important to him that the shots reflect not only the air traffic, but the location of the airports themselves. So at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, this meant making several trips to get perfect visibility of Mount Fuji. In Amsterdam, Kelley wanted to capture the lowlands and canals; In Germany it was important to include shots of the Autobahn.
Once he had the shots, Kelley spent hours in Photoshop (he said he would stay up until 4 a.m. some nights) making them look perfect. Each single plane represents a different layer in Photoshop. Kelley laid out all of the planes in the frame and then edited colors and brightness to make each layer look like it was taken at the exact same time.
Each shot showcases the nature of aviation and travel in general. Though all these planes, carrying all these travelers, start in the same place, their destinations are vastly different, something Kelley said he thinks about on his plane-spotting excursions.
Because of the hours spent around airports, Kelley said he now has a greater understanding and appreciation of the transportation hubs. “I've become quite a dork now,” he said. “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.”
Kelley said that he hopes the project will either end up in a gallery or help him break into commercial aviation photography. But not before he takes a short, well-deserved break.
Kelley’s “airportraits” are available for purchase on his website from $650.