Michael Kelley: Two-Speedlight Architectural Photography

Photos ©Michael Kelley

Two years ago, Los Angeles-based architectural photographer Mike Kelley was 21 years old and working retail for $8.25 an hour. Today, he shoots images like the one above -- using just two Canon speedlights.

Health Warning: If you were one of the "yeah, but is it photography?" purists who hated on the Lionel Messi post, this piece will probably give you an aneurysm…

(Before layered speedlights)

Shooting through twilight, he creates a stack of images while selectively lighting areas of the frame. By layering the images and masking away for the lit areas, he can accomplish far more complex images than he could with one frame and any amount of big lights.

Check out this video (best viewed full-screen) built from raw stills and screen capture footage from his Photoshop process.

As far as gear, Kelley shoots Canon and uses two 430ex IIs. He has a 550ex, but just keeps it as a backup.

"I've been told over and over again from internet critics that it's just not possible," he said, "but I've found a way to make it work for me."

For remotes he uses a PocketWizard Flex and Mini combo with a AC3 Zone Controller, which he says he could not live without after having used them:

"It's just so easy to set your lights up, spin some dials and walk away with a shot," Kelley adds, "without having to go back and forth changing settings and so on."

(Final Image)

(Before layered speedlights)

Says Mike, on his layered post production technique:
I shift-click and drag onto my base image, which automatically aligns the images first, instead of layers->align (just a habit of mine). Then I use the pen tool, lasso, or a good ol' brush to mask in the lighting. The tool totally depends on what I'm going for, or what I lit - I'll also feather the edge to make a nice natural transition into the lit area.

From there it's just adjusting the opacity and blend mode to what I think looks good. There's a ton of options (of course, it's Photoshop!) that depend on the situation, but a quick and easy way to try this out is by just using the lasso with a feather of 15 or 20px around the flash highlight, and masking from there.

So there's no one magic bullet, like everything in photography, but lots of experimenting that goes into it. Hopefully that should give enough info for anyone to try the technique out and experiment with results.

Last, Kelley said all of this depends on your using an incredibly sturdy tripod. He typically shoots through twilight over a period of a couple hours, and keeping the camera registration as tight as possible is critical.

To most of his his clients (and more than a few fellow photographers) his results must make it look like he uses some sort of magic dust. You can see more of his work on his website, which is definitely worth a visit.

Having built his portfolio in the Lake Tahoe area he has just moved to L.A., which offers a smorgasbord of new buildings to shoot. Speaking of that, if you have an 'in' at a great space in L.A., drop him a line.


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Blogger William Beem said...

Sounds like the guy has a technique that creates nice images for his clients. What else matters? Good going, dude.

September 21, 2011 1:42 PM  
Blogger Hodie Snitch said...

DH, the difference in color temperature really stands out to me in the before/after shots. You got a question on twitter recently about the impact of strobe power on color temp. Is that a factor in these shots?

September 21, 2011 1:47 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Remember, each flash pop is layered in separately. Which gives him loads of control. He could gel the flashes *or* just warm up the flash pops in post before he layers them in. It is a very cool way to leverage a small amount of gear into really cool images.

September 21, 2011 1:52 PM  
Blogger Jonathon Watkins said...

Love it. I think I need to go out at twilight to experiment with my poverty wizards. I take it he has an assistant to do the legwork?

September 21, 2011 1:55 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

I want to buy that house! Love it, Thx David!

September 21, 2011 2:08 PM  
Blogger Chip Kalback said...

Great work, and I especially love hearing success stories such as his, having gone from a job he probably didn't care for to creating amazing images and hopefully making a little more than $8.25/hour too :)

September 21, 2011 2:28 PM  
Blogger D. Richard Jackson said...

Same technique here (just on the outside of the building) with 1 x1600 WL and 1 Sony Speedlight:



Expect his work blows mine out of the water

September 21, 2011 2:39 PM  
OpenID kurtwerks said...

These are lovely architectural images. Sure it's photography, and he's producing some fine images. It's all about using the tools you have to produce the results you visualize. If he was claiming these were documentary photographs, we'd have an argument. The ones claiming that his work isn't photography are just peeved they didn't think of it first.

September 21, 2011 2:47 PM  
Blogger thedon said...

@Johnathan Watkins - he has no assistant this is how he gets his excercise

September 21, 2011 3:04 PM  
Blogger Tomas said...

My only concern is the ethics behind selling a house with this kind of pictures, since the house will never look even nearly the same in reality without possibly the use of loads of exterior lights.

September 21, 2011 3:05 PM  
Blogger didymus said...

Don't tell the boss what gear he is using... I'll never get any more if she sees this!
Amazing work!


September 21, 2011 3:11 PM  
Blogger Alan Lapp said...

This is a very intelligent use of the tools that Photoshop offers.

I fail to comprehend why there is an artificia divide between photographers and photoshop users. All the "greats" used darkroom technique to enhance their images above and beyond what came out of the camera. Photoshop is the new darkroom. I suggest we love it and embrace it.

The thing that impresses me most is the mental ability to visualize the light in little bite size chunks over a long period.

@ Debbi -- that's exactly the reaction the photographer is looking for!

September 21, 2011 3:17 PM  
Blogger Raymond said...

Fantastic imagery!

Not all architectural work can be done in a single shot and I think his system is a fantastic tool that others should utilize.

It obviously works wonderfully!

September 21, 2011 3:24 PM  
Blogger kryznic said...

I don't get how he takes the good stuff out of each photo and plops it in into the master photo he is trying to create. I suck at photoshop so I guess that is my limitation. Really interesting technique. Maybe I should invest in some photoshop classes seeing as I am just starting out in the "real estate photography" biz

September 21, 2011 3:26 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

It's a great idea. As somebody who squeeks by with 2 new flashes and an old EZ flash plus some Pocket Wizards, this technique is something I should try. There's just one big but in my case.

I can buy a lot of Lumopro flashes for what it costs to buy Photoshop...which I currently make do without. Is it safe to assume that this technique could be done with software like the GIMP? I don't see why not.

September 21, 2011 3:26 PM  
Blogger BallardFamily said...

It is good for me to see how this is done. Had I not seen his technique I would have figured that his final image looked so 'magic dust'y-ish because he has a Canon and I have a Nikon, or more expensive glass, or some exotic filter or... Not that seeing his video makes it look easy, just more realistically attainable (with a lot of hard work).

His web site it great too, love the water/tree/leaves reflection photo...for a second I actually though I was looking up through the trees and could not figure out how those leaves were there. Great work, very inspring!

September 21, 2011 3:28 PM  
Blogger jason anderson said...

i think you broke his website , good job once again Hobby !!! haha. great Job though Michael

September 21, 2011 4:27 PM  
Blogger nicola said...


Can you get over the Messi thing?

I hated the Messi pic but I like these, and now you've already got kurtwerks saying "The ones claiming that his work isn't photography are just peeved they didn't think of it first." when there haven't even been any!!!!

Great stuff of course and similar in fact to the post you did about shooting cars some time ago: http://strobist.blogspot.com/2009/05/what-it-takes-to-light-car.html

September 21, 2011 4:29 PM  
Blogger jason anderson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 21, 2011 4:30 PM  
Blogger gkolanowski said...

Great video and post. I often use a similar technique, setting up the tripod to get a range of daylight and dusk exposures. I then find my best base dusk exposure, with some glow in the windows and a good balance with the sky, and layer in details from other exposures just using a soft edged brush. I might try adding some speedlite exposures to the mix in the future! Thanks!

September 21, 2011 4:52 PM  
Blogger Yugo said...

Very nice. As Alan Lapp commented above, the pre-visualization skills are quite impressive! And the result is lovely as well.

September 21, 2011 5:49 PM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

With the 530 lights (I take it looking at the time lapse) that he is popping the camera from where he is holding the lights....then just erases himself fome that frame.

Could he have dones this painting after the sun goes down with one long bulb shot and light painting? I do see the process but wonder if you can save a few shots and time doing bulb....but great results his way I will try this!

September 21, 2011 6:20 PM  
Blogger willie_901 said...

With regard to ethics: this is no different than any other form of advertising. The stills for new automobile ads are no different than these composite images. Both use lighting and composition to make the product look as attractive as posible.

The purpose of these photos is to get buyers to physically visit the listing and to get buyers' agents (Realtors[TM]) to take their clients there first.

September 21, 2011 6:37 PM  
Blogger dave moser said...

nice work...
Well known and super high end architectural photog Peter Aaron made a presentation about this technique in NYC at the Apple Store a few years ago... he works for places like Architectural Digest... he'd have his assistant move around the room popping accent lights here and there in the scene, and then would spend HOURS in post production. Amazing looking photos, and a technique that's been used for awhile now. Just remember to charge accordingly for post production!

September 21, 2011 6:43 PM  
Blogger The Sentimental Bloke said...

A great post David and full marks to Michael Kelley.
I thought Alan Lapp summed it up pretty well but I think the technique has loads of applications other than architecture too. There's room for artistic expression in even things like landscapes.

September 21, 2011 11:03 PM  
Blogger rogoll said...

I would consider the picutres in his portfolio as looking quiet realistic. Of course some of these pictures are lit to look fantastic, but with the layering technique you make up what the sensor of your digital camera lacks: a greater range in dynamics. Sure, like Tomas mentioned, to have these houses look like this you'd have to turn on every single light in the house at dusk (including the one in your fridge and microwave oven). But still - I think except for some toning it's close to natural light as the eye sees it when the ambient light is perfectly balanced with the interior.

September 22, 2011 4:57 AM  
Blogger Ben Smith said...

Great stuff. We've used a similar technique to take this shot http://www.pikitia.co.nz/#/?id=products&products-id=products86 . Taking this image involved an hour of wadding through the rising underground river in the absolute pitch black, as we worked out how to light every wall! We used two LP160's to take several images and merged them together in photoshop to get the final image.

September 22, 2011 6:33 AM  
Blogger gretsch said...

Thanks Dave. I love BTS vids when they include the pp, if it is so critical to the photo.

Through the process I found myself going "nah, that looks crap, don't like it, nah... oh. Wow. That is pretty frikkin' cool." and desperately looking on the layers to see what he'd turned on to do that. Very clever.

Speaking of which, there is a PS5 free(!) class on at the mo over at CreativeLIVE (days 1 and 2 over, but 3 and 4 today and tomorrow). Well worth a butchers.

September 22, 2011 7:53 AM  
Blogger paplaz said...

I love this shot, it's what I enjoy doing myself. I often get told that it's cheating but hey if it works then whats the issue.

I was asked by my company to photograph a new vehicle, but I have limited lighting, so settled to try lighting in layers.

using just one SB24 on a pole, I lit the vehicle both outside, and inside using the flash towards the windows etc.

I did two vehicles, a 6x6 and 8x8. Only the 6x6 is the correct image on flickr.


September 22, 2011 7:57 AM  
Blogger Domi said...

Very decent work, I'd say.

But why do so many BTS videos have such dreadful and inappropriate music?

September 22, 2011 9:27 AM  
Blogger Ben Hollingsworth said...

@Dave, yes, the GIMP will do this sort of thing just fine. I do it often, though with far fewer layers and not nearly the fantastic finished result. That a limitation of the source photos, though, not with the software. I run Linux, so Photoshop isn't an option for me.

September 22, 2011 10:36 AM  
Blogger Carla! said...

I thought this was great - I don't see anything wrong with making a house look fabulous in a photo, because if you looked at the original photo, who'd want to live there? It looks like a prison. But with mood lighting, it looks like home.
It's nice to have a conscious reminder that the photos we see in magazines, on bank calendars, etc are usually tweaked in some way - and that's not a bad thing :)

September 22, 2011 12:45 PM  
Blogger Rusty Rae said...

Painting with light is painting with light is photography.

September 22, 2011 1:45 PM  
Blogger Ron Matson said...

Nicely done. I use a somewhat similar technique, but I only shoot old machines and do it with a flashlight. See my work at http://how-i-see-it.com/galleries/old-metal/

September 22, 2011 2:59 PM  
OpenID Daniel said...

Thankful to Michael Kelley for sharing his technique. It is true he modifies the images but I think it is appropriate as long as his intent is to enhance the character and qualities the buildings have. When I do architectural photography I similarly use flash lights in an additive way. I feel that by adding light, when done properly, will accentuate the essence of architecture and the image can become experiential not just visual.
I guess I throw in one om my examples too: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ronaszegi/3252203918/in/photostream

September 22, 2011 3:24 PM  
Blogger chuckcars said...

Excellent workmanship. Thanks,

September 22, 2011 3:50 PM  
Blogger Lost Art > Brazil said...

5 SB-800s, 6 Pocket Wizards, 5 assistants (sourced on twitter) and one old building to light:




September 22, 2011 3:58 PM  
Blogger Mike Kelley said...

Thanks so much first and foremost to David for writing about me, and to everyone who has commented and ask questions! I really appreciate all the kind words and the traffic on my site :) You guys are great. I hope I can answer some of your questions. Sorry if this gets confusing.

@Hoodie: Yep, pretty much what David said - most of the pops are at 1/4 to full power on speedlights, where I don't think there is any color shift. Sometimes I gel, sometimes I warm up in post. Depends on the effect/colors I am going for.

@Johnathon Watkins: I've had a few assistants on the bigger jobs, but 80% of my work has no assistant. I am sure that will change in LA as I'd probably want someone to watch over my gear while I run across the street to pop some flashes off!

@Tomas: Advertising, my friend! Jumping off the page and standing out is 90% of the battle in a web-based sales arena.

@kryznic: Search for a tutorial on layer masking or hand-blending exposures. That should help clear up what I do better. It's really just lasso'ing around the highlight, clicking the 'layer mask' button in the layers palette, and voila.

@rogoll: Agreed! What I'm really doing is just making the picture as 'wow' as it would be if you were actually standing there at twilight with the structure lit up. Just needs a little massaging to get to that point.

September 22, 2011 4:02 PM  
Blogger Kevin Blackburn Photography said...

Very cool and interesting approach as our industry grow and technology expands it is amazing to see the techniques that rise

September 22, 2011 4:57 PM  
Blogger JustinCaridi said...

@Mike Kelly, Great work man, way to be inventive and creative. Keep pushing out work that the critics can't keep up with.

@David H. Thanks for sharing this.

September 22, 2011 7:16 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Mike, do you run into problems with unintended camera motion on these shots?

I have a stable tripod and I lock it down, but occasionally I still have motion when I go back to combine exposures in Photoshop. I'd love to hear any tips you have to make sure the camera remains motionless. Do you find it necessary to use mirror lock-up, for instance? Thanks!

September 22, 2011 11:51 PM  
Blogger mitza said...

Great: The guy is a really light painter!

September 23, 2011 3:47 AM  
Blogger Pat Luke - Luke Photography said...

Great stuff. It's the same principle that RIT uses in it's Big Shot series of photos (http://www.rit.edu/~w-bigsho/all_photos_gallery/index.htm)...they just use 800 assistants painting simultaneously with light and shoot one frame. So, is it "real" photography if you need 800 assistants to take a shot?

September 23, 2011 9:01 AM  
Blogger Frank Grygier said...

This photographer shows great ingenuity and problem solving skills in creating an image for his client. Where the photograph ends and the image begins is totally up to the artist.

There is HDR software called Oloneo that has a module that lets you control exposure, color temp. ect. of light in a series of photographs. I may give this a try.

September 23, 2011 10:21 AM  
Blogger Michael Sink said...

Really nice work! Very inspiring!

September 23, 2011 10:34 AM  
Blogger Edward Carlile Photography said...

Brilliant work!
Well done indeed.

September 23, 2011 1:06 PM  
OpenID modifiedphoto said...

Well done. I like the end product. Then again, it seems like an excessive amount of editing just for one image. (Which would be completely understandable if one was being paid extremely well for it. In which case, more power to you.)

I'm willing to bet an HDR technique would yield *similar* (but not exact) results with slightly less work. (Assuming you use the HDR correctly and not make a mess of it by over tone mapping the image.)

September 23, 2011 2:54 PM  
Blogger Baseball Frank said...

Great pictures no doubt. But how much is used for each picture processing? Is this a good ROI?

September 23, 2011 3:46 PM  
Blogger Haristobald said...

Hi David,

I love this technique, it fits perfectly my ''photoshop philosophy''.

Actually, I like to use photoshop only when I shoot for photoshop.

I shot cars in a motorshow with only one strobe last year.

link to the post: http://haristobald.blogspot.com/2010/01/shooting-cars-with-one-strobe.html

September 23, 2011 4:44 PM  
Blogger Spyros Heniadis said...

Wow Mike, amazing work! I have to say I'm not sure I could put in the post time, but I want to give this technique a shot, but I want to use it on some paper machines!

David, thanks for sharing this. Great post!

September 25, 2011 12:39 AM  
Blogger Dave Cearley said...

Great work! There was an article I think in Shutterbug recently detailing another architectural photographer shooting a very large commercial campus using a similar technique. He took shots over eight hours, moved his lights a dozen times, and had to have security turn on interior lights in each section of the building. The end product was a work of art.
I saw another article where a guy was photographing an automobile. He turned off all the lights, and painted the car with a large flashlight.
One point some of you have overlooked, is that the AC3 zone controller allowed him to dial up the exposure he wanted remotely, then fire with the pocketwizard. Pretty cool actually, you can zone your lights, and adjust power for each light remotely. No more walking back and forth to each light.

September 28, 2011 2:38 AM  
Blogger JM said...

Awesome work! I've done a similar thing, lighting a car externally with one flash then layering with the "Lighten" option. Learnt on this very site a few years back and has since garnered me many WOWs. And a few $$s too. You can see one example here. Thanks DH! http://bit.ly/pwxvBE - James Madelin

September 29, 2011 10:53 PM  
Blogger Thomas Hand Keefe said...

Thanks for this post! I love the images and tried it out. I'm actually a real estate agent in NYC but have been a photographer for about 15 years, and I've been slowly figuring out digital (yes, yes, I'm slow, but I learned on film). I've had a great time working to take better and better property photos, and I'm DEFINITELY going to use this technique going forward. Here's my first attempt, using my Dad's house in Wisconsin as my test subject. I'm happy with it!


November 27, 2011 7:23 PM  
Blogger Singapore Interior Design said...

Great pictures! I was wondering if using the HDR technique is a much easier option?

August 19, 2013 10:05 PM  

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