Mike Kelley's Leap of Faith

It's a truism that creative growth is nonlinear.

Which is to say that, while we (hopefully) do improve steadily over time, meaningful growth happens in fits and starts. You have an experience of some sort, and after you come out of it you realize you will never be the same photographer again.

Now, while you certainly can wait for someone to hand you that experience on a platter, doing so is putting the ball in someone else's hands. Which is fine if you are both patient and lucky.

Or, you can do what architectural photographer Mike Kelley did, and decide to make it happen on your own.

Have Speedlight, Will Travel

You may remember Mike from this previous article, in which he detailed his techniques for shooting sophisticated architectural photos using a DSLR, a super-wide, a PocketWizard and a single speedlight. He mostly shoots high-end houses for commercial clients.

But rather than settle for portfolio homogeneity dictated by his clients, he made the decision to hire himself into a dream assignment—one that could redefine his portfolio and show potential clients that he could be trusted for "stretch" jobs.

So he went to Iceland to shoot architecture.

Why? Because he felt it was being visually neglected—at least when it came to his style of layered-light shooting. And as obtuse as that reasoning might sound, "because no one else is doing it" might well be the very best reason to try something like this.

Think early-career Chase Jarvis. His self assignments included a hell week that yielded underwater divers, night golf and a series of carjacking photos. All lit and shot on medium format digital. The insta-folio wasn't cheap or easy, but Chase will tell you that it absolutely jacked his career up a few notches.

Similarly, Mike set out to stretch his portfolio. On his three-week trip his subject matter ranged from, "Modernist churches and homes to original settlement-era homes and structures, as well as herring-era factories and museums. The list goes on…"

You know, I'm just gonna state for the record that I'll bet an art director has never said, "Herring-era Icelandic factories? Yeah, we see that stuff all the time."

Funding the Trip

Kelley budgeted $5,000.00 and three weeks for the trip. It may sound like a lot, but it is all a matter or priorities. You just have to ask yourself, "Are you worth a five-thousand dollar investment? Is your career?"

Not being independently wealthy, these were not easy questions. And true to his photographic technique and style, he got great value for his dollar. He worked out a partnership deal to get his necessarily rugged wheels for very cheap. And he slept in the vehicle many nights to compound his savings. (In the end, he said he came in under budget.)

He bartered prints for a place to crash at night, further leveraging the contacts for valuable local information on subjects to shoot. He picked the brains of Icelandic architects and museum curators. In other words, the necessity of needing to save money both yielded better subjects and helped him grow his preproduction and research skills.

Said Mike:

This local knowledge and help proved absolutely indispensable when it came to getting the exact shots I wanted of the locations I wanted. And I'm confident that if I hadn't done the networking I had beforehand, the project wouldn't have been nearly as successful.

I will say, however, that this is easier in tiny little Iceland than in most other parts of the world. People were ready and totally willing to help however they could, and wouldn't even let me try to repay them in any way. It's just a different world there, and it's hard to imagine receiving the same kindness in a city like LA, DC, or NYC.

Actually, Mike, it's a different world everywhere. Which is one of the great things you learn when you jump into the deep end on a project like this. Besides, I've got your back if you need to do this in DC. And I'll bet you could find someone for LA and NYC, too.

And while he was bent on keeping expenses low, he knew it was important to take care of himself. Every few nights he would splurge on a hotel room, or maybe a beer or hamburger—each of which could run $10 a pop. He says food was one of his largest unescapable expenses.

On the Road

So, what's it like to be in Iceland on a self-funded architectural treasure hunt? I'll let Mike tell it:

I was there for three weeks, and traveled alone the whole time—which to be honest, got a little scary at times. (That will happen when you're 70 miles from the nearest town trying to find an abandoned farmhouse at twilight.)

I tried to sleep where appropriate, or when the light wasn't there, which usually meant during the day or very late at night. 'Twilight' can last from 9pm until midnight or later, and it was hard for me to put the camera down—I was so freakin' excited.

The constantly-changing weather conditions always kept me on my toes, too, which led to me jumping out of my car on more than one occasion to capture some fleeting light or cloud formation when it was perfectly oriented above a building.

For example, the large black church that looks like a volcano with the 'god light' right above it [Ed. Note: The photo at top] -- that scene lasted maybe a minute and I have never run so fast to get set up and make the shot happen! I feel like the weather cooperated when I needed it to, which is very lucky in a place like Iceland.

Sounds boring, huh? Who'd want to spend three weeks doing that?

The Big Question:

I asked him straight up. All-in, would you do it again?

I have an absolutely insatiable desire to do this again. I thought that after doing this, I'd finally have it all out of my system, and I could just lay low for awhile and stay put. Now that I've done it, I want to do it again...and again. It was without a doubt the most fulfilling thing that I've ever worked on in my relatively short photographic career.

Every time I look at the images from the trip, I can't help but think about the amazing people I met, the incredible locations I visited, or how much fun I had on my little adventure. It will certainly be happening again.

It also taught me how much more important it is to spend money on experiences rather than chasing the latest camera tech. I'd shoot with a Rebel every day for the rest of my life if it meant I was able to do something like this on a regular basis.

Read that last paragraph again, 'cause that pretty much sums it up.

"But I'm Not an Architectural Photographer."

Fine. So what do you shoot? And do you ever hit plateaus?

Of course you do. We all do. So let's flip this around for a second. Let's say you are a wedding photographer. And you want to stand out from all of the other 18 gazillion wedding shooters in your town.

What if you were to put aside some time in the slower season to invest in yourself? What if you did a little research, a little six-degrees-of-separation digging around and found some weddings around the world to shoot during your downtime. Maybe rural Mexico. Or South America. Or Eastern Europe. Or Cambodia.

People get married all over the world, every day. I am already seeing photos in my mind and I'll bet you are, too.

And think of what you have to offer: wedding photos to your subjects, gratis. Photography is a currency. Be willing to spend it.

So, how to fund it? What if you reserved the income from three weddings a year, stretched your budget like Mike did and devoted each of those paychecks to a self-funded wedding photography trip?

Easy? No. You'd need to make some sacrifices. But fast-forward a couple of years and you'd have a portfolio that included not only your local stuff, but wedding imagery from cultures and places all around the world.

How powerful would that be? What would that say to potential clients?

First off, your photos are going to be wonderfully varied and unique. But on another level, it would show a commitment to documenting love and marriage that would speak to your potential clients in a way none of your local competitors could match.

In fact, whether you are shooting buildings or weddings or sports or insects or whatever: this is how commitment expresses itself.

So, take a moment to get a good look at Mike's work. I'll hazard to guess that his portfolio, still largely commercial jobs dictated by clients, is going to be changing pretty quickly from here on out—both via his self-generated work and the new opportunities his commitment to himself will be bringing.

All photos ©2012 Michael Kelley


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Blogger Le Grand Lapin said...

Spectacular work, well earned. Advancement comes only with risk and a spirit of adventure. You can't buy that from a camera store.

November 12, 2012 10:27 AM  
Blogger Ty Troutman said...

Wow! This is the most inspiring article I've read all year! And I'm a scientist!

November 12, 2012 10:34 AM  
Blogger LidoCasino said...

Kelley seems to have it down. Anything, money or time, spent stretching yourself out is well spent. I like doing architectural photography. It's pretty, it's ugly, it's new or old but most of all it sits still.

November 12, 2012 12:39 PM  
Blogger Michele Zafico said...

What a brave and inspirational story, and such beautiful work. Thank you for sharing!

November 12, 2012 2:04 PM  
Blogger Michele Zafico said...

What an inspirational and brave story, and such beautiful work. Thank you for sharing!

November 12, 2012 2:05 PM  
Blogger Zoë Gemelli said...

David, I rarely comment on your site even though I read it pretty passionately. But, this one truly hit a chord with me. I've been dreaming of doing this kind of thing for a while but always get blocked by the funding issue. I truly believe that the desire to make it happen has finally hit that crucial tipping point with this piece. Portraits of people around the world ala David DuChemin and Joey L can become reality when the desire to make it happen outweighs the need to make money while doing it. Thank you immensely for this virtual kick in the butt!

November 12, 2012 2:07 PM  
OpenID Sean said...

David, thank you for all of your posts, it always starts off my week on a good note, reading latest articles, and well as trawling for gems I have missed. This article resonated very well with me. Terrific work Mike, I think you just inspired a whole lot of people!

November 12, 2012 3:11 PM  
Blogger RJ Ohrstedt said...

How inspiring and such wonderful images. Just going full time portraits and weddings I can't go over seas but I 'LLC be tromping around rural Georgia later thus week.

November 12, 2012 4:37 PM  
Blogger Scott Purdin said...

Great shots. Iceland seems to be a favorite for photographers, but I am beginning to think that no people live in Iceland, just buildings and sheep here and there;)

November 12, 2012 5:30 PM  
Blogger R. J. Kern said...

Effing, eh. This is why I read this blog. Hit home, hard. Hell, I'd buy his gallery print just to support him. And I think that's what us artsy types are ALL about.

November 12, 2012 10:57 PM  
Blogger Steve Gray said...

Thanks for posting this, David. This is a great country to visit and photograph, and now after reading Mike's story, I'm really longing for a return trip. (And the real thrust of the post is dead-nuts perfect. Thank you for the very timely inspiration!)

November 13, 2012 8:31 AM  
Blogger CMurray said...

Loved reading this and I just shoot for fun - isn't it a great feeling to save up for something that you really want - a sense of accomplishment and he has some great photos to show for it, too.
This has me looking at my budget!

November 13, 2012 10:58 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Do it while you are vertical!

TIme and time again, I hear "some day". I say, schedule your sick leave before it schedules YOU!

Many go to Yosemite to take the same image that Ansel took, Galen took, Michael Frye took. If you go, find something that we haven't seen before!

Mike Kelley found a different angel on Iceland since all the good landscapes have already been taken and is showing us the unseen. This is good!

My mentor of the past forty years Al Weber even wrote a book about what Mike is doing, called "Advice for Photographers: The Next Step." Mike is a natural of what Weber explains regarding the following your of one's passion.

Keep it going, Mike!

Larry Angier

November 13, 2012 7:43 PM  
Blogger Vincent Morretino said...

What a great article for me to use as my first ever comment on this site.

I shot a wedding in Poland back in August, for free. It was my wife's cousin's wedding, and we were due for a trip there anyways, so everything worked out perfect.

The experience was something I definitely learned from; I was only able to communicate with gestures as my Polish is terrible and the bride and groom speak very little English, and no one was around to help me when I needed it.

The photos really add to my portfolio, as they are not the typical settings/customs that American wedding traditions follow.

I'm about to send the album to the printer, then shipping everything overseas in time for Christmas :)

November 14, 2012 9:45 PM  
Blogger John F. Williams said...

I love your quote "Photography is a currency. Be willing to spend it." Too often we think only in pure monetary terms, but if photography gains us access to something we are passionate about, than that is just as important and will lead to rewards down the road.

November 15, 2012 11:41 AM  
Blogger JGrubbs said...

Great article, i really enjoyed reading it. When he goes and sets off different manual flash pops on architecture, how does he get the camera to fire from there since he has no assistant? or is it a long exposure and he runs back and forth? cant help but wonder.

November 16, 2012 5:23 AM  
Blogger Dave Willis said...

I just posted a link to this for all my foundation photography students at college and insisted they read this before coming in next week. This one post will be more useful to them than any tech skills I may teach!

November 16, 2012 9:11 AM  
Blogger Sutton said...

Wonderful work!

November 18, 2012 2:39 PM  
Blogger 24pfilms said...

Wow this really rings true for me.
I have been doing a similar venture for about 9 months now, also focusing on architecture.
And funny enough I have been doing it with a Canon Rebel T2i.
I have travelled from South America, to Berlin and presently in Sintra, Portugal. I have sponsored my nomadic life by doing photography and video on the road to put food on my table and a roof over my head...and it has worked..well.

My hat is off to anyone who chooses this life experience...for me it has opened my mind and my eyes to so many great locations, people and life experiences.

Thanks Strobist for running this. I see a lot of myself in Mike's discoveries.

In respect Taylor Moore

December 07, 2012 7:11 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Hey Garret-

Got your comment but did not publish it because it contained your email addy. Thanks for the kind words and congrats on your success.

If you want to show me pics, just leave an URL where I can see it in the comments. That's what everyone else does!


January 05, 2013 10:23 PM  
Blogger Garret Scurr said...

Thanks to this post I was inspired to move to Nicaragua and shoot a few local weddings. I have included a link to some of the images from the first local wedding I have shoot here. Thanks for the inspiration to help motivate us on our photographic path David Hobby.


January 07, 2013 8:18 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Very cool! How awesome, to get thrown into another culture and to be able to make wedding photos that will stand out from the crowd. Enjoy your time in Central America and keep shooting!

January 07, 2013 9:17 PM  

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