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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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