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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