Photographer Mike Kelley.
Photographer Mike Kelley.

Photographer Mike Kelley talks about capturing spaces on camera

The interior and architecture photography specialist dwells on why visuals can make or break a project

Recently in Dubai to conduct architecture and interior photography workshops for the 15th edition of the Gulf Photo Plus Week, well-known American photographer Mike Kelley, who gets commissioned by top architecture firms and consumer brands around the world, shares his perspective on shooting for interior spaces and his views on the architecture in the emirate.

Shooting for print vs social media
Everything looks better in print. Bizarrely, on social media, the dumbest and the most common denominator photos often get the most engagement. In print, it’s a completely different perspective. Most designers and architects would rather see their photos in a print publication than have the short shelf-life of an Instagram post. What can look great as a double spread in a magazine can become just a tiny square on social media. I shoot more wide horizontals, and a few verticals for details. I would say that I don’t shoot for Instagram; I’d much rather shoot for publications.

Designers often get fussy with details and say, “look at the door handle, or the inlay”. But when I walk into that front door, and I see that epic view, that’s the shot I want. You want the “wow” reaction shot. It wouldn’t kill to design for the camera.

The objective of every shot is to create a sense of wonder. 

Challenges while working on interior spaces
There are difficult commissions and then there are challenging ones. Sometimes, there are difficult clients and challenging situations. I have done high pressure advertising gigs such as Tesla motors and Herman Miller. Some shoots are gruelling from a physical point of view. Then there are assignments where I’m on site shooting from sunrise to sunset and running on five hours of sleep. I did a book project, which spanned 50 locations in three months, photographing 50 most iconic architectural buildings in Los Angeles built in the past 10 years.

The lighting needs to be right
I always assess the lighting in the space first. It can make or break a photo. Trends in magazines are cyclical. Now, we’re in a natural-lit phase, whereas 10 years ago, it was more artificial. I prefer a softer directional light rather than the harsh direct sunlight. Light from behind the camera tends to flatten every detail out. You lose the depth as you are trying to capture a three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional photo. I try to find the light that accentuates furniture, textures and shapes.

Interior design photography is basically graphic design with a camera. We move objects, to bring out the colours and shapes. We’re literally designing an image that will look good and highlight itself. Perpendicular brightness or lighting coming into the camera towards you will imbue it with a gentle soft feel.

Convincing design firms to invest in photography
If there’s one place to spend your marketing dollars, it should be good photography. Photographs can make or break a design firm. If you need to be convinced about investing in these assets, you’re in the wrong place already. It should be a no-brainer — it’s like paying taxes. Architects and designers live and die by their photos, and want to see them published. No one cares about renders; people want to see the real space.

Design in the UAE
This place is extremely interesting to me from an architecture standpoint. The building regulations allow for far more creativity than we see back in the US. There is a lot more experimentation. Not everything is successful but there are some wildly successful icons. Light here is sublime. It’s an extremely fast growing city — there are growing pangs obviously, but it’s an interesting melting pot of people. 

Natural lighting is the current flavour of the season. 

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is beyond any comparison. Burj Khalifa, both inside and outside, is one of the most tasteful pieces of architecture in the world ever created. It’s amazing how [they] designed the first supertall building, and knocked it out of the park on the first attempt itself. The vernacular architecture here (what was designed without architects), is a hodgepodge of buildings that don’t necessarily work on their own, but together, it’s beautiful in an organic way, and the way they have helped the city evolve.

On their own, there isn’t a lot of beauty on a day-to-day basis, but put together it has a crazy aesthetic, kind of like Tokyo, which has a crazy collection of buildings, too. The two cities (Tokyo and Dubai) have different colour palette obviously, but there is a crazy freedom to build homes and businesses and advertisement boards on the side of them.

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