Every day, over 1,500 planes take off and land at Los Angeles International Airport; on average, about one plane goes down a runway every minute. It’s the sixth busiest airport in the world, and last Sunday, LA photographer Mike Kelley spent the afternoon photographing every single departure from one complex to make this stunning composite image.
It was a spontaneous project. “I was down at the airport a week ago with a friend of mine watching planes take off and land, and thinking it would be really cool if I could get all of the planes into one picture,” Kelley says. “Then on Sunday I woke up and it was unbelievably clear. If you’ve ever been to LA, to be able to see as far as you can is a once-in-a-year kind of thing.”
He decided to head to the airport to take a test shot; eight hours later, it was going so well he was still there, with hundreds of photos. He headed home with a sunburn–since he didn’t want to leave to buy sunscreen and move the camera–and then kept working until 4 a.m. to put the image together, using compositing techniques in Photoshop that he normally uses in his work as an architectural photographer.
The final image includes 75 photographs out of nearly 400, with some domestic planes edited out. “I didn’t love it when there were literally 40 American Airlines 737s and just as many United 737s, so I made sure to keep it more internationally flavored,” he says. He also moved the planes slightly left and right so they wouldn’t overlap.
Kelley, who has a lifelong obsession with aviation and is working on getting a pilot’s license, hopes to continue the project and is talking with LAX about the possibility of taking more shots from a tower inside the airport. He would also like to repeat the experiment at other airports, though LAX is uniquely located near a hill that allows for perfect shots.
“It’s rare that you find an airport that has a view like that,” he says.