Mike Kelley specializes in industrial and architectural photography, but his real distinctive difference is his choice for a studio. Over the last two years, Kelley has taken to the skies above LA in a helicopter to obtain a sometimes eerie and other times breathtaking collection of images unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

LAX Terminal 3

With the goal of creating a book that illustrated the essence of Los Angeles from above, Kelley invested tens of thousands of dollars in flight time. All told, the project has taken five different pilots, three different helicopter charter operations and over 35 helicopter flights. Kelley utilized all three of the Robinson helicopter models (R-22, R-44 and R-66) - always with the door removed, the chilly wind and rotor downdraft in his face and Kelley dangling precariously out of the aircraft to get the perfect angle.


The 110/10 interchange

Venice skate park at sunset


Los Feliz, Hollywood, Burbank and the Valley

These unbelievable images brilliantly display Kelley’s skill behind the lens, and his self-published book project has very recently come to fruition via a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Unless you’ve actually tried aerial photography (and no, your iPhone camera through an airliner’s double-pane window doesn’t count) you may not appreciate how incredibly difficult composing a shot while suspended in mid-air can be.


LAX from above


Downtown Los Angeles

Pt. Dume, Malibu


Surfers at Surfrider Beach in Malibu

Long Beach

Aerial photography projects always begin with a pre-flight meeting of the pilot and photographer. Once photo targets have been prioritized, the pilot must then formulate a strategy to put the photographer close enough to the target while working around temporary flight restrictions (TFR’s) in the area, all while being mindful of noise abatement protocols and especially the airspace rules around the many airports in the Los Angeles basin.


With this in mind, Kelley’s shots over LAX are particularly amazing. Accessing that airspace required the ideal confluence of good weather, no irregularities in that day’s operations, a very friendly air traffic controller and a pilot who remained in that controller’s good graces. Even if all of those factors align perfectly, the photographer only has a fraction of a second to capture the moment.

Horse stables at Santa Anita Raceway in Pasadena


Lufthansa A340 pushes back

Downtown Los Angeles under stormy skies


757 on LAX 25R

Santa Monica Mountains


LAX Long Term Parking, Lot C

Ship at anchor near the Port of Long Beach


Santa Monica beachgoers during the golden hour

Kelley took thousands of images on each flight, but out of those only a very few (ten or fewer) were ultimately usable. Some flights produced nothing useful for the project, which is a “fast way to burn cubic dollars per hour,” Kelley says. Despite the two year process and massive investment of Kelley’s resources, the end results are truly stunning.


Sailboats near the Balboa Peninsula

Freeways snake around LA and reflect the setting sun, creating an otherworldly scene


Whether you’re a lifelong Angeleno or have no intention of ever visiting La La Land, these images bring Los Angeles to life and provide a perspective previously unseen.

The book, entitled LA Airspace | A Photo Book of Los Angeles From Above will be hand-bound in Los Angeles and is scheduled to ship this fall.

Photo credit: Mike Kelley

Follow the author on Twitter: @collinkrum