Behind the Lens: Photographer Luke Kelly Shares His Wanderlust
Next, in our BEHIND THE LENS series where we feature the talented IMAGE MAKERS living and working in the Hudson Valley, Inside+Out catches up with travel photographer Luke Kelly. Born in Red Hook, New York, Luke has traversed the world capturing breathtaking images from National Parks to majestic mountains and more. It’s pretty obvious this self-taught adventure photographer is having the time of his life! And 62K followers on Instagram virtually travel along. With a mission to experience as much of the world as possible, Luke Kelly joyfully documents and shares his adventures abroad, through the US, and here at home in the Hudson Valley. When he’s not out taking pictures, you might see. him on his paddleboard, road bike, or skis depending on the season.
I’m totally in awe of the places I go and always want to take photos that capture how it feels to be there while putting my own creative spin on what I see. I want my images to do justice to how gorgeous it is to see a National Park or a mountain range like the Catskills. I’ve learned that you can never fully do a landscape justice in a photo, but sometimes you can get damn close.
Inside+Out Upstate NY: Where do you live and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?
Luke Kelly: I was born in the Hudson Valley and grew up in the town of Red Hook. The Hudson Valley was an awesome place to grow up because of its natural beauty and access to the outdoors. We were always outside in the late 90s and early 2000s, running around in the fields and woods, coming up with our own adventures. It’s definitely where my love for the outdoors was born. I left the area for a few years and traveled all over the world in my 20s. I lived between Seattle and Southeast Alaska for a bit, but I ultimately moved back to the Hudson Valley. It’s home. My fiancee Victoria and I recently moved to Millbrook, and we really like living here.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a photographer, and how did you get your start?
It’s funny; I never had any intention of becoming a photographer. I just loved to travel. I’d work all summer on the salmon boat in Alaska and then use my earnings to go on the next trip. As an afterthought, I always brought an old camera on my travels, just to document my experiences and share the photos with my family when I got home. I also started occasionally posting my pictures on Facebook–I noticed that people seemed to like them. Slowly, over the better part of a decade, I realized that I had an eye for photography. More importantly, I realized that was something I’d become passionate about. So I started seriously pursuing photography around 2016 and honing my skills. I’ve been putting my heart into it ever since.
Tell us about your style of photography and your photo journey.
I’m primarily a travel and landscape photographer and mostly shoot in natural light. I love photographing expansive landscapes in spectacular mountain ranges and typically shoot early in the morning or late in the evening when the light is at its most dramatic. I always look for natural frames, colorful foregrounds, and something to give the landscape a sense of scale. I want the viewer to feel like they are there when they look at one of my pictures. My photo journey has been a pretty long one and being self-taught, my style has evolved slowly over many years. There was a lot of trial and error to understand what makes a photograph interesting. I genuinely believe the best way to learn is through experience, and I’ve taken thousands of bad photos for every good one. I still have so much to learn, and my goal is to keep growing and improving every year.
Your photos beautifully capture the uniqueness of a place and the magic of being at the right place at the right time. How does the Hudson Valley compare with all your travels?
I think about this a lot, especially after coming home from a long trip away. Driving over the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge and seeing the Catskills and the Hudson Valley before you is something special. The landscape is inviting in a pastoral kind of way. It might not be as majestic or spectacular as some of the places out West, but it has what my grandmother used to call a “softer beauty” about it. It also stands out because it’s steeped in history, and each town has its own unique character. I’ve always said that geographically speaking, the Hudson Valley is a great location–partly because of its proximity to New York, but also because it has a little bit of everything. If you want to explore, the Catskills and Gunks are right there. If you’re going to get out on the water, there’s the Hudson River, not to mention hundreds of ponds and lakes. We also have an incredible food and art scene, which brings a lot of energy and life to the area.
And for me, most of all, it’s the people here. There’s a real sense of community in many of these Hudson Valley towns, and I think that’s really important. People tend to see the value in supporting “local”. Not every place has that, so we’re lucky in that regard.
What has been your favorite travel destination so far?
Honestly, it’s hard to choose just one. There’s a handful of places I felt connected to. Places that have blown me away with the scenery, history, and generosity of the people there: Patagonia, New Zealand, and Nepal always come to mind. But if I had to choose one, I’d probably have to say Southeast Alaska.
I spent four summers working as a commercial salmon fisherman there to fund my travels, and it was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I’m just really taken by that part of Alaska–the wildlife, the scenery, the strong-willed people that live there year-round–it’s a fascinating part of the country. I’ve been there seven or eight times now, and I’ll keep going back as often as possible.
How did Covid and travel bans impact you, your work, your wanderlust?
Well, it definitely made it more challenging to travel abroad. I haven’t been off of the continent since 2019. So I shifted my focus to photographing and exploring the United States and Canada. There’s so much to see in the US regarding parks, monuments, and wilderness areas. You could spend a lifetime exploring here and not see it all. As far as Covid affecting my wanderlust, it kind of put things into perspective. I love traveling and taking pictures, but not being able to travel for a while was a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things. Throughout 2020, I became a little more cognizant of my physical and mental health and that of my family and friends. I think that year gave us a better sense of the really important things in life. If anything, it made me realize that you can’t take a single day or experience for granted. My wanderlust will always be there–now I’m just looking forward to getting back on the move and doing more of what I love.
What type of camera equipment do you use? Do you shoot videos as well?
These days, I’m a big fan of the Sony Mirrorless cameras. When I go on trips, I usually shoot with my Sony a7II and a couple of different lenses. I also bring the lightweight Sony a6000 for long hikes or backpacking and mountaineering trips. I’m a big believer in the saying, “the best camera is the one you have with you.” So I’ll also take many photos with the iPhone 13 Pro when I don’t have a Sony with me. The cameras on that phone are excellent, and you can get some really cool shots by putting yourself in the right place at the right time.
Social media is definitely trending towards video these days, so I’m starting to experiment with it more. I’m finding that many of the same rules of photography apply to video. I recently got a Mavik Air 2S Drone, which I’m really stoked to take into the Gunks and Catskills and start shooting some aerial footage of the area.
Describe your creative process.
I start the process by doing some research before a shoot, so I know what I will do before I get there. I’ll check the weather, pay close attention to what time the sun rises and sets, and figure out which angles might make for the best photos. I think all good landscape photographers are really keen observers. When it’s go-time, I’ll drive or hike out to my location, a lot of times solo or in the dark, and try to get there just before “golden hour,” when I know the light will be at its best. Then I start shooting. I move around and experiment with different angles and settings until I figure out the shot I want to capture. I take a lot of photos. When I get home from a trip, I sit down (always with a coffee in hand) and pick out my favorite photos from the shoot. Those are the ones that I’ll edit in Lightroom and eventually post and try to sell. This is pretty much the typical creative process behind making a landscape photo.
You seem to have a lot of fun while capturing the world around you. What is one question you’re constantly asked and what’s the biggest misconception about your work?
I am often asked about my solo travels and what goes into that, rather than the work itself. The most common questions people ask me are: What do you do if you’re alone and encounter wildlife? Do you ever get lonely or scared? Where do you sleep when you’re camping solo, in a tent, or car?
If there’s any misconception about my work, it’s that good photos easily happen just because I’m in a beautiful place. I always have fun, but I put a lot of work into getting the right shot. Often, I go without sleep, hike miles, and deal with the elements and conditions in the mountains. You have to put in the effort to make sure that you’re in the right spot at the right time with landscape photography. And sometimes, it just comes down to getting lucky with the light and weather.
How do you grow your business / how do your clients find you?
I try to grow my business by being as proactive as possible. It’s hard for artists to be self-promoters and put a price tag on their work. But if you want to sell your art, you have to be and do just that. So I try to remind myself to go on offense. I let people know what I’m selling–whether it’s prints, calendars, notecards, or if I’m looking for a speaking engagement–through a number of different platforms online. The internet is a powerful tool.
On a more local level, I try to get my name and photos in print whenever possible. And, I’ve been grateful to local publications that have helped promote my work and story over the years: The Poughkeepsie Journal, Millerton News, and Living Rhinebeck Magazine. Finally, there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned face-to-face interactions. I’m always happy to talk about my passion for traveling and photos and tell people what I’m doing. Word of mouth, especially around here, still goes a long way for finding business and opportunities.
Do you leverage social media to get work, and how is that working for you?
I definitely leverage social media to get work. It’s been a super useful tool for growing my business, making sales, networking, and finding new opportunities around photography. Instagram and Facebook are the two platforms I use most. Social media has been great for making connections and establishing a community around traveling and photography. It’s endlessly fascinating that I can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in real-time. And it’s awesome when someone in Europe, Australia, or wherever buys one of my photos. On the flip side, social media can be a huge time suck and a negative place if you allow yourself to scroll mindlessly. So I try to be really conscious about how I use it and try to make sure that social media is something that’s benefitting me and helping me grow, rather than wasting my time. I treat it with a lot of respect.
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What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I’m just starting to plan some adventures for this summer. I love the anticipation that comes with planning a big trip. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going yet, but Tori and I have been talking about going to the Faroe Islands or the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. So I’m really excited to travel again.
Also, a company called Blanc Puzzles recently turned one of my photos into a puzzle being sold nationwide at Target and on Amazon. So I’m in the process of trying to get a second puzzle made and distributed. I’d be really stoked about that. It’s been fantastic to hear from people all over the country who have finished the puzzle and enjoyed doing it.
What makes it special and unique to live and work in the Hudson Valley?
The first thing that comes to mind is the people here. There are many fascinating people upstate doing some really cool things, and they believe in the importance of community. There’s a lot of support for local artists and creators in the Hudson Valley, and I really appreciate the support that they’ve given me. What also makes it unique is that it has a rural, picturesque character, but at the same time, New York City is just a short drive or train ride down the Hudson. Having that connection to the city brings a real pulse to the area. And for a photographer and outdoors person like me, there’s really no shortage of natural inspiration.
What impact does your business have on your town/community?
I hope that my local photos help people appreciate the Hudson Valley’s unique scenery and inspire them to explore the region – it really does have so much to offer. With my travel photography, writing, and speaking at local schools, I hope to inspire a few people to do what they’re really passionate about. People know deep down inside what they’d really like to be doing, but for whatever reason–whether it’s fear or societal pressure–they don’t pursue it. I want to send the message, either through my work or by example, that it’s never too late to do the things you’ve always dreamed of. You just have to be willing to take the first step and go for it.
What would be your dream assignment?
I’d love to take a boat down to Antarctica and photograph the wildlife and scenery. It’s the only continent I haven’t been to yet, so that’s the dream.
What would be your dream local Staycation
My dream local Staycation would be to have a week of camping and fly fishing in the Catskills. I’d have a fire every night and books to read. I’d drink coffee by the lakeside and soak in the quiet of the morning. One of these summers, I’m going to finally make it happen!
What is your current state of mind?
Hopeful and optimistic. I’m in a groove with my work, Spring is finally here, and Summer trips are on the horizon. There’s a lot to look forward to.
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Connect with Upstate NY Photographer Luke Kelly