One of my favourite buildings in the country is the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin Mosque – also known as the Iron Mosque due to its stainless-steel clad structure. It’s a very modern building located in the administrative capital, Putrajaya, that still manages to integrate traditional culture and religious cues into its design. These, together with its scale, location on the Putrajaya lakefront and sight lines, make it quite a spectacular building.
Sometimes, one is given some pretty sweet assignments. Quite near the top of that list is a commission to photograph beautiful buildings by one of the country’s – arguably the world’s, too – leading architects with the rare thing of a completely open creative brief. This is the position I found myself in a couple of months ago, camera bag in one hand, Mother Of All (somewhat portable) Tripods in the other, and sheaf of permission letters and permits from Hijjas Kasturi Associates tucked away safe inside the camera bag just in case.
Rather frustratingly, I’d actually typed out a long history about KLCC, but WordPress ate it and it’s nowhere to be found. Here we go again…
The Petronas Twin Towers – 88 stories, and part of the greater KLCC complex (including a park, two hotels, conventionn center, mall, mosque and another two office blocks) – put Malaysia on the map for megaprojects. Opened in 1998, the towers were designed by Cesar Pelli and completed by competing Korean and Japanese firms. It was paid for entirely by petroleum revenues from the eponymous national oil company; during the Asian Financial Crisis, occupancy was low – again with the exception of the name tenant – these days, things are back to normal and space is at a hideous premium, even on an international level. Architecturally, the site is challenging as it’s a former racecourse with very little bedrock and a lot of clay and porous limestone; this is the main reason for putting the taller, heavier structures around the periphery. Even so, extensive piling and foundation works had to be done, and many of the lower basement levels underneath the main towers are filled with concrete to settle the ground and form a floating slab on which some of the other outlying structures sit.
Tokyo must be one of the best places in the world to shoot modern architecture – between the crazy ideas, traditional influences and availability of money to spend on buildings beyond the merely functional. I suppose the incredibly small plot sizes also force architects to make the best use of available space, but at the same time also stand out from their neighbours. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that all buildings are separated by a small – about 6″ – gap; presumably this has something to do with allowing slip in the event of an earthquake. Still, it does look a little odd at times.
Being personally and professionally interested in architecture, I had a field day walking around the city; a couple were shot with the Olympus OM-D and 12/2 is surprisingly good for this combination, though at times I did wish I had something a little wider – perhaps an equivalent for the Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon which is my current mainstay for architectural work. The Sony RX100 covered everything else. Enjoy! MT
If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org); Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it or learn how to achieve a similar look with our Photoshop workflow DVDs. You can also get your gear from Amazon.com via this referral link. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved
Thean Hou temple is a famous Buddhist location just outside Kuala Lumpur, popular as a place of worship during the new year and various lunar festivals. It’s also home to various martial arts groups. The temple belongs to the Selangor and Federal Territory Hainanese association, and was constructed from 1981 with funds donated by the community.
This set shot with an Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini.
I recently shot a commission for the famous Japanese architecture firm Kenzo Tange Associates – whilst I’d heard of them before and seen their work in Japan, I didn’t realize that they had a number of projects closer to home. Turns out there are four buildings in downtown Singapore – all fairly close together – plus another one or two a little further out, and another under construction. And there are some underway in Kuala Lumpur. The scope of this assignment was to get a variety of general exterior views of the buildings during the day, at night and in the context of their environment.
Architectural photography has always been something I’ve done out of personal interest – followers of this site or my flickr page will undoubtedly have noted my predilection for geometry, abstracts and general building form. The interplay of light, shadow, texture, and how the building sits in its environment are something that I pay perhaps an unhealthy amount of attention to. You just know if the design is balanced and ‘feels right’ by looking at whether it dominates the surrounding landscape, if it disappears and looks insignificant, or whether it looks comfortable.
That said, although Singapore is an interesting architectural environment – there are a lot of modern, different cutting edge designs and a huge variety of facade treatments (that’s what happens when you have a lot of money flowing into the country; notably most of the places that spend big on their real estate are banks and malls – go figure) there’s also not a huge amount of landscape left to dominate (and that’s what happens when you’re a small island). This of course means that the dominating landscape is urban and of very high density; from a photographic point of view, this presents a huge number of challenges because of lines of sight and vantage points, not to mention permits, access and the like – you’ll need permits to shoot from somebody’s property, even if you’re not taking photos of their property itself.
Since real estate is expensive, everything is high rise. The challenge then becomes perspective: how do you find the right position to get a perspective that somehow looks natural, but at the same time isn’t blocked by a huge amount of other stuff? It all depends on location. Some buildings can be shot from their plazas with a wide angle (though this is quite conventional and boring); across the street from another building’s rooftop (if the height is right, and the street is wide enough); or much further down the street with a telephoto. Ideally, you’d want a helicopter at low height and a telephoto, but that isn’t practical most of the time.
Perspective is very important here because anything too wide will look unnatural; this isn’t how the eye sees it. I find when shooting architecture that the best results aren’t from extreme angles: they’re from natural perspectives and details; you want to be able to appreciate the building from a human perspective, because that’s how and why the damn thing was designed in the first place. It’s great if it makes a stool for King Kong, but an architectural failure if the podium steps are too high for people to climb easily.
That said, shooting in tight confines requires you to get creative. Although you do want to see the whole building, there’s nothing wrong with focusing in on the details and going for some degree of abstraction; I’m sure every architect wants the attention to detail in their work to be seen. I know I would.
For this assignment, I shot exclusively Leica; their M wide angles are superb, and much superior to anything available for the Nikon F system, though the Zeiss 21/2.8 runs pretty close. The other reason why I went with the Leica system was weight: there’d be as lot of moving around on foot to get the best angles and unique perspectives, which means schlepping everything around like a mule. Lightness is your friend. Oh, and don’t forget that the heavier your camera, the more rigid (and thus, heavier) your support needs to be.
Sadly, there are no tilt-shift lenses for Leica M; in any case, they wouldn’t have been wide enough in some of the quarters I was working in. I used the new 21/3.4 Super Elmar ASPH M with finder, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE and 50/0.95 ASPH. In hindsight, the noctilux was not the best choice for this – not because of its optics, but because I never used anything larger than f5.6 (you do want everything in focus, and critically sharp, everywhere). I wanted the 50/2.5 Summarit, but turns out it was on loan already. Oh well. The 21 and 35 performed superbly, as expected. In fact, I was surprised by just how good the 21 was – even wide open, in the corners. I think I’ll need to do a full review of this lens in future. Suffice to say, if you don’t need the f1.4 speed of the ‘lux – it’s a no-brainer. (Aside: I owned and shot with the 21/1.4 ASPH as my primary lens extensively during the M8 days, on which it became a handy fast 28mm; however, it wasn’t great for architecture because of the distortion and ever so slight field curvature. Also, overkill when you need f5.6 and smaller.). A D-Lux 5 Titanium rode shotgun for spontaneous shots and the B-roll for this article (due to licensing reasons, I obviously can’t use the original images.) I also used the S2, 30mm and 70mm lenses for some of the daylight work.
On the support side, I used my old Manfrotto 444 Carbon One – I think this thing must be at least ten years old by now, if not more. I got it used from a friend. Whilst it’s rigid and relatively light, I’d still like something lighter for travel – especially if I’m not putting anything heavier on it than a Leica M. Perhaps one of those Gitzo 00 series things. The problem is I can’t justify one because I do so little tripod work. The head – very important – was my favorite Manfrotto 468RC2 Hydrostat bullhead. This thing is amazing: it locks at any angle, with no ‘droop’ – either it’s locked, or it isn’t. As far as I know, it uses some sort of vacuum system and teflon rollers, but I haven’t needed (or wanted) to take it apart.
I can’t help but wonder if a V-Lux 3 with it’s excellent 24-600mm lens and a much lighter tripod would have been a better way to go – perhaps something to experiment with in future. All cameras are more than capable of deliverin the required results at base ISO and shooting RAW, anyway.
One final note about processing: to maintain optimum quality throughout the tonal range, I shot at base (160) ISO and did something I rarely do and used a two-stop HDR on the night shots – there’s simply too much difference between the spotlit parts of the building and the deep shadows – easily four or five stops. There are right and wrong ways to use HDR, and that’s a discussion I’ll save for a future article. MT
This post was brought to you by Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!
Although most architectural images are shown with nothing but the building, in a vaguely abstracted product-shot-kind-of-way, I personally find the images I like best are the ones which have some human scale or context included; it’s otherwise tough to gauge scale of the building, how it fits into its environment, and more importantly, how does the end user perceive it? Do they use the intended main entrances and traffic routes, or like water, do people find a path of lower resistance? Are there flow routes that the designers didn’t envision, i.e. connections between two back streets? Does the vehicular circulation work? How does the facade look from a human perspective? Once again, it comes back down to understanding something about your subject before you shoot it. MT
This building is one of the more interesting in downtown Kuala Lumpur – mainly because of its highly reflective mirrored glass surface that causes its character to change with the light; it blends into its surrounding environment by reflecting it, yet stands out because it doesn’t look anything like the surrounding windowless concrete shopping plazas. Coincidentally, it also contains the offices of Leica Malaysia. MT
Series shot with a Leica M9-P and Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1.
I still haven’t found a camera that can quite capture the luminous nature of reflections in glass – they all either seem to make it look too ‘solid’, or too transparent; I suspect it has something to do with the sensor filtration or the transmission properties of the lenses used.
Here’s a second interesting thought: why don’t camera makers match the spectral response of the sensor to that of the human eye, rather than limit it to an arbitrary range of wavelengths? Our eyes don’t work that way, and that’s probably why it’s so darned difficult to capture exactly what we see. MT