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.
The afternoon didn’t start off well, actually. Though I left my office in downtown Kuala Lumpur for the shoot location in Putrajaya with plenty of time to spare – 4pm, for an estimated 6.45pm blue hour and 7.30pm complete sunset – traffic was very, very heavy. And Putrajaya* is about 45min away by highway, assuming there’s no traffic to begin with. The problem, as always, was the why: it started to rain. Slowly, at first, then past the point of requiring an umbrella into full-fledged tropical-monsoon-cubic-falling-mass-of-water-plus-free-carwash-weather. I swear – and subsequently swore again – that when I left, things looked clear, without a cloud on the horizon**.
*It’s the nation’s new(ish) administrative capital, put into place by the leadership from two elections ago. I suppose the idea was to create a corridor between Kuala Lumpur and the new capital, but in reality all it did was clear some land, make some former plantation owners very rich, and build a long, straight highway on which I’m told it’s possible to reach 300km/h should you be wealthy enough to own the right kind of vehicle.
**I’m certain it’s because I got my car washed that morning.
One of the occupational hazards of architectural photography is that you bill by the image, or some sort of notional day rate should you be lucky enough for the project to complete on time – but the reality is that it’s weather dependent, time of day dependent, and often seasonally dependent (direction of the sun, foliage), too. Oh, and let’s not forget to throw contractors into the mix: if the building isn’t finished on time – another one of my projects has been ongoing awaiting final works for the last six months – then you’re looking at some extremely long collection times. This whole project was relatively short by comparison – about a month or so – and close to running on schedule and budget, with about 1.5 days of total location time for a final delivery of 23 images.
Fortunately, the rain stopped just before I arrived, and I was fortunate to have a three-hour window – and yes, it rained heavily again on the return leg. I arrived early enough to set up for the first shot – I did a daytime reconnaissance after the previous morning shoot – that I had quite a lot of time and mosquitoes to kill. I therefore did what any sensible person would do: light up something Cuban (in this case, a H. Upmann Half Corona, which I’ve been enjoying particularly of late for short smokes). I’ve found that not only does the smoke seem to keep mosquitoes and inquisitive passers-by away, it’s also a very pleasant way to kill half an hour to an hour; any more than that and you should probably think a bit more carefully about your scheduling.
For this assignment, I packed a range of gear (D800E, D600, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21, Zeiss ZF.2 2/28, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100, Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR, OM-D and Panasonic 100-300, and of course the Gitzo GT5562, geared column and Manfrotto 410 geared head, all except the tripod packed inside a Billingham 555) – but landed up using just the D800E, 21 and 24-120. The 21 is perhaps my most indispensable architecture lens, and I’m seriously considering the 15mm, too. I don’t personally like using lenses that wide because they yield a very unnatural perspective, but sometimes you don’t have a choice because there are no other vantage points. The 24-120 requires software correction, but after doing so, it performs very well – just use the ACR profile to dial out distortion and CA.
One thing I’ve always liked about shooting architecture is that there’s a lot of great B-roll to be had most of the time – just turn around. I generally have a second camera set up for reportage and people-watching if there are a lot of people around, or if not, then something else for longer shots. But the bottom line is you never know when a) you’ll get something that might be portfolio-worthy, or better yet b) portfolio-worthy and something that another architect asks for later…this has happened a couple of times already.
There’s often some degree of personal risk involved with architectural photography, too. Especially with larger buildings: the challenge is always in finding the right vantage point. This frequently requires you to climb things, and then either somehow stick and secure a camera to the outside to clear balustrades etc. or lean over the edge.
The image above doesn’t look particularly special, but in order to get the context of location – bridge, water, etc. and the necessary height to avoid keystoning, I had to have at least 5-6 stories of altitude. The only solution was to climb one of the bridge towers (you can see a mirror image of the one I climbed on the other side of the bridge) and set up on the outside of the roof ledge. Fortunately, the tower was left unlocked and had internal stairs, making that part easy; working on a narrow, somewhat windy, slippery bird-dropping-covered and to top it off, sloping, roof ledge was somewhat unnerving, and I didn’t stay any longer than I had to. Still, the client loved the images, so I suppose it was all worth it in the end… MT
The various equipment used is available here from my partner retailers:
Nikon D800E** – review B&H Amazon
Nikon D600** – review B&H Amazon
Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR** – B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon** – review B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon** – review B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro Planar** – B&H Amazon
Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro Planar** – review B&H Amazon
Olympus OM-D** – review B&H Amazon
Panasonic 100-300/4-5.6** – review B&H Amazon
Billingham 555** – B&H Amazon
Gitzo GT5562LTS Systematic 6x Carbon** – review B&H Amazon
Manfrotto 410 Geared head** – B&H Amazon
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. 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