On Assignment: Ascencia

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A few months back, I was given another one of those very rare birds: a commission that has the holy trinity for a hired gun – an open creative brief, an interesting subject, and most importantly, a great client. This combination is far much rarer than you might think; most of the time you’re lucky if you get one of three, and the industry is not such that one can afford to be choosy (even though this may prove to be a bad idea in the long run*.) It’s a pleasure to work with another creative person: they understand and respect your expertise, and just let you go about it. We know that we won’t hire a creative if the point of view differ and you don’t agree with their work: this does not mean bad, just different priorities. In any case: interesting building, great client, and fortunately – a very small inter-monsoon window in which to make this work.

*There’s always a risk that a client feels like they’re overpaying, you feel like you’re undercharging, you’re asked for a carbon copy of something else that doesn’t work the intended subject, and in the end nobody is happy – the client because they didn’t get what they want (duh, different subject) and you because it was nether creatively nor financially satisfying. The temptation in the current market is to say yes to everything, but I can honestly say that this may do more harm than good in the long run since everybody likes to talk…

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All architectural photography is heavily weather-dependant; there can be a small window of opportunity just before dawn or just after dusk at either end of the day where you can balance ambient and artificial light during the blue hours; this is always the fallback plan if light at other times isn’t cooperative. In the tropics, it’s simply often necessary because our default light here is overcast but intense sun: that means no crisp shadows and somewhat flat, muted colors. Due to the heat, by early afternoon, promising mornings tend to end up overcast, or worse, raining. Fortunately, between the monsoons at the start of the year, there can be a single week or two where the stars align and you get both clear mornings and afternoons – luckily, this assignment happened to fall into this period.

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I say luckily, because the building has primary facades that face both east and west because of the site orientation; that means they’re pretty much square on to the rising and setting sun – so it’s necessary to have at least one clear afternoon. There are challenges, though: ground level is blocked on one side by street construction/roadworks ongoing, and on the other side by an elevated railway station (that unfortunately doesn’t offer any useful vantages thanks to setbacks and thick glass panels). On top of this, the site is physically small so there isn’t really much to see at both entrance point and landscaping.

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I therefore concentrated more on the unique aspects of the building: interlocking displaced volumes mirroring the surrounding street layouts (but of course vertically); an external n-shaped frame that contains primary and fire elevators; cladding detail and varied setbacks; an external fire escape with ‘cage’ style stairs; the green wall disguising the above-ground carpark levels (but still allowing light in) and the interesting roof feature. That aforementioned roof feature is a large circular hole above a gap that creates a venturi sucking air through the building; there are vertical air wells staggered every few floors to encourage circulation throughout the corridors in an extended S-pattern. It works, and very well – corridors are much cooler than usual for a building of this layout and type. The high ceilings also help to displace heat upwards and away from the ground level people.

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As with all On Assignment posts, I cherry pick those which I find personally interesting – for two reasons. Firstly, if you show work you don’t like, then there’s always a risk of being associated with it and asked to replicate it in future: this is obviously not a good idea if you want to photograph in your own style and subject matter. Personally, I find that when the assignment is open, it’s much easier to a) go far overboard in delivery and scope, and b) risk diluting one’s own style because you want to ‘cover everything’ – both commercial and creative bases. This is undoubtedly a gain from the client’s standpoint, but can often result in a little creative confusion in practice. Curation, as always, is key.

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Whilst most of the post processing was accomplished with Workflow III – I did have to do some blending on the merged-time image, and quite a bit of retouching to remove bits of the building which weren’t complete (i.e. residents’ units with bare wires prior to installation of lights; notices on glass; dirt and paint smears, etc.) – this from Intermediate PS. What tends to surprise most people is that architectural and interior work requires just as much – if not more – retouching than product. The simple reasons is that I can spend quite a bit of time cleaning the product before shooting it – but there’s absolutely no way to do this with a building; especially not one that’s in the process of being handed over to tenants/ purchasers and undergoing defect rectification.

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The assignment was shot with a mix of hardware – my usual Hasselblad H5D-50c and the 35-90mm and 24mm when on-site or in places where I had setup time; otherwise, the Nikon D810, 24-120/4 VR and 24/3.5 PCE when I had to run and gun. There was quite a bit of the latter – I had to get creative with vantage points for this building, including a friend’s apartment; a rooftop garden; through the windscreen of the elevated train**; from a hospital carpark; a restaurant bathroom window; a highway divider; and out of the window of my own car (I had to stay in position for about four hours by the side of a busy road for the ‘blended time’ image). A lot of these locations required both speed, stealth and reach, meaning the Hasselblad was unfortunately out of the equation.

**I must have ridden it between the two bracketing stations close to a dozen times for both weather and composition variation, since the building is only really in optimal framing for about five seconds at most – between size and noise abatement barriers on either side of the tracks, or dirty train glass, or people standing in your way…

All in all – this landed up being both one of the most productive architectural assignments I’ve shot, as well as one of the fastest; I suppose that’s what happens when the stars align… MT

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More info on Hasselblad cameras and lenses can be found here.


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  1. Love your photos!

  2. Dave Fullerton says:

    As an architectural illustrator, I really liked this post. I spend so much time creating virtual 3D spaces, but love the ‘happy accidents’ that occur in photography, between real sunlight, weather, reflections and surfaces. However, as an amateur photographer, I sometimes long for the control available in a virtual 3D studio: an invisible light here, a de-cluttered room, a slightly more polished surface! You work with what you find. Thanks again.

    • Thanks! I had a similar discussion with several architects: whilst they generally try to figure out how things will work in the real world from most angles and vantages, it’s impossible to simulate everything – especially interactions with the surrounding environment. The happy accidents are what gives the subject its reality and gravitas…

      • Dave Fullerton says:

        Fortunately, I still prefer the real world, with its imperfections and unpredictability. Now that’s gravitas…

        • Without unpredictability and imperfection there can be no serendipity…

          • Dave Fullerton says:

            This feels like a conversation I might have had back in the 60s sitting on a Great Ocean Road beach watching the waves. I’ll stop now 🙂

  3. For these assignments Ming do you ever miss the faster shutter speeds available of the H6 platform or are you always so stopped down so as not to make a difference?



  4. Martin Fritter says:

    Very beautiful work, lovely building. Were the residential spaces as nice as the public ones? Quality design really brings our your talents. And your formalist bent. BTW, you never mention gear overheating. I assume it’s not a problem or you would.

    • Wasn’t on the brief as the building was just on the process of being handed over to owners; from the plans I saw it was pretty much a solid layout but down to individuals to add the personal touches.

      Overheating: not an issue so far…unless you count the photographer as part of the equipment (and then sometimes we overheat and require liquid cooling!) :p

  5. Ming,
    Wonderful pictures. I really appreciate you offering a window into how you went about making these photographs at a conceptual/practical level. It’s not particularly the type of photography I ever expect to be doing, but I find the process fascinating. And since my approach to making photographs is my weakest point (intentional versus reactionary), it’s probably actually quite helpful to my photography in general.
    I’m finding that the biggest difference between being someone who’s always enjoyed taking photographs and being a photographer is in the mindset that I have before I press the shutter button. Learning the technical ins and outs is important, but not very useful until I know what I want to do. I’m sure this is blindingly obvious, but it’s taking me the better part of two years to actually learn.

    • Thanks – yes, intention and preconception is important (and in the case of fixed objects, a shot list and planning to maximize time when the weather is right)

  6. Nice photography, but misled me into believing it was a corporate headquarters rather than a serviced apartment building.

    Pretty, but didn’t tell the story.

    • Could that be the nature of the design, pre-handover state (i.e. No occupants) and the brief not extending to interiors? Also…if a corporate building has a swimming pool, I want to work there… 😉

  7. Sean Tomlinson says:

    Neat Ming, as usual lovely photos but of course you know that already. I find your On Assignment posts to be some of the most inspiring because you’re able to find shots that I simply can’t see. I study them and try to find lessons that I can apply to my own work. I’m glad you enjoyed the shoot too.

    • Thanks – whilst we spend a lot of time studying the subject while shooting, yes never as much as if you’ve got to be 99% sure that you really got everything to the limits of reasonable possibility on assignment…

  8. Great article Ming! Off-topic: miss having your input on exciting gear news. Hassy’s got some work to do if they want a piece of the A9 😉

    • Completely different market – FF sports cameras aren’t our domain. Interestingly if you read the footnotes, it’s a 7 second startup time though…

      • Well I’m not a sports shooter but I will shoot my kids sports events. I’m not a pro either but I do get asked to shoot events & such for friends and families. The portion of the pie I represent as an enthusiast, pro-sumer is arguably much larger than just sports shooters and is growing very fast. I believe when the dust settles, there will be just 2 consumer markets; mine and cell phone shooters. My market segment is the one Hassy would love to have a piece of, if at all possible. I believe the A9 is the ultimate digital camera for the market segment I represent. It finally addresses almost all remaining issues I had with previous A7 series cameras. There’s even a grip extender for my big hand when I don’t want to use the battery grip option. Buttons and dials are beefed up, there’s a joy-stick, big battery (finally!), 4k EVF with no blackout – NO BLACKOUT! Dual card slots. etc. etc. etc… You say completely different market, well I completely disagree. It may ultimately appeal to the sports shooter but the real money is in my market segment 😉

        • …in other words, if Hassy wants my $4,500 US (and I’m pretty sure they do), they will need to come with a Pro-Sumer, Enthusiast body that is even more appealing than that of the A9…simple 🙂

        • I don’t disagree about where the market is heading – but let’s put it another way: are you buying one?

  9. Ming, the shot from lrt, was it moving or did you have permission to shot from that point?

  10. richard majchrzak says:

    what a wonderful adventure , Ming , with excellent results.the `five seconds window` shot turned out great …

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