On photographing architecture

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This feels like an appropriate post given it follows both discussions around inspirations and a photoessay on buildings: good architectural photography is a bit of both, I think. (I also realise that I’ve never really written about architectural photography, or its close cousin, interiors – though there are subtle but significant differences between the two.) The subject has to be inspiring enough to motivate the photographer to spend a bit more time in, around and using the building to better understand how the intentions of the architects translate into practice; and on top of that, we must work around limitations in access, vantage points, light – and of course an immovable, living object that’s still in use. In short: it’s not quite as easy as one might think after casually getting a good image or two; read on to understand why and how to work around it.

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In practice, the architectural images that one makes when exploring a new city tend to be very much opportunistic: we pick the buildings that are facing the right direction to be pleasingly lit; we photograph the ones that are both aesthetically pleasing and happen to be at a suitable orientation to our accessible vantage points. And we can concentrate on only photographing the elements within those buildings that appeal to us personally – no worries if they don’t. As a result, one lands up with a bunch of images that are very strong, but not necessarily consistently repeatable: this is a big problem if the limitations are not understood and that portfolio is subsequently used to pitch for professional work because there’s simply no way one can duplicate a similar style of imagery on demand. I learned this the hard way early on in my career; I’ve also subsequently learned that architectural work represents poor returns as a photographer: there may be jobs that drag on for months, seemingly without end, because external rectification works might not be complete, access might not be given, or simply the weather isn’t cooperative.

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My own process always begins with getting as much information from the architect or developer as possible: it’s important to understand both what the client wants (goes without saying for any professional job) as well as understanding what their intentions were for the site and building, and the essence of its personality*. It’s also important to note that there’s often a significant difference between what the architect intended and what the developer wants or how it was sold to (and subsequently used by) the final occupant. Seemingly trivial or unnoticeable details such as airflow design or internal cladding or ducting etc. might well be a critical design element. On top of that, understanding the intended preferred vantages for the property is much easier from the architect’s point of view: they will already have done a comprehensive site survey taking approaches, light and surroundings into account. It’s easy to figure out where the best facades will be – whether you can actually execute the shot or not is another thing entirely, of course.

*With a good design, this is obvious. With a generic one, there may simply be no personality to begin with.

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At this point, there’s no replacement for a site reccie of your own; make a note of the time (best to go morning or afternoon to see how the light hits) and figure out the direction of sun, so you can plan the shooting days with maximum efficiency – it also helps to develop a shot list so you don’t overlook any critical features or angles. I also always bring a camera with me during the initial survey just in case you happen to see something or get exceptional weather – don’t underestimate how difficult this may be to repeat; especially in the tropics! In general, a large site can be completed in two to three days: however, that assumes weather is cooperative. I’ve had jobs that have been completed in a day because I lucked out with the meteorology, and I’ve had others that have dragged on for months because there wasn’t a single clear afternoon and I needed sun from the west – the only thing you can do is manage your client.

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I tend to focus on a mixture of three things: one, the building in isolation, which I think of as a sort of ‘whole product shot’ – presenting it if possible with minimum distractions from the surrounding environment; two, the building in context – this is usually not the whole structure, but critically identifiable elements which give both scale and relation to the surroundings. Finally, there are (usually) the details: unique touches, extra effort put into claddings, hints of personality. They may be abstracted or whole, but always interpret the work of the architect as art. Whilst it’s clear that the first two types of photography are very much your standard commercial stuff and is limited quite heavily by external factors (weather, vantage points) – the latter is really the biggest opportunity to do some reinterpretation and put one’s own unique creative stamp on things. I find most of the work I’m most pleased with in this vein is heavily abstracted and almost has the least recognisability as being a ‘whole’ design; whilst architectural photography is a strongly and obviously derivative form of work, perhaps this type is the least so.

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Some architectural photography tips:

  • Always do a day and night site reccie, and bring a camera
  • Where possible, get a one on one session with the architect and ask questions like ‘how do you want your work to be perceived?’
  • Take seasonality into account: scheduling work during periods of limited sunlight is a little masochistic, though this is true of both summer and winter: you can’t shoot a contextual blue hour image with decent pedestrian activity and artificial light mixed in if blue hour is 11pm, nor can you shoot if there’s no directional sunlight at all.
  • I prefer to work with completed, rectified and occupied properties: new enough that any marks can be retouched out, but ‘lived in’ enough that you don’t have unnatural emptiness. Try thinking like an occupant: how would you use the building?
  • Try to photograph only buildings you like. It may sound silly, but it’s difficult to make the third type of photograph of a generic shoplot.
  • Perspective control is not always necessary: sometimes you actually need a little convergence left otherwise the tops of very straight buildings can seem over-heavy and imbalanced.
  • Shifting and stitching can be your friend if you run out of width.
  • Don’t forget to look up, and down
  • If you really have no choice, wait for blue hour: the sky won’t be totally white or black, and you should also have some interesting artificial light to boot.
  • Consider blending images, but make sure the result doesn’t look unnatural.
  • ND filters, grads and polarisers can help to make the most of an uninteresting sky.

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I’ve chosen to illustrate this article with some of my favourite images – both commissioned and serendipitous – from the last year. It’s a bit of a mix of everything in terms of subject matter and scale; the point at which an image turns from architecture into cityscape is a rather poorly-defined one (especially when the intention is context), but I guess if no single building obviously stands out, then you’ve probably pulled out a bit too far. I’m going to close with one last tip on perspective: I’ve always found that with the best architectural images, there isn’t necessarily a very strong sense of compression or foreground accentuation; having a level camera tends to negate most of this and render the scene fairly flat. I think of the question of perspective more along the lines of context and space: do we want the building to fit in, or stand on its own? MT

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Another tip- photograph at first light of dawn, often a magic light. Dusk can be rewarding too.

  2. Architecture is a wide topic and context, scale and client vary greatly. As mentioned by Thomas above understanding architecture is very important. Many of the better architecture photographers have a background in architecture. This enables them to read the architecture and it’s relationship to the city. If the client is what is sometimes referred to as a “commercial architect” (usually derogatory term) the demands will be more visual and less analytical. If you work with good architects they will likely demand just as good visuals but with analytical content.

    architect/photographer

    • And there’s a serious amount of pre-planning involved to ensure that the architect’s ideas are properly presented and understood, too. But there’s also some latitude given for the photographer’s own interpretation – as I’ve been told more than once in the past, like attracts like and creatives like to work with other creatives for that reason… 🙂

      • Ming: “But there’s also some latitude given for the photographer’s own interpretation”
        Absolutely! Thats why you hire a photographer. I actually find my results very poor when photographing my own designs. My mind is to full up with years of work that gets in the way of the eye. Strangely the photography gets very uncreative. Having another mind and eye looking at the work is very important if you want great photographs. At least thats my experience.

        • Perhaps because the history and back-knowledge becomes a sort of checklist of things you must include in the frame, and in doing so, some of the essence is diluted?

          • Yes that’s certainly one of the issue. Since a building takes years and years (in my parts of the world) the checklist is enormous. As the designer you can’t help misjudging relative importance, being influenced by how difficult something was to achieve etc. It’s also difficult to narrow down the selection.

  3. Good sum up, Ming!
    It also helps to learn about architecture – as it does for any subject matter one wants to shoot for consistently – wildlife, sports … it’s no different.

    To add to your list of recommendations:
    – make friends with the janitor. It might be crucial to have someone turn lights on and off, raise or lower sunscreens, unlock rooms etc. Some buildings have lighting systems that take forever to figure out – or are not accessible at all.

    – check how the streets in front of the building might be blocked/occupied. Cars can be nice and add to the environment, but cars or even another construction site can also mean disaster. Figure out how to restrict parking on the day of the shoot if necessary.

    – don’t shoot everything with the shortest focal length you have and don’t try to get everything in the shot. A horrible trend in current architectural photography. 24 mm (on 35 mm FF) used to be the golden standard for exteriors. It still works! 😉

    – as you mention it, keeping verticals vertical is not always necessary and not correcting them to 100% is often way more pleasing to the eye. But NOT correcting out of negligence, laziness or ignorance is unacceptable. Contemporary architecture very often sports odd angles and non-vertical lines and by not correcting the true verticals, the viewer has no chance of understanding what’s going on. A commonly seen failure by architectural photographers. Unfortunately many architectural websites/blogs have no problems using such images (sometimes they have no other choice but sometimes they do and are just lazy).

    • I fully agree with you on all counts – though sometimes the non-verticals can be the fault of client specification, too…I’ve seen strange choices and requests made more than once (until explaining why that wasn’t such a good idea). As for widest focal lengths – I was recently photographing a development that really did require the widest FL I had (24mm but on full 645) because the place was simply so small there was no other choice 😛

  4. Kitty Murray says:

    The timing of this topic is perfect. I woke up to thinking about shooting buildings. I live in Austin, Texas. Construction downtown is at a record pace. The tips and last paragraph detailing compression and foreground allow a more focused approach. Now, my walkabout isn’t so hit or miss. The article was educational and inspirational. TY

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