The lower the camera, the more monumental one’s subject will generally appear. Architects and designers are acutely aware of the effect their work will have on the average pedestrian from genuinely accessible vantage points. That isn’t to say there aren’t times when a view from considerably higher than the customary five or so feet won’t be more desirable.
photograph by Bernd & Hilla Becher
The German photographers Berndt and Hilla Becher, who specialized in exhaustively cataloging a variety of architectural structures, were known to have erected scaffolding up to several stories to reach elevations unavailable from the ground. Their vision dictated what they had to do.
Some photographers such as William Garnett, Emmet Gowin and Michael Light in their search for ways to describe structures and their contexts have shot from aircraft. Their work describes a very different experience.
photograph by Michael Light
Paradoxically, a lower camera angle tends to render an interior or outdoor seating area more intimate. Depending on the size of the space and the scale of its furnishings somewhere between waist level and eye level can be ideal.
photograph by Jon Miller, Hedrich-Blessing
Most often somewhere between high enough to see important background elements of a scene over those in the foreground and low enough to keep from looking down on things too much is where the most effective images will be found. How low is too low? If you can see up into the inside of a lampshade or lose sight of the top of a table, counter or desk you’ve probably gone too far.
But as with all of these “rules,” it’s suggested you not take them too seriously. They are meant as suggestions only. If you feel moved to take a picture that seems to run counter to what you’ve been told, (by others or the little voices in your head) TAKE IT! You can always edit it out later, although I strongly suggest keeping all of your RAW “failures” stored in a safe place in case you experience a change of heart somewhere down the road.
photo: Martin Cox
Our next workshop scheduled for February 9-10 is quickly approaching its capacity of 10 participants. We will be offering enrollment at the lower rate of $395 through Sunday, January 6th, after which it will go up to $445. Enroll Today!
The angle of view of the lens you choose to use, whether it be of fixed focal length, tilt/shift or zoom has a great deal to do with how the building will read in two dimensions. Generally speaking, the wider the lens, the more angular your subject will appear, especially as you get closer to it.
Most architectural photographers spend a good part of their working lives with their backs against walls or in corners. It feels like there’s never enough room to back up to get everything you want into the frame, or the lens required to capture the entire view will be so wide as to distort objects beyond recognition. Taking a sledge hammer to load-bearing walls to make more room for one’s camera tends to be frowned upon.
When given what feels like all the room in the world to back up I will usually opt for the longest lens possible. However, this is too easy an answer. Usually there are other factors to take into consideration. With exteriors the relationship of my subject building to others that surround it, trees, cars and other objects will dictate the lens to use. With interiors a good deal of time is spent moving anything that isn’t bolted down around until it looks right to the camera. The tables and chairs in a restaurant that has been set up for a shot will often look ridiculous when seen from any other angle, but the illusion of reality in photographic seeing takes precedence over the actual. The accompanying images were all taken of the Skyline Drive House, designed by Belzberg Architects of Santa Monica for Tatler Magazine, Russia.
Private Residence, Bel-Air
Our next weekend workshop, scheduled for February 9th & 10th, will be different from ones we’ve done in the past. Instead of visiting non-residential buildings downtown, we’ll be in two rarely seen spectacular houses located in Pasadena. One is a stunning Mid-century Modern from the ’50s and the other is a traditional Spanish designed by Wallace Neff in the early ’30s. We’ll be spending an entire day in each house where we will give group demonstrations of various tools and techniques specific to residential architectural photography and leave plenty of time for everyone to explore the houses inside and out with their cameras. Because we will be in controlled environments instruction will emphasize natural and supplementary lighting with an emphasis on the use of off-camera strobes. In order to provide more individualized attention, enrollment will be limited to 10 participants. As always, complementary lunch will be provided on both days by Auntie Em’s Kitchen located in nearby Eagle Rock. Enrollment for the entire 2-day experience prior to January 6th will be $395. On January 7th it will go up to $445, so sign up early to take advantage of the lower rate.
For more information about the upcoming workshop and how to sign up, please go to Workshop Sign-Up
We’re really excited to announce that for the first time we have just secured the new LAPD Headquarters building to complete our roster for the October 6-7 Downtown Architectural Photography Workshop. The other locations are the LA Times building (across the street from LAPD HQ), the Gas Company Tower and DWP Headquarters.
LAPD Headquarters, 2012 • photo: Douglas Hill
Architectural giant AECOM designed the Los Angeles Police Department’s current headquarters, which opened its doors in 2009. The building is located between CalTrans Headquarters and the LA Times Headquarters, and is across the street from LA City Hall and Parker Center, the building it replaced. It admirably succeeds as a symbol of security while projecting a much needed air of accessibility to the community. The grounds have become a favorite site for dog walkers and those on their lunch breaks, a very real necessity for the burgeoning downtown residential scene.
For more information about the upcoming workshop and how to sign up, please go to Workshop Sign-Up
Sure, there’s plenty that can be done in post-production with Photoshop, Lightroom and other applications. What I’m talking about here, though, are the conditions to be considered while actually shooting. An overcast day can have great advantages when photographing architecture. Seemingly by magic, everywhere you point your camera all details are visible, nothing is lost in deep shadow or blinding highlights. At the same time, surfaces can appear dull, bland, with less of a sense of separation between one object and another. The presence of the sun on the scene changes all this. It can at times seem never to be shining from the right direction. But this is rarely true. Architectural photography is one of the more contemplative subsets of the medium, along with landscape and still life. Edward Weston staged his now famous peppers in front of his camera for hours on his porch, lamenting the vibrations of passing trucks that often ruined exposures. Edward Steichen inadvertently recorded movement caused by his roses wilting during daylong exposures. In order to be rewarded, those recording architecture must often display the same kind of patience. Spending hours at a location contemplating minute changes in light before taking a single image is not unheard of. Nor is waiting for the right time of year.
Twilight is referred to as “golden hour” in the movie business. Filtered through far more of Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the day the sun’s rays warm considerably bathing everything in red/yellow light that deepens before it disappears entirely. Along with this shift in tonality, shadows move and lengthen creating shapes that in the two-dimensional environment of photography can be perceived as real, tangible objects. And within moments they’re gone. As for artificial light, incandescent is generally speaking warm in relation to daylight and fluorescent is cool, but each comes in a variety of color temperatures that will have a different effect on one’s subject.
Los Angeles Times Building, 1939. Photographer unknown.
For the first time Shooting Architecture will have access to the Los Angeles Times building. Noted architect Gordon B. Kaufmann designed the paper’s Streamline Moderne headquarters in 1935. He received a gold medal for its striking design at the Paris Exposition two years later. We will have access to the fantastic Globe Lobby, which features murals painted by Hugo Ballin, who also painted the murals found in the Griffith Park Observatory’s rotunda. In addition, we will once again have access to the Gas Company Tower at 555 West 5th Street. Other locations to be featured on the upcoming October 6-7 workshop will be announced shortly.
Watch demonstrations of camera and lighting techniques presented by experienced professional architectural photographers, then photograph the buildings’ interiors and exteriors with your own cameras under the instructors’ supervision. Enrollment will be limited to 20 participants. Included on both days will be lunch and beverages provided by Auntie Em’s Kitchen of Eagle Rock. Make safe and secure payment through PayPal using whatever credit card you prefer or your PayPal account.
There are a few spots still open for the workshop. Please go to Downtown Los Angeles: an Architectural Photography Weekend Workshop for more information and sign up. We look forward to having you with us for this unique experience.
Study the light from each vantage point and project what will likely be the optimal time of day (and year, for that matter) to express what you want to say about the project. This used to take experience and guesswork alone, however, there are now tools to help make informed decisions. There are websites and smartphone apps that will tell you sunrise and sunset times, the phases of the moon, high tide and low, even determine where the shadows of specific neighboring trees or buildings will fall and when. Not to worry, most of the important decisions are still to be made by the very human photographer. The new tools just make the job a bit easier. Nothing will replace the need to be facing your subject, sometimes for hours in one position, while you wait for the light to change and determine when to open the shutter. The photograph, right, of architect David Hertz’s Wing House in the Santa Monica mountains took considerable planning because it was only one of four dusk shots we had to make in a single evening. The trick with a dusk shot is to plant your tripod and frame the image early, then wait until the daylight diminishes to the point of equalizing the artificial light of the subject’s interior. In this instance a pair of 1,000 watt halogen lights were used to illuminate the teardrop ends of the house’s roofs, whach are made from the wings of a Boeing 747. Depending on the time of year and your location’s relationship to the equator there will be a limited window of opportunity to pull this off. Plan ahead, be ready to move quickly and decisively and the results may exceed your expectations.
“When we see a part of the moon covered by a cloud, or a tree, or a weed, we feel how round the moon is. But when we see the clear moon without anything covering it, we do not feel that roundness the same way we do when we see it through something else.”
- Shunryu Suzuki
All architecture is about the relationships of its various elements to one another, its larger context, and the ground on which it sits. What you decide to include in the frame has great bearing on the appearance of the subject structure in your photographs.
What at first appear to be obstructions may very well end up being image enhancements. In fact, the trees, people, vehicles or other buildings that intrude on the subject will likely help the viewer understand the subject by so specifically locating it in time and space. How much of this extraneous information to include will usually boil down to one thing: balance.
There are as many ways to strike that balance as there are people with cameras, but not all will get it right. Finding balance will usually require taking the risk of getting it wrong, simply because you can’t know what an arrangement of objects in the frame will look like until you’ve tried it.
The same goes for background elements. Trees, buildings and geological features partially obscured by the subject building all serve to locate it in space and convey three dimensions. Because I can’t always keep all of the vantage points I’ve identified in my head I will at times use drawings, plans and maps to plot out all the angles I want to cover during a shoot. Google Earth has been particularly useful in developing this kind of strategic planning.