Archive for the ‘Doug’s Observations’ Category

12 Steps to an Architectural Photograph – Step 7: From What Height?

Sunday, March 24th, 2013
Watercube, Beijing photo by Tim Griffith

Watercube, Beijing

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

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

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

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.

12 Steps to an Architectural Photograph – Step 6: What Focal Length Lens Do You Use?

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

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.
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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.
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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.
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12 Steps to an Architectural Image – Step 3: Figure Out What to Include in the Frame

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

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“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.

12 Steps to an Architectural Image – Step 2: Determine Where to Stand

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

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 Step 2.  Determine where to stand.  All decisions, what lens to use, height of the camera, aperture and shutter speed, what to include in the frame, etc. radiate from this initial choice.  Get it wrong and all the adjusting in the world won’t make it right.  The objective is to find those angles that best express what the building is about and how it relates to its surroundings.  As has been mentioned here before Garry Winogrand thought what made Eugene Atget such a great photographer was that “He knew where to stand.”  Looking at the image below of Rue des Ursins located on Ile de la Cite just a couple of blocks from Notre Dame cathedral in Paris it isn’t hard to imagine any number of alternate framings of this general scene.  In fact, Atget himself made several variations of the scene over the years but none is quite as effective.  (The image on the right was made after the cobblestones had been paved over.)  Move forward a foot or two and lose the railing visible in the lower left corner, an element that helps define the camera’s relationship to the street.  At the same time our view of the tower in the center of the frame would become more oblique.  Step back and the buildings shrink, altering the delicate balance between them.  Shift to the left or the right a little and lose sight of the street snaking its way between the receding buildings. 

12 Steps to an Architectural Image – Step 1: Walk Around

Saturday, May 12th, 2012

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While there are often great differences between one building and another, their size, their shape, the surrounding landscape, there is a series of steps that must be taken in documenting any of them that’s consistent from one to the next.

Before setting up the camera to make the first shot on an assignment to photograph a building it’s absolutely necessary to walk around it, look at it from every conceivable angle with an eye to determining what its most important elements and components are.  When shooting a relatively small house, the options may seem limited, however, until you’ve actually walked up and down the street you really won’t know.  The house with the high hedge running along the edge of the property may be virtually invisible from the sidewalk, but be quite clearly seen from across the street.  If you don’t do the reconnaissance you won’t know.  And don’t stop at the obvious, dig deeper.  Good walking shoes are essential.  If the building is on the edge of a hillside in a canyon the best angle to view it in its entirety may be from the adjacent hillside.  Be ready for this with a longer lens than you think you’re going to need.  By the way, generally speaking the taller the structure the wider the effective radius around it that will need to be covered.  In the case of mid- and high-rise buildings this will often mean getting in the car to explore possible vantage points.  Sometimes the best view is the one from across the freeway on the dead-end street that you didn’t even know existed.

One Bunker Hill

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

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I confess to a love of historical photographs.  It can be argued, and has been, that all photographs are historical since they record places and events that occurred at a specific time that has already passed at the moment the shutter closes.  But I’m thinking here of those images that bear a monumentality that transcends most mere records of places and events.  I came across the above photograph by Los Angeles photographer Dick Whittington of what was at the time known as the Southern California Edison Building (designed by Allison & Allison architects) but has since been renamed One Bunker Hill.  Through our workshops I have gotten to know this building better than when it had been one of many passed on the way to other places and I am immediately struck by how different it is now.  Alterations have been made to the building since it was erected in 1932, most notably the enclosure of the fourth floor balconies, however, the much more significant changes have been to the surrounding area.  As seen here the Cal Edison Headquarters, sitting on a slope of downtown Los Angeles’ prominent Bunker Hill, clearly towered over its neighbors.  But it has outlived all of the buildings visible behind it in this view.  Also gone now is a street parallel to Fifth Street that once rose westward directly in front of it.  Today the 12-story structure is virtually surrounded by much taller buildings, including the thousand-plus foot tall Library Tower to the west and the Gas Company Tower across Grand Avenue to the east.  No longer there either are the trees in the foreground, their having been removed to make way for the expansion of the Central Library following two disastrous arson fires that were set in 1986.  It may no longer dominate the landscape as it once did, but One Bunker Hill has retained all its quiet grace.

Annie Chu – MOMA Linked Hybrid, Beijing

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Annie Chu’s image taken in the middle of the MOMA Linked Hybrid in Beijing, designed by Steven Holl Architects, may not be among the most technically accomplished of architectural photographs, but it does reflect a highly refined sensitivity to the urban landscape and great enthusiasm for the architecture. It’s difficult to tell whether it had been taken with a sophisticated DSLR or a smartphone, and frankly it doesn’t matter. While there’s an orderliness to the image’s elements, no attempt has been made to correct perspective or line up the edges of the buildings with the edges of the frame.

What does matter, however, is what the photograph is about and the way in which that’s conveyed. By including only a portion of the foreground structure, an observation deck, it becomes a giant, orange-lined P dissecting the frame in an interesting, dynamic way. The two people traversing a walkway between bodies, one in a wheelchair, give us a sense of scale, while informing us that the project is accessible. Behind the observation deck is one of the project’s towers, flanked by two thematically united buildings of a neighboring project. Most important, for me, is the sense of the photographer’s joy at having come across such a view, while maintaining the presence of mind required to capture it on camera.

Annie Chu is an accomplished avant garde architect and a principal with the Los Angeles firm, Chu+Gooding Architects

The Human Presence in Architectural Photographs

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Pyramids of El-Geezeh, 1858 by Francis Frith

Long before the advent of photography artists included human figures in architectural renderings to give the viewer, in part, a sense of their subject’s scale.  When Roger Fenton, Francis Frith and other early photographers began traveling the world beyond western Europe in search of exotic imagery, they would often include people.  How else could Frith have conveyed the size of the Pyramids without including recognizable figures in the frame with them.  Remove the people and those ancient structures could just as easily be perceived to be a few inches tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza’s actual 455 feet in height.  On the hill in the foreground, the two reclining figures, closest to the camera, are already some distance away, with the seated man by his horse a considerable distance further and none of them anywhere near the pyramids.  In the vast space between these figures and the structures is a fourth figure leading a camel, still nowhere near them.  The result of this contextualization is no mistaking the magnitude of these buildings.

Pierre Koenig's Case Study House Number 22, 1960 by Julius Shulman


A century later Julius Shulman would employ models to create a much different result in his Case Study House No. 22 by architect Pierre Koenig.  Not content to accentuate the illusion that the house was cantilevered out over the city of Los Angeles by shooting it at night, he perched a pair of young women at the far edge of the living room, their dresses spread out like parachutes around them.  It would have been impressive to show the building without inhabitants, which Shulman dutifully did as well, even in color, but the presence of the women allows the viewer to experience the sensation of floating in the night sky vicariously.  And isn’t this the essence of architectural photography: to convey a sense of what it’s like to experience a building firsthand.

Both these photographers understood that there were advantages to placing people in their images, while maintaining the viewer’s attention where they wanted it, on the architecture.  It’s a balancing act, though.  Bring a person too much to the fore and the architecture becomes just so much background.





Wall Street, 1915 by Paul Strand


Another case to consider is that of Paul Strand’s image of Wall Street made in 1915.  In this instance Strand had no interest in documenting architecture per se, but rather was concerned purely with the creative possibilities the scene presented.  Shadows supplied by the low winter sun not only produce long, dramatic shadows from the pedestrians walking by, but also obliterate any details in the building’s setbacks, making it impossible to determine whether they house windows and if so, are they one, two, or three stories tall.  The end result is one of confusion: are these people tiny or are the unseen windows gargantuan?  Looking at the Morgan Guaranty Company Building in other photographs it’s clear that the black rectangles contain the windows of two stories, but this knowledge somehow doesn’t eliminate the illusion created by the Strand image.


Disassembling the Architectural Photograph

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Hazelwood School, Glasgow - Alan Dunlop Architect Limited

When I was a kid I became interested in architecture primarily by looking at books and magazines, and when I contemplated specializing in architectural photographer poring over shelter publications became part of my educational routine.  Part of every day would be devoted to studying photographs of buildings, sometimes for hours at a time.  This was no onerous chore for me, I loved looking at the buildings inside and out, however, I also made a point of examining how the photographs were made.  What time of day had an image been taken?  How much of the extraneous landscape had been included as either foreground or background?  How did the light hit the building’s façade and from what angle?  How much foreground was included, how much sky?  Were there people or cars included in the frame, and what impact did they have on one’s perception of the structure?  Does it make sense to cut off part of a building with the picture frame, and if so, where?  The list continues.  Without realizing it at first I was learning from the best how to do it, while also figuring out what worked for me and what didn’t.  It was of course more difficult to implement what I was learning, but the more I looked at great work the better my own became.

Looking at printed images and online is still part of my regimen.  I pull pictures apart like the contents of a watch to see how they work.  I’m often struck by how one of my colleagues has chosen to present a building and see opportunities to alter my own way of capturing structures.  One of the sources of architectural imagery that I subscribe to is Architizer, an online presentation of new and innovative architecture from around the world.  Poring over new images each week or so is as exciting to me now as it was when I was twelve.  And my photography continues to improve.

Unfortunately, I don’t know who the photographer of the image above was and I was unaware of the architect until today.

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Shooting Models at Bestor Architecture

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

A couple of weeks ago the master class was fortunate enough to be granted access to Bestor Architecture, the studio of Barbara Bestor in Silver Lake. Formerly a hair salon, the triangular building’s exterior features an ever-changing array of colorful super graphics, but the interior is mostly devoted to the artifacts of architectural creation: computers; plans; product samples and scale models. There’s also a terrific view of Fountain Avenue and the Franklin Hills across the street.

We had very kindly been given free reign to photograph any of the models in the studio, which ranged from tiny topos to medium-size renderings in balsa wood, cardboard and Foamcore. Students chose models they wanted to work with and we turned the office into a makeshift photo studio, something I have done a lot of over the years.  For the background, we rolled out a medium gray seamless onto a conference table and placed the models on it. The only lighting was a pair of strobes, one mounted with a 10° grid for our sun and the other with a 2’x3′ soft box to fill in shadows.

photo: Erika Bierman

photo: Erika Bierman

The ratio between these two was constantly altered depending on the desired effects, as were the lights’ angles.  An intense sun with low fill would give the image drama, while balancing the two would show more detail.

Although one has the freedom to shoot from angles never, or rarely seen in real space, the big advantage in working with scale models is the opportunity to preview what the finished building will look like to people on the ground.

photo: Sara Jane Boyers

Therefore, the camera was generally kept low, emulating human eye level. As sometimes happens, a few of the resulting images rose above the level of scale model documentation and approached that of art. In each case a collaborative effort between architects and photographers.

photo: Erika Bierman