Monday, July 8, 2013

Anatomy of an Architectural Photograph

Sunbelt Building by KMA Architects (2003) in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood of San Diego, CA. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I was just informed this week that the above photo won the Silver Medal for the Advertising / Architecture category in an international photo competition called the Prix de la Photographie Paris. It's a nice honor, and I am happy about it (especially since there were no gold medals awarded, so technically I could say that I received top honors! (it's all about how you spin it, right?). But that's not why I'm writing about this photo or the contest here. 

But before I get to the main point, I suppose it's a good opportunity to reflect on what I'm doing and how I've improved. For example, here's a shot of the Le Corbusier's Swiss Pavilion in Paris that I shot back in April of 2009... 
Fondation Suisse

I was apparently proud enough of the photo at the time to watermark it! It's a decent enough shot, I suppose. At least I corrected the perspective (By that, I mean that the walls appear straight). But it's not a very good photo, either, to be honest. 

For one, the sky's blown out. It's overexposed so it appears white. I see here that I didn't move the gates or signs or other stuff around. I didn't see that sort of thing back then. Didn't care. Also, it's too far back. My first instinct was to "get the whole thing in". But it makes for a very documentary style photo. Not terribly interesting. 

Here's a photo of this same building that I took earlier this year (February 2013)... 
Fondation Suisse
Fondation Suisse at the Cité Universitaire de Paris, by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret (1930). Photo ©Darren Bradley

I think it's better, but maybe that's just me... 

I am still dealing with a flat, dull, grey light just like in the previous shot (in fact, it was even snowing in my second photo!). So conditions weren't great and I really should have just come back when they were better. But I was only there for a few minutes and it was either shoot right then or wait until next year. So I made the most of it. I moved the barricades on the left, and the signs that were peppering the lawn out front were stacked in a neat pile just off camera. I got closer because I wanted to emphasize that central column. The rest was just a question of controlling the exposure to capture enough detail and texture in both the building and the clouds. 

As for the photo contest that I just won, I also happened to notice that some of the other awardees in the architectural photography category had managed to win with entries that weren't - technically speaking - architectural photographs. This got me to thinking about the nature of architectural photography. 

I almost never win photo contests - at least not if I submit actual architectural photographs. It's nearly impossible to do so unless there's a specific category for architectural photography. And even then, most of the judges (and even most contestants) honestly don't really understand what architectural photography is. Any photo of a building becomes an"architectural photograph". So what usually happens, to paraphrase a very successful architectural photographer I know, is that " isn't really "architectural" photography that is being judged, just a plethora of Chinese cityscapes, abandoned factories, post apocalyptic houses, and abstract details..." 

In fact, I shared my Silver Award with two other contestants. My friend wasn't far off. One was a detail shot of a dilapidated apartment block in Malaysia, and the other was a cityscape in Saudi Arabia. They may or may not be nice shots. Not judging that. But neither one had anything to do with commercial architectural photography in a proper sense. 

I like to say that architectural photographers are to the photography world what pastry chefs are to the culinary world. Anyone who knows about how to make pastries will know what I'm talking about. I frequently see very accomplished photographers (much better than me, frankly) decide to try their hand at architectural photography. The results are usually terrible. 

This is because the first rule in architectural photography is to represent the building correctly. Yes, you do want to show it in the best possible light. And you do want to photograph it in a way that emphasizes the elements that are most interesting, and tell a story. But that takes precision. You can't just wing that. 

Don't make it look distorted... 

Don't create an abstract tableau where you don't even recognize your subject building... 
Geisel Library
UCSD's Geisel Library by William Pereira (1970). Photo ©Darren Bradley
Most successful architectural photography straddles a line between objective and subjective points of view. Show the building as it truly is, but also as it should be seen and understood. Use composition/context, light and angles to convey the moods and feelings that the building is trying to convey. 
Geisel Library

UCSD's Geisel Library by William Pereira (1970). Photo ©Darren Bradley
And before putting the soapbox away, I'll make one final point about architectural photography. A fair amount of work goes into creating every single photo! Take this recent photo of a church as an example...
Carlsbad Community Church
Carlsbad Community Church by A. Quincy Jones (?). Photo ©Darren Bradley
I spotted this church while driving by on the freeway, and pulled over to get a closer look. I had a camera with me (as usual), and also a tripod. So I set up in the middle of the street and grabbed a couple of shots. I decided to get closer than my lens focal length would normally allow, and to shoot the lower and upper sections separately, so that I could stitch them together later. Here was the result...

Lower section:
Photo ©Darren Bradley
...and the upper section...
Photo ©Darren Bradley

... stitched together, you get this:
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Like in those games on the kids menus that restaurants are always giving my daughter, you may notice a few differences between the above photo and the final, finished version I first showed. For one, you see this is a RAW file, so colors appear washed out. Also, my sensor was really dirty. See those spots? Yikes! OK, but besides that... You'll also notice that cities have a particular knack for always seeming to place light and power poles in exactly the worst locations in front of whatever building you want to photograph. Also, the entire street could be empty. But there will always be a car parked in front of the building you're shooting. And if there wasn't when you started setting up, one will arrive and park in front of you before you get your shots. Guaranteed. 

Since I'm not David Copperfield, I had to use Photoshop to make these nuisance objects disappear. And yes, it was a pain - especially that damned car. I took several shots from slightly different angles so that I'd have enough data to use behind the objects. Still, I know that shooting this church is the easiest part. I had probably an hour's worth of work in front of me, editing this photograph. Again, here's the result (which I did just for me - not a commission - because I thought the architecture deserved the time and attention)... 
Carlsbad Community Church
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Now, some people may cry foul at this point. And if I were a photojournalist, that much editing of an image would be a big problem. But the fact is that all I'm doing is removing objects that are obstructing or distracting from the subject. The key here is to avoid going overboard. And besides, I'm pretty sure that this is much closer to the architect's intent...

So the next time you're hiring your friendly, neighborhood architectural photographer to shoot a building for you, please consider the time and effort that goes into creating every single image - especially when considering the price... Oh, and please move your car! 


WINNER OF PX3, Prix de la Photographie Paris


Darren Bradley of United States was Awarded: Second Prize in category Advertising for the entry entitled, " Sunbelt Office Building ." The jury selected PX3 2013’s winners from thousands of photography entries from over 85 countries. 
Px3 is juried by top international decision-makers in the photography industry: Carol Johnson, Curator of Photography of Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; Gilles Raynaldy, Director of Purpose, Paris; Viviene Esders, Expert près la Cour d'Appel de Paris; Mark Heflin, Director of American Illustration + American Photography, New York; Sara Rumens, Lifestyle Photo Editor of Grazia Magazine, London; Françoise Paviot, Director of Galerie Françoise Paviot, Paris; Chrisitine Ollier, Art Director of Filles du Calvaire, Paris; Natalie Johnson, Features Editor of Digital Photographer Magazine, London; Natalie Belayche, Director of Visual Delight, Paris; Kenan Aktulun, VP/Creative Director of Digitas, New York; Chiara Mariani, Photo Editor of Corriere della Sera Magazine, Italy; Arnaud Adida, Director of Acte 2 Gallery/Agency, Paris; Jeannette Mariani, Director of 13 Sévigné Gallery, Paris; Bernard Utudjian, Director of Galerie Polaris, Paris; Agnès Voltz, Director of Chambre Avec Vues, Paris; and Alice Gabriner, World Picture Editor of Time Magazine, New York.

The "Prix de la Photographie Paris" (Px3) strives to promote the appreciation of photography, to discover emerging talent, and introduce photographers from around the world to the artistic community of Paris. Winning photographs from this competition are exhibited in a high-profile gallery in Paris and published in the high-quality, full-color Px3 Annual Book.

For Press Inquiries, Contact:
About the Winner:
Contact Darren Bradley: 


Gretchen said...

Congratulations for the recognition of your wonderful work! And thanks for the tips -- I regularly violate two of your "don'ts" because I'm in a hurry. Will work on this! :)

Unknown said...

Thank you, Gretchen! Appreciate the kind words and am glad you stopped by! And you can violate the rules as much as you like! ;-)

john said...

It's like I just got a free master class. Now I want a YouTube video of you doing the Photoshop retouch of the church. ;^)

your biggest fan, john

Unknown said...

Thanks, John! Appreciate you stopping by! No videos of the PS process, though...

Anonymous said...

Great to see the backstage. For a "newbee" architectural photographer, it's always inspiring and heartwarming to see other's backstage and feelings. Thanks and congratulations!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Lucas, and best of luck to you!

Anonymous said...

Hi , this is my first visit to your blog. Congratulations on the award, but more important congratulations on your own self improvement, its great to see the two versions of the Corbusier building.
I think that photographing buildings in winter is much better than any other time of the year. You have no less trees to deal with and the clean air also helps with the image capture, and in really bad weather if your are brave to be outside you can use it to your advantage to create mood.
I like to make the distinction between Architectural Photography and Photographs of buildings or Photographs of architecture. As you specify at one point, Architectural Photography should really be called Commercial Architectural Photography and this appears to have purpose to represent the building correctly, but in reality I don't think this is true since all photographs are somehow a lie, or using a less strong word, an interpretation. Without going to the extreme of making an abstract shot a photographer will influence the appearance of the space by choosing the vantage point and lens. That is what makes the photo "interesting" as your own Swiss Pavilion comparison demonstrates.
I would also like to point out that architectural vistas which exist before photography was invented are meant to show only the building and nothing else and this tradition continues to our day. Architectural photographers are not photojournalist and do not have the same ethical responsibilities. This reminds me of Le Corbusier's images of the villa Garches interiors which received a lot of editing and the photos published by Mies van der Rohe of the Barcelona Pavilion had most of the context surrounding the building obliterated.
Personally I like context as long as it does not distract the viewer and I am also interested in the inclusion of people in photos of buildings but this is very hard. Iwan Baan does it extremely well in my opinion is no surprise that he comes from a background of photo reportage.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, and for taking the time to peruse my blog.

I know what you mean about the importance of context in photography, and that can be achieved in a number of different ways - including through the use of people in the photo.

I agree that Baan is a master at finding (or creating) situations where the people are featured as a central focal point. That can be brilliant, but can also be distracting at times, depending on the circumstance. Magazines appreciate the editorial aspect that it provides, and it's easier to relate to the photograph.

However, the focus on the people can also come at the expense of the real subject (i.e. the building).

Some architectural photographers (like Baan) pride themselves in their lack of interest in, or knowledge about, architecture. But there are many times when having a deep understanding and appreciation for our subject (architecture, in this case) is essential and comes through in the work - or not.

Brian Moore said...

Excellent primer, Darren. Much appreciated.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing before and after versions of your Carlsbad Church photo.

Since i am not a professional photographer i always wonder how much a photographer edits his photos.
So i matched the two photos with photoshop and tried to understand.

I am quite relived to see that you spend hours on editing to achieve the best photo in your mind.
I believe that editing photos to achieve the desired quality is also an artistic skill and it is valuable.

It would be nice to see more of your before and after photos!


Unknown said...

Cheers, Brian!

Unknown said...

Thank you, Burcin. Appreciate the comment. As you can see, there is quite a lot of work that goes into each photo. Which is why it's frustrating to hear clients tell me that they want to just get a disk with all of the photos unedited and be done with it. A majority of my work takes places after I've taken the photo.

I'll try to post more examples in the future.

Unknown said...

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