Importance of architectural photography written by Clare Lou

www.clarelouphotography.com

July 24, 2019

Introduction and Meeting with Archilink

I’m a photographer with an exclusive focus on architecture and interior spaces of the built environment.

Now based in Aberdeen, I recently had the pleasure of meeting the proactive founders of Archilink: Shehan and Alistair, to discuss ideas around the overlap between architecture and photography.

Archilink is an online platform aiming to build a community for architects and clients in which to engage with each other in the commissioning of architectural briefs.

To find out more about Archilink please visit their informative website: www.archilink.co.uk

My aim with photography is to tell the design story of each architectural project, of all scales, in inspiring, atmospheric and memorable images that create an experience for the viewer about each space.

I’m fascinated by the relationship between photography and architecture.

As New York street photographer Garry Winogrand mused, ‘I take photographs to see what the world looks like photographed.’

I feel that it is important for a photographer to specialise in a genre in order to become an excellent technician in the use of camera controls and editing skills appropriate to the visual language of the genre and, further, through consistent experience to go beyond technical use of the camera into a creative approach, to produce images that are more than a passive record of a space.

This is a creative approach that is in line with the vision of the architect and is developed through a dialogue between the photographer and architect.

Following our insightful discussion, Shehan and Alistair invited me to share some thoughts on the relationship between photography and architecture, which I have compiled also for the blog on their website.

I am interested in developing working relationships with architects in NE Scotland and UK. If you have a project that you would like to represent through photography and share online or in print, please do get in touch to discuss a brief. No project is too small, it’s the design that’s important.

The Photographer and Architecture: What is the Point of Architectural Photography?

Experiencing Architecture

Take a moment to consider how you usually become aware of architectural design? Apart from visits undertaken for the first-hand experience, you would be introduced to projects through the second-hand source of the photographic image, either in print or online.  That fleeting moment of a first impression does not get a second chance if the first visual encounter is not a positive one.

First Impressions and Choices

An architect’s website is a 24/7 gallery, making their hard-won projects available to a potentially global audience. Their work will be known through the photographic images that represent them and therefore the quality and clarity of the images is undeniably essential.

If you are an architect, how do you approach the photography stage of your designs?

Do you decide to ‘take some photos’ yourself, just prior to the promotion of your work?

If so, are you experienced in the appropriate visual language to transpose an experience of 3D form into a 2D image? Do you have a sound understanding of the technical use of camera controls to produce the intended image by manipulating manual exposure controls? Are you able to incorporate light to model form and create atmosphere within an image? Are you skilled in composition to frame the space effectively? Can you blend images of different exposure values without using the dreaded HDR method which only creates artificial and garish colour? Are you able to step back from being immersed in the design to experience the structure objectively?

Or, do you appreciate that this is a vital and integral part of the design process and take time to research the online portfolio of a photographer who demonstrates an exclusive focus on architecture and interior spaces of the built environment, with a clear understanding of visual language and an obvious enthusiasm for design? Someone with whom you can engage in a dialogue concerning the elements of your design vision and task them to convey the story in effective images.

The benefit will be in the form of effective images, that clearly communicate the design story to the viewer in inspiring images . And, you will also save valuable time.

Why Hire a Photographer with a Specific Focus?

The process of producing architectural photographs is most effective when it is approached as a collaboration between the architect and the photographer, engaging in a dialogue about the essential elements of the design.

The photographer, who works exclusively with architecture as a subject, understands the appropriate visual language of the genre and through experience is skilled in the technical use of camera controls to achieve the intended results.

They are then able to transcend technical ability into a creative approach, to produce images that are more than passive records of a space, by actively interpreting and representing the architect’s vision for the design, in atmospheric and inspiring images.

Why is an Architectural Photograph Valuable?

As photographer Joel Meyerowitz has shared: “The thing with photographs is that they look like pictures, but they’re ideas.”  The main purpose of architectural photography is to convey design ideas and engage viewers.  Photographer David Cardelus thinks of architectural photographs as ‘consciously elaborated baits’ to generate a dialogue between the image and the viewer.

There are three levels within this main purpose.

One, there is the level of documentation of form, or information. These type of images show accurate information about the design as faithfully as possible, including the flow of space, features and materials, as specified in the brief.  Soft natural light would be ideal, using a lens with a focal length of 24mm-35mm, to ensure that there is no wide-angle distortion. A small aperture would be selected to ensure a deeper depth of field and optimum sharp focus. Camera height selected as appropriate for each room. Importantly the camera is level to ensure upright verticals.

A second level would be a focus on detail. Detail images show the quality of the attention to detail applied by the architect in specific features or material, pattern, quality of light. Here a longer focal length would be more useful, 35mm-70mm, with a large aperture to create a shallow depth of field to help focus viewer attention on the specific detail.

Thirdly there is the level of appearance. How the architecture is perceivable, influenced by light and time of day, weather, the season and the immediate surroundings. The key images would be made here, exterior in the blue hour with interior lights creating a warm glow. A wider lens would be effective, for a sense of drama, with a small aperture and a long exposure.

Finally, beyond these three levels, there is the image itself, as the subjective experience of the architectural form and its appearance, existing to stimulate the imagination in the mind of the viewer.  The work of Friederike von Rauch is an inspiring example of this type of work.

What is the Visual Language of Architectural Photography?

A photographer understands the formal elements of composition. How to organise line, shape, form, texture and colour effectively so that the viewer will be attracted to the image on the first glance, on a surface level, and then stay with the image to consider further what ideas are represented. To be inspired by the image, to be persuaded to find out more from the architect.

Conversely, ineffective composition and low-quality image sharpness and colour rendition will repel even a curious viewer and negatively affect the perception of the architect’s work.  A photographer is able to say ‘look at this’ and ‘look at it in this way’ through effective use of visual language.

Composition and viewpoint are central to photographic visual language. Composition is the structure of the image, how elements are arranged within the frame. The function of composition is to best convey your idea for your subject matter. It is as much about removing clutter as it is about arranging elements.

There are many guides for strategies of composition. They can be learnt, but ultimately compositional decisions become intuitive. Choose the strategy that best fits the idea or subject in terms of generating an emotional response in the viewer. The ‘Rule of Thirds’ is not the only strategy. Consider using: lines, symmetry, depth of field, pattern, visual weight, balance, positive/negative space. As Ansel Adams wisely said ‘A good photograph is knowing where to stand’.

Photography is an art form of selection. Photographer Judith Turner believes that ‘it is impossible to see architecture in its full complexity at once.’ Architecture is made up of details.  The idea behind it, the essence of a building can be captured in a detail, a fragment from which the viewer may gleam an idea of the whole. She says in her book ‘Photographing Five Architects’:  “I produce series of fragments of buildings. When these fragments are viewed they can also be seen as an unfolding experience, conveying some of the ideas and intentions of a building as a whole.”  The importance of tightly framed compositions is further explored in her book ‘Seeing Ambiguity’, as a comment on perception, the difference between ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’:

For me, “looking” implies documenting and recording whole facades and wide views of buildings in a straightforward and literal manner. 

Seeing” relates to the ambiguity in our perceptions of things. The ambiguity in my work comes from the way I see architecture. In my photographs, often foreground becomes background and background takes the position of the foreground; positive and negative rotate.

This approach of simplification and abstraction can appeal to the curiosity of the viewer who will want to know more about the photographs.

Light is the essential material of photography. Light models form and create drama and atmosphere through the contrast between light and shadow. Le Corbusier said that ‘the history of architectural material …has been the endless struggle for light.’ To allow natural light to enter and spread through internal spaces is a vital part of building design. A patient and perceptive photographer will employ light as a main character when representing the story of each individual architectural design.

There are many elements to the visual language of photography, specific to each genre, which take time and experience to develop skillfully.  Further, skills are developed in post-production, for example, to ensure a balanced exposure, with no loss of detail in the highlights and shadows. Yes, bracketing is used, but not HDR, which creates an artificial and garish colour. A more sophisticated method is used to manually blend bracketed exposures.

However photography is often promoted as an activity requiring little skill, the camera itself is believed to be the secret to effective photography. Since the late 19th century Kodak has promoted the simplicity of photography as a process. The slogan for the marketing of the Kodak camera was ‘You press the button, we do the rest’. ‘The only camera that anybody can use without instructions.’ Similar today with digital cameras and the dreaded ‘Auto’ setting on the Mode Dial.  A complete loss of creative control!

The camera is indeed a mechanical/digital recording tool, but it is operated by an individual who selects the subject, viewpoint, lighting, exposure and focus. Susan Sontag believed that ‘photographs are interpretations’ ‘a way of seeing’.

Photography is far from an automated technical process. An individual’s creative vision is what elevates it into an effective art form.

What is the Point of Architectural Photography?

A photographer with a focus on a specific genre will understand how to communicate ideas through using the appropriate visual language, one that is accessible and meaningful for the viewer.

In a similar way to architects who aspire to be innovative, a photographer, whilst being attentive to the unique qualities of each space, will develop a creative approach with a visual language to avoid cliche and repetition while telling the design story of the space.

Photographer Koen Van Damme advises approaching each architectural project with a clear mind, empty of preconceived ideas and formulaic approaches to photographing architecture, in order to produce new ways of seeing.

His cautionary tale:

Architecture arises from images in your head.

Architectural photography arises from architecture.

Images in your head arise from architectural photography.

www.clarelouphotography.com – Visit the website for more.