On being an architectural photographer 1
On being: an Architectural Photographer – 1
Keith Cooper looks at what it takes and why
Part 1 – the business side
For several years now, Keith Cooper has provided architectural photography services via Northlight Images.
How did he get into this area of photography and why?
How does it work from a business and photographic point of view?
Is this an area where having the right specialist kit and knowing how to use it matters?
This first part of the article looks more at the business side of things. Photographing the built world may be interesting, but how do you make a profit from it? Part 2 looks a bit more at equipment and what you do with it
Architecture and the business of photography
Here at Northlight, I do our architectural, construction and interiors photography. You’ll note that I’ve lumped these together since they cover our business from photographing sites for planning purposes, though construction and on to projects actually being used. I also (in normal times) offer bespoke training/seminars covering architectural photography and equipment. This is aimed mainly at architects and property professional, but includes photographers and talks at shows and the like.
In this article I’ll concentrate more on the architecture/construction side. Interior photography can quite a specialised field when you get to custom lighting setups, so I’ll stick to the sorts more likely to be associated with photographing development projects. This part of the article leans more to the business aspects, whilst the second part more to the photography and equipment.
A background – why architecture?
I’ve been interested in the built environment for many years. This fitted in with my love of landscape photography and one of my previous careers as a geologist. Growing up in Suffolk has left me with a love of deserted beaches, huge skies and vast medieval churches, reflecting the past wealth of the region. These often look massively out of place for the small villages and towns they now inhabit.
If there was an image that I could give as an inspiration, it would be the 1903 Frederick H. Evans print ‘A Sea of Steps’. Taken at Wells cathedral in 1903 [Link to image – I don’t have rights to reproduce the original].
My own view, taken in 2011, uses a similarly vertically shifted lens, albeit of somewhat wider field of view.
In skills I’ve acquired over the years, that are useful for architectural work, I’d list:
- An ability to visualise 3 dimensional structures, including the hidden parts
- A engineering/scientific background understanding construction and why structures stay up
- An appreciation of landscape and its history in art and geology
- Treating light and shadow as structural elements of any image you create
- Seeing architecture relating to the scale of people using it, and how they use it
I’d not say that these are ‘essentials’ in any way, they just matter for me.
Here at Northlight, we only do commercial photography, so no weddings/pets/babies and the like. That doesn’t mean I don’t photograph people – far from it, just that the ones I do tend to be at work. My previous work in engineering means that I’m comfortable (and safe) in factories and construction sites.
The majority of our earlier work was more on the industrial/construction side, with architectural work gradually contributing more to the business in the last 10-15 years. If you’re looking for info about getting started, then some of my more general photo business articles are likely to be of relevance, such as:
A key element of the business, which comes from my academic background, are the articles on this site and our commercial photography training. I’m happy to teach people how to use tilt/shift lenses for example, to the extent that I’ve written a book on the subject [publication now moved back to late 2020, given the current situation].
One aspect of the business that has helped is having enough time to experiment and learn the technical skills required. I’ve long believed in mastering the technical side of photography well enough to be able to ignore it until it’s needed.
Who wants this type of photography
When I was first looking to take up photography professionally I had a chat with a well known professional landscape photographer. Why? Well, I really liked landscape photography, that was a start wasn’t it?
I wasn’t entirely unprepared for the answers, since I’d many previous years of business management and consultancy work. However I’d fallen into the classic trap of not thinking:
Make what you can sell, not try to sell sell what you make
This was exacerbated by failing to properly think of my photography as a product.
For the architectural side of things, the natural thought is that architects want shots of their buildings.
That’s fine but architects often don’t have the money for much photography. I’m a member of RIBA and know a lot of architects.
I also know where the money flows and collects in the development and construction process. You need to identify both the people who can afford photography, and critically what they need the photos for.
Remember that your photos have a job (or jobs) to do. That job is different if your images are aimed at property investors or on an architect’s web site or a brochure for a specialist building product supplier. One of my other specialisms is macro/close-up photography. Whilst this is mainly for engineering clients, the skills and equipment are relevant for photographing architectural models and photos for construction material boards.
So, for our business, we need to know who uses architectural photos, why they use them and do they have the budget for taking them? Remember that very few of your images are likely to be of winners of prestigious architectural prizes.
The kinds of work
Architectural photography covers a wide range of situations and scales. You’re much less likely to be paid to photograph large award winning buildings than smaller office and residential developments.
I get to photograph a lot of deeply uninspiring structures. From my POV, the real skill comes in being able to take a good shot of a bland looking shed, not a RIBA Stirling prize winner.
What’s a good shot? – one the client really likes
Be prepared to put aside some of your artistic sensibilities and be prepared to learn from all the skilled people you will meet.
This building was on a newly developed industrial estate. The client in this case was the developer, who wanted images that could be used in their marketing.
Who’s it for again?
The architects involved with the project subsequently saw the photos and wanted this image. That’s great, but our licensing was for our client, so we came to an arrangement allowing them to use the photo [note the copyright watermark].
If I’ve the opportunity I’ll often shoot a few extra views since even with a good brief, you can’t be sure of just what someone in the client’s office is going to like/dislike. Detailed written briefs for work are essential, but back in the real world…
Always think carefully about how you are licensing the images you provide. Take care that people don’t pass them on to all and sundry. A large project may have many specialist suppliers and subcontractors – are you happy for them all to get free photos for promoting their business?
At a location such as the business park it’s important to remember that all those businesses you’re photographing for the developer are potential clients. You’ve probably had to chat with them to arrange permissions to take some photos – make sure they know what you do. This photo is from another visit to the same industrial park
The style of photos you provide is always a mix of your skill and expertise matched with what the client wants.
‘We do architecture too’
Sometimes I’m asked to quote for work in locations we can’t easily cover. By the time we’ve added in travel and expenses costs, it’s simply too much for a small job. I’m always happy to recommend other more local photographers and if I don’t know of any I’ll pass on details of our ‘Guide to finding the right professional photographer‘. There is one other key observation I generally offer:
Architectural photographers do not have brides on the front page of their web site
Of course that’s not to say wedding photographers won’t be able to photograph buildings. Just that they are less likely to have the specialist lenses and equipment that can be so useful. Conversely, getting me to photograph a wedding would really not be a sensible move…
The leaning towers
There’s a more subtle difference that’s perhaps best illustrated by two extreme views of the same building.
Both are very wide angle views, one with a normal ultra-wide lens and one with a tilt-shift lens.
As an architectural photographer I can take both, but only one would generally be of interest to an architectural practice. As one architect said of the next image:
“Great, but don’t do that to one of my buildings”.
People who do like the dramatic angles include graphic designers and the marketing/sales sides of larger client businesses.
If you see a web site of a pro photographer claiming to be an architectural photographer, then look at vertical lines in their images.
The odd few photos at strong angles are fine – that shows an understanding and appreciation of client needs. Everything leaning all over the place is a sure fire sign of someone trying a bit too hard to be ‘creative’.
The next two are both from a collection of images for a commercial property brochure – very different looks.
Use the light
Whilst it’s true of any naturally lit photo, learning to see how changes in light and weather affect the feel of a location is something that needs plenty of practice. It also helps for when photos ‘absolutely must’ be taken on a particular day. Just make sure the client appreciates that Photoshop does not equate with control over the weather.
Take time to experiment with shots taken at dusk, where just a few minutes can make all the difference.
Timing is essential when you want to show people in a scene, although I’ve clients who asked for multiple shots, so that they could be composited together to make somewhere look busier…
Compare the entrance above with this daylight view.
Take care when combining very different light sources. You camera’s choices in white balance setting can easily look wrong. The answer for myself is to shoot in RAW format and balance lighting tone and colour in RAW processing.
I’ve examples of the changes of light in a relatively short time in an article:
You (or your client) may or may not want people in a scene. I’ve mentioned compositing to make somewhere busy, but the same technique can be used to remove people.
Lower light levels allow for longer exposures and a blurring of figures which can help in creating a sense of flow or movement, or simply render people not individually identifiable.
Do watch for the ‘Lost Foot’ problem where a moving person is blurred, apart from the foot they had on the ground during exposure.
A strong ND filter can help in daylight, but watch for potential colour shifts.
Won’t someone please ask for black and white?
Back when I first asked about the business aspects of landscape photography, I also asked about black and white. The answer was that ‘people always said they liked B&W but very few would actually buy it’.
In the years since, my black and white work has sold a steady stream of landscape prints, but no more than for me to say it’s a hobby bolted on to the main photography business. Talking to other photographers with galleries (i.e. real physical ones) confirmed my belief that ‘Local Sells’, and I don’t live in a location with great photo sales possibilities.
Of course it may be different where you are, but if you believe it is, then make sure you’ve some solid reliable evidence.
So, some of my favourite images may be black and white, but the usual way they tend to end up on client’s walls is after I’ve worked for them. Often when they’re having an office upgrade/move and want some ‘art’.
It’s great to be asked for B&W prints of my work, but if you want to make more of this then some specific market research will be needed. Social media likes pay very few bills.
Black and white emphasises the light and works well with modern buildings too.
There is a problem in this particular image that you need to be aware of when asked to go and photograph newly completed projects.
Is it finished yet?
Definitions of just when a project is ‘finished’ depend on who you ask. The wire fences in the photo above could be removed in Photoshop, but it’s not a 5 minute job. Ensuring that everyone is expecting you on site and that no finishing off or ‘snagging’ work is going on is an important part of my pre-site checklist.
Site security people need to know you’re on site and who you’re working for. I’ve worked at a shopping centre where a BBC news crew wasn’t allowed on site until a copy of their liability insurance cover notice was emailed over. Don’t assume that just because a tenant at a site hires you to photograph their offices that the site owner will not be awkward. Watch out too that your work isn’t offered as a gift to the site owner for their own use.
Real architectural work
Over the years I’ve come across some serious misconceptions about what being an architectural photographer entails. In the same way many people’s view of fashion photography doesn’t cover the long hours, utter tedium and low pay of most people in that area.
Now if it were tedious, I wouldn’t be doing it, but architectural work (for most photographers doing it) does not consist of visiting stunning buildings and getting to explore the inner concepts of their design. Photography has a job to do for someone. That doesn’t mean you can’t explore more complex and deeper themes, but if you’re photographing a basic home extension it may be best to keep such musings to yourself.
A view through to a roof terrace in a new development. What’s the key element for the client?
It’s the floor, they are specialist flooring and tiling suppliers.
However, for a more general shot introducing the case study, this wider view was preferred.
This is one reason we often supply some wider angle views than just the requested images in our submissions. It’s much easier for a client’s design team to crop out what they want from a very high res image than add stuff in.
In the second part of the article I’ll look at the more technical side of architectural photography work. What do you need, and what’s nice to have. Also why your choices help from a business point of view.
Also… There’s a video interview that BenQ filmed of me discussing photography that includes photography business info related to this article – the second half is about monitors, but if you’re into video it may be of interest (I’m not, it’s not a service we offer here).
May 2020 – unusual times…
The current pandemic has severely impacted my work, mainly in that there are few people at our clients to actually speak to. They’re also not really thinking that much about photography.
As things do return to some normality, we’ll be engaging more in our business marketing and reminding people that we can go and photograph buildings with no need to interact with people. Interiors will be more problematic and it looks as if I’ll be working on my own rather more often. I’d like to thank all the readers who’ve wished us well. If nothing else it’s given me more time to write for the site.
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