On being an architectural photographer 2
On being: an Architectural Photographer – 2
Keith Cooper looks at what it takes and why
Part 2 – the photography side
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For several years Keith Cooper has provided architectural photography services via Northlight Images.
Does having the right specialist kit and knowing how to use it matter? What sort of photography products do clients want?
The first part of the article emphasised the business aspects of architectural photography. This second part is somewhat more equipment related.
Architectural photography – tools for the job
Having looked in part one at some of the business aspects of architectural photography, this second part looks at the equipment and other things that helps me get the job done. It’s not meant as a prescriptive guide, more what works for myself and why.
Equipment – what gets the job done
Classic ‘forum wisdom’ likes to think that a good photographer can create good photos with any camera. That may be fine if the limit of your work is an Instagram post. However, supplying images for magazines, brochures and advertising purposes needs a degree of image quality that generally, but not exclusively, comes from higher end kit.
There is a caveat there though. To get the best out of better kit often needs a lot more practice and understanding of what that kit can let you do. Not one of the photos in the articles was shot using any form of auto exposure and many used manual focus lenses.
A camera for me…
I often use a Canon 5Ds, a 50MP full frame DSLR, For backup and less clean environments, such as foundries and quarries, I’ve my Canon 1Ds mk3 (21MP). One is 5 years old and the other 13 years old. Both have long since paid for themselves. I mention this since it’s something that needs considering from a business POV. Considering this aspect of camera use is one thing that separates most professional photographers from enthusiasts. That and the ability/desire to take photos of subjects that don’t interest or inspire you.
Whilst lots of megapixels helps, better does not always equate with newer. When I first got the 5Ds I carried out some simple tests, shooting the same scene with the 5Ds, 1Ds3 and my 2004 11MP 1Ds.
Comparing prints resized and scaled showed far less difference than many might assume. The 50MP 5Ds produces images that are more flexible to use (cropping for example) but not alway ‘better’ in ways that others might notice. I always remind myself that we photographers are all too prone to see issues and problems in images that no-one else will ever notice.
Some spurious verbiage about ‘perfection’ may fit in your marketing spiel or ‘artist’s statement’, but I always remember that post production time is not a cost free item, and I am running a business reliant on making a profit.
Architectural photography tends to place tighter demands on lens performance over the whole field of view than many other areas. Landscape photography is one area where fine detail tends to matter, but the straight line elements of architecture are excellent for showing up geometrical distortions. Vertical columns that bow slightly outwards may not detract from what you think is a good picture, but I’ve many clients who simply won’t accept it.
There is another ‘distortion’ that drives many of my lens choices and that is the convergence of vertical lines you get when pointing a camera upwards – even slightly. In extreme you get the leaning views shown in part one. This can be ‘fixed’ using software, although it introduces an unpredictable crop.
Tilting and shifting your view
A far better way of addressing this, and one that offers all kinds of other options is to use a shift lens. This vertically shifted (rise) example keeps vertical and (parallel to the sensor plane) horizontal lines true.
Indeed, it’s the Canon range of tilt-shift lenses that were the prime driver behind my choice of the 5Ds.
There are over 50 articles/reviews relating to tilt and shift on this site – and hopefully my book covering the subject will be published later in 2020.
Of course, there are other makers of such lenses, but Canon has the widest range.
Lens adapters make it easier to experiment and use older lenses.
Some recent experiments with old (1980’s) Mamiya M645 medium format lenses have shown that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get started with using lens shift.
Once again, all fully manual lenses. You have to set focus and aperture yourself.
If your current photography uses many auto settings (including focus) it’s time to get back to basics. Oh, and it’s firmly my opinion that this will benefit all your photographic skills.
Lens tilt is generally of less use in architectural work. Obvious uses such as below, may make for interesting views, but beware of over-using such effects, especially the ‘miniature world’ look. Just as with strongly angled shots, know your audience.
More commonly I’ll use tilt to run the plane of focus along a wall/ceiling/floor. By shooting at a small enough aperture the use of tilt will only be noticed by those familiar with how it works. I want to sell the resulting image, not the fact that I have a lens that tilts.
On support for your work
Architectural work is one of the few times I’ll automatically take a tripod with me. It helps in stability for longer exposures/smaller apertures.
Whilst for general commercial use I like a lightweight carbon fibre tripod with a ball head, for architectural use I much prefer a geared head such as the Rogeti RG1, which was designed for just such use. Accurate levelling really makes a difference and the geared head is designed for this.
I also shoot very high resolution images, either by simple stitching of shifted shots or using a GigaPan motorised mount for taking a grid of photos. It’s ideal for static subjects and the effective resolution can be hundreds or even thousands of megapixels. This easily surpasses most large format film, and as I’m only too happy to point out to clients, is quicker and more economical.
A survey tripod is ideal as a very robust support and for the GigaPan
Just watch those spikes on floors though…
Big prints are impressive, but remember, not many people have room for 14 metre prints like this one of the centre of Leicester at dusk.
The huge images I create are occasionally used for prints, but more commonly for survey purposes. Typical uses include recording cracks in stonework and walls. This gives sufficient detail to show the cracks and enough coverage for identifying their position.
This touches on another area of architectural photography which is becoming more common – verified view/AVR. This is used for planning and visualisation purposes and requires precise documentation and traceability.
Drone photography simply isn’t permitted in many urban locations where we work. However I do use a carbon fibre mast which takes any of our cameras up over 8 metres. I mainly use it for looking down on subjects and access. One use I hadn’t thought of when I got it, was with some commercial buildings. We often photograph ones with car parks in front of them.
Raise the camera up and suddenly the cars between you and the building become much less intrusive.
Of course, we can do aerial shots from a helicopter, such as this one of De Montfort University.
If a client has to ask how much helicopters cost to hire, then make sure they are sitting down when you tell them.
There’s still a common misconception that to do architectural photography ‘properly’ you need medium format or even large format cameras.
This H6D and HTS1.5 tilt/shift adapter is a joy to use, but the tilt/shift adapter does limit wide angle coverage.
I’d definitely agree that modern medium format digital gives me superb image quality out of the camera. The resulting files are sometimes easier to work with as well.
That’s fine but to get the real benefits you need the lenses and experience to use the kit. That doesn’t come with just hiring gear for a few days.
Medium format lets me shoot ‘looking up’ just the same as I can with my DSLRs…
From a business point of view, you need enough well paying work to justify the costs. I’m afraid such work is less common than many would-be architectural photographer would like to think.
Clients are realising that a local specialist photographer will frequently offer better and more predictable results than getting someone ‘well known’ to travel. If nothing else, the local photographer can look out of the window and know if the sun is out.
A huge area, but I’d note that whilst something like Lightroom may be great for wedding and event photographers, for architectural work, it’s Photoshop every time for me.
Why Photoshop? It’s all about layers and masking – that and specialist plugins. There are lots of related articles and reviews on the site which look into the details.
Some work, such as verified view photography needs completely unretouched images, whilst on others I’ll be looking at compositing, stitching or just removing bins. The amount of work depends on the client and budget and yes, Photoshop work is chargeable.
It’s helpful too to remind clients asking for photos of past projects, that as people live in and use developments it shows. There is a limit to Photoshop based ‘tidying up’.
This view at a construction site was stitched from two hand held shots with a tilt/shift lens. It’s also been straightened.
Sure, it’s nice to get everything bang-on in the camera, but sometimes it’s getting the shot that matters.
I have to mention film. I used to use it, up to about 2003. From my commercial point of view it’s a historical footnote. It’s a highly instructive and enjoyable process to master, but I’m afraid it’s long past any relevance for our business.
If you think you can market niche film based work, then good luck, but I’d be interested to see a robust business case for it ;-)
Every so often I get out some of my old film gear and wonder about trying it out again, then I remember how much I’ve learnt since switching to digital and the kit goes back into storage. Well, not quite, all my Mamiya M645 lenses are now useful again, expanding my range of tilt/shift lenses.
Yes, I do like the idea of using my MPP view camera, but it’s 100% to keep me amused, not part of our work.
Enjoyment and work
Hopefully these two articles [pt. 1] have given a bit more idea about what it takes to be an architectural photographer and what sorts of work it covers.
It’s part of our work I enjoy doing, and that to me is still an essential part of Northlight’s business. If you’re just reading this as someone who enjoys photography, I hope it’s helped with some ideas and links to related articles/reviews. Whilst the right equipment helps, it doesn’t have to be expensive to experiment.
Look for used equipment too, my first tilt/shift lenses were second hand. Even if you get say a used Canon TS-E24mm F3.5L, you’ll find its resale value holds up well if you either decide it’s not for you, or move up to the TS-E24mm F3.5L mk2 My original TS-E24mm helped me learn many aspects of photography I’d never really looked at.
On the title for the articles…
Based on a very good book about photography “On being a photographer” by Bill Jay & David Hurn – not a photo in it… [See my review]
June 2020 – unusual times…
The current pandemic has severely impacted all of 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, Karen and myself will 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.
Oh, and when it’s possible again I’ll be offering bespoke training for architectural photography and the equipment needed.
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