Q & A

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I got an email recently from a photography student who had a short list of questions about architectural photography. I sent back some answers, which led to a follow-up, which led to another question, and in the end I realized this was probably good stuff for general consumption. So: Thanks, Meagan, for getting me back into writing mode!

Q: What lens/lenses do you typically use for different kinds of shots?

A:   Architectural work depends heavily on lens movements to control perspective. This is one reason why 4×5 technical cameras were the standard before the advent of dSLR equipment — lens movements (i.e. ‘shift’) are very easy on tech cameras. With dSLRs like my Canon 5dMiii, we have to use special lenses that emulate what a tech camera does. These are often called “TS” or “PC” lenses (for Tilt-Shift, or Perspective Control). My go-to focal length is 24mm, but in general the rule of thumb is to back up and shoot the longest focal length you can get away with.

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A little blurry, but that’s a 5dMiii body, with a Pocket Wizard Plus II, mounted with a Really Right Stuff L-Bracket onto a Manfrotto 405 geared head and Gitzo Explorer sticks. On the front end is Canon 1.4x Extender (Miii) with a Canon 24TS lens, and a Lee filter ring (but no filter holder).

I carry the following shift lenses with me: 17mm, 24mm, 50mm, and 90mm. They’re all Canon, except the 50, which is a Schneider. Canon’s TS lenses are legendary for their sharpness and lack of distortion, except for the Canon 45TS, which gets rather bad reviews. Since that’s a focal length I use often, I got tired of waiting for Canon to update that lens, and bought the (quite pricey) Schneider.
Then, I also have a 1.4x “extender” that multiplies the focal length of a lens by 1.4; I use it on my 24mm to get an effective 33.6mm shift lens. In architecture, it’s nearly always better to use a longer lens to reduce distortion.

Q: Briefly describe the process you go through to do a shoot (preparation, time to shoot, etc.)

A:   If it’s a regular client, then I usually have a pretty good idea of what I’m walking into. Still, they usually send me some sort of scouting photos. If the job is local to me, we might do a pre-shoot walkthrough. Sometimes, that’s useful, but I have to be careful not to over-think shots and allow myself to just react to the space on a gut level. This is an area where I’m really working — to be able to identify shots in advance and think about them without losing the impulsive edge and without talking myself out of the risky shots.
Anyway: A shoot always starts with a very thorough walk-through the morning of, or better yet the night before. This can take a long time as we figure out what to shoot first, what to shoot when, what props we’ll need, etc. etc. Then my assistant wheels all the gear over to the first location and builds the camera and laptop and stuff that is always part of every shoot. And so it begins…in the video below, I’m apparently stoned. (OK, not really, but I do seem kind of dopey.)


I tell clients with residential projects that I can make 8 to 10 interior photos in a full day (we average about a photo per hour) and commercial projects it’s 2 hours per photo. A big chunk of that hour is often figuring out exactly where to place the camera and how to frame the shot. While my assistant and I are dealing with lighting, I’m also working with the stylist (who is often also my client!) to get furniture moved, flowers placed, lemons sliced, etc. etc. etc.  — all the hundreds of tiny details that collectively make or break the photo. Once we’ve wrapped on the last shot, it’s goodbye and back to the hotel (or home, hopefully).

Q: Do you ever us supplementary lighting for your interior shots? If so, what do you use?

A:  I pretty much ALWAYS use supplemental lighting for interiors. It’s the only way I know that I can render the scene as I experience it into a 2-dimensional photograph that’s representative of reality. Since cameras don’t see things at all like the human eye/brain combination, we have to work it to get to the point where the final photo really imparts the intent of the designer, and the experience of really being there.

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Rigging an Arri 150 hotlight to bounce into a homemade V-flat.

“Instant Photographer” software like Photomatix can’t do anything about crappy, flat light — the best it can do is to massage the light that’s there. It can work OK when conditions are already really good. It’s worse than nothing when conditions are really bad. So we do a lot of additive lighting, and I’m somewhat unique in that I also do a lot of subtractive lighting as well.

Q: What kind of work do you do in Post Production?photo

A:   As little as possible. I’m a firm believer that more photos are ruined by excessive post-production than anything else. And, frankly, if I’m faced with a choice between more time in the field vs. more time in front of my computer, I’ll take the field work, every time. I didn’t get into this business in order to sit on my ass in front of a computer. That said, every photo gets RAW adjustments and of course there are always blemishes and electrical outlets and Exit Signs and fire hydrants and etc. etc. that have to be digitally removed. On occasion I’ll blend in a separate window exposure or even a second exposure for part of an interior — but that’s never my first solution, it’s more of a concession to the limitations of schedule when in the field.

Q: You said earlier that you light your interiors (and sometimes subtract light). Would you mind telling me the basic ways you do that? How do you get the space lit and not have it look lit? And where do you light it from typically, if there is a typical place?

A:   Subtractive lighting can be as simple as pulling the blinds when the light doesn’t suit me. At other times we have to hang blackout cloth or place cards to block light that’s un-wanted.

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As for additive lighting, we use a variety of strobes and hotlights. The number one thing to avoid is lighting from behind the camera — this gives you flat, or one-dimensional light. Ideally, light should enter the scene at a sharp angle so that every object in the room has a clear highlight/shadow. Whenever possible I mimic the existing light patterns so it all appears natural. Window light, for example, may appear to be cutting across the room, but in reality it often comes in at a steep downward angle, over-lighting the area directly under it, but under-lighting the far side of the room. A light placed outside that window can project light all the way across the room yet appear indistinguishable from the natural light. Lighting interiors, often to an f-stop of 11 or 13 (or >22, on a large format camera!) can take a LOT of watt-seconds.hargis_140429_5806

I also often use hotlights in a variety of situations, whether it’s to spotlight the back of a chair, or for a very precise, fussy “shaped” light, or to make it appear as if the glow from a table lamp extends further than it does in reality. In every case, the goal is to make any light I place appear “motivated” by something obvious to the viewer.

Q: Do you use gels to match the coloring of your lights to the interior? What if you have a light coming in through the window… do you place a gel on it to imitate the light from outdoors?  

A: we use gels pretty extensively. Gelling a window is really rare for me, but I have done it. Usually it’s when there’s a fairly small window, and usually it’s because we have an interior that’s lit predominantly with tungsten, and the daylight coming in is reading very very blue (because the camera’s white balance is set quite low, like 3000k). We carry a big piece of CTO and we tape that over the window to warm up the daylight coming in.
Strobes are very close to daylight anyway, but “real” daylight is usually warmer than the “technical” specs, so it’s common for me to use a half cut of CTO on a light that’s being brought in from outside.
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Mostly, we look at what the predominant color in the room is, and we gel our lights to that. If most of the light is coming from old-school fluorescent tubes, we gel our lights green to match that. Lots of times we end up stacking gels because we have mixed light (halogen & ‘warm’ fluorescent is really typical). My hotlights are tungsten, and sometimes they’re too warm so we often put a CTB (blue) gel on them (carefully – they can melt).

3 responses to “Q & A

  1. Is that lunch in the Brown Bag on the floor ? Nice Post….

  2. Pingback: Wonderful Machine Photography Blog

  3. More, more! This is great Scott, thank you!

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