How to Photograph Architecture

Architectural photography, simply put, comes down to developing a sensitivity to the ‘feel’ of the space. Yes, one needs to capture the elevations; yes, one needs to capture the details but just to set out to record these is at best, mechanical.  What makes working for architects and designers so rewarding is that the finished building is more than the sum of its parts. Capturing that extra ‘something’ that isn’t paint, or bricks, or mortar, is what in the end, makes it worthwhile.

The cornerstone of how I approach photographing architecture comes from a conversation I had with an architect several years ago before I became a full-time professional photographer. Up to that point, I always thought architecture was only about the design of a building – my thinking was along the lines of:

“Well you want to have the bedrooms here, and the kitchen there, a bathroom for each bedroom, etc. “

That day, because of my conversation with that architect, I came away viewing architecture from a different pair of lens.

This architect tried to open my eyes and said I should think about how (the client) would “feel in this space”.

At the time, I didn’t understand what he was driving at, but later when I walked into the room we had been discussing, I immediately got what he was talking about, and why he made the design decisions he had made.  You “felt” it the moment you walked into the room.

I had an epiphany at that moment, and it was, that good architecture, (like all good design or art) creates an emotional response in the viewer.  GREAT architects can do this within the constraints dictated by the finance experts, the engineers, the contractors and the clients.  It’s a challenging needle to thread and not for the faint-hearted.  When I took up photography, I realised that my job as an architectural photographer was to capture and transmit that feeling through my photographs.

Every detail in the building is there because of a conscious decision made; each decision has been made or guided by the architect. While a real estate client is unlikely to be interested in the tile detail in the jacuzzi, for example, the architect helped create those details and did so in a way that affected the whole space. And so, a photograph of the tiles may be needed.

This attention to and subsequent need for details for the purpose of documentation make for some interesting photographic challenges: “How do I make the tiles in the jacuzzi visually appealing?”; “How do I show the relationship between the pool and the house?”  I figure, at the end of the day they are simply tiles, and it’s just a pool, but I need to find a way to deliver an image that is more than just a picture of tiles or a pool.

In addition to the above, there’s often the challenge that the building is only available for photography for quite literally a day or two at most. There’s a sliver of time between when the contractor is done and when the client moves in. If it all works well, I can get time to be in and out of the project without getting in the way of any of the stakeholders. Often it’s not a clear handover, and this means working around the contractor and the client and the snagging –  and still produce good images.

So, while images of fantastic architectural designs look effortless and indeed are a work of art in and of themselves, there is quite a bit of collaborative effort which must go on behind the scenes to reach the final stage.

Leslie St. John is a premiere Barbadian photographer who specializes in wedding photography, commercial photography, and building and interiors photography.   He can be contacted at leslie@lesliestjohn.com and his website is www.lesliestjohn.com.

Leave a Reply