A Matter of Perspective

Perspective matters, especially in photography.

Two Summerlin office building in Las Vegas, NV

Two Summerlin office building in Las Vegas, NV

When I photographed Two Summerlin, an office building in Downtown Summerlin in the suburbs of Las Vegas, NV, one of the primary views was to capture the west-facing facade of the building.

A parking garage across the street provided some options for this composition, but my scouting indicated that photographing from the roof was too high a perspective. A street level photograph from that general direction also wouldn’t work because of the road and the center median of palm trees which prevented a clear view of the building. I often prefer a lower perspective for exteriors, but the obstructions ruled out that perspective.

My scouting clearly indicated that the best location was from the second or third story of the garage. Unfortunately, awnings block the view from the garage on those floors, so that perspective would be impossible.

Impossible, that is, unless you hire a scissor lift! And that’s exactly what we did. We set up the lift on the sidewalk in front of the garage and I had it raise me to just the right height. I had the operator fine-tune the position of the lift so that the trees were where I wanted them. I wanted certain parts of the building to be completely visible while I was OK with the trees covering other parts of the building. A little higher and the perspective became too flat. A little lower and the trees were too high and too much of a distraction in front of the building. A little to the left, and the trees started to cut off the left corner of the building, which I wanted to be unobscured. And a little to the right and the balcony area became covered with the trees. We made some fine adjustments until I was satisfied with the perspective.

Maybe you’re thinking, why not just use a drone? Well, I don’t do drone photography. Not yet, at least--it is on my radar for the near future. In this case, though, we wanted a twilight photograph, and the lighting and other requirements would have made using a drone very difficult for this view. So we opted for the scissor lift.

The timing of the shoot made scheduling the lift very difficult, and it ended up taking several weeks to get it scheduled. As time passed I became worried that I would not be able to complete the photograph before it was needed. So as a backup plan, I made a photograph from the roof of the garage, the location which my scouting indicated was too high. But I wanted to have something in case we could not schedule the scissor lift in time. Although I was pleased with the way the photograph turned out from a technical standpoint, and although I had invested a significant amount of time in the production and post-production of the image, it was clear that this was simply not the best perspective. It was too high. Here are the two photographs side by side for comparison.

 

This perspective from the roof of the garage across the street is too high.

This is the final image from a lower height taken from the scissor lift.

 

The higher perspective has several problems. First, we are able to see the equipment enclosure on the roof, which is not meant to be seen by a normal observer from the ground. Next, the eyebrow shade extension above the top floor--one of the architectural elements the architect wanted to capture--is completely lost because we are photographing from the same height as that element. Finally, the building just looks flattened and not very impressive. All of these problems are corrected by choosing the lower perspective.

Choosing the proper perspective is one of the most important keys to good architectural photography because as can be seen here, perspective dramatically affects the look of the final image. Getting the right perspective on location is even more important when you consider that perspective cannot be changed in post-production. I can do almost anything in post, but changing perspective is not possible. Yes, there are tools in Photoshop to alter perspective, but they really just push pixels around and use various types of distortion to simulate a different perspective. The eyebrow on Two Summerlin is the perfect example of why perspective manipulation in post-production cannot truly change the perspective. In the image from the roof, the pixels that would record the eyebrow do not exist. No amount of skewing or perspective warping is going to bring them back.

And that’s why I take my time when selecting my compositions and preparing to photograph an interior or an exterior. I evaluate the options, and I fine-tune the composition and the perspective. Once these are set, they cannot be changed in post-production, and in the end they will make or break the image.