Architectural Photography

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.

Working With Models

When people find out I’m a photographer, sometimes I’ll get questions like, “Hey, do you shoot weddings?” No! Or “Maybe you could do our family portraits.” No! I photograph architecture, not people. You know, buildings, and that kind of thing. Objects that don’t move or have faces.

Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Las Vegas, NV

Holy Spirit Catholic Church, Las Vegas, NV

Well, sometimes I do photograph people. Like most architectural photographers, I love having people in my images. People bring life to an image. They can transform a space that would otherwise look dead into a living, bustling environment where the viewer can picture themselves and get a feel for what the space is really like.

World Market Center, Las Vegas, NV

World Market Center, Las Vegas, NV

Sometimes people add scale to an image. In this photograph from the World Market Center, you don’t realize just how big those buildings are until you notice the tiny people walking in the background. It feels like you’re walking through a huge cavern when you’re there among those three buildings. Without the people, the photograph would never convey that feeling.

Usually when I include people in my photographs, it’s unscripted and anonymous. If I’m in a space, I just try to capture people moving through it, or standing and talking on the phone or to someone else. The people are frequently motion blurred and almost always unrecognizable. That’s helpful because it removes the need to worry about model releases. If you’re in an area with no expectation of privacy, you are fair game. And if nobody would reasonably be able to identify who you are, then all the more reason no model release is needed.

But sometimes people play a more prominent role in the photograph. Maybe it’s more of a lifestyle shoot, or an advertising or marketing shoot where a company wants to project a certain image. Or it could just be a regular architectural shoot where you want to show spaces being used in specific ways. In these cases the people usually need to be positioned and directed.

Office remodel with glass-enclosed conference room, Las Vegas, NV

Office remodel with glass-enclosed conference room, Las Vegas, NV

Here’s an example from an office remodel I photographed for the architecture firm. I wanted to show the conference room being used as a conference room. I didn’t want it filled with people, but I thought a private meeting between two people would create a good scenario to help tell the story of the space. I had to decide where to have the people sit, and I had to get them to look natural and look like they were actually having a meeting in that room.

So, now the tough part begins. I photograph buildings, remember, not people. And I’m introverted, polite, and not the most assertive person when it comes to telling other people what to do. How am I going to direct these people and get them to do what I want? Especially when they’re not professional models or actors, like in this case. The three people in this photograph were volunteers from my client’s architecture firm. They may have felt as awkward about being posed in this scenario as I felt about directing them. Then again, they did volunteer for this. We’ll see if they come back the next time, I guess!

What I’ve found is directing the people who are just sitting having a conversation or something like that is pretty easy. I just tell them to have a normal conversation. Talk about the weather, if you want, I tell them. Anything. I just want them to behave naturally--to look at each other, smile, use normal hand gestures, etc.--all without having to think about it. If they have to think about it, it won’t be natural, especially since they are not actors or models. So I don’t tell them to look natural or to look at each other or to hold their hands a certain way. I just say, please talk to each other about something. Then I walk away and go about my business, trying to catch them at the right moment.

The harder part for me given my personality is directing the person walking down the hallway. Every time I do that I feel bad about it. How many times can I ask someone to walk down a hallway, or up and down a set of stairs--slower this time, now faster, now that speed but keep to the right more, etc.--before they’ve had enough! Usually it takes at least two or three takes to get it right, and it’s one of the hardest things I have to do. To say, “OK, could you do that again, but this time….” Ugh! I dislike that so much that I sometimes end up using myself for those kinds of situations. It’s so much easier to do it myself because I know what I’m looking for, and I don’t care how many times I have to do it to get it to look the way I want. Thank you, CamRanger and smartphone!

Working with people can be a challenge, but it’s also fun. Usually the people are good-natured and are having a good time too. But in the end, every time I work closely with people in my photographs, I’m reminded of one of the reasons I chose to photograph architecture!

Post-Production: Fixing Major Issues

Architectural photographs should be clean, simple, and graphic. They should tell a story clearly and without distraction. They should focus on the architecture--the shape, pattern, line, and design of the space. Any element that does not contribute to the story of the photograph detracts from it. That’s why I almost always remove unnecessary, non-architectural elements like light switches, outlets, and air vents from architectural images. These changes are a normal part of post-production and are relatively straightforward to accomplish. Sometimes, however, more difficult situations arise. I’d like to share two examples from one of my recent projects.

The new HealthCare Partners facility in Pahrump, NV features a rock sculpture with light display. Designed by Daniel Amster, Dakem & Associates, LLC.

HealthCare Partners is opening a new 57,000 square foot medical center in Pahrump, NV. The building was designed by Daniel Amster of Dakem & Associates, LLC. The photograph above shows the exterior of the structure, which includes a large rock sculpture with a multi-colored light display. The photograph below shows an interior view of the main hallway of the building.

Main hallway of HealthCare Partners in Pahrump, NV. Designed by Daniel Amster, Dakem & Associates, LLC.

Look at the back wall on the right side of the photograph. That’s not how the wall looked when I was there. Here’s one of the raw images before post-production. There were several palettes with lots of large boxes up against the wall. Unfortunately it was impossible to move the boxes out of the way. I needed a photograph from this perspective, though, and I was able to fix this issue in post-production.

Note the boxes against the wall on the right.

I knew it would be possible to remove the boxes in post-production because they were sitting in front of a blank wall. That's easy enough to replace. The hard part about this fix was recreating the light and shadow on the wall. There is a diagonal shadow and an intersecting hot spot from an overhead light, and I had to reproduce the subtle changes in light and shadow accurately so the fix would be convincing. This fix was time consuming and required some Photoshop skills, but it was necessary and well worth it. The otherwise acceptable photograph would be unusable without this fix.

HealthCare Partners main entry, Pahrump, NV. Designed by Daniel Amster, Dakem & Associates, LLC.

Returning to the exterior, here's a view (above) of the main entry of the building. I made one major change to this photograph to prepare the final image. The column on the left has a heavy garbage can in front of it. It was too heavy to move any distance, and I did not have a dolly to get under it, so I had to photograph with it in the frame. It could not remain in the final image, however.

Note the garbage can in front of the left column.

The fix for this situation was more difficult because I actually had to reconstruct the column. I paid a lot of attention to matching the color and lighting of the column. If you didn’t know I had done anything there, I don’t think you would be able to tell that anything has changed, and that is always my goal with these kinds of fixes.

Rescuing photographs from problems that could not be fixed on location is an important part of post-production in architectural photography. It’s not easy, and it is always much better to fix things on location when possible, but I love doing it. I’m always amazed at what can be done with Photoshop given enough time, experience, and attention to detail.

Portraying Function: From Academic to Dramatic

The O’Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh, PA is a beautiful public theater designed by Michael Graves Architecture & Design. The theater is modern and comfortable, and every seat in the house offers great views of the action on stage.

Main auditorium entrance, O'Reilly Theater - Pittsburgh, PA - Michael Graves Architecture & Design

Inside the lobby, O'Reilly Theater - Pittsburgh, PA - Michael Graves Architecture & Design

These photographs of the lobby and lounge areas show some of the architectural features Graves built into the structure. Inside the theater itself, the curves and the use of wood continue throughout the space to create a warm, comfortable environment in which to enjoy a play. The challenge I had was to portray this space differently from the way other photographers had captured it.

Lounge Area, O'Reilly Theater - Pittsburgh, PA - Michael Graves Architecture & Design

The theater staff told me that when the inside of the theater had been photographed in the past, the images always had an “academic” look to them. They wanted something more “editorial.” At first I wasn’t sure what they meant, but when I made my first photographs inside the theater, I started to understand. The photographs made the space feel a little clinical. It could have been a lecture hall at a university--it had that “academic” feel to it. There was nothing in the photographs that portrayed a sense of the drama that takes place within those walls. They wanted me to make something more “editorial.” So the challenge I gave myself was to use my photography to transform the space from an academic location to a dramatic location. That would be my editorial interpretation of it.

The best tool we have for creating drama in a photograph is light. I used a combination of multiple ambient exposures and exposures with supplemental lighting to provide me the raw materials I needed to create an atmosphere of drama in the room. I later blended these images together to realize that vision of drama. I was careful not to take any technique too far because I did not want the quality of the photographs to degrade. Fortunately I captured enough of a range of material in camera that this was mostly an exercise in blending, which maintains the quality and integrity of the photograph. Here is one of the photographs I produced.

Main auditorium, O'Reilly Theater - Pittsburgh, PA - Michael Graves Architecture & Design

The theater was very happy with my photographs. No photographer had captured the space in this way before.

In my architectural photography, I always try to be accurate and true to the architect’s and designer’s intent. In this case, with some direction from the theater, I believe I succeeded. The space was designed as a location where dramatic performance takes place. My photographs show how the audience will feel as though they are a part of that drama.