Commissioning Architectural Photography
by Paul Chaplo, M.F.A. Architectural Photographer,
Graduate:  R.I.T. School of Photographic Arts & Sciences, College of Graphic Arts & Photography        

AIA Assoc., TSA, AIA Dallas















email to:

PAUL CHAPLO Specializing in
Photography of 
and Construction Documentation


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"Commissioning Architectural and Aerial Photography for Publications and Websites"

How to Commission an Architectural Photographer

by Paul Chaplo, M.F.A, B.F.A., B.A.
Graduate: R.I.T. School of Photographic Arts & Sciences
College of Graphic Arts and Photography
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester, NY

There are several websites that offer varying degrees of useful information
on the subject of how to commission an architectural photographer. Some of these
are self-serving, which is tempting to a practitioner writing on the subject of their livelihood (or an organization hoping to persuade a buyer to hire one of their members), others are informative and objective, usually written by dedicated practitioners who are secure enough to speak with veracity about their field, or academics who are hoping to have a positive impact on the output reaching their shores.

Bertrand Russell has imbued those of us who have completed graduate studies with enough intellectual skepticism to last several lifetimes, and enough reminders to not take ourselves too seriously -- to keep us humble for at least the Foreword. Before continuing, and thinking that you have found a totally objective guide, you must know that I make a living as a practicing architectural photographer based near Dallas, TX. During the past year, I have photographed buildings in about ten cities outside of Texas. Apparently my clients think enough of my work to send me to photograph their projects out-of-state, and I suppose, into the backyards of other photographers. This has prompted me to reflect on the process of selecting an architectural photographer, and to dialog with architects on their experiences. At times, I role play in an attempt to understand the architect's view; at other times, I simply express my views as experienced from the practitioner's side of the fence.

Despite my personal stake, I believe that I can clarify some of the issues that are key to the buyer, and provide some perspective (with at least brief moments of objectivity) on the process. Hopefully, this will help some of you avoid some pitfalls, and become more cognizant of the ingredients/factors that comprise the craft and art of architectural photography.

A recent study revealed that clients view design as a product, while designers view design as a process. So it is with photography. Photographers see photography as a process, rather than just output. Perhaps this can help you re-arrange your priorities in choosing a photographer, and to identify how the photographer views themselves, and the process of making an image, by observing their presentation. Rather than focusing on the production rate claims, and the technology, perhaps the back ground of the photographer can offer some insight.

If, then, photography is a process, how can you select the person that brings the most to the process? There is nothing like the tried and true "education and experience," a combination of accredited training at a reputable university followed by years of work in the field resulting in a quality portfolio and finely honed craft.

Architectural photography is a unique niche in the universe of image making. Practitioners is this niche must photograph large subjects (i.e. buildings) while on-location ( i.e. the building site), and in doing so encounter a series of technical dilemmas. The process of solving these dilemmas separated the competent from the dilettantes. 

The technical issues stem from the architects need for accurate, yet aesthetically pleasing views of interiors and exteriors. In the end, no camera, lens, and film combination "sees" like the remarkable organ of the human eye. The eye can adapt to color casts and neutralize them, the eye can adapt to tremendous contrast ranges and provide properly exposed information in, of course, the blink of an eye. The architectural photographer is often faced with scenes: that have color casts from artificial lighting sources, and that have a contrast range that exceed that of film or digital sensors.

In the end, you will tend to have superior results by selecting a photographer who specializes in architectural photography.

Amon Carter Museum expansion, Fort Worth, Texas
Philip Johnson & Alan Ritchie, Architects 
Paul Chaplo, Photographer
Original print: 24x30 inches from 4x5 inch film, digital scan/conversion/retouching by the author.

Beyond the technical problems, there are aesthetic concerns. All the seemingly bohemian talk of "seeing" and vision "vision," as terms describing a photographer's ability to select views with sound judgment and creative control, resulting in an image that has its own design integrity -- seems to have some substance, based on by experience, despite my early skepticism. My experience reveals that more a photographer works diligently, the more visually perceptive they become. It is an unexpected epiphany to complete an intensive photography session and review of results, then walk outside to find that your visual awareness is keenly perceptive, seemingly above the norm. An architectural photographer who is steadily plying his/her craft may maintain this state, and it may enhance their ability to select views with an advantage. I suspect that the education of the practitioner, especially intensive visual training in photography and even the fine arts, and art history, may contribute to this phenomenon.  

Process is primary, creative vision is real. Now, let's get down to earth with the criteria of experience, credentials, and the photographic portfolio:

We've already discussed how photography does present some unique challenges. Look for an experienced professional who has dealt with color correction, lighting, and who photographs using a professional full frame digital camera or 4x5 film if you still have film needs. Even if the photographer is now shooting all digital, the discipline of using 4x5 generally is good training, even if they are not shooting film now. 

Regarding experience, you need a photographer with "location photography" experience. Location photographers are familiar with the challenges and logistics of photographing at multiple sites, and tend fare better than studio photographers, who are used to the relative ease and convenience of the controlled environment of a studio. What is the difference? On-location, you have mixed lighting sources; in the studio, there is only the studio lighting. To go on-location, you have to travel with your equipment; in the studio, the equipment is generally left out (with a few exceptions). A studio is like a laboratory, a location is like a bivouac, and requires much more flexibility and improvisation (although there are some very creative studio shooters that I admire)! Location photographers (or "location shooters") have their equipment packed in padded "air cases" that are well-organized and allow delicate gear to be transported to your building, or even checked-in as airline luggage (and survive). On the other hand, there are photojournalists, who are used to working on location, but are not used to the control needed for architectural photography. "PJ shooters" as they are called, are used to capturing action as it happens. Thus, they rarely have the time to do the precise color correction needed in architectural photography. They use small, mobile cameras; most have never used a view camera.

An interesting phenomena that I have observed is that some large-format black & white landscape photographers can become excellent architectural photographers in some cases. This may be a result of the high level of craft and control required to produce museum-quality large format (e.g. 4x5 inch film size) landscape photography. Also, they are familiar with view camera operation (the large camera with bellows similar to the one used by Ansel Adams) albeit in a somewhat different field camera configuration. Black & white landscape photographers are *not* familiar the limitations of color transparency film, nor the color correction issues that complicate location photography with man-made lighting. Black and white film, by definition, does not have color issues! That being said, landscape photographers tend to be perfectionists, which serves them well if they decide to become architectural photographers. If you find one making the transition, refer to the portfolio section below. As in architecture, a professional who is schooled in the profession, and specializes in the type of project at hand, is your best investment. Would you hire a photographer to design your new building? Neither would we hire an architect to photograph ours...

You need an architectural photographer who has experience in color 4x5 location architectural photography and now had transitioned to digital,  perhaps with a background in landscape photography rather than studio or photojournalistic photography.

Of all the criteria for choosing a photographer, caveat emptor applies most dearly in this category. There is such a vast range of value in credentials that the user is encouraged to research the practitioner's claims to have an credential that carries weight in the professional photography field.

The value of a credential covers the gamut from accredited university degrees to organizations that require only an annual payment and minimal review criteria to join. If you compare the photographer's credentials to yours as an architect, then research the photographer's credentials, you will soon differentiate the silk from the sow's ears.

A good starting point for credentials is look for college degrees in photography from accredited university programs that require that candidate meet stringent criteria for both academic requirements and a photographic portfolio review.

As an example, the University photography program consistently top-ranked by US News & World Report, at R.I.T., requires that candidates meet stringent professional portfolio requirements to even enter the M.F.A. program. The master's degree program is limited to a small, select group of students from around the world, and admissions are very competitive. To graduate, high-quality written thesis, oral defense, and gallery exhibition are required. 

When you see a logo of a professional organization prominently displayed by a photographer, e.g. on their website, caveat emptor! Such organizations range from the very reputable, i.e. the ASMP, which is membership-driven and very professional, to associations that do not disclose the name of the organizers or even a physical address! An easy way to find out more about a photographer's associations is to do an internet search for the organization, then click on "how to join," as though you were a photographer. If the membership requirements seem to be mostly about money, and there is no portfolio review, and you get the impression that the site owners are cutting costs in the site presentation and organizational functions, the credential may be a sales gimmick. Also, credible organizations have high-profile leadership and local chapters in most cases (just like the A.I.A., which is the epitome of a professional organization). Our experience is that it becomes obvious once you scratch below the surface of a fancy logo.

Also, photographers vie for high ratings for their websites, therefore some photographers create bogus websites that appear to be resources for photography buyers, but are instead, listings that feature the site owner's listings in prominent positions, e.g. for multiple states in the U.S. As I said, caveat emptor applies!

Architectural photographers present their work to prospective clients via a mobile, highly edited assemblage of their work known as their "portfolio," or simply their "book." Looking at a photographer's book is revealing. Beyond the obvious value of seeing the practitioner's images, a portfolio is a sort of Meyer's-Briggs assessment in its own right. Like a resume, you can learn much about a photographer from their portfolio: is it creative and well-designed, is the emphasis on superficial appearance or content, is it well-organized, etc? A modest cover, well-presented, with strong images within, may lead to a photographer who is proficient and has a fair day-rate. 

There is a whole industry that has sprung up around photographers who need to outdo each other with expensive containers for their work, hoping to get more work in this way. Most architects find it easy to see through the glitzy presentation to look for quality in the images.

The industry standard for architectural photography portfolios is now smaller prints, perhaps 8x10", displayed in a neat binder or case. Smaller prints make it difficult to see technical problems in the images. Larger prints are unwieldy to view and Fedex back & forth.

Beware of claims along the lines of "none of these images has been manipulated." In fact, the whole process of making a photograph is a series of abstractions. Then add the current practice of optimizing (another word for more manipulation, hopefully subtle) the image file in Photoshop, and it is doubtful that there is an image on the internet that has not been manipulated to some degree. Let your eyes be the guide!

Most serious digital architectural photographers shoot full-frame digital cameras with true professional bodies that are rugged and reliable. Real pros carry a backup camera body so that they can work faster using two cameras with two lenses, and/or have another ready if one camera malfunctions during an assignment. 

Meet the photographer. Look at some images together. Brainstorm some concepts for views. Visit a building together and dialog about your objectives. Does the photographer seem to intuitively know what you are trying to accomplish with your planned photography? Trust your instincts.

Look at photography as a process. Find an experienced architectural photographer, preferably with a degree in photography from a reputable university, and location photography experience, who will bring value and quality to the process. Inquire regarding credentials; research and assess the credibility of the credentials -- caveat emptor applies. View the portfolio, seeing past the slick cover to assess the quality of the images and the character of the image-maker. And remember your ineffables ...

Paul Chaplo, M.F.A., B.F.A., B.A.
Architectural Photographer
(Based near Dallas, TX)

Wondering what the heck your photographer is talking about?
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All images 2015 Paul Chaplo, Architectural Photographer. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

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