Short of dragging prospective clients to your job sites, photography is the only way you're going to be able to show them examples of your work. But dim, blurry, poorly composed images aren't likely to impress anyone. Fortunately, while there may be some special projects where it pays to hire a pro, taking your own high-quality architectural photographs isn't difficult.
The key to getting great photos is your digital camera. Although you could easily spend an arm and a leg on a pro-quality digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera and the lenses and lighting to go with it, you can also get decent results with a consumer-level camera that costs less than $300 (see sidebar, page 8). In this article, I'll give you tips on how to compose your photographs and use improvised lighting and various combinations of filters to show off your projects in the best possible light.
Before thinking about getting those perfect "finish" shots, though, remember to get the "before" photos. These pictures don't need to be great, since bad ones will make your site look as if it really needed a makeover — and help your "after" shots look even better. Documenting every wall, floor, and ceiling in a remodeling project is good practice anyway, for insurance purposes; when the client says, "That scratch wasn't in my floor before you showed up," you have proof that it was.
To get an idea of what makes a good architectural photograph, take a look at a few "house beautiful" magazines with professional photography in them. Where is the photographer shooting from, and why? What information was the photo meant to convey?
As you frame up your own shots, keep the following basic rules of composition in mind. They'll help your photos look more interesting.
• Rule of thirds. Never divide your shot into two equal parts, horizontally or vertically; instead, divide it into thirds. Frame your photos with the horizon on either the upper one-third line or the lower two-thirds line, not square in the middle. Depending on which line you choose, the photo will emphasize either the sky or the ground.
When the subject is placed in the middle of the frame, the photo feels one-dimensional and lacks movement.
To improve the composition, move the subject to one of the targeting points created when a tic-tac-toe grid is superimposed on your viewfinder.
The diagonal line created by the two workers leads the eye into the shot and creates interest. Placing the horizon in the upper third of the frame helps emphasize the site work rather than the building itself.
• Lead the eye. The easiest way to kill a good photo is to have the viewer's eye stop dead and not know where to go. Give the eye a path that leads through the picture by moving your camera away from the center axis of the room or building. Instead of shooting straight ahead, shoot from a corner, or a bit off-center, creating imaginary lines that lead the eye into the shot. The eye will follow other paths, too: small to large, large to small, up to down, and down to up.
• Tic-tac-toe. Rather than using the center circle in the viewfinder as a targeting device, take an imaginary pen and divide your viewfinder evenly with two horizontal and two vertical lines (so that the viewfinder resembles a tic-tac-toe board). Your targeting points are now where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect. When you place the subject at one of those intersecting lines, the shot is more interesting and has some "motion" to it.
• Balance/counterbalance. Two objects in a photograph that are the same size will confuse the viewer. For example, instead of leaving two flower arrangements on a countertop, remove a flower from one vase and place it on the counter near the second vase; that creates a more pleasing and counterbalanced image. Variations on this theme include using lighter and darker objects, or even objects that are nearer and farther away from the camera.
• Watch your background. Leaving a tool or a piece of photography equipment on a counter way in the back of your shot is going to kill the photo and show your lack of attention to detail. Take the time to close doors, remove construction equipment, and tidy up the shot.
In most cases, you'll need to supplement your room's existing natural and artificial lighting, which can be done with a few simple techniques. First, though, plan on turning off or taping over the built-in flash mounted on your camera. A flash's light is not only inadequate to fill a room — it's too direct and harsh. Moreover, visualizing what the lighting will look like is too difficult when using a flash, which is why I like to use constant-source — or nonflash — lighting.
In addition, plan on using your camera's automatic settings. Experienced photographers may want to set the shutter speed and lens aperture manually, but a discussion of this topic is outside the scope of this article. By using the combination of constant source lighting described here and your camera's automatic settings, you should be able to get excellent results.
Equipment. All of the constant-source lights used in photography have tungsten filaments inside their bulbs; so do common and inexpensive 500- to 1,000-watt rectangular work lights. If you own some of these, you already have some — if not most — of the lighting you'll need.
While professional light kits offer greater control and more features, basic work lights are an inexpensive and readily available light source for job-site photography. To soften shadows, bounce light off a reflective surface, such as a ceiling.
Or use heat-resistant spun-fiberglass diffusion material, which can be safely draped over hot work lights.
Of course, there are some good reasons to purchase a professional light kit. Pro lights are designed to be moved around, and you can reposition their lamp heads while they're turned on without getting burned. Many can be focused to throw either a narrow beam or a wide spread of light. They also have the advantage of accepting attachments like barn doors, which allow you to shade or block of some of the light you're casting. This can come in handy when your lights are positioned too close to something, or when you want to shade an area of the photo.
Another inexpensive option — typically less than $25 each — is to buy a few photo flood reflectors. The most basic versions are made of polished aluminum; they're often equipped with spring-clamp mounts (or can be mounted on a stand) and accept different types of lamps for different lighting conditions.
Several other pieces of equipment can come in handy, too, such as stands to hold up the lights and diffusion material to scatter light and soften shadows. Different types of diffusion material are available, including woven polyester and spun fiberglass. Each has its own distinctive properties, but whichever material you choose, make sure it won't melt or catch fire if it comes in contact with hot lights. A 4-foot-by-25-foot roll of Tough Rolux #3000 diffusion material (Rosco, 800/767-2669, www.rosco.com) costs about $150.
You'll also need a few heavy extension cords. I prefer the yellow ones because they're easy to see.
Direct vs. indirect lighting. Pointing lights directly at an area throws the most light, but it can also produce harsh shadows, especially if the lamps are close to what you're shooting. I generally use direct light only when an area is deep in shadow or when I need to open it up a bit to emphasize it. To soften the shadows, I put diffusion material on the lights.
Bouncing the light off a wall or ceiling instead of shining it directly produces better, shadow-free lighting. Keep in mind that light bounced off a colored surface — like a painted wall — will cast that color into your shot. Another option is to reflect the light off a large white card, such as foam core or a white board. Although you'll lose about half your light's output by bouncing it, the results will be much more natural-looking.
To match the 5,500 K color temperature of daylight, the author adds blue CTB conversion filters to his light sources.
Then he experiments, strategically placing lights — such as this filtered and diffused pro light located in a hallway off the kitchen — to achieve even, natural lighting.
The color of light. Color temperature — measured in degrees Kelvin — varies depending on the light source. For example, an incandescent light bulb has a "warmer" yellow color temperature of about 2,800 K, while sunlight at noon has a "cooler" blue color temperature of 5,500 K. When these different light sources are mixed together, your brain may be able to even out the color imbalances, but your camera can't. It will automatically decide that the interior walls (the majority of the shot) are "normal," or white, which means that the light outside the windows will appear to be 2,700 K bluer (5,500 - 2,800 = 2,700) in the resulting photo.
One way to address this problem is to swap the bulbs in your lights to daylight bulbs. Sold online and in photo stores, 4,800 K to 5,500 K bulbs are blue in color and are rated at up to 500 watts; they cost about $5 each. I often use General Electric's BCA lamps (available through B&H Photo, 800/606-6969, www.bhphotovideo.com).
Another way to balance the color of your lighting is to use conversion filters. CTB (color temperature blue) filters will make regular 3,200 K incandescent lamps look blue, effectively turning them into 5,500 K sources that will match the exterior lighting. These filters are made of different materials, including polyester and acetate (commonly known as theater gels); once again, no matter which one you use, make sure it's a hot-light-rated filter material that won't melt or catch fire.
CTO (color temperature orange) filters are used to "warm up" daylight so that it matches 3,200 K incandescent lights; they're usually applied to the outside of the windows. Because they reduce the output of your light source, you have to compensate for them by either adding more lights or increasing your exposure times.
Light intensity. Daylight coming in through windows is usually brighter than the lighting you supply. Rather than adding more lights (which tend to get hot), you can reduce the intensity of the daylight by putting screens in the windows, or even tacking up extra screens on the exterior. Another option is to cover the windows (usually on the exterior) with neutral-density filter material. I carry Rosco's Cinegel #3402 N.3 (one f/stop) and #3404 N.9 (three f/stops) with me, combining the two as needed to get the proper amount of light reduction. (In photography, each f/stop equals a 50 percent reduction in light level, so that an N.3 filter allows 50 percent of light through and an N.6 filter allows 25 percent of light to pass through). The material comes in 20-inch-by-24-inch sheets and in 57-inch-by-21-foot rolls in various opacities.
When designing a pervious concrete surface, a free-draining substrate is the key to good performance. The author used 10 inches of stone because the soil beneath had high clay content.