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Photo Technique - Architectural Lighting

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

I’ll get the real estate photographers problem out of the way here straight away. If you do this sort of work, you're going to have a limited time window within which to operate and more often than not you're going to be popping a bit of supplemental lighting into interiors as a matter of course. This is the only expedient way to deal with the quite often extreme contrast differences between the deepest shadows in a room, and the bright sunny day streaming through the windows in your shot. For this sort of photography, its unavoidable and a few flashguns will normally do the trick. There are all sorts of light modifiers available for this purpose but one of the most useful is a simple black felt shield to prevent reflections in glass when bouncing flash. The play of light on the exterior elevations you just have to work with. How much trouble you go to is entirely dependent on how much you're being paid for the job. These two things are on directly connected sliding scales. Good payday = plenty of time invested or, vice versa. That said the output should always be of a professional standard. The following is my M.O., it’s my way, but I must stress, not the only way.

To photograph an interesting building well takes at least one full day. This is the difference between architectural and real estate photography. The architectural photographer has a basic understanding of what the architect is trying to say/do with his/her work. So, trying to photograph the interiors on the west side of a building in the morning is pointless. The building generally will have been designed with the movement of the sun in mind. Therefore, it’s the East facing interiors in the morning, West in the afternoon. If it’s high summer, you’ll be up and on-site early, in the winter you can have a lie in. Southerly aspects can be a bit tricky and generally, I would tackle them while the sun is still relatively low, just after my East facing shots or just before my photography on the West facing aspects. North facing rooms and windowless plant rooms etc. are the easiest and can be done at almost any time that works for you and your sarnie break.

Onto the specifics - Option 1, don't worry about contrast, go with the flow…

Where a window forms a small part of the frame you can often get away with just letting it blow out. To light, the image above on the right would have been a living hell. This particular photograph was created on a job where time was a limiting factor. If I’d had all the time in the world then I’d have taken this image much later in the day when the light level outside was considerably lower. Unfortunately, I had an 8 hour round trip to this job which meant my time on site was limited. That said, this image still works well and the client was happy. The photograph on the left is more controlled, but leaving this until light levels outside dropped would have resulted in very deep shadows on large portions of those beautiful walls and ceiling. The architect put a cupola there to light the stairwell, as a photographer you have to acknowledge this and work with it. The fisheye lens here, by the way, can look great with some subjects.

Option 2 - Go for an aesthetically pleasing balance.

The windows in the two examples above have enough exposure for the viewer to discern the outside world, but it's still clearly outside as its about 1.5 to 2 stops brighter. Again thinking laterally, if you can avoid shooting directly into the light, then do. The ‘Sunday supplement look’ using a narrower angle of view can look very nice indeed and is also much easier to light if required.

Option 3 - The perfect balance.

Once in a while, the view out of the window is important. Where you can gain reasonable proximity to the window then lighting the interior to balance perfectly with the outside is the way to go. If lighting is going to result in an artificial look, or give the appearance of you saying visually to a client ‘look how clever I am’ whilst casually ignoring the lighting design and its intent, then PhotoShop or Photomatix can provide the answer. An exposure for the outside world can be blended on the computer with an exposure for the interior. In my opinion, great care needs to be exercised here, it can all look bit unnatural if you don't apply a delicate touch, people generally expect the outside to be brighter than the inside.

Option 4 - Be a bit cunning with your composition/timing.

The boardroom shot above was carefully timed for about 4 pm on an October afternoon giving balance to the photograph.

Option 5 - Be creative.

The images of Loftus Hall for our book were in no way commercial when shot. This gave me a ridiculous amount of freedom to do whatever tickled my fancy. Deep shade was a signature for a lot of these room photographs and I was pleased with the result. I think with the right building I wouldn't hesitate to use this style again, or perhaps a slightly less dramatic version.

I started this post by banging on about the importance of understanding the orientation of a building and how the architect has considered the position of the sun and also then considered how the building is lit. It goes without saying that the same principals apply to exteriors.

Like all rules/principals, they can be sometimes successfully broken.

If you're really struggling with the light, I would always advise hanging on until dusk or after dark. In city centres and with modern glass buildings this can be a complete solution and provide beautiful images. Even in the middle of nowhere, structures of interest are often nicely lit.

All images © Steve Meyler 2019

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