Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Art of Architectural Photography: The Proof is in The Proof

Digital photography is not as sure a thing as one might expect.  In the "old days," it is true that until I got into the darkroom or the photographs came back from the lab, I was never quite sure what I had, only what I wanted/ needed.  I remember once photographing an oil painting for a book cover.  The client was the book publisher, who had located the perfect image for the book: an antique oil painting.  The the owner of the painting, a gentleman art-collector, was to receive a "portrait" photograph of his rare and expensive art, in addition to recognition and, I suppose, a fee.  I was, understandably, a little concerned about the outcome of the commission because the painting was rare, large and, as with most oil paintings, varnished, which creates glare.

I drove to the collector's home, about an hour outside of New York City with a couple of cameras, lights and other equipment, but I was determined to shoot the painting in natural light without artificial lighting of any kind. I have always believed that photographing a subject with natural light is best, if possible. I had asked the owner of the 2'x4' painting if we could take the art outside into the natural light.  He agreed.  The day of the shoot was overcast: perfect lighting for a little/no glare photograph.  The gentleman seemed surprised that I knocked on his door with only a Nikon slung over my shoulder.  "Where is your equipment?" he asked.  "Here," I replied, pointing to my camera. The painting was carefully removed from its place of honor and taken out to the circular driveway. As the owner held the painting, we angled the art so that the light would not reflect off the varnish and I took the photographs, hoping for one usable image to be reproduced for the book cover.  I took one roll of film (the framed painting was heavy and unwieldly) with the proviso that I might return if none of the shots was satisfactory.  When the film came back from the lab, I had 34 out of my roll of 36 frames that were fine for publication.  Of course, there were other times when I had to re-shoot the subject because I was not satisfied with any of the results.  The point is that until the "for print" or "for exhibit" photographs are printed or proofed, there is no way for me to know the actual success of my work. 

Many of the 10,000 photographs I took in India for my book look fine on my computer screen.  Unlike the film photographs I used to take, my digital photography is ready as soon as I boot up my computer and slip the camera card into the reader.  However, I am not photographing for the web.  I am using my photographs of India for a print book.  Therefore they must be proofed by printing out the images.  I make smaller copies of the originals, in sizes suitable for a book (Few I know want a 30"x35" book!). Then I print out the proofs on my ancient ink-jet printer.  The sound of the printer is one of the most nerve-wracking I know because I am hoping for just the perfect print. Chugging along, the printer will ultimately elicit my sigh of relief or my awareness of flaws in the image.  Sometimes there are unwelcome surprises in color, even though my monitor is color-calibrated; composition, a bird distracting from the architecture; or clarity.  It is then my job to either fix the fixable or to discard the photograph. 

Proofing is not easy or enjoyable because it is the task during with all the flaws appear.  But I know that the proof of print photography is part of the final steps in my art.  The proofs are the deciding factor in judging my photography and in creating the finest works I can.  No matter how arduous the fixing is, art for me is all about getting it right and completing the photographs so that  my best efforts are evident in my photography.

Udaipur, India: Black and White Architectural Photography

The above photograph of the interior of a temple in Udaipur, India required much proofing because the original photograph was taken in extreme low light. The first proof indicated an image too dark for my purposes. The composition was also a problem because I wanted the magnificent arches (made from single pieces of stone!) to be the focus of my black and white architectural photograph.  I also wanted the door at the end of the corridor to be highlighted because I felt a strong sense of spiritual journeys in India's places of worship. Juxtaposing two focal points and lighting the photograph in my computer took patience, but for me, the final proof (of 8) is worth it!



  1. True for all photography, not just architectural, don't you think? And the larger the print (book, wall, or otherwise), the truer your lesson is. No matter how good your color calibration is, the sRBG, 8bit limits of our monitors is just bad, bad, bad.

  2. True for all photography, not just architectural, don't you think? And the larger the print (book, wall, or otherwise), the truer your lesson is. No matter how good your color calibration is, the sRBG, 8bit limits of our monitors is just bad, bad, bad.

  3. I think that in order to be successful as a photographer (or any visual artist) the photography must be critiqued in the medium for which it is intended. The computer screen, I find, is very forgiving. I am not a "web" photographer so the printouts are the real test of how true to my conceptualization of the subject I am. Thanks, J. Riley Stewart!