Images That Inspire: Great Photography Pays for Itself

Great photography pays for itself

By Jane Gaboury

“There’s no question that great photography is important,” says Lauren Della Bella, LEED AP. “I look at other peoples’ proposals after we’ve won a job, and we can see that great images make a big difference. The client is often looking for that.” Della Bella is president of SHP Leading Design, a multidisciplinary design firm headquartered in Cincinnati. She’s a believer that impressive project images help win both clients and awards.

“We’ve had a variety of different expectations over the years with regard to photography and a variety of photographers,” she notes. It comes down to using a photographer who can consistently apply great photographic skills plus an artistic eye, she says. “That’s what’s locked us into saying we’re not going to settle for less.”

These days, she says, SHP contracts with a professional photographer to document most of the firm’s projects after completion. The photography is largely used to demonstrate quality to future potential clients, where it’s presented in proposals, marketing materials, and on websites. A bonus is the ability to use the images in design competitions, where professional quality photos not only stand out from the pack but can also convey design challenges at a glance.

Whether for client cultivation or award submission, great architectural photographs are the result of collaboration, knowledge, and technique.

“I love working with architects because they’re creative people,” says architectural photographer Randy Van Duinen, M.Photog.M.Artist.Cr., CPP. And because architectural photography is a collaborative effort, it’s essential that architects and designers participate in the process. “They know what they did on the project,” he notes. “And they know what they want from the photos. They have something to say, and my job is to bring that out.”

Della Bella also highlights the collaborative nature of architectural photography. “You can’t just hire somebody and send them out to get the shots,” says Della Bella. “It’s important that you have a lot of communication.”

Van Duinen notes that communication is essential for him to understand the goals of each shoot from the firm’s perspective. “I start the conversation with what they need. Then we do a walkthrough. It gives me a feel for what they’re trying to show: Is there a design element, a problem resolution they want to show?”

This is where the skills and knowledge of the pro begin to diverge from people who own nice cameras and may even be pretty good at making portraits.

“As I think back at some of the photographers we’ve used over the years, the ones who make sure they’re capturing the building at the right time of day for the orientation of the building, that the sky is right for the orientation of the building—they’re consistently great,” says Della Bella. These are skills that enthusiastic amateurs or even great portrait photographers don’t necessarily possess.

After understanding the goals and the location for a photo shoot, Van Duinen determines the specific personnel and equipment he’ll need on site. This may include photo assistants, stylists, and photographic equipment including lighting. Lighting is often the telling differentiator that distinguishes pro photography. Both exterior and interior architectural shoots typically require additive lighting. Interior shots are particularly challenging since there may be daylight, fluorescent, and tungsten lighting all in the same space.

The day of the shoot, Van Duinen arrives early with a van full of equipment and any assistants who will be working with him. Then Van Duinen does a final walkthrough with the client, who he encourages to remain for the duration of the session. A computer tethered to his camera allows clients a live view of images to ensure he’s composing exactly what they’ve conceived in their mind’s eye.

If there’s one element of such shoots that clients tend to overlook, Van Duinen says, it’s the need to get in and make photos quickly after project completion.

“I almost think about architects’ projects as time-based pieces of art,” he says. “They’re not pristine for very long. They’re going to be changed eventually, interior design especially. If you want to photograph it, you have to get in there sooner rather than later to capture your vision because it won’t stay there for long.”

“We’re talking about going into other people’s spaces, moving people’s stuff around.” While an office manager in a new space will typically tell workers to clean up their desks prior to a photo shoot, Van Duinen says there’s still plenty of tweaking required to primp an occupied space. He snaps cell phone pictures of desktops to be sure everything’s put back in place after he tidies up an office, for example. He ensures that chair wheels are all aligned. If overlooked, these details will draw attention away from the prized aspects of the project that a firm wants to highlight.

After the photo shoot, Van Duinen cleans up images in post-processing. What’s often dismissed these days as “Photoshopping” is actually a process that requires both technical proficiency and an experienced eye.

“I’m cleaning up images, color-correcting them, and fixing minor things,” he says. This may include removing an unfortunately placed streetlight, correcting the verticality of a building’s walls distorted by the camera lens, and adjusting contrast. Any major fixes that will be required in post-processing have typically been discussed with the client before the shoot.

And if you’re planning to use photos for competition submission, be sure to understand and communicate post-processing limitations to the photographer before the shoot, says Van Duinen. You don’t want to have a wall switch removed in post-processing only to find out that this small change invalidated a competition entry.

An additional use of the images may be for publication. In that case, says Van Duinen, “The editor wants the best. Magazines have specs on what they want, and if you’re trying to get your project into a magazine, you need a professional photographer.”

While competitions and publications are a great way to make your project photos go further, there’s no doubt that the meat-and-potatoes of what most firms are seeking is marketing power. 

“It definitely makes a difference when we can put great imagery on a screen in front of a client you’re trying to cultivate,” says Della Bella. “It gets their attention. If they like what they see, they’re going to have more interest. A good image goes a long way in that regard versus one that doesn’t capture the imagination.”

There’s no doubt that design clients are looking to invest in a firm they believe can deliver the meat of the project. But they’re human. And humans are inspired by great images that tell a delectable story.

“It’s the steak-versus-sizzle debate,” says Della Bella. “If we can show them both, we’re doing well.”

Learn about photographers’ credentials

Jane Gaboury is the director of publications at Professional Photographers of America, a nonprofit association serving the needs of working photographers. Previously, she was associate publisher at Greenway Communications, publisher of the Almanac of Architecture & Design and DesignIntelligence.