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Photographing Architecture
By Gary Bernstein

Gary Bernstein
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Gary Bernstein
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So I get this email last week from my friends at  “Gary,” it says, “let’s do your next column on digital!”  That’s simple.  It’s a digital world—a situation that is not likely to change in the near future.  But the reality is that digital photography in the purest sense—in the artistic sense—is no different than film photography.  We use the same shoot techniques, camera angles, lighting techniques, lens lengths (yes, I know there’s a 2:1 factor reduction, but I’m referring not to the numbers in mm’s but rather to the principles of lens compression and/or distortion and elongation).  Digital has just taken the guess work out of photography (and made it a lot more fun), because you get to see the results immediately; and of course more and more shooters are doing their own finishing and printing.  Not to mention the fact, that wow, is it inexpensive to shoot pixels!

So this month we’ll deal with digital shooting exclusively, and the topic is architectural photography.

I got a degree in Architecture from Penn State, but my first love has always been "people photography."  So after graduation, I opened my first studio in Washington, D.C., and then New York, and then L.A; all the while making my money shooting photographs of real people, models and actors for ads, magazines, portraits—you name it.  But I have always loved to shoot architecture, and in fact shot some layouts for Architectural Digest.  I got the gig after photographing Paige Rense (the publisher of AD) for the cover of one of her books.  Here’s the shot:

Ex: 1 How was this shot made?  I used a Hasselblad and a 150mm lens, with one light in an umbrella to the right of my subject (camera left) and balanced the daylight coming in from a large window behind the subject with the exposure of the strobe.  It was shot on Ektachrome 64 ( .  Ooops…that’s not a digital shot.  So forget all that.  The point is this:  In the pre-digital days we either “guessed” at the exposure, or metered each individual part of the composition or used Polaroid in an attempt to determine what we were getting on the film (all of which only approximated what the shot would actually look like).  Then you had to worry about getting the film to the lab; and then the lab doing its job properly.  Digital is easier.

Ex: 2A-B Let’s talk about a recent digital assignment.  My "subject" was the wonderful (and truly awesome) Getty Museum in West Los Angeles.  For the sake of this column, let's compare and contrast some of the images made at the Getty with some other recent digital images of architecture made at residences. 

The bust was photographed by available light (overhead daylight midday).  The light-colored wall surfaces provided perfect fill (meaning it filled in the shadow areas to reduce contrast).  Shot with an Olympus E-1 Digital, I bumped the iso to 3200--producing noise--I prefer to call it grain--I love grain ("noise" sounds like something bad--while "grain" is something wonderful).  And how cool is that?!  To be able to change iso mid-roll so to speak!  And what is my “roll” of choice?  Lexar SD and media flash cards! (

Re composition…
Yes, I elected to have "her" looking out of the frame in one of the images.  You can't do that!  It's against the rules!  What rules?   In reality, her looking out of the frame forces the viewer's attention to her.  It creates a bit more anxiety and more movement in the image.  I like it.  Hey, you can't show the light source!  Why not?  It works.  In fact, what is quite interesting is that the inclusion of the burned out light source in combination with the darkened pedestal, actually forces the viewer to the center of the image and to the bust, which is (of course), the purpose of the photograph.  

The other shot of the bust places the composition dead center.  I know…you can't do that either.  But there are times when it works.  It works as a graphic element here because the surrounding negative area (again) forces you to the subject and gives it importance.  It truly frames the subject.  And it's a copywriter's dream.  Is it possible that the art director might crop this left or right when it goes to press?  Possibly…unless you seriously threaten him (just kidding of course).

Ex: 3 As for the urn and the steps…
The only light source is an open door.  The white walls provide fill; and once again the beauty is in the "noise," the simplicity, and the monochromatic theme.

The urn was shot with an E-1 Olympus Digital and the same lens-quite a departure considering I used to live on Hasselblads ( and Sinars ( ) exclusively for this kind of work. This length zoom is my favorite.  A great majority of my images through the years have been made on 35mm format with lens lengths between 28mm and 105mm (which is what this 14-54 translates to). 

Ex: 4A-B Let's look at the next series of images…
These were shot at iso 100.  There are two basic approaches I use in shooting architectural or landscape architectural images when it comes to limited depth of field (or depth of focus, if you prefer).  Either soften the foreground and force the viewer's eye to the background or the opposite.  I opted for the opposite in these three images.  In each case, I held sharp focus on the subject foreground and allowed the background to blur to varying degrees.  It's amazing the story you can tell with just a little bit of the background showing (blurred or not).  However, blurring the elements makes for stronger composition and depth, because a busy background tends to render as a singular element.

The image with the cactus and the great monoliths was taken at the Getty.  The other two photographs were made at a residence.  It is uniquely the individual's decision about compositional inclusion and exclusion that enables a single image to capture the feel of the entire environment.

Do these images work for magazines and brochures? They do. Do they work for limited edition prints--and personal wall décor?  You bet!

Ex: 5 (below) And…a variation on a theme:  This image—that was made for Architectural Digest—shows extreme depth of field throughout the entire composition—and it works. It was made on a Hasselblad Superwide on Ektachrome film (but because it’s on film, I’m not allowed to show it in this article—so pretend it’s not here).

And what’s even more fun with digital?  Manipulating images!  Here are some examples:

Ex: 6A-B (below) These were shot on a Nikon D50 put into Photoshop ( where I just played. It’s from my new Beverly Hills Collection (not yet available).  Each image was made with a 18-55mm zoom lens set at about 30…which is a normal perspective.  The images were made in mid-day bright sunlight at iso 200.

Photography is limitless and digital makes it even more so.  Keep on shooting and trust your own instincts.  As you know, opinions are like cameras.  Everybody has one.

© March 2006

See you next month, and at my homes and, and check out my columns on the homepage at

Gary Bernstein
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Gary Bernstein
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Gary Bernstein
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