Libbie Mill Library: Lessons on Scouting

Hello everyone! I’m going to start working through some of my shoots over the last year to help you think through how to approach new subjects, see new things, and make excellent photos. I’ll be getting to more recent projects as these instructional posts go on, but today I want to look at a shoot I did last winter, the Libbie Mill Library in Richmond VA.

I’ll be working through three topics today and use photos to help make these points. I’ll be starting at the beginning on the topic of architectural photography- what’s the best approach to photographing a new space? We’ll be looking at the following concepts today:

1) Scouting: How to look at a subject for the first time.

2) Key Points: How to determine what to photograph first.

3) Details: How to make a body of images feel more intimate.

Scouting

When I first get to a building to shoot, I start by walking through without my DSLR. In fact, I’ll oftentimes just work with my iPhone. It allows me to quickly take in as much of the building as possible, and when I see something that I am really wanting to photograph a certain way, I’ll make a quick photo with my iPhone to refer to later. Architectural photography is primarily the difficult task of condensing a three dimensional experience into something that is similarly exciting when viewed in 2D. This is why I find it beneficial to spend time taking photos with my iPhone; it allows me to start practicing this flattening act in a new space, and then have something to look at before I begin photographing properly.

General 1
Main atrium, work area

After spending a good 20-30 minutes walking around, I’ll sit down for a bit to look at the photos on my phone. If I have time to scout the building days ahead of the shoot, that’s even better, but just taking some time to do this first gives some separation between the experience of “being in the space” and “looking at photos of the space” will help clarify what are interesting images and what aren’t. Oftentimes, the most interesting spacial experiences– for example, standing in an atrium and seeing something interesting in every direction you look– will be the hardest to photograph. Even though you might want to start here, if you realize the photos you took in that space aren’t working, you won’t have wasted a lot of time trying to capture something that won’t translate well into photographs.

This is something I ran into with this building. The library was a modern space with great attention to detail, plenty of fine materials, and many interesting forms. I felt like I could’ve spent an entire day in the library and not make every possible interesting image. So, in order to maximize the time you have, I have found it’s a good approach to do a quick scouting of the entire space and try to find the most distinctive forms and work from there.

Facade1.jpg
This is one of the images I most often use from this shoot, and yet it’s not from either entrance side. However, it does a great job of highlighting the major design motifs in a simple view, and impressive cantilever second and third stories.

takeaway: Spend a bit of time in the new space walking around with a simple camera or none at all, familiarizing yourself with the space, and planning the most important details that ought to be captured.

Key Points

Interior2
Children’s Area

Some of the hardest images to make, in my mind, are the ones above that seem to convey a very simple view of the space. Recall the interior shot from the above section- what are the differences and similarities between these two shots? One of the major similarities I see is that they are both wide shots illustrating a large portion of space in a general sense. The image is a wide selection of information; in the above image there’s seven different types of seating, one door, five activities for children, an interior view, and an exterior view. This type of image can be seen as an overview, and is great to communicate how the space is used and the general palette of design and materials.

It is hard to balance these shots and make them interesting, however. Even though they seem like a simple photo of the space, careful attention to detail in composing them is required to make them feel balanced and focused. Notice how in the first shot I have chosen to shoot off-axis, with the frame being clipped on the left and upper left by the stairway. This helps create depth by putting something in front of the focal plane to help create more space within the frame. In the Children’s Area photograph, this is accomplished with leading lines from the couch and a balance of orange from the overhead lights and the blue of the daylight. The composition is dead-on, with all perspective lines pointing to the center and parallel horizontal lines. Both the off-axis and straight on compositions are common in architectural images, so be mindful of when you compose with one or the other.

Interior1

This image has been a fixture of my portfolio for some time now. Similar to the above photo, is a straight-on perspective. However, notice some of the key points that create an interesting composition: 1) the leading lines from the left and right. 2) The lines of the girders on the right receding behind the central green wall, creating a push and pull within the frame. 3) The motion of the figure stepping around this column, and the mirrored image in the glass. 4) The multiple color combinations: orange and blue on the left, yellow/green and brown, white and black. 5) The slight reflection of the magazines in the glass, further enhancing the details and texture of the image.

These sorts of images are less descriptive of the space in utilitarian terms, but they do describe a large and recognizable portion of the building. In this library, the staircase was centrally located and several other areas faced in on it, making it a centerpiece of the entire building. I knew that to describe the building well, it would be important to create an excellent image of this feature.

Facade2

Similarly, you will want to focus your exterior shots on a single element and reduce it to the simplest terms possible. For me, this window overlooking the gardens and patio on the north side of the building was an iconic and bold element. I photographed it, paying attention to maintain parallel verticals, and emphasizing the reflected blue color of the sky in the glass against the red cladding of the building and the greens and whites in the garden.

Interior3

Finally, it’s important to describe the space functionally, and people actually working and using the space can be a great way to do this. While this photo doesn’t necessarily focus on an incredibly distinctive part of the building, its an important photo to describe how the work and study spaces are interspersed throughout the library, as well as the types of fixtures and materials the architect used to delineate these spaces.

takeaway: based on your scouting, pick out the distinctive and important features of the building and focus your efforts on documenting these well. They can be pictured in either graphic or descriptive terms, and a mixture of both will describe the space best.

Details

These types can be very hit or miss in their usefulness to clients, and it depends primarily on what kind of image you create. Personally, these are incredibly satisfying photos for me to take, so I will almost always go out of my way to make these when I’m photographing as I see them. The great thing about photos like this is that they can be a bit easier to make than the more methodically composed key photographs- sometimes I won’t even use a tripod to make these. I’ll tweak the composition and angle several times and do it easily when the camera is hand held; if the conditions of the exposure dictate switching to a tripod, I’ll do so to make the shot. Otherwise, I’ll move on to the next thing. If it’s not worth moving the tripod to get an image, it probably wasn’t that amazing in the first place.

Details can be very gratifying to shoot and help create a more satisfying portfolio of images than just wide shots. When you walk into a building that feels well designed, it is often because the architect has paid attention to details from the macro scale down to the minutiae of the space: being able to capture that minutiae and the decisions of the designer at the smallest levels can help give the portfolio more of a relatable feeling.

Details-4.jpg
Libbie Mill Library Clocktower

First off is an image that definitely doesn’t fit the mold of something made off tripod. In fact, this was a a vertical panorama that was perspective corrected. However, it can be thought of a large detail shot. There’s not much context of where the clocktower fits in to the rest of the building, however, it’s certainly a distinctive feature of the building, so I decided to make an image picturing it specifically.

Details.jpg

Moving into the more specific and abstract, we have photos focusing on furniture and fixtures. On many larger projects like this library, the architect will either collaborate with an interior designer, or the interior design will be done by a division of the architecture firm. Regardless of who actually designs it, furniture is oftentimes the most direct contact that an occupant will have with a building, so it is an important element to photograph within the overall space. It can also often serve as a way for the viewer to enter into the photograph, as with this quiet and restrained photograph of a study space within the library.

Moving along the abstract continuum, we have small vignettes like the two above. I always find it especially enjoyable to find instances of light intersecting with the forms in the space in interesting ways throughout the day and the shoot. Unless there is a shot that is incredibly crucial that you find beforehand, it can be hard to anticipate shots like this. I make them as I move throughout the building and find new and interesting moments within the building. Oftentimes, these types of photos aren’t super useful to the client, but they can be nice images to keep around for your own enjoyment or for later assembling into a “details” album.

Details-3.jpg

Finally, sometimes you will find an opportunity to make an especially abstract image. While these can be gratifying, especially when you find an interesting glass feature or mesh or otherwise abstract form within the building, unless the client has specifically requested abstract details, these photos are best kept for personal use and enjoyment. I wouldn’t even necessarily show this image to the client, but again, if you have the time and you see details like this- shoot for your own enjoyment!

takeaway: details focus on one interesting aspect of the building, and can range from isolated photos of large features without context, to individual pieces of furniture in the space, or abstract instances of light and material. They can add variety to a client portfolio or serve for your own enjoyment.

Thanks for your time! Next week we’ll be looking at the idea of “inside out” and working thoroughly through an entire site!

Also, for those of you who would like to see new photos on a daily basis, check out my new Instagram, @seitz.photo.

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