Architectural photography — capturing motionless, massive structures — can seem simple compared to fast-paced sports photography, or the visceral portraiture found on magazine covers and billboards. But this perceived simplicity is actually the result of a list of complexities and problems that have been expertly solved.
It all starts with looking up. When you stand and gaze up at a skyscraper, the vertical lines of the structure are no longer vertical. At their closest to you, they are wide, and then as they move away, they slowly move toward each other. They would, theoretically, meet at some point nearing infinity. This is the most obvious example of a pitfall of architectural photography: the clean lines of the building, the ones expertly designed by an architect, become distorted by a lens or lose their vertical construction and the integrity of their angles, creating an image that lacks the precision of the building itself. Another problem is in capturing intricacies, materials and movement, in all types of light and less-than-ideal weather. Because great architecture evokes emotions when viewed both at a distance and up close, its photography must be interesting in both the micro and macro view, meaning details are captured not with one photograph, but with dozens, all stitched together in massive prints. Not so easy on the busy street of Manhattan or Tokyo.
These are just some of the difficulties facing Andrew Prokos, an architectural, advertising and fine art photographer from New York City, when he creates beautiful photographs, which have won him a Lucie Award, among numerous other prestigious designations. While photographing in Greece, Prokos explained how professional photographers turn static, colossal buildings into living, emotional places and how architectural decisions — the bold lines of a building — can be abstracted to reveal something greater.
Q. Your photographic experience is vast, but why were you first drawn to architecture photography? Any architects specifically?
A. I was drawn to the urban environment in general, and I was never really that interested in studio photography. I always loved beautiful architecture, even when I was very young. I was in awe actually, and wanted to be an architect growing up…I never studied it because I was afraid that too much math was involved. Big mistake, as architects don’t really need to be good in math at all…they have tools to measure stress loads of various materials and compute all that for them. So I missed the boat, there but found another passion in photography and aimed it at buildings. There are so many great architects out there, but my taste tends to the somewhat dramatic ones…Gehry, Calatrava, Libeskind, and I would love to shoot Zaha Hadid’s work, haven’t had the pleasure yet.
Q. Can you name a few errors people make starting out that may be easy to spot but are difficult to know how to fix?
A. Well, the only one that comes to mind is not correcting verticals. I am pretty strict about that even in my fine art photography, but it’s an absolute must with commercial work. Also these days I am seeing a lot of really over-processed HDR images. I think knowing what works and what doesn’t is somewhat a matter of experience, and somewhat a matter of just having an innate sense of aesthetics. If you don’t have the latter you’re going to have to work very hard at developing it.
Not many galleries are interested in architectural work that looks like architectural photography, so you are going to have to coax something out of the location…that is powerful enough to be seen as art.
Q. What’s your shortlist for your most used equipment?
A. These days I’m using a Nikon D800E body and Nikon lenses. I have the Nikon 24mm PC-E lens, which works fine for some uses, but is not really wide enough for others. You’ll need wide-angle lenses that are designed to correct for distortion as well. A lot of perspective control is happening in post-production, so you’ll need to become very familiar with that. I also use an Arca-Swiss ballhead and a level on my tripod, which helps me to work fast. I am fairly simple in my gear and don’t carry around more than the minimum.
Q. What’s the first piece of equipment an amateur photographer should get in order to step up their architectural photography?
A. A very good wide-angle aspherical lens like the Nikon 17-35mm zoom.
Q. What’s your favorite focal length?
A. I don’t have a favorite focal length per se…but these days I’m using my 70-200mm VRII lens more than anything. That’s because I’m shooting panoramic cityscapes, which require stitching numerous images. I just had a shoot here in Athens and each panorama was 40 shots. That’ll allow me to make very large scale prints.
Q. What’s your favorite city for the architecture?
A. My favorite city is the one I haven’t discovered yet. New York is great, and I love the abundance of architectural styles and the geometry of the infrastructure. But lots of cities offer their own character and styles and you have to find a way to work with it. Brasília is a good example…it’s the antithesis of New York but the architecture still makes for very compelling work.
Q. How does your thinking differ when you are shooting the interior versus exterior of a building?
A. Since a lot of my work is in NYC, exteriors are basically a matter of dealing with realities on the ground and being patient. Sites are often obstructed and it may require a second visit…you have to go with the flow in a place as chaotic as New York. Interiors are more controlled but more complex in terms of lighting. These days it’s much easier than in the past, because you can take multiple exposures and merge them, and not as much lighting is required. With interiors you really have to worry about the details and often you have to play stylist.
Q. What decisions do you make as you first walk up to a building and decide how to shoot it, whether that be deciding on the time of day, perspective, abstraction versus documentary, etc.?
A. Perspective is foremost as the location really determines everything. If I have been commissioned to shoot the building then of course it’s a more documentary approach, and the shoot is a result of discussion between myself and the client. You want to capture everything the client needs but also reveal the unexpected…which is where abstraction comes into play. With regards to my fine art work, not many galleries are interested in architectural work that looks like architectural photography, so you are going to have to coax something out of the location and the building that presents it in a way that is powerful enough to be seen as art.
Q. How does the architecture of a building influence the composition of your shot?
A. It determines everything. The architect is really calling the shots…I am just capturing whatever interesting perspective I can for my own purposes. But you are entirely dependent on the creativity of the architect to give you something to play with as a photographer. This is why I like Gehry’s work so much…he gives the photographer lots to play with. Architectural photography is really paying homage on the part of the photographer.
Q. What steps do you take in post-processing? Do you rely on a tilt-shift lens or bellows to handle distortion, or is it done afterwards?
A. Yes, I do use the TS lens, but as I mentioned it’s limited in how it can be used. Certainly a TS lens on a 35mm camera is not anywhere near as useful or flexible as the movements of a large-format camera. A lot can be handled in Photoshop and plenty of architectural photographers don’t use a TS lens at all.
Incorporate the people in the space and moving around the space…then it becomes a vessel which actually contains a lot of life.
Q. How do you make a static object come alive, and evoke emotion?
A. An inanimate object will always be inanimate, but you can capture the life in and around it. Incorporate the people in the space and moving around the space…. Then it becomes a vessel which actually contains a lot of life. You can use longer exposure times to great effect to capture motion in the sky or in the street as well. The rest is a matter of composition, because finding the right composition adds a lot of drama and tension to the photo, and makes the subject more compelling.