Architectural Photography With Coloratti Master, Keith Cooper
by Dave Mobbs – January 14th, 2015
Architectural photography is certainly a niche photographic profession in comparison to commercial, travel or fashion so we recently asked X-Rite Coloratti Master, Keith Cooper to explain a little bit more about himself and his work to give you a glimpse into his background, business and his inspirations.
Where do you take inspiration from?
Landscape photography and great skies still motivate me to grab a camera, however my approach has always been more akin to large scale street photography, it’s about a moment.
I dislike using tripods for landscape work – the oft quoted “it makes you slow down and think” doesn’t work for me.
It’s architectural work where I work in a slower and more deliberate fashion (and invariably with a tripod). I may have visualised the shot fairly quickly, but the technical side (lens movements for example) needs me to slow down (and put my glasses on).
Digital photography and printing has worked wonders for my range of photographic skills and experience, I really don’t miss film one tiny bit.
A steady stream of new kit to try out is a great way to encourage personal experimentation, one way my photography benefits from all the articles and reviews I write on the Northlight Images web site.
How did you get into photography?
It started at school in the 1970’s, where I had access to a darkroom. I can’t say I ever thought of it as a career, since my interests were in astronomy, physics and engineering. At university, where I went to study astrophysics, and later where I worked as a geologist and underwater surveyor, it was just a personal hobby, albeit one where I set aside a room in my home as a darkroom, almost entirely concentrating on black and white photography.
After working overseas for a while, I returned to a research and subsequent consultancy position, looking at emerging new technologies and their impact on organisations.
My interest in photography was rekindled through the advent of digital photography in the late 1990’s where even with ~1MP cameras and limited digital printing, I could see the future potential of digital imaging. From my human factors research, I’d used Macs and Photoshop from its first release, and calibrated my first monitor with the Radius Precision Color Calibrator in 1990.
The combination of my studies and technical experience meant that I came into professional photography in 2004 knowing an awful lot more about the technologies than most film based photographers at that time.
Northlight Images was set up in 2004 – not just as me working as a photographer, but a photography business.
What tips would you have for someone looking to get into architectural photography?
Learn what keeps structures up – think what’s underneath what you see, from foundations upward. Look at materials and how they interact with light.
Looking at a building and realising why it is the way it is and where it is, and how that affects its function helps me convey views of locations that architects want.
Remember that for your business to make a profit you need to take photos that clients will pay for. Take time to talk with people in other disciplines and try and understand their worldview.
Photograph dull, badly designed buildings too – learn to apply the same skills to buildings that don’t inspire you.
Learn to use a shift lens on a DSLR – it produced the most significant change in my appreciation of the space around me and how it can be represented in two dimensions, since I started my architectural work … and no, ‘fixing’ it later in software is not the same!
Appreciate how different types of lenses project the world around you on to the flat plane of the camera sensor. Digital image processing allows you to remap this, such as this view of a factory taken with a fish-eye lens.
How does colour management influence your photography?
My job is to produce great looking colour, but that’s not necessarily strictly accurate colour. To do this I need confidence, predictability and repeatability in what I record and how I process my images.
Colour management pervades my work, from appreciating the varying colour temperature of light (natural and artificial), through my image editing and delivery of images digitally, or producing large prints.
A ColorChecker Passport allows me to deal with the problems of multiple light sources, whilst a calibrated and profiled monitor gives me confidence in my subsequent editing.
Knowing that the monitor is at a particular brightness makes evaluating prints with my viewing stand more consistent, whilst the custom profiles I’ve built for my printing, with an i1 iSis and i1Profiler, remove a lot of unpredictability in final output, and even let me adjust my printing to allow for viewing conditions.
I’ve never been a perfectionist – my engineering background reminds me that: “perfection is the enemy of excellence”… really good will suffice.
In my photography, colour management is about consistency, avoiding surprises and getting things right first time more often.
What are your top tips for getting your workflow set up correctly?
Find processes that fit your particular style of working. Explore different options and don’t be afraid to change things if you find a new solution that fits your approach or adapts to your changed experience and abilities.
Equally, don’t feel you have to stick with something just because lots of people tell you that it’s the ‘proper way’ of doing something. A good workflow for you doesn’t ‘get in the way’ of what your trying to achieve.
I regularly review new software with the chance that it will be of use to what I do. Make use of demo versions of software, but be realistic in applying it to your types of work.
Most of my architectural work tends to involve relatively few images at a time – what works for this, wouldn’t be practical if I was a wedding or event photographer. What might work fine for half a dozen images from a job, would be agonising for 3-400 or more.
How do you go about composing an image?
The basic composition for me comes from an appreciation of the 3D form in front of me, modified in appearance by light and shadow.
As an ex-geologist I’m familiar with the underlying structure of landscape, and mentally visualising the hidden aspects in different orientations. This really helps in looking at a building and getting a feel for how it looks from different viewpoints.
Add in aspects of traditional composition such as leading lines and vanishing points and you can get an idea of what views will make for a good picture. As in landscape photography, a great view doesn’t always make for a great picture – and vice versa. That’s where your skill, judgement and experience come in.
I enjoy using the strong lines you get with a shifted wide rectilinear lens, but regularly shift from global view to detail. If nothing else it helps me spot items such as bins or rubbish that I might want to move
However, since I’m normally working for a client I need to ask: “Why am I taking this photo?”
I’ll probably have an idea of usage, which may dictate leaving space for text or a specific need for landscape/portrait orientation (or even square).
If it’s an ultra high resolution image for survey purposes or a very large print, then it’s a matter of getting everything in. With such projects I’ll also give consideration to the ultimate projection geometry of the image when assembled from multiple individual shots.
If I’m taking shots for stock use I’ll often look to shoot a number of different views, since I often get asked for “What have you got that is similar to this…”
How do you assess the impact of mobile on photography?
As someone who rarely carries a mobile phone with me, personally it’s “not a lot”.
It’s almost certainly helped kill off the compact camera market, and with the precipitous decline spreading to higher end cameras, it bodes interesting times over the next few years for the availability and features of higher end camera equipment.
When I started working as a commercial photographer, understanding the technology gave me a genuine business advantage (great for starting out in a market dominated by people using a technology [film] soon to fade away quite rapidly).
In just 10 years the technical quality of what you can get from a camera has increased dramatically, it’s easier than ever to take technically ‘OK’ pictures.
These days, more people think “I could do that” – it’s my job to create images where they still say, “How did you do that?”
That means that my business and product differentiation has to come from creative ability combined with technical advances and expertise.
One of our business aims is to show high-end clients that the kind of image quality previously associated with large format film photography need not be an expensive luxury. Film certainly isn’t dead yet, but I’m happy to help it on its way in some areas if I can.
How important is a printed image?
Having seen someone sit and study one of my 14 metre wide high resolution prints on a wall, for over half an hour, there is no way I could reproduce that experience (yet) in another format.
If I’m visiting a new client then I’ll certainly take a collection of A1 sized prints. Huge prints on a boardroom table work wonders – particularly if backed up with plenty of punchy images on an iPad screen.
Print quality has been a key interest of mine since my earliest experiments with digital, indeed it led me to all my experimentation with colour management and creating profiles for our large format printers, for colour and black & white.
By choice, printmaking is not a great contributor to our business bottom line, but I know that it contributes massively to our marketing impact.
Learn more about Keith here