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Five Ways to Make the Most of Your Architecture Photography Budget

A Guide for A/E/C Photography Buyers by Alan Blakely, AIAP

Legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman once said, "Architects live and die by the images taken of their work; as these images alone are what people see. For every one person who visits a project, there may be ten thousand who only view it as a photo." 

Here's a test of that theory: Think of your favorite architectural subject of all time (building, residence, bridge, etc.) Now, answer this: Are you thinking of an "in-person" encounter with that project, or are you instead thinking of a well-known photograph? In nearly every situation, it's a photograph that represents our impression of an architectural subject. Your task is to find photographers who can create memory-making images of your projects at a price your firm can afford. From that starting point let me suggest five ways to make your budget stretch as far as possible.

1. Choose Photographers with a Reputation for Doing Great Work.

"Oh yes," you say, "but won't they be the most expensive?" Maybe, and maybe not. Consider the real cost of using a low-price photographer who produces sub-par photographs for your firm. Have you ever had to explain to a potential client that, "This building really looks a lot better than it does in this photograph," or "You can't really see it in this photograph, but..."  Why do that?  Rather, hire a photographer who produces photographs that surprise even you at how well they portray your project. Think of how great it would be to download files from your photographer and have the whole office buzzing about how amazing the photographs look. Also, when you find your firm getting significant social media attention simply due to great photography, you'll soon see it as a worthwhile marketing investment. Bottom line: If photographers don't produce great photographs, don't hire them. Bad work is never a bargain.

2. Consider Photographers Who offer Shared Cost & Licensing Discounts.

Simply put, this means that many photographers offer discounted fees when multiple parties choose to license the photographs from a particular project for their firm's marketing efforts. For instance, maybe you're an architectural firm and you mention to the contractor, engineering firm, interior designer, landscape designer, building owner, architectural product manufacturer, etc. that you intend to have a new project photographed. The question you ask is, "Would you be interested in sharing the cost and license for photography of this project?" In many situations, the photographer will take it upon themselves to contact the various parties involved in a project to offer cost and license sharing discounts. The bottom line is that with most photographers it's possible for each party to save up to 60% over having the project shot and paid for individually. In other words, rather than paying $2000 for photographs of one of your projects, you could be paying $825 if you share cost and license with the other firms involved.  Same photographs, just a much smaller investment on your part.

3. Always Have a Shot List in Mind When Requesting a Photography Quotation.

Preparing a photography quotation is much the same as preparing an architectural proposal: It's essential to know the client's expectations, needs, vision and budget considerations. Consider making a list of the essential shots for the project, a "wish list" of possible shots, and an explanation of your own vision of how you'd like to see the project interpreted visually. I recommend a walk-through of the project with the photographer if at all possible. This gives you the opportunity to explain to the photographer the most important points of the design and construction you'd like to have captured, as well as giving the photographer the chance to consider how they might best interpret the space. A floor plan with suggested camera positions and notations could also take the place of a walk-through. Basically you're asking the photographer to see the project through your eyes, and they in turn are asking you to trust their artistic vision as they interpret your expectations. Notice that I use the word "trust" in this explanation. Often the best architectural photographs are made when the client leaves the photographer to their own creative devices. In other words, sometimes it's best to simply walk away and let the photographer do what they do best.

4. Choose a Photographer Who Specializes in Architectural Photography.

Yes, it does make a difference whether or not a photographer specializes in architectural photography. In fact, a huge difference. Architectural photography is arguably one of the most technically difficult of all photographic specialties. A good photographer has a grasp of the various types, colors and qualities of light in a given scene, and how best to deal with each of them. They also understand the way their camera will reproduce the scene versus how your eye perceives the scene. An experienced architectural photographer may employ any number of techniques to balance light and shadow, subdue reflections, maintain color fidelity and enhance shadow detail. Architectural photographers also employ special camera lenses designed to allow them to correct architectural perspective distortions. Straight and parallel vertical lines along with believable perspectives are the hallmarks of a skilled architectural photographer. That being said, the equipment a photographer uses is probably the least important consideration when choosing a competent and talented architectural photographer. In fact, if a photographer boasts to you about their equipment either in person or on their website, consider it a red flag. Talent always matters more than tools.

5. Make Site Preparation a High Priority.

Proper preparation of your project for photography may be one of the biggest factors in enabling your photographer to create great photographs. Site preparation involves security clearances, owner consent, on-site contact information, cleaning coordination, maintenance coordination, interior design elements, parking coordination, landscape and watering coordination, weather contingencies, etc. One of the most difficult aspects of site preparation for a photographer is operating the ever more complex lighting systems installed in new buildings. A dusk shot of a commercial building with motion-sensing lighting may require a having small army of individuals on hand to continuously activate the lighting. Photocells and timers for outdoor lighting are also a challenge. Having a knowledgeable building manager on hand who knows and is familiar with the various building systems is a godsend.

Finally, always expect great photography--always!

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© 2019 Alan Blakely Photography, All Rights Reserved.

Alan Blakely is an award-winning architectural photographer who shoots for many of America's top architectural firms, builders, designers, developers, magazines and manufacturers. He is also the founder and current director of The Association of Independent Architectural Photographers™, Real Estate Photographers of America & International™ and Aerial Drone Photographers of America™.