Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes to create the stunning images of houses that grace fine design magazines, newspapers, and websites?
Unlike news photography, which records events as they happen, or studio and fashion photography, which captures models or still subjects in a controlled environment, photos of landscapes and houses — and the people who live in them — are created through a painstaking and methodical process of setting the composition, styling, and lighting.
Celebrating the art of architectural photography is a unique exhibit called "Art of Imaging," which opened last week at The Washington Design Center (WDC). The show, on display through Oct. 21, features 29 of the region's top architectural, interior design, landscape and fine art photographers.
The architectural images range from stark and ethereal to intimate and personal reflections of how man-made structures balance with the natural world. Considering the time and creativity spent designing the spaces captured in each photograph, the exhibition is, in a sense, art about art.
What most visitors to the exhibit will never know is the work that goes into making each final shot. After more than 10 years of standing behind the person standing behind the lens, I've learned a lot about the artistry, skill, and patience required to make architectural photography that looks as good as — and sometimes better than — the house itself.
More than pretty pictures of pretty houses, great architectural photography is a record of the best a particular environment can be — a portrait of the ideal. To capture this ideal, photographers need to understand the goals of architecture, landscape architecture and interior design.
"Architecture is all about space, forms and purpose," says photographer Greg Hadley, who is among the photographers featured in the WDC show. "It is the photographer's job to emphasize the form, show the scale of the space in a dramatic way and perhaps use lighting and composition to illustrate the architect's creation in such a way that no caption is necessary."
More than just composition, timing is also key — waiting around for the right light. Gordon Beall, whose work is also part of the "Art of Imaging" show, defers to the late architectural photographer Robert Lautman, who probably said it best, "Photography is about knowing where to stand and when to stand there."
I remember once years ago on a photo shoot in Georgetown, Lautman, whose body of work is archived at the National Building Museum, finished a shot and suddenly suggested we stop work and go shopping.
"Shopping?" I asked. "Yes," he said, "the light is gone and won't be back until later this afternoon. Let's go get lunch. I know a great French bistro, and there are some shops nearby I'd like to check out."
"Hmpff!" I thought to myself, newish to the game of architectural photography. Who's in charge here? Who's paying the bills?
I followed Lautman around, idling away the afternoon in bookstores and a shop that sold fancy stationery. As it turns out, Lautman was right. Those midday shots can be dreadful without a ton of artificial lighting to balance the harsh outside light.
The morning and evening shots Lautman sent me a week or so later were beautiful. A purist, I suppose, who worked primarily without artificial lighting, Lautman told me that he learned everything he know about lighting from Thomas Jefferson.
While photographing his book, "Thomas Jefferson's Monticello: A Photographic Portrait," using only natural light, Lautman learned to understand how people saw architecture before electricity, when houses were designed and built to maximize the effects of natural light.
Of course, time marches on and most of the photographers I've worked with are magicians with artificial light, turning dark December afternoons as bright and cheery as a summer day. It's this manipulation of the actual to recreate images of spaces at their best that takes the most time.
Once the angle and lighting are set, you've got to manage the minutiae. The key to good architectural photography is in the details of the composition.
"Our eyes see a space cinematically," says photographer Anne Gummerson, "moving about and taking in the whole multidimensional effect. Distilling the view down to one fixed, two-dimensional viewpoint takes discipline and skill even before lighting and styling begins."
Proper styling is key. The objects we see in a room can be taken individually, but in a photograph too many elements can quickly clutter the composition.
"Usually 'less is more,'" she says. "It's sometimes hard to explain to homeowners that we have to take many of their treasures out, only leaving a sparse few in the shot."
A candle perfectly centered on a window sill may look off center from the camera angle. A chair in the foreground of a shot might look completely out of place and out of context. As such, good architectural photography requires a bit of heavy lifting.
"When I was first starting out as a photo assistant in the '80s," says Hadley, "a talented photographer that I worked with named Taylor Lewis was fond of saying that residential 'architectural photography is 90 percent moving furniture and only 10 percent taking pictures.'
All of those minor things we overlook in everyday life — an out-of-place pillow, a wrinkled area rug — fix them and no one's the wiser. Don't and it doesn't matter how beautiful a space; that minor flaw is all anyone will notice.
Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.