In todays blog post we take a slight side step from my usual CGI post and look at the work of a pro-photographer who is also a CGI professional, and how this impacts the architectural work he documents.
The Photographer in question is James Lawley, who is based in Exeter, within the UK. A little while ago, I was speaking with James, and discussing how his work in both architectural photography and architectural visualisation, where tied together - and likewise, the ways in which they often don’t.
James mentioned that primarily, he has found that there are “three major factors which play a pivotal role in all of my work, whether it is something which I am shooting in real-life or if it’s something which is entirely digital (or anything between the two mediums!). The three key elements are of course composition, lighting and detail.”
Before we discuss this in greater detail, lets find out a little more about James, particularly as a photographer. He has been a modest “Amateur for life” who worked in an Architectural Visualisation studio for 4 years. During that time he dealt with various in-house project shoots, and since leaving has been working professionally for two years. His work still focuses on architecture, and he has worked with moving image in the past, but now primarily produces stills. .
During this time James has gathered a rich client list which includes Living Space Architects (Exeter), Focus on Design (Bristol) and Crawford & Gray Architects (London).
James had always been interested in photography since a young age, and after completing a degree in product design, James started working freelance in architectural visualisation. This in-turn lead to a full time position, before he and his wife moved cities, which kick started the move to self-employment - and also the move into photography.
Many of us look to real world cameras for inspiration when creating renders, and James mentions he currently uses Canon equipment for his real-life projects. It is this understanding of how a real-life camera works which helps all of us in the CG profession create better images.
I asked James to shed some light on his set-up and preferred cameras, “These shift between the 5dmk11 and 550d depending on the project and the clients requirements”. (Recently discovering the joys of equipment rental rather than ownership which means he can always get the lenses he needs.)
James also quickly mentions that his favourite lense for Interiors and Exteriors is primarily a Canon 10-22mm and added “I've also got a favourite old lens for detail shots which is an old Canon 30-70mm from an EOS film camera, which gives lovely colours and Depth of Field.”
We then move on to discuss some of the principles he carries across to both of his areas of expertise. As previously mentioned, James points out the three key elements that are pivotal to his work: composition, lighting and detail.
For James, this is the primary focus of his work and can often be the most important phase in every image (whether shooting live or digitally) he creates. James discusses that he “tends to work loosely around a rule of thirds grid (Click here to view an explanation) which I have programmed into my camera, and which I always drop into my 3ds Max viewport” To my delight, he goes on to mention that he learnt how to do this via a previous blog post of mine - Click to view how.
(Please click to Enlarge the image and view in full detail.)
“I don’t stick completely rigidly to thirds” says James “but like to have them there initially as guide to work too - once you have a loose composition to work to then you can adjust smaller details around the view or adjust the view to fit the content - leading to one of the great differences between CGI and real-life. If a major component of your CGI shot doesn’t fit with a composition that takes your fancy, then you can always move it (even to cheat the viewpoint if needbe), not quite as easy when the wall/pillar/building is real!” Here, James has mentioned an important point, and one that I feel would benefit a lot of other visualisers. In CGI we can often ‘cheat’ too greatly. I know that from looking at many of my past projects, that would of benefitted from me exploring camera angles and views more. By treating the 3d model as a real-life building i would of probably created more adventurous and creative angles. When your next project comes along why not do what you would do in the real-world and ‘run’ around the project with your camera rapidly exploring angles, without removing walls. This might turn up a fresh and exciting view you had never planned for.
James goes on to mention “An important thing to remember too is that composition isn’t just limited to viewpoint - but also encompasses colour palette, character and content. I love this quote from the painter Robert Henri - “Good composition is like a suspension bridge; each line adds strength and takes none away... Making lines run into each other is not composition. There must be motive for the connection. Get the art of controlling the observer – that is composition.”
Whilst discussing ‘Lighting’ James shows me a quote from architect Louis Kahn. I hadn’t heard before, but can clearly see influences his work: “I sense Light as the giver of all presences, and material as spent Light. What is made by Light casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to Light”.
(Click to Enlarge the image and view in full detail.)
“When you work primarily with architects as I do” says James “you soon learn that light is probably the most important toy which you have to play with - whether you are designing, mocking up or photographing - and so in turn it becomes one of our most important tools and features.
For an architect, light can also be an elusive commodity. Architects will use light to interlink indoor and outdoor environments, to bring spaces and materials of a building to life, or they will try to play with light in a way that it changes your mood or the way that you interact with a building.” He goes on to comment that “Likewise - lighting must play a massive part in our images, and will have a dramatic effect on our composition and also our detailing (more on that later). For my photography shoots, I try to plan my lighting as best as possible (which can be difficult if you only have one opportunity to get to a shoot done) - I always aim to work out the best times of day for particular shots based on the direction of the sun, and work with my clients to discover exactly how the light interacts with the spaces and buildings.
In terms of CGI lighting, I always prefer to light my models as closely to life as possible - using just a sun/sky plus whatever man-made lights are visible. In the past, I have tinkered with using light planes and fill lights but I found that those images inevitably ended up looking less realistic - so I try to avoid it whenever possible.” At the bottom of this post you can find some in of the inspiration that James uses to recreate the lighting.
The final area which plays a vital part in all of James work is detail. “With completed buildings, you can see the painstaking effort which has gone into every element, whether its fixtures and fittings or material finishes - and so I always try to capture the significant details as well as the bigger picture.”
(Once again, click to Enlarge the image and view in full detail.)
“I guess this is another area which has some divisions between CGI and photography - obviously with photography, the detail is already there in its entirety - whereas the detail in the CGI work is only in as much detail as you put in. As with lighting, I like to go to town with as much detail as I can - but not to unnecessary levels! I’ll try to get my compositions sorted primarily and that way I know exactly what I can and can’t see before I start getting into the nitty-gritty details. From experience, there is no use going-to-town, only to find out the detail you’ve spent the last hour modelling is actually out of the shot.” An important principle that many visualisers and architects new to this industry often fail at. Planning is critical, and none more so than in this area of only modelling and creating what is necessary.
James finishes off by saying that “Likewise, material finishes can play a massive role in detail - it might be obvious but I prefer to always use maps for almost every texture. In real life, no material is absolutely perfect - so even high gloss materials or mirrored surfaces should have tiny blemishes, something which can always be achieved best with some decent maps.”
Whilst we are talking about inspiration, James mentions a point which I completely agree with. This is, whilst there are some great books out there specifically about architectural photography, he finds that the best books to look at are simply architecture/interior books. James remarks he has a great series which are focused on particular building materials (eg Concrete - as seen here.)
These are full of inspirational images (and also great references for CGI materials). Some of James websites for inspiration can be found below:
As mentioned, James' background is in sustainable product design and he has extensive experience in architectural visualisation and photography, working on projects of all scales across the UK and internationally. He can be contacted at James Lawley or via Twitter.com/jameslawley.
Thanks to James for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me, and share a glimpse at what it takes to be a pro-architectural photographer.
If you hvae any work you want to share with the community you can do so by emailing me here.