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Effective Architectural Photography: Clearing the Field

Buildings don’t travel, which means that most people will experience any particular building only through photographs. Consequently, those who rely on photography to represent their work have a lot at stake. Each image must communicate as effectively as possible, enabling the viewer to fully appreciate whatever the photo depicts.

I have learned over time that one of the best ways to get something to happen is to make it easy for people to do. It’s not that people won’t try, but in a busy world, sometimes a little more work is just a little too much. The most compelling photographs draw the viewer in and get straight to the point, without barriers or distractions. This immediacy results from many factors; here, we will look at one of the more apparent ones, which is the removal of unnecessary objects from the final image.

By judiciously taking things out, we can create a smoother visual experience, giving the viewer less noise and more signal. This recalls Saint-Exupéry’s dictum that a design becomes perfect once there is nothing left to take away. The same is true of photographs: if we clear away whatever encumbers the design, then it will more readily be perceived and understood.

To illustrate, here is a “before” shot of a lobby:

This is actually a reasonably clean setting, with no glaring distractions. But even here, there is some visual clutter that can beneficially be removed. The next photo shows what was edited out, as indicated by the green circles:

These are not radical changes, but they add up. A dozen revisions yield an image that is subtly, but definitely, easier to view:

By removing even small distractors, we make it easier for the viewer to see what we want to show, and we increase the effectiveness of the image.

Sometimes these changes are straightforward, while at other times it can take some work to keep things looking as natural as possible. Object removal can be especially challenging in areas of slightly varying pattern (as in the black sign on the far wall), or in places where removing an object requires the reconstruction of whatever was behind it (such as the moldings around the fire- alarm strobe on the right).

There is also a philosophical question behind this process, which is, “How much is too much?” At what point do these changes produce something that is “inaccurate,” or somehow “misrepresents” the subject? I’ve written more on that topic here. In this scene, for instance, I thought about removing the large ceiling vents on the left (highlighted in orange). But in the end, I decided that was more of a change than I was comfortable with for my purposes. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Philosophical conundrums aside, the creation of a clean visual field is one of those things that separates adequate photographs from really good ones. Time spent attending to removable objects can pay off in the form of more effective communication through photography.

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Architectural Photographer

Charlotte, NC


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