Warning! This is going to be a rather opinionated article – because it’s a topic I’m passionate about.
As a prelude to this op-ed on photography style, I’ll start by saying there is a lot of different ways to be right in photography. A lot of those different ways are highly situational and depend on the target audience, the setting, the client, the subject, or the delivery medium. That’s an important note – because too many photographers try to make their style one size fits all, and it really doesn’t. This is an especially important concept in architectural photography.
Reality is undesirable in photos. We all want idealized renditions of whatever the picture subject is – whether it is a sunset, ourselves, a building exterior, or some interior decoration. There’s an old joke in the portrait photo business that “there’s no such thing as a bad picture – you really do look like that sometimes!”. The trick is to find a time and an angle that shows the perfect view of whatever is being shown.. but that varies by the topic.
There’s a trend toward “hyper-reality” or even “surrealism” in architectural photography. In real estate photography, it’s an epidemic. One really obvious example that doesn’t take long to find are images where the colors are boosted to neon levels through amateurish use of high-dynamic range processing. Tools like that always are a deal with the devil – there are benefits, but it’s important to understand what pieces of your photographic soul you’re signing over. Image quality is absolutely degraded for the benefit of being able to see really bright things or really dark things. That’s sometimes very beneficial – often it’s not.
The real crime is that many photographers simply do not understand their subject and apply a one-size-fits-all processing mentality. The side effect of that is spending a lot of time worrying about things that either don’t matter – or worse – actually detract from the image. Either way, massive time is being spent on things that aren’t important to the subject.
A student recently asked me if they should brighten up a hallway that is far in the background and would make up less than 5% of the final image. My Socratic answer was “What’s the subject of this photo”? Her answer was perfect.
“Not that?” she replied.
She was absolutely right. The subject was a beautifully staged dining room table – and the purpose of the picture was to show off the furnishings of the room for the interior designer. As long as the hallway wasn’t distracting (it wasn’t) – brightening it would have made it more distracting.
Psychologically.. our eyes are drawn to things that are really interesting/colorful, really bright and really dark – pretty much in that order. A TV in a room draws our attention because it is all of those things. A view out of a window does the same thing. It’s important to remove things from the scene that draw away from the subject – and interesting/colorful/bright/dark things are great places to start. I personally don’t feel TVs should have images edited on them most of the time – because it’s very distracting. There are always exceptions, though..
Too much misguided effort is placed on windows in architectural photography. Hyper-realistic window pulls have become the rage – ensuring that every viewer sees what’s out the window perfectly, even way in the background. That’s a clear example of not always understanding your subject. But.. and this is important – sometimes, the subject really is the view. If there are large picture windows overlooking a lake, golf course, mountain range or whatever – go nuts with the view! If the subject isn’t the view – the view should be downplayed by lightening or blurring or reducing the impact on the overall scene. This is also an important consideration for undesirable subjects out the window – like ongoing construction, alleys, dumpsters or whatever.
I target what I call “Idealized Natural”. I feel I did my job well if the end result looks so natural that nobody can tell how I processed it – yet it looks idealized in the sense of it looking like it was art directed to look that way. A lot of care and technique goes into developing that look – and it’s really not a one-size-fits-all approach. Sometimes the image needs a composite of images to create it. Sometimes it needs a high-dynamic range technique. Other times it needs supplemental lighting. Often times it just needs a perfect exposure with a great composition and subtle editing to bring out the best.
Ideally, it’ll look natural.