BY Emilie W. Sommerhoff
» The adage a picture is worth a thousand words stands, especially in the design world. And, for architects and designers looking to market their projects, a high-quality photograph is worth even more. Take it from an editor. The amount and quality of the artwork often determines the value and appeal of a design publication's content to readers, and for this reason, architecture and design magazines generally will not publish a project without superior photographs. Simultaneously, design firms, small and large, have their own in-house requirements for professional photography—marketing materials, portfolios, client proposals. If a design firm views publication of its work essential to future business, it can't afford not to commission or buy rights to professional photographs. If a studio does not, architectural photographer Walter Dufresne says, 'it means the owner is not reinvesting in the business.'
Digital photography has changed the playing field, and not necessarily for the better, notes San Francisco-based Douglas Salin, who has specialized in photographing lighting for 22 years. 'It's the monkey principle. If you put enough monkeys in a room with typewriters, you'll get a great work. If designers take enough shots, they'll get a serviceable photo. It might look good on the web, or as a small image in a magazine. But that's it.' In other words, no cover shot. With the advent of digital, designers themselves are now shooting projects that formerly would have been done by professionals. In this, argues Salin, they are actually doing themselves a disservice. 'You're trying to promote good lighting design. If you short-change yourself with bad photography, people will not appreciate what you have done.'
FINDING AND FUNDING A PHOTOGRAPHER
The primary obstacle for designers wishing to commission photography is cost. Undertaking the process in conjunction with other firms on the project helps reduce fees. 'We put together a consortium of owners, contractors, and other interested parties so that we can afford the best,' says lighting designer Leni Schwendinger. 'The photographer then grants equal rights for use to the group for in-house/promotional use.' Arrangements like this incur additional up-front charges, but arÊ ultimately more economical than if each party undertook the process alone. Esto, an architectural photo agency, generally charges a 25 percent markup for each additional party for the same licensing rights.
Sharing the load can make the process affordable, but it means balancing each party's agenda. Salin, who works with both manufacturers and lighting designers, provides an example: 'The manufacturer prefers to see a predominance of their product. The lighting designer is interested in the integration of all the lighting and products.' The group approach also requires accommodating a crowd of cooks in the kitchen. 'Everyone paying a chunk wants to be there. Then you have four directors, with four whistles and clipboards,' says Erica Stoller, director of Esto. To avoid such problems, determine the distinct 'views' each party would like ahead of time and, advises Stoller, put one person in charge.
How a firm ultimately uses the photography also dictates cost. Will it appear in in-house materials like presentations and portfolios? Will editorial publishing rights be required? Will the photographs be used in advertising? Each scenario requires a different licensing agreement, with a related fee schedule, which differs with the photographer. For Salin, there are two types of usage: editorial and advertising. He is more lenient with editorial applications, generally only charging for covers, but requires separate fees for advertising-related usage. Esto, on the other hand, reserves editorial rights.
The message here is not to be discouraged by cost; rather to work around it. The right photographer will help its clients navigate this challenge. Lara Swimmer, an architectural photographer based in Seattle, notes 'I am nearly always willing to work within a budget, if the project is interesting to me.' Indeed, a firm's relationship with the photographer should steer its ultimate selection. Personal style, aptitude with the subject, and location are also factors. Most photographers do not advertise, beyond a website. Swimmer mails promo pieces, but notes most her assignments come from past work and word of mouth. Salin sends a 'Pick of the Month.'
PREPARING FOR A SHOOT
Preparing for the photo shoot requires a minutiae-minded director. Suggesting the many details that could go wrong, an extensive architectural photography checklist, called 'Working with an Architectural Photographer,' is downloadable from the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP). (To view this checklist, click here.) Reminders include: Will the elevators be working? Will the security alarms be off? Is the lighting computer or motion-sensor controlled? Will spare bulbs be available? It also helps to have a representative from the firm on hand during the session, notes Swimmer, 'to review Polaroid or digital pictures to make sure they are getting what they want. It is not always necessary if the firm and photographer are familiar with each other's style.'
Another consideration specific to architectural lighting photography is the use of 'fill,' or supplemental, light. Purists will argue photography intended to portray the quality of the lighting should not include supplemental illumination, and indeed, most lighting-specific awards programs require the entrant to mention where fill light has been used in order to even the playing field. The opportunity to control the use of fill is another reason the lighting designer should be involved up front. The alternative opinion is that film is not able to capture what the eye actually sees, and therefore fill light is necessary to reproduce the space accurately. 'The photographer's job is to capture the scene as close to what the eye perceives as possible,' says Salin, who notes that designers owe it to their industry to promote quality lighting in the most effective way. 'What you are trying to show them is the differences between bad lighting design and good lighting design, so if you restrict images to those without supplemental light, you are asking people to view your work under less than perfect conditions.'
WITH PHOTOGRAPH IN HAND
Once the photographs are ready, it is key to understand the rights conferred by the original agreement. A contract does not necessarily permit a firm to grant permission to magazines for publication; this should be confirmed before submitting a project for consideration, since some publications do not have the budget to purchase photography. Also, know where else images are appearing, since magazines may demand initial or exclusive publication rights.
Professional photography benefits everyone on a project, and yet it seems, few projects include images specifically documenting the lighting. 'Not just lighting designers, but consultants in general, are in the habit of taking what is left over, and not acting aggressively to say what they want at the beginning,' says Stoller. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but designers should confirm those are the words they want people to hear.
For more guidance on this process, visit the American Society of Media Photographers site, www.asmp.org.