Friday, July 31, 2009

Fine Art vs. Commercial Photography

from Max:
Hi Kirk,
I would like to say thanks for your dedication to fine photographs. I share your appreciation of architecture. I also like the way you've managed to combine your commercial photography preference with your artistic aspirations and vision.
I suppose it's a common struggle. Your site makes it all seem like one.
Thanks Max. "Seeing it as one" was a long journey. I "grew up" artistically in an environment that disdained commercial photography at the renowned University of New Mexico Photography Department of the early 70's. This was during the rein of legends such as Van Deuron Coke and Beumont Newhall. Commercial photography was somehow tainted. Some years after graduation, I got into commercial architectural photography because I had a family to support and I was not accomplishing that strictly doing art photography and showing in galleries. Mentally it was not a happy marriage. I considered art my passion and the other what I did to support my passion. That doesn't mean I approached architectural photography with a lack of sincerity. Everything worth doing deserves serious attention, but commercial photography was, in my mind, definitely a second class citizen.

I defined the distinction this way. My art was illustrating my own ideas while the commercial photography was illustrating my clients ideas, but over the years that commercial point of view didn't hold water. Clients were hiring me to see into their designs. They were asking me to interpret their art. Many of the best designers I worked for didn't even do a walk through with me-sending me out to "see what I came up with". They saw me as an artist interpreting their art (that isn't to say that there is not a documentary aspect to AP, because there definitely is. You have to show the building). Many of these same architects are aavid collectors of my b&w work too.

In 2003 New Mexico magazine approached me about doing a retrospective book of my work, which became Shelter from the Storm: The Photographs of Kirk Gittings. I suggested a collection of my B&W, but they wanted it all. It was inseparable from their POV. I could not figure out how this would work organizationally or visually. I tried many times to come up with a workable draft, but I couldn't see it and finally turned the project over to their designers. My conceptual separation of the work was a barrier, but not for them. This experience really made me re-evaluate how I see my commercial work. It is more seamless for me now as a result of that project. I learned allot from that experience. Is there really a fundamental difference where a commission comes from, whether from a commercial client, an arts program or my own internal quest? What about being invited to participate in a group exhibit with a theme? Here is an example from a show where 20 photographers were asked to photograph the same model. Model Rose Bryant photographed at the ruined 17th century church at Quarai (Canon 5D, 24 T/S).

The experience led me to (or back to really, I had played with this some years ago) an interest in photographing figures in architecture and landscape, and led to a recent arts commission to photograph figures in landscape around Albuquerque. I don't find client requirements to be barriers to creativity, but instead stimulus to creativity.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stitching programs for files from Tilt/Shift lenses.

I do allot of stitching these days for clients, usually a half dozen+ on every shoot. An effective stitching program is a must. I have stated before that I prefer Photoshop CS4 Photomerge over programs like Autopano Pro or PT Gui for flat stitched architectural images and the images below will illustrate why. Above are jpegs of the original raw files, Canon 5DM2, Canon 24T/S. The method was to simply level the camera-shift up and expose and shift down and expose. NOTE, the camera must be on manual exposure and the white balance set (4000 K on this) so that the exposure and white balance does not change automatically between exposures (I only use manual exposure normally for architecture anyway and expose based on the histogram). Below are the renderings of the images in Photoshop Photomerge and Autopano Pro. AutoPano Pro with its "best" projection mode (Planar in this case). It introduces allot of pincussioning that requires additional time in PS to correct.

This file is straight from the raw files in bridge via the PS Photomerge script. Photoshop Photomerge preserves much better the straight lines of the original files,

I find Autopano Pro to be superior for large multi-tiled landscape stitches. It seems superior at blending edges in skies and finding control points in clouds etc. But for my daily architecture bread and butter with Tilt/Shift lenses? Give me Photoshop CS4 Photomerge.

I discovered this problem with architecture in Autopano Pro this week because my PS Photomerge could not align any two images to save its life. With deadlines to meet, I was panicking. So I tried Autopano Pro and PT Gui again. Neither performed as well as simple PS Photomerge. It turns out that my problem in PS was a corrupted Preferences file and as soon as I erased that (the program will recreate it) the stitch program in PS ran fine. People tell me that it is a good idea to save a clean copy of your preferences file and replace the existing one at the first sign of trouble in PS. Where this is located depends on your operating system and PS version. So you will have to investigate this online. It is a fairly well known issue apparently.

For an alternative take on AutopanoPro see Jack Flesher's post on LL

The Kira Sowanick, AIA, Residence, Albuquerque, NM.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sorry All

I have been absolutely buried with work and have had no time for the blog. I will get back with peoples comments and emails after the end of the month probably. There are three design competition deadlines at the end of the month-my yearly bread and butter. Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Abstraction in Architectural Photography: some thoughts.

"Between documentation and interpretation? How much of each is necessary or desired?"

The answer for me, when the client is an architect, both. I am paid for both my eye and technical expertise. All photography requires interpretation just from the basic activity of framing an image, making a visual selection, but for some images it goes far beyond the process of selection. Over the course of an entire shoot, I must deliver images that both accurately depict the volumes, masses, setting, facades etc. and I must deliver images that interpret the feel of the design. It is in attempting to interpret the feel of the design where I am most aesthetically free. Here are a few examples that I did recently for a project. I'm never sure that the client will appreciate some of my more abstract interpretations, but usually my more creative clients appreciate my more creative images. Project, the Aperture Center, Mesa del Sol, New Mexico, Antoine Predock Architect.

Some of my favorite images of architecture are extreme abstractions that don't illustrate the physicality of a structure but speak to how design feels. Oftentimes these images fall on deaf ears (blind eyes?) and move no one but myself. But my more creative clients appreciate them. Here are examples from the Aperture Center shoot (above) designed by Antoine Predock FAIA with Jon Anderson Architects. Below are images I "encountered" while waiting for the light to get better!

Markets, Marketing and Fees: some thoughts.

Hey Kirk,
I want to compliment you on your blog. It's very informative and entertaining. I am an editorial and commercial photographer based in the Midwest. I have shot quit a bit of architecture in the last year for a few editorial clients. I find it very rewarding and am looking into shooting more architecture. I am wondering if you would be willing to share a little bit about your business model? My clients in the past have all been either magazines or advertising agencies. I am wondering who I should start marketing for architecture work. I'm also wondering how most people are charging? Day rates, project rates, usage?
Any info you can share would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for the kind words. This is a big topic and I will add to it over the next few days so check back in. Who do you market architectural photography too? Who needs it the most? Architects, builders and "shelter" magazines. My largest volume clients are magazines, then architects and finally builders (and occasionally ad agencies). Part of that order is choice. I find builders to want the most pedestrian images and want bid photography, so they are my lowest priority (not always for sure, but generally speaking). Magazines have the most varied projects, which is stimulating, but generally don't pay great (not always though). Magazine work is your best advertising, so the low fees notwithstanding, magazines have their silver lining. Having studied art at the university level, architects and I speak the same visual language. I understand their needs the best and they value creativity. Hence, they the most
challenging and pay well.

My original strategy 30 years ago was to build a clientele amongst the less demanding builders as I built my portfolio, equipment and expertise. I then used that base for leverage to gain more lucrative and visually sophisticated design and magazine clients. For instance when shooting an important building for a contractor I would call the architect and ask if they need some photography too or want to share in the shoot. This strayegy worked so well that Iwould do it again if I had to start over again.

Variety is important from a economic stability point of view. When one market like residential may be down big commercial buildings may be stable or advertising in magazines may be booming. Right now residential is in the dumps but commercial is holding its own. That may switch next year as residential climbs out of the hole and commercial, which has a much longer lead time, starts to slow down. With residential seeing the light, magazine advertising (which pays for editorial) may boom as clients start to position themselves for the end of the recession.

Variety is also important in terms of keeping the creative juices flowing. A large office building is a very different challenge than a residence and I find those different challenges very stimulating.

There is no single fee strategy that works in all these markets. A national manufacturer will expect to pay far more than your neighborhood contractor. Day rates are still very common out this way, but even for me those vary tremendously depending on the size of the client and usage required. Fees for small local clients would make your skills suspect for large clients from major metropolitan areas. You need to know what is happening in both and position yourself based on your expertise and competition.

Without going into personal details, for a regular architecture documentation shoot, I have a shooting fee/day rate (which varies greatly depending on client), digital capture and processing fees (per image, multiplied for stitches, this is aimed at paying me a reasonable hourly rate for all the computer time), assistant fees, travel fees (if required), multiple copyright user surcharge (like say the architect and contractor want to split the shoot-it runs about half the shooting fee per additional client) and miscellaneous charges. These days we do approx. 30-40 images a day when documenting architecture, far more than we ever did with film (largely because digital is far more forgiving in mixed light situations so we can work faster). Art directed shoots for say a magazine will produce far fewer images.

Before the recession I was able to charge pretty much what I wanted without oftentimes even being asked for a proposal or estimate from established clients, but that has changed drastically. Recently I have even initiated significant fee reductions with some key magazine clients that are having trouble. Why? My business is largely built on long term relationships, some 30 years old now. We have gone through the highs and lows together and I want them to know I have not gotten so established that I'm inflexible and that we are still in this together. My general rule of thumb when the economy is growing? If you are established with clients that don't need to be educated about the value of AP? You should be having to do a hard sell about a third of the time to justify your charges. That way you are maintaining your base but always pushing the fee boundaries of your clients expectations. When no one is complaining about your charges-time to raise prices. We will get back there again, but if we are lucky it will be in two years.

New Mexico has not been hit as hard as many states and municipalities. A recent newspaper article indicated that house sales here were rebounding much faster than the national average and that stimulus money was already interring public sector construction in "shovel ready" projects. I feel for all you in some of the worst hit areas. I have a successful AP friend in the Midwest that is working at Hobby Lobby. Really tough. But I admire his flexibility. Do what you have to do.

A painter friend has an interesting recession strategy. With art you can't really back off prices without devaluing the purchases of previous clients. He raised his prices 20% and then told his galleries to offer a recession discount of up to 20%! It seems to be working for him.

More thoughts to come. I am buried with work so the strategies must be working.
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