It takes a moment to snap a picture, but days to shoot a building. Nick Merrick, an architectural photographer with Hedrich Blessing, explains how to approach buildings—and their designers.
Credit: Jamey Stillings
For the past 30 years, architectural photographer Nick Merrick has logged thousands of miles capturing vivid images of houses, orchestra halls, museums, airports, corporate headquarters, and other types of structures. Whether it’s a small residential structure or the world’s tallest building—a recent project took him to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to shoot the half-mile-high Burj Khalifa—Merrick works to create photographs that have an elemental relationship to a building. A senior partner in the renowned Chicago architectural photography firm Hedrich Blessing Photographers, the 57-year-old Merrick spoke to for the second in a two-part series about architectural photography. He offers a few tips for aspiring architectural photographers—and insight into how photographers work best—for the clients who hire them.
First things first: If you’re a photographer, talk to the architects. You want the designers to tell you what the project is about, what was going through their minds when they designed it, and what their needs are for the pictures. Merrick asks architects to tell him about their earlier understanding of the building and how they solved design problems. He asks specifically for renderings and drawings: Like those studies, an architectural photograph will be used for marketing, publishing, competitions, and awards.
Take a stroll.
It’s best to walk around and through the building, to get a sense of it, to see where the sun hits and shadows play. “This helps to open myself to the building on an emotional and intellectual level,” Merrick explains. “There are visual decisions that come when you look at the building and respond.” Sometimes an architect or member of the design team will come along on a photo shoot, but not always. “One client loves to accompany me before anyone moves in, because he says it’s the only time he feels he really owns the space.”
Compose the shot.
Part of the assignment is solving technical problems such as finding the best vantage point to show mass and shape or the way to depict spatial depth and clarity. You have to see how light interacts with the project. As a rule, the bigger the building, the harder it is to find the right view. “For the Burj, the challenge was how to express a building of that size,” Merrick says. “We included 40-story skyscrapers, shooting from the 14th floor of a hotel.”
Provide a point of view.
A project’s environment may give cues about whether to go with a natural or staged look. If it’s a university campus with lots of students walking around, shoot first for a natural look. For interior shots that are not heavily peopled, the shot can be staged. “And if it is staged, let’s really do it,” Merrick says. “Let’s gather people together and let then interact.” You may need to bring in a crowd, and they’re more likely to come from the architect’s office than from a modeling agency. “They become part of the composition.”
Tweak a bit, when needed.
“Digital photography means we can change and clean things up, but keep manipulation to a bare minimum,” Merrick says. You can take a person who looks good in one shot and put him or her in the final shot. You can merge and mingle people, change color and contrast, and delete what doesn’t fit—such as an exit sign in an interior shot or a lamppost. “But use digital tools with a very light touch, so the photographs do not have a digitally rendered look.”
Charge by the day.
“We charge by the hour when we are actually making photographs,” says Merrick. For every three days of photography, there are three days of related tasks in the office associated with the shoot (for which he charges by the day). “In an eight-hour day, we can do four interior photographs and eight exterior photographs.” Some assignments take longer: The Burj shoot in Dubai, for example, lasted nine days, about twice the time it takes for most shoots. The time spent processing work in the studio should be included in the fee.
Make a pitch for history.
Architectural photography is invaluable. A photograph is the only representation of a building that most people will ever actually see. “The photograph is ultimately where the work lives,” Merrick says. “There are many buildings out there that we only know from the classic photographs of them.”