Commissioning building photography is not a point-and-click decision. Elizabeth Kubany, a publicist for architects and designers, offers advice on how best to select and work with an architectural photographer.

Commissioning building photography is not a point-and-click decision. Elizabeth Kubany, a publicist for architects and designers, offers advice on how best to select and work with an architectural photographer.

Credit: Sioux Nesi

As the former public relations director at both Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (now three separate firms), Elizabeth Kubany has deep expertise in commissioning photographs of buildings and getting them in front of the public. Over the years, she has honed a keen eye for spotting talented photographers and the ability to foster a dialogue between photographers and architects. That relationship is a balancing act, she believes, between understanding the architect’s intentions and the photographer’s technical and artistic skills. In the first of two columns focusing on architectural photography, Kubany, who now runs her own public relations agency for architects and designers, talks to ARCHITECT about how to make sure that your building looks great in pictures.

Know your photographer.
It’s critical to find a photographer who gets you and how you want your building represented, Kubany says. After all, the photographer’s job is to create an image that captures and explains a three-dimensional building in a two-dimensional format for someone who will probably never see it in reality. That’s why the photographer must understand the building and what the architect is trying to say. “It’s all very personal,” she says.

Keep an open mind.
Many firms have their favorite photographers, the ones with whom they feel most comfortable. It’s a seductive idea to stay with a trusted photographer. But “try to stay open to new names,” Kubany says. New talent does not necessarily mean inexperienced photography. A generalist photographer with an eye for architecture might make for a great discovery—like Alfred Stieglitz, who took the iconic 1903 photograph of the Flatiron Building. Always check an architectural photographer’s portfolio for shots of a variety of building types that show something special. “You don’t want a sense of sameness,” she says.

Watch the bottom line.
Look for newcomers who are willing to spend a day on their own expense to shoot pictures in order to show you what they can do and justify their costs, Kubany says. Depending on the photographer’s experience, a day rate can run between $1,500 and $4,000—assistants, equipment, and travel expenses not included. “Architectural photography is not a small investment,” she says. Good photographers bring along intangible assets. “I am interested in photographers who come to the table with media contacts and want to work with you to get the project published,” she says.

Don’t forget point of view …
There has been a recent shift away from photographs with a chilly modernist perfection to a more inclusive, less tidy perspective, Kubany says. Idealized pictures of empty buildings are losing their vogue, while shots with a point of view are in. “If the purpose of architectural photography is to get a building noticed—by potential clients, by editors, by the general public—then it follows that having images with a strong point of view is a good idea.”

… but make sure that the POV is in line with the architect’s.
Architectural photography is not unlike portrait photography. Different photographers will shoot the same building slightly differently. “It’s best to find someone who sees something you don’t, but reinforces an element or theme in the building that the architect loves or finds important,” Kubany says.

Prepare a pre-shoot briefing.
“The more information the architect can provide, the better,” Kubany says. You don’t have to be on the shoot, and in fact, that can be a hindrance. A back-and-forth is good, but given the costs involved, it’s worthwhile to let the photographer know beforehand your priorities and interests. Provide a shoot list with all the elements you want the photographer to look for, she suggests.

Don’t forget a follow-up.
Some buildings are difficult to shoot and have to be reshot after the first round of images. Why? Maybe the photographer didn’t do a good job, although that doesn’t happen very often, Kubany says. Perhaps the first photographer did fine, but another photographer has a second opinion. Loyalty and variety both have their advantages. And a follow-up can happen years later, she says.

Sort out legal details from the get-go.
“There is a constant tension between the rights of the architect, who commissions and pays for the shoot, and the photographer, who retains the copyright,” Kubany says. Address this issue up front, and in detail, because it can complicate marketing, public relations, and publishing down the road. “Contracts should allow widespread use of the picture by the architect,” she advises. “Always with due credit to the photographer, of course.”