Luxe Photography Panel

AOME Architects principal Mark Elster featured on distinguished panel, March 2019

A panel Discussion hosted by Luxe Magazine at the Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery, moderated by Lisa Bingham Dewart, Luxe Homes Editor featuring selected professional photographers, interior designers and architects.

The following questions were asked of each panelist. The responses are those prepared by Mark Elster.

Why shoot a project?

Photography of completed projects is still the best way to market your work to potential clients, through both digital and print media. It is so key, we actually refund part of our fee when a client finishes their project and require by contract that they permit access for photography.

How important is it to hire a professional photographer to shoot?

While I may be a skilled photographer, a good professional photographer brings much deeper experience, superior equipment and a professional judgment we value in crafting the images of our projects in their best light (see what I did there?). Some photographers also offer insights into the publishing sphere and have deeper contacts with editorial staff than we could reasonably maintain.

How do you plan your shoot days? 

  1. Two to three years in advance, we lay the ground work during our contract negotiations and reiterate during the design process and repeatedly during construction to establish the certain expectation in our client’s mind that photography of the completed and furnished house will be taking place at a date to be determined.
  2. We shoot our own scouting shots to inform the photographer in advance of site conditions and desired shots (generally—we are always open to their input). 
  3. In cases of remodel projects, we present before images that we wish to duplicate in an after image.
  4. We discuss the potential shots and our expectations about daylighting choices (morning, evening, etc.)
  5. The photographer uses map and sun tracking data to inform us of the desired start-stop times and how many days the shoot will take so we can prepare our clients.
  6. We discuss the process with our client and invite them to participate (we usually don’t really mean it though). We reassure them that one of the principals will be present for the entire shoot.
  7. We plan in advance, with our partnering project team members, particularly the interior designer, which shots are highest priority.
  8. We plan in advance how we will stage individual shots, rarely with temporary pieces, and often by moving existing client furnishings or bringing out their own accessories. When needed the interior designer will supply flower arrangements and additional accessories or more elaborate staging. 
  9. At the beginning I use my iPhone to shoot all spaces that will be staged to make a detailed record of the location of all items that may be moved so we can return everything to its original place.

Do you have some stories from the sets you’d like to share?

  1. At one shoot, the client had glass shelves in the dining room that were sparsely populated, so the photographer and interior designer selected some candleholders from elsewhere to spiff them up. The photographer suggested lighting the candles to add some warmth and sparkle. The shot took a long time to set up—long enough that the candle flame managed to heat the glass unevenly to the point that it shattered. You never saw an architect and interior designer jump so fast!
  2. Similarly, the same photographer set up Toda Lights (a really bright type of key light) on top of a beam to light a trussed vaulted ceiling area. Again, the shot took a long time to set up until we noticed the distinct smell of wood burning. To our alarm, we had caught the top of the beam on fire! Luckily, what the code says about heavy timber is true, by the time we got up a ladder to retrieve the lamp and put out the smoldering fire it had only barely charred the top surface where it is to this day sitting out of view!
  3. One more fire story: a client unreasonably withheld permission to light a fire in the main living room fireplace featured in our planned photos. I decided to light one anyway, a fake one using newspaper to create nice flames that go out in a minute, long enough for exposures and easy to completely clean up afterward. While sweeping up the last remnants of the ash evidence, my cell phone slipped out of my breast pocket arcing across space with nothing–but–net clearance to the open ash dump port that I’d been sweeping the ash into! And straight down 10 feet below us. The contractor called my phone, verifying it had survived the fall, and that the owner might hear it ringing when other people tried calling! I had to retrieve it. Using a coat hanger, string and wads of duct tape after 2 hours of futile attempts I finally got the phone all the way up to the ash dump port when the adhesive gave way and fell back again. Fortunately with practice my technique had improved and it took only 20 more minutes to retrieve my phone thus saving us from being discovered!
  4. The reason I mentioned earlier that we don’t always sincerely want the client to join us is because we too often find that they have some treasured but awful piece of furniture, or really bad taste in rugs—while they are away, we can move these items out of shots without embarrassing them. When they decide to stay anyway, some of our shoots have involved secret missions for one member of the team to distract the owner while the other members fix the ugly so we can get a happy shot.

What are your goals with photography? Are they always to get published or to have a record of your work?

Both. But those goals are aligned. Publishing used to just mean placing images in magazines. Now we create our own marketing materials and self-publish in books, and on our website. But in each case, we approach it as if the images may go in a magazine.

How do you go about selecting a photographer? Does your goal for the home impact your decision on which photographer to hire?

  1. Our firm is very collaborative with our entire project team during design, construction and even when we document our projects. Consequently, we look for photographers that are open to editorial input during the shoot, with an understanding that we will often defer to their judgment. Not all photographers are comfortable working this way.
  2. We evaluate their ability to work with natural and artificial light to enhance mood, drama, and explain the architecture to our intended viewers.
  3. We have strict licensing requirements and tend to avoid photographers that treat their images as a commodity that we are renting.

Do you prop your shoots?

We assist the interior designer with propping that they supply, or that we procure from elsewhere among the client’s possessions during the shoot.

Do you work with stylists? If so, how do you go about selecting a stylist for your shoot?

No, however, magazines shooting our work have done so. We have appreciated their contributions, but so far haven’t found it necessary for our regular shot planning.

When is the best time to shoot?

This is always dictated by sun/sky exposure and orientation of exterior facades, and individual interior spaces and the type of mood we wish to capture. Generally we tend to like sun angles that flatter the architecture. Mid-day can be too harsh on many facades so that is a good time to be inside for example. We almost always include one evening shot at what my wife calls, “Blue Time.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to a designer/architect who was planning to shoot a project?

Study what you see and like in high quality magazine images, like those found in Luxe—model your own project documentation on them—and prepare your client well in advance to expect photography.