Over the years I’ve shot a variety of assignments… I shoot a lot of people, but also buildings, and I decided to make some notes recently, perhaps this will help other photographers and clients understand some of the challenges we face when shooting on location… so here are a few observations on shooting architectural exteriors at malls or store fronts:
A lift vs a ladder and tall tripod:
I really think the best way to do this is with a scissor lift that raises up to 20 feet to make sure you can rise above the trees that are in the parking lot… you want to clearly see the names of the stores, and the trees are a major feature in the parking lots, unless you can rise above them they are a challenge to work around, as well as light poles that block the signage.
…otherwise, shooting from the top of a vehicle, like a pick-up truck with a shell on the back allows the photographer and tripod (in my case) to be at about 11.5-12 feet off the ground. Having a 12 foot tripod would be great too, but much heaver and of course you need at least an 8 foot ladder (also heavier)… currently I have a nice sturdy fiberglass 6′ ladder which helps get to the top of my truck when placed right next to the cab, but an 8 foot ladder would be safer, especially for stepping back on to the ladder when getting down from the top of the truck.
Obviously a tripod is essential as you are often shooting at slow shutter speeds, often with a polarizer, and you are shooting bracketed exposures and need the images to be aligned for HDR exposures. Having a and a level attached to the camera and a ball head (and a panoramic system from a company like Really Right Stuff) where you can have the lens centered directly over the Nodal point is a great help if you are shooting the multiple vertical frames for the panoramic images.
The roll of the Photo Assistant:
An assistant is essential on a photo shoot even simple things can require help, such as:
1. getting up and down from the top of the truck, it’s dangerous with just a 6 foot ladder.
2. handing the camera (on the tripod) up and down from the assistant to photographer and visa-versa quickly helps speed the process when you are trying to work quickly with elements to deal with like the ambient light changing, cars (the perfect car is in the foreground and the driver is about to leave the parking space and you need to shoot right now) and traffic, people, shopping carts that need to be moved, trash and or trash cans in the shots, etc…
3. Also just the issue of placing the camera in the right spot for composition is an issue without an assistant there to move the vehicle, the photographer might need to stay on top of the vehicle while the assistant moves it slowly forward or backwards a few feet to get in the perfect spot.
4. While the photographer is walking to the area in the parking lot looking for next spot to shoot from, the assistant can be loading the ladder in the back of the truck or retrieving it for the photographer who may be guarding the camera and tripod from getting hit by cars driving through the parking lot.
5. Having an assistant with a light stand or a rake handy on a ladder to move a tree branch in or out of a shot for composition can help a great deal.
6. sometimes you might need the assistant to go into the store and talk to an employee about an issue… we were shooting a photo of a restaurant and in the background was a carwash with 3-4 large bay doors for the automotive service area… well I’m about ready to shoot, the clock strikes 6 PM and the doors start coming down, one after another… the assistant runs the 50 years over and asks the employee if he can raise the doors back up for a few minutes while we get the photo shot, this makes the business look better, the photo looks better… without an assistant, you have to get down from the vehicle, leave the camera and tripod, or carry it with you quickly…
Bottom line, working without an assistant adds a great deal of risk to the whole photo shoot. They save the photographer an enormous amount of time and energy, and I hate working without one, even on simple jobs they are essential.
A full parking lot or just a few cars:
If you want a lot of cars in the parking lot you need to shoot when there are a lot of cars in the parking lot, perhaps around a holiday like Christmas, of course then there may be decorations in the shot that you might not want in the photos as well. Also you will have little control over traffic volume and direction. Sometimes a car moving (blurred) through the photo s well as people for scale (or even a blur) can be great for composition, but again you have almost zero control over all of this… sometimes the assistant can ask a driver to wait a few seconds before driving off in their car that is parked in the nice foreground area, but sometimes people have busy lives and they are not there to help you “get the shot” …sometimes they will wait and that’s really nice too.
Time of day:
You have to shoot in the later part of the afternoon until dusk, giving you about 2-3 hours of good light to work with and really only one time to shoot the perfect “dusk” shot, maybe 2 if you are lucky and prepared… morning light is great, but there won’t be any cars or activity (people shopping) in the parking lots at 6 AM. Mid-morning could work, but a lot of stores do’t open until 10 AM, and there may not be a lot of shoppers at 10 AM, some sure, but more than likely you will have more vehicles in the later part of the afternoon. It’s just a fact that the light is not as pretty in the middle of the day, so if you want beautiful light, you need to shoot at the right time of the day, early morning or later in the afternoon until dusk (Sunset + 30 minutes). Of course shooting in Phoenix, AZ in the summer is another challenge, it gets hotter as the day gets later and sun sets after 7:00 PM in May, but… in the winter the sun sets earlier and of course it’s cooler and easier on the team producing the photos.
Often the post-production will take longer than the actual photography… you might need to combine bracketed exposures to create a nice HDR image (I’m not talking about overly processed HDR images here, just to allow you to have the full range of exposure for shadows and highlights). If you are shooting a panoramic HDR, that requires 8 vertical image X 5-9 exposures for each vertical overlapping frame, this can take quite a long time to produce, but it’s just part of the process… It can take a lot of time to do this work and that’s just a fact that it will be required if you want to produce the best images possible for the client.
Clouds vs blue skies: Clouds can be great in a photo, they add a lot of drama, or character to the shots, but sometimes there aren’t any clouds… one alternative is to drop in a sky, but this also can be tricky because you want it to match the shot (i.e. not look fake) but it can be done… you can shoot the sky or buy a stock shot of a sky, but the hard part comes when you have to deal with masking around things like trees… another reason to shoot from a higher vantage point, so there are no trees extending above the building height that will need to be masked around… a nice clean line around the top of the building is much easier to work around than trees.
OK, that’s a few of the reasons why good photography takes the time and energy to produce, and of course costs as much as it does. The photos represent millions of dollars of development to the property owners, builders, landscapers, etc, and are being used to sell the property to investors, so you want them to look the best they can for those purposes.
A few additional thoughts:
Bring a good hat, sunscreen and water on the job… and a set two-way radios can help a lot for communicating between the photographer and assistant. Have the client contact the property management to make sure you have permission to shoot… have a business card handy, one from your client and yourself, because you can rest assured that security guard or a store manager will come out and ask “what are you doing, and do you have permission to shoot on private property?” (my funny answer is that “I’m shooting a portfolio of images of “Linens and Things and Bed Bath and Beyonds” across the country in the middle of the summer” …you also might get a few of strange looks from people walking through the shot, some will ask what you are doing but most people are just going about their business and won’t notice you while you are doing your best to produce beautiful images.