Tips, How to Become a Professional Architectural Photographer

Architectural Photography is both a creative and potentially profitable area of professional photography.

Surprisingly, when amateurs seek to turn professional, often they ask the wrong questions about how to go about it. The questions they ask, more often or not, are technical ones to do with the making of the images. In the old days (before digital) such questions were frequently about what kinds of films should be used, whether to use specialised shift lenses and what kind of lighting techniques should be used in interiors. Today, in the digital era, amateur photographers are more likely to ask questions about how images should be processed on the computer.

The perspective correction tool in Photoshop may take care of some of the more straightforward issues of controlling those often unwanted converging verticals, but an obsession with such technicalities can blind the budding professional to the toughest issues facing a professional architectural photographer today, namely markets. Determining who your target customer base will have a major effect on both the kind of photographs you want to take and how much you are likely to be able to earn.

Today the whole architectural scene is very tough because of what has happened around the world with property markets. While I'm still working with clients with whom I have a long term relationship, even I've found that a lot of the random little commissions that paid for a frivolous bit of camera equipment or a shooting trip have dried up almost completely. For this reason, both established and new professionals need to keep their market focus as a primary area of concern.

The markets listed below are just as start point, and as I'll tell you later, you will need to be as creative about how you construct your business model as you are about how you make your pictures if you hope to succeed as a professional architectural photographer in the tough markets of 2010.

Very often, an amateur begins architectural photography by focusing on the exteriors of iconic public buildings. It can be a little disillusioning to discover that only a few architectural photographers can earn a living taking photographs of this type. In general while having photographs of these subjects can liven up and make a new portfolio look great these images are hard to take professionally because there is so much competition to make images of that kind.

The reality of a successful business in architectural photography is to know who your customers are and to provide what they want. There are many sub-markets which have radically different needs, here are a few of the main ones.

1. The art market

If you really can't stop taking those pictures of iconic buildings (who can!) then one place you may find a market for them is in art galleries or via art consultants. This is probably your best bet if you want to produce images that are not performing an explicit commercial function.

2. Property developers and real estate agents.

I've put these two together but they encompass a wide variety of possible customers and uses. Your average local real estate agent will use a lot of architectural and interiors photography but in general they will shoot it very cheaply and its far from easy to make a living today shooting work of this kind. At the other end of the scale a developer of a $20 million dollar building will want great final photos of the construction. Surprisingly even these customers may pay quite poorly and be price sensitive on occasion, but find the right way to sell to them and there is the possibility of earning a good income from this work.

3. Architect's Studios

I've put this third only to make the point that today working directly for architects is only one of the ways to make income from architectural photography. This is what I thought it was all about when I started. Today, its harder to get this work, simply from the point of view that architects are themselves visually literate and highly skilled designers. The advent of easy to use digital cameras means that many of them can take incredibly good architectural photographs themselves. As a result of this, only busy architects and architects needing a very high or specialist level of quality will use freelance architectural photographers.

4. Architectural journals

These are closely allied to the architectural studios and act as journals for the profession. For an architect to see their work in one of these publications provides a stamp of quality like winning an award. However, these journals will often want to split costs with the studios, or won't have a huge budget for photographs, so you will need to build up a relationship with a specific journal over time so that you become a regular contributor in order to generate a reasonable income.

5. Consumer magazines

Interior and women's interest magazines like Elle Decoration and many more broad market based publications are frequent users of freelance interior photography. The earnings here can be consistent because the magazines have a continual thirst for more material. However you really need to know what the editors like here. Many interiors photographers work as a team with a stylist (usually but not always a woman) who will have a deep understanding of interior fashions and how the articles are constructed.

6. Construction and engineering consultants.

Many firms of all shapes and sizes are involved in construction. Many of them will want pictures of the architectural projects, often from a specific aspect of the construction that they were involved in. So often I will sell my services to an architectural studio, but then sell additional picture usage licenses to the various contractors on the project. Doing this can sometimes add as much as 100% to the amount I can charge for a commission. So the message here is make sure that you don't give a royalty free license to your customers, or the right to distribute your pictures or you may lose as much as 50% of your income off the bat.

7. Picture libraries.

There are a number of picture libraries such as Arcaid, View and Construction Photography which address architecture. There are quite a few interiors specific libraries as well. In general you already need to be working consistently on commissions to generate enough images to make submitting to these stock libraries worthwhile. However if you do have the material this can provide a useful additional income stream, but don't expect to retire on it.

8. 3D visualisation companies

These companies work often for property developers and will sometimes use freelance photographers to shoot background shots for laying on a 3D model rendering of a finished property. The needs vary widely here and I've even been commissioned to shoot time-lapse movies of London which were then used in a rendered 3D video of the great new skyscraper 'The Shard' designed by Renzo Piano which is currently under construction.

9. Roll your own.

Over the past few years I've got to know a large number of successful professional photographers in a number of different fields. The one thing that stands out about these successful people is that they have carved a business niche and a market as distinct as their own photographic style. This makes it very hard for others to compete with them. In today's tough and competitive world of professional photography try to find your own distinctive type of customer and photograph... and be prepared to reinvent yourself every few years. If you find yourself blindly attacking one or more of the markets I've mentioned here, you are probably not being distinctive enough. You need to be perceived as either a specialist in a particular area of architectural photography, or have a skill in a rare technique, or take pictures in a way that is hard to copy without the person copying looking like a plagiarist. It's a tough goal to aim for but a rewarding one. Remember, if it wasn't so hard to make a living, architectural photography would be a much less rewarding career than it is.

Related Posts with Thumbnails