“No Light Is Created Equal”: Ines Leong on Capturing the Perfect Architectural Photograph

“Starting a photography project is like meeting someone new. You observe, you read, then you proceed; and every occurrence is different and unique.”

Chlo̩ Vadot Chlo̩ Vadot

Architectural photographers meticulously work to bring us polished renditions of projects around the world every day. Often spending hours and days studying their subject, these creative professionals tirelessly walk the ins and outs of a building to find a telling angle, waiting for the perfect moment to catch the light at its best.

Ines Leong is a California-trained photographer who has since turned her lens on a variety of New York landscapes, from the sinuous façade of DDG’s XOCO 325 to the grieving grounds of the 9/11 Memorial. After 12 years of working with Eduard Hueber under the umbrella of archphoto, Leong began a practice of her own this year. Architizer sat down with Leong to discuss the qualities of light in architectural photography, the challenge of achieving legibility in two-dimensional media and the compromises involved in building a social media following.

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Chloé Vadot: Your educational background is in photography. How did you begin your career in architectural photography specifically?

Ines Leong: I initially studied computer engineering, and one summer I took up a photography course for fun, and that changed me completely. I decided to change majors and applied to the Brooks Institute of Photography. My application portfolio at the time consisted of nothing but buildings; a documentation of texture, light and shadow that constitute the architecture. My interest in architecture was not apparent to me until my last year at Brooks. When I arrived in New York City, I started freelancing at archphoto with Eduard Hueber, where I stayed and developed my career for the 12 years until early 2017.

Brooks was where I learned all of the technical aspects of photography; however, it was not until I started working with Eduard that I really learned about architectural photography. Eduard was not only my boss, but my mentor. He taught me that to understand architectural photography, we first need to learn how to analyze architecture. What is the story of the building? What are the design intentions? What are the big and small “moves” that make the architecture work? More analysis follows on the day of the shoot, altering strategies to deal with weather — the summer vs. the winter light — traffic, neighborhood context, etc. Starting a photography project is like meeting someone new. You observe, you read, then you proceed; and every occurrence is different and unique.

9/11 Memorial at dusk

Where is light most important in your work?

In the beginning of each project, I sit down, analyze the architecture, plan my view angle and work out the best time for the shoot. In this process, I identify the appropriate color temperature (warm vs. cool tones) and the quality of light (diffuse vs. harsh) that best describe the design, then go on to predict and envision the light that I want to see in the photos.

There can be different approaches when using the same type of light. Take dusk shots as an example: photographs that are taken within a 10-minute window and capture twilight after sunset. When I photographed the 9/11 Memorial, I decided to do an early dusk session to avoid the street lamps blowing out too much. Taking advantage of the last glow of the sunsetting light complements the project. The dusk shots of Sky Tower carried a completely opposite approach because I waited until the last moments of the dusk session to capture the streaking light of New York City traffic and the warm glow of the apartment units.

Sky Tower apartment units at dusk

As for photographing interior spaces, I take great pride in operating without any use of additional artificial lighting equipment. I believe in letting the architecture speak for itself. Every image you see here are all photographed with existing light source. In the Restaurant Katharine project by Crème Design, the interior lighting was so finely designed that any additional light source would have undermined the mood of the space.

No light is created equal, and there is no one lighting scenario that fits all. A photographer can only predict and plan so much for. When photographing the elevation image of 325 West Broadway, my strategy was to utilize side lighting from the afternoon sun to emphasize the bony sculptural façade of the building. On a busy Saturday afternoon, I showed up a little too early. So I waited for that particular ray of sunlight that helps reveal the round feature of the façade. Finally, it happened, and I started shooting a series to ensure the “cleanest” shot of the street.

Fifteen minutes later, that light was gone. Even with the sun still shining, the quality was not the same as 15 minutes before. Certain fine details of the building were harder to see and it didn’t “sparkle” as much as before. This “at-the-moment analysis” matters a lot, and it is what interests me most [about] architectural photography.

325 West Broadway in the afternoon sun

How do you consider the visual distortions that photography is capable of having on architecture?

Our photographic equipment can help us and fool us. Our brain is very powerful because it corrects a whole lot of things for us and allows us to see in a wide range of color, darkness and brightness. I have a range of tilt shift lenses that help to keep the vertical and horizontal lines straight and to keep the same point of view without a tripod.

But when it comes to things getting too wide and distorted, you can only “correct” them by modifying the point of view, compensating by moving closer or further away from the object. Ideally, the images that I produce will represent as true a reality as possible. Once in a while, the distortion helps to exaggerate or emphasize a detail that I want the viewer to focus on.

Restaurant Katharine project by Crème Design

How do you reconcile the experience of a three-dimensional space you visit with the final two-dimensional project, your photographs?

To me, it is all about picking a point of view from which the layers of the foreground and the background will not clash with each other. Legibility is essential with two-dimensional media, and it can be achieved with light and shadow, color, layering. I find great joy when I take photos of different projects, from a simple kitchen renovation to a high-rise building. It’s almost like being a translator, interpreting a three-dimensional space into a photograph to help someone understand that space as if s/he will never go there.

Grace West Manor

The proliferation of social media platforms has changed the way the public consumes architectural imagery. How do you feel about sites such as Instagram and Pinterest? Do they conflict with or complement your profession?

There are two sides to everything, and one is not necessarily better or worse than the other. Social media platforms give the public more access to photos, videos, information and so on. Social media is great for expanding the public’s knowledge and allowing people to virtually visit whatever they want. It also replaces certain financial compensations like copyright fees with [virtual compensations like] internet exposures and “likes.”

I do feel that images have a longer life span and a wider audience than they did 10 years ago with printed media. Now, you get to interact with your audience by responding on various social media platforms. A wider audience brings more exposure to one’s work, which is helpful in my profession and to people who are interested in becoming a photographer.

Interview edited for clarity

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