Saturday, August 5, 2017

Pix and mortar

The next in my short series of book reviews is a book full of photographs of buildings – and full of information about taking architectural photographs...

Photographing Historic Buildings by Steve Cole
Published by Historic England

One of my first jobs in publishing was editing books that taught people how to take better pictures. I noticed back then, in the days of film and darkrooms, that there weren’t many books about architectural photography (there was a good one by Eric de Maré, but not much else). There still isn’t much, and Photographing Historic Buildings by Steve Cole closes this gap and is written very much for the digital age.

The author is well qualified. He worked for more than 40 years as a photographer in the cultural heritage sector – for the old Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England and for English Heritage. He knows his subject backwards and upside-down, and is able to tell us about it in clear, succinct writing backed up with exemplary images. He’s concerned with using photography to make a record of the built environment. That means he’s less exercised by mood and atmosphere (although many of his photographs convey these qualities) than with the techniques and standards needed to make a faithful documentary record. However, most people who photographs historic buildings, whether for the record or for more artistic purposes, can learn something from this book.

This is a very practical handbook and Cole starts with the most basic practicalities – logistics (getting to the location, obtaining permission to take photographs); equipment (the various virtues and drawbacks of digital technical cameras, SLRs, bridge cameras, and compacts*); digital file formats (JPEG, TIFF, RAW, etc); different lenses and their uses; lighting; colour rendition; and so on. Then there’s a terrific chapter on composition, showing, for example, the importance of selecting the right viewpoint and revealing the pitfalls of distortion that can occur with a wide-angle lens. The composition chapter also covers matters such as photographing interiors, capturing a building’s context, the importance of when the picture is taken, and the sense of scale. There are also useful chapters on light (especially helpful with buildings that are lit unevenly) and subjects (covering everything from staircases to plaster ceilings, industrial sites to stained-glass windows, all of which are challenging in different ways). Much of this information is pulled together in case studies, which show multiple images from four different buildings (a modernist house, a timber-framed house, a nonconformist chapel, and an industrial site) used to build up a complete record (and demonstrating in the process solutions to many of the challenges outlined in the previous chapters). The last part of the book deals with post-production, explaining a range of image-editing techniques from cropping to the correction of distortion, all with practical tips.

I’ve already learned quite a bit from this book. I’m hoping soon that, having read Cole on the subject, my photographs of stained glass will be much better than they were; that I’ll produce better images of interiors; and that I’ll benefit from understanding that my wide-angle lens, useful in tight spots but also prone to produce distortion, is not always my friend. This book, though, promises to be a welcome friend on my bookshelves.

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*I have to say that as a user of a mirrorless camera, I feel slightly short-changed by this section – but not hugely: my camera does most things that an SLR will, and most of what Cole says when it comes to taking pictures is relevant whatever your equipment. My guess is that most readers of this book will be users of digital SLRs.

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