Architecture Through the Viewfinder – three decades of commercial architectural shooting – with Martine Hamilton-Knight

Last week’s meeting – Architecture Through the Viewfinder – three decades of commercial architectural shooting – Martine Hamilton-Knight

Martine has been a professional architectural photographer since 1990 and for the first 15 years shot on a 5×4 film camera.

She had some interesting stories about her career. In her first year of a photography degree she landed a fashion photography assignment with a very small boutique shoe design outfit in London. The designer was a guy called Jimmy Choo who, like Martine, would go on to bigger things. She was given a few pairs of his designer shoes which she says are now worth much more than her photography kit.

Straight out of college she landed an agent and got a commission to take architectural photos of Peterborough Cathedral. Buoyed by this success she decided to take some speculative shots of Sheffield’s new Ponds Forge swimming pool built for the World Student Games and present them to the editor of the Architectural Journal in London. The editor was impressed but she showed her almost exactly the same shots she had from a highly regarded photographer she had commissioned. However all was not lost as the editor told her that Martine has a unique selling point: she was the only architectural photographer based in the Midlands and was therefore cheaper to hire for shots north of Watford Gap. Her career took off.

Martine went through the constraints of being a commercial architectural photographer where the client sets the ‘rules’ and the photographer tries to negotiate the best time, or at least the better than the worst time, to shoot the building. Light is one of the most important elements and a building is solid, stationary, enormous, and immovable, with little in the way for flexibility when choosing the light beyond the time of day or year. Time is therefore crucial but timing is usually determined by the client’s or multiple clients’ deadlines.

Another element which Martine has more artistic control over is point-of-view and choice of focal length. As her shots generally have to be ‘realistic’ and she has to tell as story on the day she is there, the use of a 50mm lens, or at a stretch a 35mm lens, is the focal length she will use. For detailed shot she uses a 70-200mm lens.

Styling is crucial. She will make sure everything that needs to be in the shot is there and in the right place, and things that do not need to be in the shot are not there. Floors and other surfaces have to be spick and span, cushions have to be plumped, rubbish has to be cleared etc etc.

Generally people need to be in the shot. Many times the building she has been commissioned to shoot have only just been finished and not yet opened for users, so there are very few people around and even fewer people using the building. What few people are there are ‘exploited to the full’ by multi-exposures and composites making the building appear much more populated than it is. She also touched upon getting model release forms signed, data protection and DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) clearance for work with minors.

Her shots were superb and all had perfect verticals. She attains this ‘in-shot’ not ‘in-post’ by using tilt and shift lenses, with the exception of her 70-200mm detail shots. Invest in ‘glass’ she says as camera bodies change.

All was going swimmingly for her until in 2007 a friend who worked for Lehman’s tipped her off about what was happening in the banking sector with sub-prime lending. Sure enough the building sector crashed during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and Martine needed to diversify her business.

She successfully branched out to teaching, writing and running a photographic training company Line and Light as well as her architectural photography business, and though no new commercial buildings were being built social sector ones were, schools, health centres etc, were. She also managed to get work with an updated version of Pevsner Guide to Nottinghamshire, a comprehensive look at buildings in the county.

Martine continues to be busy and is finishing off a 90,000 word book on Photography for Architects due to be published later this year.

This was a fascinating talk about the world of a commercial photographer

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Oxford Photographic Society