Behind the Lens looks at architectural photographers both professional and amateur, examining how they got their start, stories from their portfolios, and tricks to capturing great design. Have a lensman in mind? Send links to portfolios (no photo files) to email@example.com.
Photographer Connie Zhou knew fairly early that she was drawn to buildings. Early on in her career, the New York-based photographer would take trips by herself to photograph structures such as Gehry’s Bilbao, capturing the artistry of architecture and the sculptural quality of large buildings without necessarily focusing on the surroundings.
"I think I appreciate structures a lot more," she says. "I like images of just the building, even though they’re meant to be used by human beings."
Zhou’s work, which has been seen in Wired, Bloomberg Business, and numerous publications, offers a crisp, clean, nearly clinical viewpoint, focused on the innate beauty of a building’s internal geometry, the size and scale of digital infrastructure, or the stunning curves of a massive campus. We spoke to her about her career, her process, and her dream photo assignment.
How did you get started in photography? What made you want to photograph buildings?
"I went to an arts high school here in New York, where I grew up, LaGuardia High School, so I knew I wanted to be a photographer early in. But it wasn’t until sophomore year in college at Parson’s that I figured out that I wanted to photograph architecture. I was taking a lot of cityscapes, since I grew up in the city. From there, I assisted an architecture photographer until I graduated, then went out on my own."
How would you explain your style?
"I think my work is very polished and graphic. It looks very clean and sterile. It’s really harsh. I spent most of my career taking people out of my photographs, but people want to see them, so I try to include it for my editors and clients. But mostly, I do it for scale. I don’t mind photographing people. I just like environmental portraits."
What are some of your favorite buildings and places to shoot?
"The TWA Terminal is my all-time favorite building. I would live there if I could. I used to love the Beijing Opera House in China. Now, maybe it's Calatrava projects. It’s a mixture. Sometimes, I’ll find something really cool that isn't as popular. In San Diego, there’s a very cool library, the Geisel Library, a little gem that isn’t as well known. The big things are fun to photograph, but if you find something small and special, that’s what I love."
What camera and gear do you use?
"I have a Canon DSR. I like it because it works for me. I think a lot of architecture photographers shoot medium format, and I probably should, but I don’t think I’m compatible. It’s a heavy camera, and takes such a long time to change the lens by myself. I shoot very fast, and my Canon works for me because it’s light. I also like to bring this 90-degree laser pointer with me, which shoots two lasers at 90 degree angles to help line up doors and furniture. It’s the coolest addition to my gear kit."
Any advice or tricks for improving architectural photographs?
"I’ve never been good at explaining how you compose an image. For me, it’s all about symmetry. I always approach photos that way. I have no secrets to help you become a better architecture photography. I don’t have any wise words, because I never really knew, I just liked it."
Favorite time of day to shoot outside?
"Twilight is my favorite time of day."
Any tips for shooting buildings on Instagram?
"I don’t really do much on Instagram. I think it’s a great medium for photography, I just hate social media. I find it difficult to keep up. My Instagram is half work and half personal life. I feel like it’s a lot of work to make it just about architecture. Why can’t it just be about fun?"
What advice do you have about getting ahead in the industry for people who want to become professional photographers?
"Working as an assistant provided a huge advantage. You should start assisting for as many people as you can. Being a photographer is 70 percent business, so once you learn that, you can go off on your own. If you don’t understand the business, you can have a great portfolio, but it’s 10 times harder to make it work."
Tell me the story behind one of your favorite photographs you've taken?
"It’s an image of concrete roadways. It’s was taken underneath a series of what looks like overpasses, the AirTrain tracks near JFK Airport. My dad was picking me up from the airport and on the ride back, I thought, 'I should take a picture of this.' A few weeks later, I looked at the image, and realized it was a great shot. I love infrastructure. I’ve always wanted to do photos of the highways in LA, but it’s not exactly easy to stop and take a photo underneath an overpass."