An abstract preparation for iconic New York architecture

 In Architecture + Cityscapes, Conferences

The Out of New York Conference is nearly here and I couldn’t be more excited! Despite visiting NYC a number of times I have yet to really photograph this iconic city and its awe-inspiring architecture. With three days of little else planned, I’m sure everyone attending the conference will come away with quite a few good, maybe even one or two great, images; not to mention meeting some amazing people, spending time in one of the world’s greatest cities and having a great time. Seriously, if Chicago’s conference was any indication you’ll love this! Can you tell I’m just a little bit excited?!

World Trade Center Oculus

Anyway, onto what we’ll be photographing! One of the locations I’m most excited to visit is the World Trade Center Oculus designed by Santiago Calatrava. This will be one of the stops on Sunday’s on-the-street workshop I’ll be leading with Michael Muraz.

Calatrava is one of my absolute favorite architects and while I have yet to visit this specific location, I have photographed another of his iconic buildings, the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM), a number of times. Based on images I’ve seen of his NYC WTC Transportation Hub and Oculus there are many similarities between the designs so the examples and tips below from the MAM will easily translate to the Oculus.

However, I look forward to photographing this building with fresh eyes and being able to give participants my first impressions and share with them my approach when photographing a building for the first time.

Given my focus with architecture tends to be on the more abstract, minimalistic side I’ll share some thoughts and examples of what to be on the lookout for if you join us for the workshop or get a chance to visit on your own.

Calatrava’s buildings are typically white and offer a great opportunity to photograph/edit in a high-key way, evoking a feeling of purity and lightness. The choice to edit in black and white also emphasizes this mood eliminating the distraction of color and placing focus on the tone and form of the structure. By zeroing in on details throughout the space you further eliminate distractions and can emphasize the beauty and thought that has gone into each section of the space.

Compositionally, I’m always on the lookout for locations that work well with symmetry and his designs certainly play well with this compositional tool. Symmetry can be tricky, so take the time to center yourself and your lens; the building isn’t going anywhere so you have the time to position yourself perfectly. It’s worth the effort because you often can’t correct well in post-production for even minor mistakes.


While still maintaining a high-key, minimalistic and detailed perspective be on the lookout for other compositional tools. In the image below, and the lead image in the post, there’s good use of repetitive patterns that flow into a vanishing point pulling you through the frame.


On the other hand, if you prefer a more dramatic, moody and contrast-y approach you can bring further definition to the details, evoking an entirely different feeling. I tend to be a moody editor so that decision is often made in post-production. My advice is to shoot what interests you while on location and worry about creating cohesion between shots once you’re in the editing phase.


On a compositional note with the above image, don’t forget to change your perspective — tilt the camera, look up, play around — after all, this is supposed to be fun. Oftentimes those freer, less-thought-out moments result in a new way to see.

So…I’m no street photographer but I’m not opposed to having people in my shots from time to time. Granted, I prefer a lone person as the image is still much more about the architecture than the individual, but they can offer a sense of scale to the space and an immediate level of connectivity.


Note the symmetry and the decision to edit in a low-key, more dramatic way. There’s no right or wrong to your editing choice just do so with intent. In fact, try to have intent in all the decisions you make with your images, from how to frame your shot, what to include or not include, how you edit…it may not all come together until the editing phase but try to be purposeful.

For all of you who love the technical stuff…I’d suggest a wide-angle lens for this location (14-24mm range) and a 24-70mm. I almost always shoot aperture priority and would try to stick around f/11 and adjust ISO as necessary.

New York by Gehry

Okay, so another building I’m super excited to photograph is New York by Gehry, yet another favorite architect and stop on Sunday’s on-the-street-workshop. His buildings are always full of twists and turns and irregular shapes…an endless amount of photographic opportunities, especially when you factor in the varying effects of lighting.


While New York by Gehry is much taller than the other Gehry building’s I’ve photographed (Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (above & below) and the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago) I’ll be on the lookout for similar elements and compositions. My tendency with his buildings is to fill the frame, either entirely or leave just a small portion of the sky to add some level of context. I like to look for ways to see the curves overlapping or flowing from one to the other, creating dimension and fluidity (as above). Below you feel this sweeping motion from the bottom right corner and the light and line of the windows acting as a leading line toward the top of the building where it seems to split open toward the sky.


I think the best approach will be to get up close to this building, allowing a focus on the curves and angles and light play on its metallic surface, resulting in interesting abstracts and patterns.


Technically I think shooting with a telephoto lens, 70-300mm, will be most effective in creating those fill-the-frame abstracts.

LVMH Tower

One final building I’ll highlight is the LVMH Tower (LVMH Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton). We’ll be photographing this glassy, angular building on my Friday afternoon photowalk. In my research on this building I came across this description, paraphrased from wikipedia…”the angular façade is described as resembling the fall of a skirt over bent knee” or “unfolding petals of a flower.” I love this! It’s exactly why I find it worthwhile to research your subjects before shooting…sometimes it can give you insight on your initial approach. I’m certain I’ll be looking for ways to play off that description in my images. Do the research but be open to opportunities as they present themselves once you’re on location, so many things can come into play that you didn’t factor in beforehand — your mood, lighting conditions, etc.

Upon further research I can also see that the building is situated between more classically designed, brick and concrete buildings. This, along with the contrasting geometric glass and steel design of LVMH, reminds me very much of Chicago’s Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies (images below). This contrast in design eras and materials makes for interesting juxtapositions.


This type of facade, with such dynamic geometry, is perfect for fill-the-frame abstracts as well.


Also, the glassy surface can be great for interesting reflections and further juxtapositions, this time between the natural and man-made elements as well as the softness of the cloud contrasted against the rigidity of the building.


These are just three buildings we’ll be photographing either on my photowalks or on-the-street workshop, there will be so much more to explore…I can’t wait and hope to see you there!


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