An Interview with Ed Sozinho, Owner of Sozinho Imagery
You might not realize how much of an architect’s time is spent creating and maintaining his or her portfolio. This is our lifeline to getting more work… to getting you interested in us. A major portion of that is having our work photographed. If you’ve ever tried to take a picture of a building, you know that actually having it LOOK like a building, let alone an attractive one, is a lot more difficult than it looks. I’ve followed photographer, Ed Sozinho, around enough of my finished projects to grasp the periphery of the painstaking details that go into making a 3-dimensional structure look amazing in 2-dimensions, and I have to say, it is totally shocking. I realized, however, that I had no idea what goes on AFTER the pictures are taken, as I’ve only seen the portion of his job where he is actually shooting the photos. After all, how many changes could there possibly be after taking a full 45 minutes just to shoot one view of one room? I was surprised to learn that for every 1 day spent in the field shooting photos, he spends 3 days manipulating the images (and apparently even longer if he lets his geeky/techy side get the better of him)! WHAT?! I decided to stray from my typical blog post topics to have Ed out for an interview and find out what goes on behind the scenes. I have to share this with you.
Ed is actually a licensed architect in disguise. I’m convinced he keeps drafting equipment in his glove box, but if you check out his website (and you should… http://www.sozinhoimagery.com/) the first thing you will see is a wet, bearded fly fisherman lugging a huge metal chain out of splashing water. When I asked him to explain why there was a fisherman on the front page of his website, he explained that regardless of whether the subject is a lumberjack (yes, seriously, check out his website), a building, or a starry night’s sky, they all actually have something in common. He uses both photographs and film to tell a 3-dimensional story in 2 dimensions, and the means to doing that well are totally baffling.
Ed admits that in his early years working in an architectural firm, when his boss sent him out to finished projects to be the in-house photographer, it was more the physical act of just having the camera in his hands that inspired him. Later, he began studying the work of his favorite photographer, National Geographic’s long time veteran Sam Abell, and ultimately spending time learning from him personally which changed his photography forever. Abell teaches photography using setting, gesture and expression. These elements are what turn a regular old snapshot into an artful image. Over time, as Ed began to develop his own style, these fundamentals evolved into a slightly different set of criteria.
TAKING THE PHOTO:
The 4 key elements you need to master to create a great image are setting, framing, composition and gesture. “The setting is an easy one to explain with respect to architectural photography,” Ed described. “You have your building, your Kitchen, your Bathroom, etc. That’s your setting.” When shooting, however, Ed’s goal is to tell a story so it is more than just, say, a Bathroom. “Is there a linear spine through the building from an important tree on one side to the water on the other side, for example?” He wants there to be a relationship between his photographs and the architect’s vision, so he asks about themes, ideas, etc. and uses his images to reinforce them.
Framing is a bit more difficult when it comes to shooting architecture. Most photographs of buildings inevitably need to be wide shots which, if not done correctly, can look flat, boring and blah. As a result, he creatively uses framing to generate depth and draw the viewer’s eye to the focal point of each shot. For example, we were once shooting a photo of my client’s living room, looking through the Dining Room to the Kitchen beyond. While I was looking through the viewfinder on his camera, Ed began rearranging the furniture completely out of whack. The sofa was in the middle of the hall and you would literally not be able to walk through the room without climbing over something. When I politely asked him if he’d gone mad, all he told me was to take another look through the viewfinder. Suddenly the image had so much more depth, just because there was a small snippet of the sofa in the foreground framing the focal point of the photo beyond! From the point of view of the camera, it looked like the sofa was sitting in the exact location for which it was intended all along. “That’s framing,” he chimed. Additionally, do you ever wonder why magazine images never show the 212 items we typically have sitting out on our Kitchen counters (olive oil, a bucket of spoons, fruit bowl, paper towel, coffee maker, etc.)? “We de-clutter the rooms we are shooting because in a 2-dimensional plane, the more you give each object its own space without overlap, the more three dimensionality the image has.” He went on, “The simplicity clarifies the image, because we as viewers can’t move around an object to see what’s on the other side.”
A combination of those key factors helps create important relationships between the rooms. Also, the various proportions and other secret spy tactics make up a good composition. “Everything in a photo makes a difference when it comes to composition, not just the objects themselves which you are trying to shoot.” For example, we don’t really notice shadows, because in our brains, they are just part of what gives the building next to it the 3-dimensionality we need to understand it as being real. In a photo, however, a shadow has as much value, and therefore is just as tangible as the building itself. I think I’ll leave figuring out “good composition” to the professionals because honestly, it just seems like good old fashioned experience is the only thing that will help with this one.
The photographs of Ed’s fly fishermen on his website or the horse above just ooze gesture. Gesture is exactly what it sounds like. The physical and facial gestures coming from the people in the shot can tell a story in and of themselves. If he is shooting a lifestyle image for a well-known national brand, he uses the people to tell a story about the products with which they are interacting. If he is shooting an image of a public plaza on a newly finished building, the people tell a whole different story about gathering, community, and place. It is fascinating how much this can influence our perception of the inanimate objects and theme of a photo.
Similar to Sam Abell, Ed’s main focus of his personal photography is to be as truthful as possible, and he relies on the aforementioned elements (setting, framing, composition and gesture) to create his art. However, the type of photography his clients request usually requires that he employ some creative wizardry, as they are sometimes less interested in artful expression and more interested in making sure their product looks perfect. “It’s like going on a first date,” he describes. “You wouldn’t wear old sweatpants and a dirty t-shirt. You have to make a good first impression!” His photos are his clients’ first impressions. He enjoys both types of photography, but in his mind they are very different beasts.
When I originally set out to write this article, my focus was going to be to inspire homeowners to avoid getting caught up in magazine images of perfect homes… as is easy to do. I was going to illustrate that it is okay to want and need those 212 things if they make life better. When I’m designing a home, I try to embrace those needs to inspire my designs, because if you do actually use olive oil, a bucket of spoons, fruit bowls, paper towels and coffee makers, and you don’t design around them, that’s how they all end up on the counter in an annoying mess. I naively set out to demystify those pretty printed photos, demonstrate that they aren’t real and embolden you to design around your own needs instead of focusing on creating something that looks like it came from a magazine. However, when we got into the nitty gritty of the interview, I realized I couldn’t have been more off base. Ed explained that there is a reason why it is necessary to remove that bowl of spoons (among other things) from the photo, and it isn’t just to create a perfect fairyland looking image. He wants the viewer of the photo to see the closest possible rendition of what is actually there in physical space, and he utilizes various tactics to make up for the limitations of a camera. The classic “red eye effect” (the one where your eyes glow and make you look like a devil in the photo) is a perfect example. This occurs when a camera captures light reflecting off the retina at the back of your eyes. You don’t actually look like a devil in real life, but this is one of the limitations of using a camera. Light is a tricky one actually. One of my favorites of Ed’s repertoire deals with light. When you shoot a picture towards a window, all sorts of annoying things end up inside the camera. You will see a lot of glare on the horizontal surfaces (floor, table, counters, etc.) from the light pouring in, the inside face of the window wall turns out super dark, and you can’t see anything outside of the window, so it appears like a bright white, flat surface… just to name a few.
He shoots something on the order of a few dozen images of the same exact shot, while employing different lighting maneuvers to ultimately get the picture back to what you would see if you were standing there in the room. What does he then do with the dozens of different images you ask? He stitches them together. He will shoot the first few images with his assistant holding up a huge black blanket to block the light on the glaring horizontal surfaces and then Photoshop her right out of the picture. He will then shoot a few more of that same photo with a huge flash aimed to brighten up the inside of that dark wall. A few more shots will be super dark inside for the sole purpose of being able to see what is outside of the window (a tree, the sky, etc.).
Then, like an expert seamstress, he stitches the right parts and pieces of each set of images together (the horizontal surfaces from one, the window wall from another and actual windows from yet another) so that the “correct” portions from each photo make up the end result. Crazy right? This next example takes stitching to an entirely new level! When shooting a wide angle photo, the image can get really distorted. Things in the foreground get really stretched out. The walls look lopsided (called “the keystone effect” in the biz), and there might be only one or two things actually in focus. To fix these inaccuracies, he will shoot various parts of what will ultimately make up the final image from an angle that makes each shot look “normal”. He then stitches away, so when combined, they look like one easy picture of exactly what you would see if you were there in person. How many stitched photographs do you think it took to create the image of the Powder Room below? No, try again. FORTY FIVE! Yes, believe it.
AFTER TAKING THE PHOTO:
Gone are the days where we drop off our film at the local drugstore, wait for what seems like forever to retrieve them, only to find that we had our finger over the lense for the entire birthday party. Oh, that was just me who did that? Well, our new digital cameras allow us see our mistakes instantly, delete anything we want and try again. We also have the luxury of perfecting the images after the fact. He uses a software program called Lightroom for image processing (big picture changes) and Adobe Photoshop for localized processing (details), all in the name of getting images as close to what the human eye sees as possible. Not being a photo buff, I had no idea that Ansel Adams actually had his own version of our software modifications. He used to adjust his developing processes to make up for limitations in the camera, just as we do with Photoshop! Ed doesn’t use HDR (high dynamic range). He made me promise to include that, but in reality, I can see why. He said multiple times during the interview that he sets out to do the very best possible job on every single photo. He clearly takes pride in his work, and using HDR is a method of faking a number of techy things (that I won’t bore you with) that allows someone who doesn’t know the infinite techniques noted above, to create a slightly better image than he or she would otherwise be able to. It is kind of like autopilot; it will get the job done, but not in an artistic thoughtful, purist-kind of way. This is Ed’s art, and he is the purist of purists. Every pixel matters to him when creating his images.
Just as I suspected, he still has his hand in architecture. His guise can’t fool me. Half way through the interview, he admitted that he is currently designing his own home and participating in more architectural committees than an eager intern: American Institute of Architect’s Future Shack, The Strategic Advisory Council and The Honor Awards Committee for starters. He also photographs all homes for Home of Distinction among others. (Really ED? You make me feel lazy!) All that said, I finally realized that while he will forever love architecture, photography is his true passion. When I asked him what his next big thing was coming down the pipeline, he looked like a kid in a candy store as he described RED cinema. This is a video camera (a very expensive video camera) that has the capability of correcting that issue we all have with our photographed walls looking cockeyed (Keystoning). In addition to keystoning, regular cameras can’t see inside and outside space the same, but RED cinema corrects these and many other issues with which photographers and videographers typically have to contend. Film is definitely his next big thing. “The ability to shoot film with our digital cameras has made videos more mainstream, so clients began asking for it. I love it.” He is currently working with an award-winning local architect to create a movie, and there will be more to come. Ed always wanted to film architecture, because still-images are hard to understand 3-dimensionally, and being a purist, he wants the images he creates to depict reality in the best way possible. There you have it. Photography 101….and that is just the tip of the iceberg.