Scott Hargis is a highly respected architectural photographer with a massive portfolio filled with truly spectacular spaces photographed brilliantly. I wanted to know what made this guy tick, and what kind of architecture was his personal favorite to photograph. “There’s no one architectural or interior design style I prefer; so long as it’s GOOD design, I’m interested,” he told me. “Excellent design lends itself to interpretation with the camera, and I’m happiest when I can show a structure or space in a way that no one (including the architect) has seen it before.
“I work in a very traditional way, relying mostly on field technique to ‘finish’ my photos in the camera, rather than relying on digital manipulation to assemble an image from parts,” a differentiation from other extremely successful architectural photographers, such as Mike Kelley. This isn’t a bad thing or a superior technique, it’s just a preference. “In addition to it being more fun that way, I believe that the results are more organic and carry an air of authenticity and integrity that can be lacking in highly processed photographs. While I’m not averse to using Photoshop, and have been known to blend in a window or a skylight, it’s not my go-to solution. Given a choice between spending time in the field with my camera vs. spending time in front of my computer with Photoshop, I’ll choose the camera, every time. I enjoy working with lenses and lights very much….software, not so much!”
So how did Scott discover his talent? “I came to photography late in life, picking up a camera for the very first time in my mid-20s, and not getting particularly serious until my late 30s. I was about 39 when I quit my job as a general manager for Kinko’s and pursued photography. I struggled in an extreme way for the first couple of years, until I stumbled into interiors via Real Estate photography. Doing real estate work earned me my first real money, but more importantly I discovered that interiors was “my” genre — the subject matter really worked for me! I became a real estate photography machine, paid off the debt I had amassed as a startup, and began pushing my work harder with every shoot I did. I shot every one of those crappy little houses as if I were on assignment for Dwell Magazine, and as my skills grew, I attracted better and better clientele. Today I no longer shoot much for real estate agents, but my client list includes architects, interior designers, builders, and other related industries.”
Scott was generous to share some behind the scenes imagery with us, which you can see in the gallery below.
“I try to take in some form of contemporary or classical art every month, and I find that I can enrich my photography by studying the work of artists working in other mediums. Seeing how other artists are approaching their subjects, composing their pieces, and playing with light and shadow informs my own work and helps me to stay focused on my own emotional response to my subject matter (architecture) rather than getting bogged down in the technical to the point that I lose the “art” in my photos. It took me a long time to become comfortable describing myself as an artist, and whether I truly qualify is not really for me to say — but that’s what I aspire to.”
It’s easy to see Scott’s work as worthy of being labeled art. “The work I do is Commercial Art. It’s my belief that the “Art” half of that is the most important. While I’m certainly motivated to make money, I’ve found that – consistently – I do best financially when I’m most focused on my art, rather than on producing a “commercially-viable” photo. Architecture is itself an art form (it’s been described as “frozen music”) and if I’m not tuned into that, my images will be flat and devoid of the emotion that my clients have labored so hard to arouse. My goal is always to evoke in my viewers the same response I feel when I encounter my subject for the first time. If, at the same time, I can guide them so that they see the structure properly, and can appreciate the subtleties of the design, then I’ve hit a home run. It’s very hard to do all of those things in one photograph, but the feeling of satisfaction when I think I’ve come close is hard to beat. I’ll work very hard, for many weeks, to regain that feeling!”
Scotts Favorite Gear
“As for equipment, this is my least favorite part of photography. For example, I don’t really love cameras, per se, and you’ll never hear me going on about the latest greatest gizmo that lights up the blogosphere. To me, cameras are just obstacles between myself and the photos I want to make.
“That said, architectural photography is certainly one of the most gear-intensive genres around, and I go everywhere with 9 cases of lighting and grip, weighing in at around 450 lbs. I rely on Dynalite packs and heads, as well as Elinchrom Rangers, and I carry a lot of Arri and Lowell continuous lighting. I also do a lot of subtractive lighting which means lots of scrims and flags and blackout cloth. A lot of my grip is highly customized or else built from scratch by either myself or my assistant, Alan Vance. The extra-baggage fees alone on an international flight can be $800…but that’s what it takes to do the work. A lot of people think HDR is the equivalent to lighting, but no amount of software can make up for the crappy, flat light we sometimes encounter. At best, HDR can mitigate, to some extent, the dynamic range we’re sometimes confronted with (bright windows and dark interiors, for example), but it can’t produce the sense of 3-dimensionality and mood that good lighting provides. Lighting is integral to my images.”
Lots of filters; GNDs & CPs
Lots of Gels: CTO, Plus Green, Minus Green, and occasionally CTB.
Elinchrom Ranger AS packs and Heads
A wild and weird assortment of cards, flags, cinefoil, scrims, grid cloth, silks and blackout cloths
Around twenty 15-watt tungsten light bulbs for replacing CFLs and too-bright existing lights.
Manfrotto 405 geared tripod head
Lenses with “movements” (e.g. “shift lenses”) are essential for architectural work; without perspective control we’re really unable to do our job. For this reason, technical cameras are actually ideal for interiors & architecture because of the extensive movements they allow. I sometimes shoot with a Sinar 4×5 camera, using primarily Kodak Portra 160 negative film because it scans better than chromes. Few commercial assignments lend themselves to the slow pace of a film workflow, unfortunately!
Scotts Advice to Emerging Photographers
“The composer Phillip Glass once said, ‘Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music,’ and I feel the same way about photography. I’m driven, though, to explore as far and as deep as I possibly can in the time I have left. I’ve been shooting for maybe 10 years; and I expect I have another 30+ years to go, so hopefully I’m still in he early stages of my development. Simply put, I want to make photographs that are as good as I can possibly make them. My own assessment of my current work is that I might be getting to the point where I don’t suck anymore. I’d like to get to the point where I feel like I really know what I’m doing. Mostly, I’m just trying to learn how to see my subjects…REALLY SEE them. Come find me in another decade or so, and I’ll let you know how that’s coming.
“I think that if there’s one thing that made me successful, it’s that I never succumbed to the excuse that my clients, or the budget of the shoot, could dictate the effort level I was going to put out. Nothing pisses me off more than hearing a photographer say, “Well, sure…I’d do THIS, and THAT, if I had a ‘high-end’ job, but my customers won’t pay for that stuff.” You will never get that “high-end” job if you don’t start demonstrating that you can produce high-end work…TODAY. From the start, I approached every job, no matter how humble, as if I’d been commissioned to shoot the White House. That effort has paid off for me, many times over.
“I also believe that more photographs are ruined in post-production than are ever ruined in the camera. I see lots of photographers applying massive amounts of Photoshop actions and filters and hours of work….when a simple, intelligent, single exposure would have been much better. The over-cooked photo seems to be the most common thing I see when reviewing portfolios. My advice is usually to eschew all software for a few months and just focus on camera technique. Great photos (including interiors photos) were being made for decades before the advent of Photoshop!”
Be sure to check out Scott’s .