In the Mind of the Architecture Photographer

Edited by Loud Kitchen LLC

What makes photographers gravitate to a certain genre? What does it take to become good at it? As part of this series of interviews, we do a deep dive into the minds of veterans to see how they tick.

Today, we delve into:

Architecture Photography with Darren Soh

Darren Soh
Darren Soh. Image by CY Kong.

Darren Soh is an award winning architecture photographer.

Most recently, he won the global “Shot On iPhone Challenge (2019)” ran by Apple.

His work is featured frequently on publications like Singapore Architect, Wallpaper*, Monocle, ArchDaily.com.

What drew you to Architecture Photography?

I always joke that I prefer to photograph buildings rather than people because buildings can’t talk back to you and criticise your photos.

I suppose there is some element of truth in that but jokes aside, I actually fell into photographing buildings about 8-9 years after working as a photographer who photographed anything and everything that would pay.

That was sometime in 2006 when I acquired a 4 x 5 Large Format Camera and taught myself how to use it. I realised I loved the formality of the format as well as buildings as a subject matter and soon after that I started to actively seek out architectural photography work.

What are the most important elements in an architecture photograph?

Technically speaking, your camera should be centered to the building you are photographing, without tilting the camera in any way at all.

I always tell people that architects designed buildings to be straight, why should we use an ultra-wide angle lens, tilt the camera and create “dynamic” converging perspectives that actually do not exist in reality?

Jewel Changi Airport
Image by Darren Soh

Beyond this, I believe that understanding the intended audience of that architectural photograph is important in determining the other elements that could go into it.

If it is meant for audience in the architecture field, then the photographer should take more care in representing the building as it is in reality.

With that said, I personally feel that images of buildings should and can be emotive and evocative beyond its technicality.

Please take us through some of your creative process when approaching a new subject

I study the light.

Because I rely 100% on natural light for my work, I need to know exactly how the sun falls on a building not just at any given time of the day, but also in the different months of a year as the sun’s arc across the sky can change quite dramatically in a few months.

V on Shenton
Image by Darren Soh

After studying the light, I will then need to establish vantage points and access to some of these locations, whether they are publicly accessible or is permission required.

If permission is required, communication will be established with building owners to seek access. It doesn’t always happen and sometimes we must live with not getting a perspective we have in our heads because of lack of access.

Next, the weather needs to be studied and of course we avoid photographing when it is overcast or rainy (unless specifically asked to do so by the client).

I have a mantra that I like to live by:

there is no point fighting with weather, you will never win.

So rather than hope that bad weather clears on any given day, use it to do other non-shooting work more productively and you will find that on a day with good weather and light, shooting becomes incredibly easier to achieve.

Lastly, respect the building you are photographing. Remember that many people spent months designing it and even more people spent anything from a year to a few years building it. Don’t cheapen it by resorting to gimmicks from your bag of photography tricks in order to try and make the resulting image stand out no matter how tempting it may be.

What are some of the challenges you face in creating an image?

The weather is my greatest challenge.

Beyond that, I think understanding an architect’s intent in the building you have been commissioned to photograph is important, sometimes this intent isn’t conveyed across properly for one reason or another.

City Vue Henderson
Image by Darren Soh

Ultimately, as an architectural photographer, you need to balance your client’s expectations and needs from the resulting image, and what YOU think is the best way to represent the building.

What’s it like as a business?

I don’t think there are that many serious architectural photographers in Singapore today so I have a very niche client base which is a good thing for business in any case. Business is decent and steady.

Let’s talk about your favourite gear

I tend to use whatever works. I am a brand ambassador for the Sony Alpha system so I use 2 Sony A7RIII and 3 Sony A7RII cameras.

The lenses I cannot do without would be the Perspective correction lenses (tilt shift or just shift) and because I am using the Sony system, I can use shift lenses from any brand and just adapt.

My three most used lenses are the Canon 17mm and 24mm TSE Tilt Shift lenses and a vintage Nikon 35mm PC (shift) lens.

Any memorable shoots to share?

Well, getting into people’s homes in order to get a necessary vantage point is part and parcel of my work, so I do meet all kinds of people.

I have been scolded for photographing outside someone’s home along a HDB common corridor, have had doors slammed on me when I set up my tripod (facing outward mind you) along those corridors as well.

However, I have ALSO been asked if I’d like a stool to sit on, whether I want a cold drink. Many other acts of kindness have been bestowed upon me.

Block 26 Sin Ming Road
Image by Darren Soh

The most bizarre experience must have been one where the middle-aged female occupant of a home I needed to gain access to, started a conversation bordering on salacious. I quickly excused myself after getting the images I needed from her window.

Does retouching and photo manipulation play a big part in commercial work? What are your views on this?

Not in my work at all. If it did, I wouldn’t have to wait for good weather.

I truly truly believe that no retouching can beat the best light and weather conditions when it comes to architectural photography.

Tan Boon Liat Building
Image by Darren Soh

What are the things that are commonly attended to in retouching?

Dust spots.

What advice would you give yourself if you could travel back in time to the beginning of your career?

Start photographing buildings earlier.

This is part of the “In the mind of” interview series where we get top notch Singapore photographers to share their experience. You can read the rest of the series at:

Researched and Executed by Loud Kitchen LLC
Writer: Aaron Ang
Editor: Wee Yen Yee