How I Photographed Carla House, One of My Favorite Shoots of 2019

How I Photographed Carla House, One of My Favorite Shoots of 2019

Architecture

One of my most memorable shoots of 2019 took place at a beautiful location in Beverly Hills, CA. An architectural masterpiece designed by Walker Workshop situated on a ridgetop in the famed Trousdale Estates neighborhood, this house was an absolute stunner and the project had been on my radar for a good 3-4 years before I actually got the chance to photograph it. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t even know if I’d be able to photograph it; this is the story of how one of my favorite gigs ever came to fruition – I know, buckle up, edge of your seat, tenterhooks kind of stuff, he said sarcastically…

The Beginnings

Back in 2015 or so, I came across renderings for the projects which had made their way onto a few developer websites and planning permission documents. A previous client of mine had mentioned that they were going to be involved in the project but completion was still years away; but after seeing the renders I was absolutely hooked. I didn’t care how or when, but I made it a mission of mine to photograph this project: it was so unique and so interesting that I knew it would make for incredible portfolio material. As years pass and clients came and went, I continued to keep a finger on the pulse of the project. Through plenty of somewhat passive, slow, networking and a little bit of luck, I was eventually introduced to the developer of the project who has ended up hiring me to photograph around 10 of their projects; many of which are significant landmark homes in the LA area.

Renders ©Walker Workshop

In talking to my client, I learned that they would be interested in investing a significant amount of time into photographing this project; covering it in all sorts of lighting conditions, both wide and tight shots to show not only the overall flow and design of the project, but also the incredible detailing and quality throughout. Traditional interior and exterior as well as aerial photography was requested, at multiple times of day. I was essentially offered whatever I needed to make it happen, a rare and amazing opportunity to create the best photographs possible. Usually reality gets in the way of perfection, but I was pretty much granted total freedom to come up with a plan and execute it here.

The Planning

Around November of 2018, I got my first chance to scout the project. This gave me my first sense of scale of the project; to put it mildly; breathtaking. Some of the most aggressive residential cantilevers I’d ever seen, hundreds of feet of sliding glass, a unique and memorable design, exquisite craftsmanship in nearly every sense of the word. On a clear day, views to the Hollywood sign, all of the San Fernando Valley and Burbank, downtown Los Angeles, the San Gabriel mountains, and if you crane your neck far enough, the Santa Monica Mountains and Pacific Ocean. Soaring ceilings, a unique layout, gorgeous sightlines in every direction.

My first view of Carla House

Using my iPhone, I took a few preliminary snaps, just to remember what I was facing in terms of scale and lighting conditions on site. Normally I’m hesitant to scout average-sized residential projects too far ahead of time; I’ve seen so many homes and photographed in every kind of condition than I can kind of just show up and make the magic happen without too much stress if the days are long enough. Scouting also tends to ‘lock me in’ to pre-chosen compositions; and it can often give the client ideas that they want to run with even if the conditions on the shoot day aren’t right for them.

Some compositions were obvious, despite the construction

Perhaps the furniture installed clashes with the composition that we chose two months prior when the home was empty, or perhaps the sun has changed position significantly and the light that was great during the scout doesn’t work the same one season later. Or maybe we scouted in the winter when the trees weren’t grown in and now they obscure the view out the windows, etc – you get the point. A lot can change between a scout and a shoot so unless it’s a big advertising job or something that’s remarkably complex or large, I prefer to just show up and make it happen. This also allows me to improvise a bit and be able to roll with whatever comes up while not getting sidetracked because I missed a shot that we committed to four months ago. Know what I mean?

Except you can’t really approach a 20,000 square foot house without a scout (to me, anything above let’s say 10,000 square feet is scouting territory, it’s also multiple day-shoot territory, if you want to produce anything that isn’t total garbage. what can I say, I’m a slow and thorough photographer). It would literally take fifteen minutes to move our camera and lighting setup from one end of the house to the other, so we needed to put in a little effort and make a solid plan ahead of time. I try to scout as close to project completion as possible; preferably the day before the shoot.

Some compositions I would be hopeful for – but might not work out once furniture is installed

All of this scouting gave me a pretty good idea of what it would take to thoroughly photograph this project. I settled on a three day shoot, with a fourth possible contingency day scheduled incase of horrendous weather or any pickup shots that we missed that I’d have to go back and get; we were hoping to produce 60-70 images to completely cover the home, which at around 20,000 square feet and with this level of craftsmanship seems reasonable. As this was a spec home, the timeline for the shoot would be extremely tight – I was setting up for shots while landscapers were putting finishing touches on, electricians were installing outlets and bulbs, and cleaners were moving the last of the construction debris away. For the first couple of days it was pretty hectic on location, weedwhackers, electricians, vacuums, and every other noise-generating device under the sun were present from about 9am to 5pm.

The Shoot

Fast forward to June of 2019 – more than 6 months since my first scout, three months since a second scout (I was in the area and couldn’t help but check on progress to get some more ideas), and one day before our scheduled shoot. We arrive around 4pm, and the weather is absolutely impeccable, with perfectly clear skies, perfect golden sunlight permeating the olive trees that had been planted just months before, the dappled sunlight trickling in to this amazing location. Have I painted a Tolkien-esque enough image yet? Absolutely perfect in every way. The entrance to the home is a long narrow driveway and the exterior that you first experience upon arrival is rather subdued and understated; the real money shots are of the pool deck and bedroom wings which cantilever over the massive east-facing views. Catch my drift, here? The front, while stunning in its own right, only holds a small fraction of the best photographs – they’re mostly going to be the east facing parts of the home.

LightTrac app showing that the sun mostly disappears from the rear of the house by 1130AM.

So immediately I groan; mostly because I hate the morning and with the eastern exposure it’s going to mean I have to peel myself out of bed at 4 in the morning to get there for sunrise which is some time around 5 in the morning as it’s the middle of June. Not. Cool. At least it will be well worth it, with perfect light and a pristine home to photograph!

Our plan would be to work around the house during the prettiest moments – as the days were 16 hours+ long, we’d be able to produce plenty of images in the morning until the light became too harsh, take an extended lunch break, and then get back to the house around 4pm to catch the falling light which would disappear around 830-9pm. I made a rough plan of where I wanted to be and when; using alarms on my phone to alert me to good light in certain locations. With three days to create the images we needed, there was plenty of time built in for improvisation and I knew that there would be beautiful moments that revealed themselves to us only when we were least expecting them. We were, for all intents and purposes, set up for the perfect shoot.

Day One

Day one, 4:45am, the music that I’ve chosen for my alarm which I’m pretty sure is the gentlest, calmest, purest music on Earth (Brian Eno, Music For Airports) has somehow turned from one of the most relaxing pieces of music in history to one that makes me want to frisbee my phone through a window. After maybe 5 hours of sleep (I never sleep before shoots!) it’s time to roll out. In pitch blackness, I stumble outside, and I immediately notice that a damp stillness hangs in the air. After my eyes adjust for a minute or two, I understand that the entire city is blanketed in a deep fog.  I’m crossing my fingers that by the time I get up to the top of the hills where the house is, we’ll have punched through the clouds and be greeted with an epic marine layer below us and a glorious sun casting pastel pinks and oranges into our subject.

LOL.

Not today, sucker.

I was discouraged for about fifteen more minutes – about until the time my brain actually turned on. I paced back and forth praying for a break in the clouds, as the marine layer that sometimes settles in Los Angeles tends to stay low to the ground and dissipates earlier the further inland you get. It only got thicker. And wetter. And, well, spookier. So I decided to embrace it, given that we would have multiple days and at least one of them would be clear in the morning.  I played heavily into the moody vibe of the low, dense fog, and composed in a way to add mystery and mood to the images. Keeping compositions simple and clean, this wasn’t the time for big wide money shots that showed everything with the lights on – it was time for simplicity that reflected the stillness and calm that comes with the sound suppression inherent in foggy conditions; a quietness that is rare in Los Angeles. Adding a figure helps the viewer understand the size and scale of the home, and also shows the functionality of the cantilevered bedroom balcony.

Gloom and mystery, but, results were spectacular and not your run of the mill architecture photos
Lining up a (failed) shot, this gives you a good idea of how poor visibility was

After an hour or two playing around with the dense fog, it was time for breakfast. My assistant Colleen had to, as usual, tear me away from the camera and force feed me a breakfast burrito because my addiction to creating images overpowers any sensation of hunger until it’s too late and then my hanger rears it’s ugly head and I basically become the least fun person on planet earth. Thank you Colleen for the intervention.

Somewhat unfortunately, as the light intensity increased with the morning, the fog didn’t really recede – and what was beautiful, moody morning light underneath the fog just transitioned into flat, boring overcast light as the fog blew around. For the entire day, we had intermittent clouds and the sun poked through a tiny bit here and there but nothing major occurred in terms of sunlight penetration for the bulk of the day. We used this day to focus on non-light sensitive images, such as the theatre, bathrooms, and a few areas that didn’t have major views to capture which would be improved with a little sun.

No sun, no problem…

Towards late afternoon of day one, we finally got a bit of a break with the weather. The marine layer and overcast began to burn off around 4pm, and patchy fog met the legendary California golden hour. Every 20 minutes or so the location would be bathed in an amazing yellowish light, only to be covered up with fog a few minutes later. Luckily, as time passed, it seemed like the fog was breaking apart more and more – five minutes of fog was followed by five minutes of sun and clarity; rinse and repeat. There was something absolutely incredible about the transient weather that was finally revealing itself to us, and we rushed outside to find some shots that would work in this light.

My first attempt at capturing some of this backlit fog…I mean, it’s okay, but kinda sucks and wasn’t really at all what I was going for!

I admit that I struggled to make the most of this epic lighting situation. It took a few minutes of fiddling and pointing the camera in the ‘wrong’ places before I finally snapped out of it – I blame the exhaustion – but realizing that backlight was what I was looking for, I sprung into action, moving quickly to lug our equipment through the labyrinthine pathway from grassy yard, by the pool, through the home, up a set of stairs into the secondary bedroom, repeating a shot from earlier in the day when fog dominated everything, yet this time the image was about 100 times more impactful.

Sound on for humor

The sun’s position essentially lit up the fog behind the house and gave it an incredible depth while the contrasty light provided life by way of reflections in the pool and color in the background. Seeing an opportunity to get some people involved for scale, I mobilized Colleen and my wonderful client (who was trying to get work done despite my antics, many thanks), and within 30 seconds had them positioned perfectly on the other end of the house.

Have a casual conversation, yeah, inch out a little further, okay, hold, perfect. One single exposure, and we’re done. Serendipitous, right?

As the fog continued to clear, conditions only got better. We creeped closer and closer to twilight and the pastel oranges and pinks of sunset mixed with the cotton candy fog which clung to mountainsides in the distance. I lined up a few twilight photos, taking care to capture as much of these incredible conditions as possible; after all, nature is the best art. Just using the massive sliding doors to place a picture frame around some of the most gorgeous conditions I’ve seen in Los Angeles in a decade of living there was all it took. We scrambled to remove about half of the furniture and objects from each scene to simplify the images as much as possible, and before I knew it we had three or four twilight images in the bag.

Oh
My
God.

As soon as the sun completely disappeared behind the horizon, we were socked in with thick fog nearly immediately, as if a giant switch had been flicked and the weather gods grew tired of spoiling us. A gift, but one that was taken advantage of as much as possible. Pretty sure my heart rate was spiking through the roof for the last hour of the day, despite the fact that I could hardly walk after being on my feet for a good 14 hours.

The fog was back, and the views disappeared

Day Two

Still hopeful for sun on the rear face of the house, I set an alarm for ungodly o’clock to take a look out the window before driving all the way up the canyon roads. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your thoughts on sleep, LA was hammered again with thick fog and marine layer action. We decided to take it easy that day, and showed up around 9am for a more normal shoot day of only 12 hours.

After a rather lackluster morning, we were greeted with brilliant blue sky sun in the afternoon. Unfortunately the sun arrived far too late to get any light on the pool deck and rear facades, but it was great to be able to spend the day working the entryway and pass-through views from the front of the house out to the views beyond in bright sunshine.

Despite this gift of sun, the weather gods once again thought they were being a little too generous, and around 4 or 5pm, the marine layer came in and completely enveloped the entire property in a dense fog. Realizing that we weren’t going to be getting any amazing view shots again that night (and honestly, the prior night was such a gift that I didn’t really care) I focused on creating some moody twilight images that didn’t require long-distance views or brilliant blue skies to work. With the fog again came the eerie solitude, which was a perfect time to get some elevated shots of the rear of the home and the pool deck. Using a Manfrotto super tall camera stand, we set up for a rear exterior twilight.

With the camera about 25 feet in the air (keep in mind the house is built into the side of a hill, and a normal tripod wouldn’t get us anywhere near enough height to shoot an easily-understandable elevation), it’s essential to work in still conditions; thanks, fog, for calming the wind down! The resulting twilight shot, created with a pretty fast shutter speed, big aperture of f5.6, and high-ish ISO of 800 to counteract the movement inherent in the stand actually turned out to be one of my favorites. I love the blue-orange contrast and ethereal mood of it all. It shows everything while still not being overwhelming; something that many other photos of this house fail at. I think I got lucky with the fog greatly simplifying the overall composition and adding to the quiet mood of an otherwise busy image.

Carla Ridge covered in fog at twilight
Reverse angle

After two days of shooting, we had some amazing shots in the bag, but were still missing plenty of critical images. I hadn’t got a chance to get the drone up in the air, the interior was lacking sunlight, and did I mention that the master bedroom wasn’t even finished being furnished and not a single image existed of it yet?

Day Three

5am cloud check. Ah, nope. Back to bed again. And yet…a sleep-deprived glance at my weather app (AeroWeather, a weather app made for flight planning, because I am a massive dork like that, and I find it far more accurate and detailed than any typical weather app) forecasted a dense marine layer but broken clouds with hopeful chances of sun by 9am. Given that the sun would stop touching the rear of the home by around 11:30am, I was, for the first time all week, excited that I’d be able to at last get some sunlight on the rear pool deck. So for the now fourth day in a row, third shoot day, we made the pilgrimage up to our location and we were greeted with the clouds parting just as we arrived. While the quality of light in mid-morning to late morning isn’t the best at this time of year (it’s a bit too bright and brilliant for me) it made a nice contrast to the moody and foggy images we had been creating almost nonstop.

Out came the super high mast again to re-create some shots in daylight.

Thank god for Lululemon
Similar to the twilight, but a different mood entirely
Balance and Yoga antics in white shoe covers

We only had about an hour with really great sun back here to get as many shots as possible. Doors open, doors closed, plenty of different angles, the pool in sunlight with the amazing black finish – we wanted to take advantage of our little window to make it happen.

With the early breakup of the clouds that morning, I was keeping my fingers crossed that the marine layer would buzz off for the rest of the evening, so imagine my joy when clouds once again started accumulating and kissing the top of the ridge we were working on. Moving quickly as the sun began to fall and temperatures began to drop, we captured as many interior golden hour shots as possible – the sun penetrating through this house is one of the most amazing features of it and it was important that we were able to capture this. Unfortunately the dropping temperatures gave the marine layer even more resolve and it did its best to sabotage any attempt at getting these images.

You can see how soft the golden light was at this point as it filtered through the fog which was settling over us

And so with the fog bank steadily creeping in, up went the drone in an attempt to get some usable images of the exterior at sunset. With the sun flickering in and out of sight, I flew that little drone like my life depended on it, bagging four or five usable images before the sun finally disappeared behind the clouds for the night.

I’ll admit that this third night was far more manic than I’d ever want a shoot to be and plenty of mistakes were made. Colleen and I were literally running from place to place to straighten out furniture, hide construction debris lurking around the outer reaches of the pool deck, and get everything in its proper place. Remember we’d been shooting for three days now, and in order to have everything look consistent, styling wise, from day one to day three, quite the mental gymnastics routine had to be undertaken – it was tough to quickly remember where everything had been for previous images!

We were lucky in that we got enough golden hour light to get some great moody late-afternoon interiors and a few drone shots, but it was down to the wire. We finished out the night getting a few more ground-level twilights. I almost typed “just some run of the mill stuff” yet I don’t think any of this can be considered run of the mill at a location like this.

Despite three days on location and the house being very well covered, I still didn’t really believe that I had done the place justice. I needed one more night of perfect clarity to get what I needed (I’m also a total completionist and still had a few images in mind that were left unresolved) so with my tail between my legs I went back to my client and asked for one more night of shooting, a week in the future, which by then would mean that (hopefully) whatever stubborn weather pattern was causing all-day clouds would have been pushed out by a high pressure system, or something – who knows. Anyone who lives in LA can attest to the stubborn ‘June Gloom’ marine layer that sticks around like gum on your shoe for the entire month of May/June, and it was still a gamble that we’d get perfect weather on our last day.

Day Three Point Five

A little over a week later, we were back to deliver the coup de grâce on this project. I wish I could whip up another dramatic story here, but it was as all should have been. A perfect day with not a cloud in sight. We arrived around 4pm to match our arrival with the beginning of the best light, and from there it was like clockwork, punching out the remaining shot list one by one.

Fog not required here
Nor here…

We had such an intimate knowledge of how the light behaved at the house by this point that it was almost freakishly easy to get what we needed. There were a few images that we re-shot as furniture had been swapped and light fixtures adjusted, as well as a few photographs that revealed themselves to us despite it being our fourth day of shooting. Isn’t it interesting, that even after a three day shoot, coming back with fresh eyes can show you angles that you had overlooked previously? This is one of the reasons I try to push for multi-day shoots when the project calls for it; it’s so beneficial to be able to spend a day learning the project and understanding the way light *actually* responds, which is hard to really understand from just a single brief scout.

Embarrassed to admit that it took me 3 days to see this image

The Aftermath

As soon as the images were delivered (some of them were actually turned around overnight due to press and publication deadlines), the project began making a push into internet and print publications. The images and home went mildly viral and were published around the internet on myriad websites and social media accounts, even making a few print appearances in newspapers and magazines. As the project was built on spec, there was no buyer lined up at completion so the images were important not only for the designers and developers of the project, but also to actually get the home sold! At the end of 2019, a buyer was found, bringing an end to this minor photographic saga. I’m very, very happy with how everything turned out for everyone involved and that I was chosen to photograph such a special project. Pinch me!

With a good amount of luck, my immense persistence, a helpful assistant, and some luck from the weather, we were able to put together an incredible set of images that I’m really proud of – It is my wish that they helped wrap up the project and get it sold in their own little way, and that everyone walks away happy with my record of this magnificent undertaking.

I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at one of my favorite projects of 2019 – if you have any specific questions about the process of photographing Carla House, I’m happy to field questions in the comment section. To see my selection of favorite images of Carla House, you can see a page devoted to it on my website.

About Mike Kelley
Mike Kelley is an architecture and interiors photographer who has photographed projects all over the world. He is a self proclaimed airplane food enthusiast and the founder of the Architectural Photography Almanac.