Do You Need An Architecture Degree To Photograph Architecture?

Do You Need An Architecture Degree To Photograph Architecture?

Ask APALMANAC

P asks: Is it possible to be an architectural photographer without previously being an architect? My girlfriend is an architect and our first idea is to open a studio together. Do I have options in this world without having studied a degree in photography or architecture? Thank you in advance!

You’ll be happy to know that some of the most famous architectural photographers in the world (Julius Shulman, Iwan Baan, anyone?) do not have a degree in architecture. Baan actually puts it front and center on his website:

With no formal training in architecture, his perspective mirrors the questions and perspectives of the everyday individuals who give meaning and context to the architecture and spaces that surround us, and this artistic approach has given matters of architecture an approachable and accessible voice.

iwan.com

But a degree certainly doesn’t hurt. Just ask Ezra Stoller.

I don’t have a degree in architecture, though I do have a degree in environmental studies, which I do think has some crossover, as I elected to study urban planning and environmentally conscience design practices. I also studied a lot of fluff that I can’t believe I paid for; but my degree did teach me a lot of important concepts related to sustainable design – I learned everything from Rachel Carson to how to set up solar panels to how to turn a compost drum. Yeah; but it makes for great conversation with clients and helps me understand their design ethos. I also had a minor in studio art, where I was able to learn color theory, composition, photoshop, and graphic design, all of which have been valuable skills to me as an architectural photographer. I am sure that many people reading this also have a degree which isn’t specifically architecture but provides plenty of background information that translates to architectural photography and design as a whole. Mathematics, history, language, etc, all have plenty of crossover if you dig.

I never learned what a cantilever was, the difference between modern and Modern, who Frank Lloyd Wright was, why Chandigarh is important, or the distinctions between architecture and engineering. No, I had to teach all of that to myself in order to better understand and appreciate our subject matter of choice, and I don’t think I needed school to learn those things. I can’t claim to contain anywhere close to the amount of specific building science knowledge that a licensed architect has (let alone an undergrad architecture program student), but I have taught myself enough to be, shall we say, conversationally proficient. And at the end of the day, we can’t be expected to know all of this stuff, either, just like an architect can’t be expected to know the ins-and-outs of photography. I’d wager that perspective correction, apertures, tethering solutions, backup workflow, and luminosity masking are foreign concepts to most of our clients, too.

Where architecture school is helpful and where I am constantly envious of architects-turned-photographers is in their naturally acquired network. They spent 4, 6, 8, however many years surrounded by their colleagues-turned-friends. When those friends become architects, and they need photographers, who do you think they’re going to hire? Allow me to vent my frustration at some truly terrible photographers who were hired because, well, they knew an architect from architecture school. Also spare a moment, and allow architects to vent their frustration at architectural photographers with slick marketing packages who couldn’t tell the difference between a Tulsa McMansion designed with pieces scavenged from a dumpster behind a Home Depot and a Case Study house designed by Richard Neutra.

A second massively helpful takeaway from architecture school is a deeper understanding of how the business of architecture works. I wasted a good few years of my life chasing clients while having no idea how the business of architecture actually worked – something that I’d consider pretty important if you want to photograph this stuff for a living. Would you be a sucessful tennis photographer if you had no idea how the game was played and how the league operated, what the gossip was, how the schedule changed throughout the year? Doubtful.

But! We (the uneducated!) have a secret weapon. We bring a fresh perspective. There is danger in working through one perspective – if you’re trained as an architect, everything will be seen through the lens of an architect, in other words, if all you’ve got is a hammer, every problem is a nail. Our job isn’t to photograph architecture for architects, it’s to photograph architecture for the general public. To make it understandable and digestible. As Julius Shulman once said:

“Architects live and die by the images that are taken of their work, as these images alone are what most people see. For every person who visits a private house, there are maybe 10,000 who only view it as a photo.”

Julius Shulman

And really, a good image is a damn good image, and it doesn’t take an architect to recognize that. If it resonates with the viewer, gets them more work, and puts their work in the history books while being accurate and inspiring, does it matter who took it?

So, the bottom line is this: No, you don’t need an architecture degree to be a successful architectural photographer. You can teach yourself a lot of the most important concepts, though you may have a harder time of getting your career off the ground than someone who has a strong network from attending an architecture program.

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.