Architectural Photography: Just Like Playing Tetris…Right?

Architectural Photography: Just Like Playing Tetris…Right?

“Shooting architecture or home décor is just like playing Tetris,” says Lincoln Barbour, a professional commercial advertising and architectural interior photographer based in Portland, Oregon. “You have to get everything to fit together just right.”

Lincoln has his background in web design, so it’s no surprise that Lincoln’s talents lay in creating perfectly composed photos. After he gave up his web design job (post dot-com bubble), Lincoln went to work as studio manager for an architectural photographer. The job fostered Lincoln’s innate interest in photography and gave him a chance to build his digital workflow skills, primarily in Photoshop.

Flash forward 10 years and relocation to Portland, and Lincoln has built a notable client base made up of architects, interior designers, commercial and advertising companies, and editorial publications.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour

“I would say architectural photography is one of the most technical forms of photography, up there with molecular photography maybe,” says Lincoln. But don’t get him wrong – that’s exactly what he loves about his work.

“As an artist, I love creating a composition and making something that captures a moment or evokes an emotion. Unlike web design, which is a never ending process of revision updates, photography is a straight forward art. When you shoot something, it is what it is and then you move on to the next project. As a web designer, it felt like the projects were never complete. The finality and uniqueness of photography is why I prefer my career as a photographer.”

Photos by Lincoln Barbour

So what makes Lincoln’s work stand out from the crowd? Turns out it’s just good lighting, tilt shift lenses, designing inviting-looking scenes, and a little Photoshop. Piece of cake…right?

It’s all in the light

Whether it’s an interior designer who wants to show off her work, or a window and door company putting together an ad, Lincoln’s clients come to him for his clean, sleek, and modern style. And one of the things about Lincoln’s photography that lends to this clean-cut vibe is his lighting.

“My lighting style is two parts preparation and one part interpretation,” says Lincoln. If possible, Lincoln always scouts the location before the day of the shoot and brings along a sun calculator to judge where the sun will be and at what angle throughout the day.

Photos by Lincoln Barbour

“I always start with the available light,” he says. “Then I’ll take a practice shot to see if I’m going to need additional light. I actually prefer to shoot on a cloudy day if I’m doing interiors because I can shoot any room at any side of the house without having to worry about blown-out sunlight coming in through the windows.”

Still, Lincoln often works in rooms that have their own artificial light sources (lamps, chandeliers, etc.) so he takes long exposure shots to capture their glow. “A lot of times the client will walk into the room and say ‘it’s too dark in here, we can’t work with this.’ But then I’ll take a long-exposed shot, and they’ll see that the camera is actually taking in a lot more light than we can with our own eyes.”

For night shots, Lincoln breaks out his Tungsten balanced hot lights (about 3200 kelvin) to illuminate the inside of the house or building. A normal home’s artificial light is rarely enough, so the hot lights are great for producing the warm, glowing light, such as in the shot below.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour

During daytime shoots, Lincoln will also use strobe lights to fill in the shadows if he’s shooting indoors without sufficient natural light, which is necessary for capturing shadow detail. He usually powers the strobes at about 2 f-stops below the main exposure. For example, if the exposure is f/16, he’ll power the strobes down to f/8. He’ll also add warming gel to the strobes if their light comes off too blue to help with the color balancing.

Lincoln says that the below photo captures just about everything that he likes about shooting interiors. “It has the quality of light that I like, the right amount of props around the room, and just the cleanliness of it,” he says. The image was taken for Portland Monthly  to showcase a classic yet casual Portland “bungalow” home.

To get the right feel for the shot, Lincoln set up his camera in the middle of the kitchen and focused on the table. The back room with the orange bag was actually windowless and totally dark, so Lincoln use a strobe aimed at the back wall to create the effect of natural light. The window next to the table in the main room provided nice light, but not enough to capture to the full detail of the vegetables. So Lincoln fixed that by setting up strobes behind him at about 4 stops under that of his camera.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour

Problem was, however, that their light bounced off the glass on the cabinet in an unattractive way, so Lincoln actually produced two exposures – one with the strobes behind him and one without, and then cut out each individual piece of glass in the cabinet from the shot without the strobe’s glare in Photoshop and layered them over the image taken with the strobes for the finished product.

In addition to all the technical efforts, Lincoln also collaborated with the interior designer and art director to get the best composition for this photo. “We liked the straight-on view of this room to highlight the furninshings and flow of the kitchen. It tells the story of how the home owners use the space,” he says.

“I also tried to apply the ‘golden spiral’ technique,” says Lincoln, “which says that the viewer’s eye starts the center of the photo and then kind of spirals out from one interesting object to the next. This concept worked here because your eye starts at the vegetables on the table, then to the plant on the left side, then to the orange basket in the back, and so on. If those objects hadn’t been there, then it wouldn’t have worked as well.”

Using a tilt shift lens for better composition

If you’ve ever needed to shoot in a small space, you know that it can be tricky to capture the full scene without backing out too far or distorting the image. That’s when Lincoln breaks out his Canon 24mm or 17mm tilt shift lenses. Frequently used in architectural photography, the lenses effectively allow him to extend the frame without turning or tilting the camera.

In this bathroom shot, for example, Lincoln used the tilt shift lenses to capture more to the left of center without rotating the camera. This creates a head on look, while having the composition off center.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour

Knowing these things takes years of experience, as Lincoln will tell you. But Lincoln also uses Canon’s shooting software to do a live view and compose his photos before he actually makes the first shot. In the end, this ensures that he gets the best composition and saves him time in post-production.

Let’s add some “stuff” to the shot

Because the majority of Lincoln’s work is done for clients, he’s typically at their discretion when it comes to styling the photo. That means whether the plates sit on the kitchen counter or table, or whether there’s one chair or two, is up to someone else.

“I actually prefer to work with professional interior stylists,” says Lincoln. “That way I’m not spending hours trying a million different variations with the various objects that might be part of any given home interior or décor shot.”

Lincoln’s clients will often actually be interior designers who need a pro photographer to shoot their portfolio. Or, his editorial clients will bring along their own stylist or art director.

“Styling is definitely key,” he adds. “Setting up the shot and lighting is hard enough – but you could spend all day organizing a fruit bowl, so it’s good to work with someone who’s good with that kind of stuff. Every so often I’ll get a job where I have do the styling myself, and I’ll spend a lot more time fussing around. I’ll end up taking 20 different variations of a fruit bowl. It’s much easier when the client is there to say, ‘OK the fruit bowl looks great. Let’s move on.””

Photo by Lincoln Barbour

When it makes sense, Lincoln also likes to include people or animals in his photos. “I think putting people and pets in the shot has a tendency to make the scene look more real. The viewer of the photograph will have an immediate connection when they see someone else there. At the same time, it complicates things because then I have to think about objects blurring or where and how they’re going to be posed.”

The following shot is a great example of when adding people and pets worked to make Lincoln’s shot more inviting. This image was taken on assignment for CMD (a major ad agency) who was working with Jeld-Wen, a window and door manufacturer.

Photo by Lincoln Barbour

“It was a high pressure job,” says Lincoln, “and we brought along this giant team of stylists for interior and prop, wardrobe, makeup, and hair. We even had dog trainers . It was my first really big advertising gig.”

Since the company builds windows, it was Lincoln’s job to focus on the windows’ frames and make them stand out from everything else. “I used a mix of strobes, hot lights, and reflectors to light the frames, and also blew out the background a bit so that the view wouldn’t distract the viewer from the product.” he explains.

Lincoln also ended up merging two separate photos – one with the woman and one with the dog – into this final image.

“I have no problem creating artificial moments,” Lincoln says about merging the two shots into one, “especially when you have people who look better in one frame versus the other.”

There’s nothing wrong with a little Photoshop

While it’s true that Lincoln strives for a clean and natural look, he developed strong Photoshop skills as a web designer and puts them to good use in his photography.

“What I like about my work is that it looks really natural and not super over-the-top Photoshopped,” he says. “But, ironically, I actually do a lot in Photoshop to make that natural look happen. Part of my creative process is deciding what I’m doing to do with the camera, and what I’m going to do in post-production. I always try to optimize our time on the shoot, so if something is going to be faster to retouch later, I’ll take that option rather than waste time when we could be shooting.”

One situation where Lincoln did a ton of work in Photoshop was in this photo:

Photo by Lincoln Barbour

“What’s remarkable about this shot is that we only had one of those white chairs!” Lincoln says. “The homeowners hadn’t decided what chair they ultimately wanted to buy, so the interior designer borrowed one chair and then I made separate exposures of it in different places around the table.”

Lincoln layered six different shots into this one image to mimic the presence of multiple chairs. This required him to get consistent lighting in each shot, and also to delicately brush in shadows and reflections using Photoshop.

“Architecture and interior photography is definitely one of the more technical genres,” says Lincoln. “There are a lot of steps involved, but that’s what I love about it – the setup, the preview, the proofing, and then finally delivering it to the client. It’s definitely making a photograph, not taking a photograph.”

Lincoln spends a lot of time on his architecture and home work, but he’s also a strong food and lifestyle photographer – be sure to check out his full portfolio at

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There are 15 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Interviewed on PhotoShelter / LINCOLN BARBOUR PHOTO
  2. Bharat Mirchandani at 2:41 am

    I loved reading your interview-and have been thinking for a long time about the 17mm Canon T/S lens-being a Nikon shooter there is nothing wider than a 24 T/S-I’m convinced now that I’ll have to make the switch, if only to shoot with the17mm T/S. Great images, love them all.

  3. CharlieJ at 2:22 pm

    Nice article Ms. Margolis. You’ve convinced me to put a tilt-shift lens on my Wish List — the shorter one. lolz! THANKS for your insight and the excellent examples in your article.

  4. Kunal Bhatia at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for this article. It’s great to read about architecture/interior photography on Photoshelter. I often think we are a rare tribe. I absolutely love the neat, clean look of Lincoln’s work that is balanced by the props or the people. The process of creating the last photo was an eyeopener for me. Thanks once again.

  5. Patricia Bean at 2:46 pm

    When a client receives a beautifully crafted image they know little of what it took to produce the results. I like this article and will to share it with others. What we do should be appreciated not taken for granted. But at the end of the day, the image is what sells.

  6. Pingback: Architectural photography: it's just like playing Tetris... right? - Photography links - iso200 - photography, articles and photo links from Dave Fitch
  7. Pingback: The photographic look | BBB3viz
  8. Lawrence Hudetz at 11:46 am

    Hats off to Lincoln Barbour for the great examples of what can be done with interiors. Compared to similar projects using film, the difference is astounding, even as the goals were the same. Being able to apply Photoshop techniques is a no-brainer for the kind of results seen here. Mastery of that tool is obligatory.

    One of Portland’s great architects, Pietro Belluschi told me once that there are two types of architectural photographers, descriptive and interpretive. He lamented that he never found a photographer to do both in the same shot! And he is right. Lincoln’s work is a perfect example of the descriptive. And the efforts to make it happen is very well described in this article.

  9. Martin Purmensky at 12:48 pm

    Using interior designer is a good idea, but may be rather costly. In many cases, the emphasis is on the price. Still, a great idea. Also adding people to the photos is a great break from the typical empty spaces.

  10. Victoria Addington at 11:28 am

    I agree with what you said in your blog that architectural photography is one of the most technical forms of photography. I wouldn’t argue on that fact since it requires a lot of strategies and equipment, I guess. However, since I’ll be selling my house, I’d like to hire an architectural photographer service for this. Hopefully I can find one here in Boston.

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