Documenting with photos

January 9, 2012 — 16 Comments

Architectural photography is serious business and I will be the first to tell you that I am not an architectural photographer … unless the only requirement is that you take pictures of architecture. Taking construction progress photos is part of the process I go through on all of my projects, and since I’ve started writing posts on Life of an Architect where I publish pictures for 5,000 people (give or take) a day to look at, I have become even more aware and self-conscious of the photos I take. It doesn’t take long before you realize that a picture you stick on the internet is going to show up in a bunch of different places pretty quick … you just hope that it’s not on www. “sucky-architectural-photos” .com


Modern house screen window

I have a really nice camera and some pretty serious lenses that I get to use and play around with.  I’ve been lucky, on a few occasions, to take a picture that looks like someone who knew what they were doing actually took it. However, none of the images in today’s post fit that description. In fact, all the pictures on today’s post were taken with my iPhone, which is rapidly becoming one of the more important tools in my Jack Spade messenger bag. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at these picture and discuss how I got them to look the way they do … maybe even why I took them.


Modern house stainless steel screen

This is the corner of the large modern infill project I have been working on for the last 2 years. Evey couple of months I take a picture of this same corner – the idea being that if I wanted to, I could eventually put together a montage of the entire evolution of this corner. I know, sounds boring to me too, it may never see the light of day.


Modern house stainless steel screen detail

This is a detail shot of the exterior corner of that stainless steel curtain screen. I am constantly amazed at how good a job my camera phone does and since I already have it on me at all times, I don’t have to carry around another piece of equipment to document what I see/ find on my field visits.


Instagram photo sharing for your iPhone

You might notice that a lot of these pictures are square – that’s because I have shared them on Instagram – an online photo sharing social media platform. It’s a way for me to let people (who are interested) know what I am doing and share some of the things I see when I am out on job sites. Instagram let’s me take my photos, edit, crop, rotate, tilt shift, etc. and then publish them to Twitter or the Life of an Architect Facebook page. It is a fun tool to play while sharing information with people at the same time.


Modern house screen detail on Instagram

Here is another look at the same corner stainless steel curtain screen from above as seen on my Instagram site. People who follow me can comment, ask questions, tweet it, share it – all sorts of things. They can even let me know that they like the picture … positive reinforcement is always nice.


Instagram photo page for Bob Borson

Here is a screen capture of my Instagram page showing the last 15 photos I shared in a glimpse. If you have an Instagram acount, you are able to view this desktop interface by going to From here, you can look at your photos, follow other people sharing photos, comment, etc. from your desktop.


Camera+ for iPhone

Camera+ is another iPhone application that I’ve just started using … and so far I really like it. For $0.99, I am able to edit my photos in a fairly significant manner – as well as share them directly from the application. One thing that is particularly useful are the preset filters that you can apply to the image. I don’t really want this to turn into a product review for this phone application so I’ll just say if you take photos on your iPhone, this is a great application to have and use.


modern stairs metal pan detail

This is a detail shot of the steel stair in the modern house. Eventually there will be a precast concrete tread that will sit down on top of the tray.  I took this photo as part of the on-site documentation process, but I’d have to say that the picture turned out fairly evocative, certainly suitable for presentation of the concept on our website.


modern stairs - supports and pans

This is the same stairwell, (again). My intent at the time I took this photos was to simply document construction progress. With my iPhone and a few applications I am able to use the same picture on the website – allowing this picture to do more positive work. To get this image, I applied a “cyanotype” filter and blurred everything except the stair treads since that was what I want the focus on.


modern stairwell top landing gallery

This is the landing at the top of those stairs – a gallery type of space on the top floor elevator lobby. I took this picture as a test to see how good my iPhone could handle what is basically an all white space … could I get any clarity and definition? Turned out great.


Working on the roof at Glen Falls original

Now this photo … this is a super crappy photo I took when I went out to check on the progress of a job where there was some flashing being installed under a capstone. I showed up on site at a time of day where the sun was blasting me in the face when I was trying to document what was going on with the workers. (I wanted to record where they were working, protection materials being used, precautionary measures being taken, etc.) Pretty bad photo right? Yeah … but I turned it into this picture below-

Working on the roof at Glen Falls

Same photo, just zoomed in, cropped it, and discarded the color information. Still not sure it’s a great photo but at least it holds my interest beyond the factual data I was trying to capture and record. I even sent this picture of to the client when I left the site so that they knew I was there just like I promised.


modern house living room drywall


modern house glass tile bathroom shower

I love this picture … other than cropping it I didn’t modify it one bit. This is actually a color photograph of the glass tiles being installed.


color and pattern detail

Sometimes I am just using my camera to record images I want to recall later. It might be texture, or color, form or massing – whatever. I’m not doing anything special other than using my phone camera to record what I am incapable to describing in words to full effect. I am also able to share this with a client later when trying to describe that yes … lavender and khaki twill green do (in fact) look good together.


Reindeer sketch from Bob Borson

This is an image I used when I was working out a design for my What to get an Architect for Christmas post … (you can go check out that post to see how it turned out). This is in my sketchbook and it was a simple matter to take my phone out and take a quick picture. I posted it to twitter and on my Life of an Architect Facebook page as a tease of the new post.


Diptic iPhone camera application

Another application that I use is Diptic – which allows you to create photo montages. I have included a few images to show you how I have used it.


Garden Wall at Glen Falls

This image is an overall picture of a decorative garden wall we designed and I included a close up picture on the bottom showing some detail. The time it took for me to assemble this montage was about 8 seconds.


Medium Density Overlay MDO composite

Another example of a Diptic photo montage – this one showing the mind-blowing awesomeness of Medium Density Overlay – otherwise known as MDO. In one image, I am able to convey the product (on the left), a side view showing what the material looks like (bottom right-hand corner), and how it was used (as a ceiling material with recessed lighting)


It wasn’t that long ago that taking  job site construction photos were simply photos that were a necessary part of the process. Once they were looked at, they were never looked at again. This is no longer the case – every picture has the potential for being a useful item with many possible uses. The camera on your phone is a powerful tool and with a slightest bit of efforts, you can get more with less – and look like you know what you’re doing in the process.



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  • Great tips Bob! Have only been using Instagram and Hipstamatic before. Am happy with it already. But I’m also looking forward to use Diptic now that I know it could create instant collages. Great for explaining architecture with details etc.

  • Dustin Bopp

    Consider entering the AIA National Photo Contest sponsored by AIA St. Louis:

    “Winning images from the competition are published in a succeeding year’s
    Rizzoli Engagement Calendar, an internationally recognized and sold

  • Anonymous

    What? A post about architecture photography thats isnt all “oh I love F2.8 its just so round, you know. I shoot all my projects at F2.8. It brings real roundness to my photos” 

    I am however seriously impressed with your shots. Its a great lesson in less is more, I often try to cram too much into each shot. 
    Well done from one of the happy 5000

    • I am happy to have you Marcus!

      but I do like me some f2.8 … 🙂 at least I’m supposed to. Right?

  • Anonymous

    Great images and a great post, especially since it’s often a struggle to make construction photos engaging and interesting. I love the image with the lens flare; the difference from before to after is pretty incredible- thanks for sharing! 
    Also, there’s a pretty nice collection of 2011’s best construction images at I could definitely see a few of these among them… 

    • thanks – that’s definitely some high praise! The best part of all these apps is that it really doesn’t add any time to the process. They are all presets – once you get your picture framed, you have a world of options at your fingertips!

      Thanks for commenting, I appreciate it

  • Sarah

    Another blog I follow, caneloproject@gmail, Bill Steen uses his phone, too, though differently.  Amazing what we have in our pockets now!

    • and I think we are just starting to get our heads wrapped around what we don’t know – it’s pretty exciting!

      I will have to check out Bill Steen – thanks for the heads up

  • Dustin Bopp

    I am continually impressed by the usefulness of my iPhone (and the camera in particular). The most useful (not necessarily artful) photo app I use is Pro HDR. The HDR function on the native photo app is pretty pathetic. HDR Pro is very useful to get detailed images where there is too strong a contrast for the auto exposure to work. It CAN produce some amazing images. Mostly they look a bit ethereal, and surreal but I find it mostly utilitarian.

    Very recently I was co-teaching a half-day seminar on the latest ADA regs. It’s hard to shut off my business mind for most of a work day so of course I was checking my email while I wasn’t presenting. I received a number of messages from a distressed client who needed a solution to present to regulatory official they were meeting with AT THAT MOMENT. I did a quick sketch of my proposed solution in my notebook, took a picture of it and sent it to the client. She shared it with her reviewer who approved and it kept things moving forward. She was thrilled.

    That said, I am doing my best to retrain myself to “single-task” and be more present in whatever I choose to be doing but remote tools have allowed me be very effective away from my office. I would have felt a lot less comfortable being away from my office for most of a day if not for that pretty black rectangle in my pocket.

    • that’s something I haven’t thought about in a while – the “single-task” mode.  Pretty sharp thinking and response with your client – I’m sure they did love it, I know I would.


  • Another great post Bob. There is a lot of untapped potential in the “art” of construction documentation photography. 

    • for every artistic photo there are 50 boring technical shots.  I am always thinking how I might be able to re-purpose the photos and use them in a possible blog post. It has changed how I look at everything

  • hahah. At first glance, I thought it said “Dit Pic.” I obviously need to go to bed a bit sooner. Loved most of the pics – a few made me depressed. But the cute reindeer cheered me up again.

    • glad I kept the reindeer in there 🙂 and yes, you probably do need to go to bed sooner, we all do