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Creating Magic at Night

Posted on: Oct 19, 2015


535 Mission. Architect: HOK; Lighting Design: PHA Lighting Design; Sculpture: Anton Josef Standteiner.

535 Mission StThere is more that goes into creating great photographs of buildings than most people realize. Some of it happens before the shoot and much after the shutter is snapped.  Recently we were asked by the internationally recognized lighting designer, Paul Helms of Atlanta, to capture the work he did in conjunction with HOK on a high-rise building in downtown San Francisco. The building, eponymously called 535 Mission, is one of a group of office buildings popping up in the South of Market area revitalized by both the Giants ballpark and the now under construction inter-modal transit terminal that will connect both commuter rail and bus transit.  Lower Mission Street until very recently was a patchwork quilt of early twentieth century low-rise buildings that served the city’s commercial core.  The area’s street pattern, laid out in the Gold Rush days, is one of broad thoroughfares and narrow alleys with quaint names like Minna, Jessie and Clementina. This was at one time, the cheaper rent district that housed small firms, retail businesses and undiscovered watering holes where blue-collar and white-collar types could rub shoulders after work. Much of that life is stillthere, only many Internet startups have moved into the workplace mix.  HOK’s plan for 535 Mission was to add to the street life by putting a pedestrian only street next to its building.  Helms’s task was to light the street, illuminate the building’s dramatic entrance and its parapet crown that would help separate it from its dark glazed neighbors.  Our job was to capture all this at dusk, the magical time of day when both the building’s form and its internal lighting are best revealed.


Lobby of 535 Mission St. as seen from Shaw Alley. Light Wall by Gordon Huether Studio.

Photographing buildings in a compact city like San Francisco is all about finding vantage points, the perfect rooftop with the exquisite view or the hidden plaza that yields the definitive frame.  Success is also dependent on the cooperation of a building manager or leasing agent who can provide access.  In this case, the building’s owners were not helpful.  Key lighting in the building was turned off and requests to Boston Properties fell on deaf ears. To execute this assignment in a timely manner, we needed to resort to “Plan B.”  We spent a few evenings scouting both street-side and elevated vantage points in nearby properties, gained access and shot.  One of the buildings key features, its illuminated parapet wall crown, was turned off.  We resorted to some Photoshop tools to remedy the situation.


(Left) RAW Image, (Center) Adjusted file, (Right) Lighting effects added via Photoshop.

The three images above are snapshots of the post-production process used to create the final finished photograph. The first image (left) is the raw file straight from the camera. Notice its strange color and converging vertical lines. In the second image (center) we corrected those problems along with adjusting the light volumes from the base to the top of the building. In the third (right), we “magically” turned on the lights as they were designed to be seen.

Photographing buildings today is more than being there at the perfect moment. It is a process of both planning and post-production that can transform an ordinary image into a great one.

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