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Fine Art Architectural Photography by Julia Anna Gospodarou

Heath Robinson
June 2, 2014
Time to read:
16 Minutes
All images © Julia Anna Gospodarou

An accomplished architect and fine art architectural photographer, Julia Anna Gospodarou has added another feat to her list with the completion of the book From Basics to Fine Art – B&W Photography, an educational read on black and white photography (written with co-author and award winning B&W photographer, Joel Tjintjelaar).

In this interview, read about everything from Gospodarou’s tips for successful daytime long exposures to why she prefers the square crop for fine art photography.

What do you find attractive in architecture? Are there any aspects of a building that turn you away in terms of wanting to take a picture?

Architecture for me is a way of living, even more than a profession. Being an architect and an architectural photographer at the same time gives me the possibility to spend plenty of time close to architectural subjects, either as a subject for design or as a photography subject and explore them from many points of view.

I started shooting architecture in my twenties, first as a way of documenting my trips and architectural studies, then to document my professional projects and also for the pure pleasure of shooting buildings.

What draws me to shooting architecture is in the first place, the fact that through it I can study the way the volumes interact with each other and I am every time fascinated by how I can magically transform a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional one through photography, just to re-transform it into a three-dimensional one by choosing the right angle and applying the right processing to the image.

My end goal though is not to stop at playing with volumes but to go deeper and reveal the soul of the building I am photographing, just like one can reveal the soul of a person in a portrait. What I aim for is to make the portrait of the building through my images, to find its eyes, look into them and reveal the essence that lies under the visible shell of that building or structure. When I can do I am happy because I know I’ve reached my goal of revealing the hidden spirit of my subject.

I don’t think that I am drawn away by any aspect of a building I’m shooting. If I have chosen the building to shoot it, it means I was drawn to it and to its story and that I consider it interesting. I see every aspect or detail related to or belonging to the building as a piece of the puzzle I need to put together so I can make a faithful and alive portrait of it.

I recently published a book together with award-winning B&W photographer Joel Tjintjelaar, a book that treats exactly the subject we’re talking about now, B&W photography with a focus on architecture and long exposure but going far beyond it. The book is called “From Basics to Fine Art – B&W Photography”

In the book we explain in detail what are the things one should keep in mind when shooting architecture and B&W in general.  I’ll talk about this book more in detail, further in the interview, but I’m starting with it because it contains our best knowledge and tips as for the subject of architectural photography, long exposure and B&W photography in general, meaning what defines my photography work.

Let’s say modern architecture ceased to exist and we reverted back to the primordial ages. What inspires you outside of the “man-made” realm?

I’m a big admirer of the “man-made” realm because I believe in creation, in the power of making something out of nothing and especially in making something beautiful and lasting. But creation has its roots more deeply in our conscience and self and it is influenced and triggered by many aspects of life that have to do with what was before anything was built by man, it has to do with nature in its primordial state and with the nature of man.

As Carl Jung explains in his Archetypal Theory, our conscious world is influenced in a subconscious way by a set of symbols that are common to all human beings regardless their nationality, language, education, culture or habits and that have to do with how the world can be interpreted at its base. These symbols, called archetypes, influence the way we think, react and create. They are based on what existed before anything man-made was created and even if we are not aware of this, they influence the way we see the world.

Having these archetypes as a driving force of our subconscious world makes the act of creation to be independent in a certain measure from the other examples of creation we see around us in the man-made environment, but still “speaking the same language” that everyone understands. Seen from this prism, it becomes clear that the subject of a work of art is only a pretext. Extending this theory to photography, we can say that one can convey the same ideas and feelings while using architecture or while using a seascape or any other object as the subject of his photography.

In essence it is only a matter of preference and of where we feel more at ease, with what kind of subjects we can work and create easier. In my case, except for architecture, the sea was always a very important source of inspiration in my creative work. I live by the sea, I was always drawn by it as a subject for photography or even for simple reflection. So, I could say that my work and art philosophy revolves around these two subjects: architecture and the sea.

Are there any modern or historical buildings that you haven’t photographed but would love to take a picture of?

There are plenty of them. I’m a passionate shooter, I always was, even before doing photography professionally.  I’m one of the best examples of someone making a profession from what I love, so, yes, there are a lot of things that I still haven’t yet photographed but that I wish to do so and will do so in the future. It is not only architecture, but I have to admit, it mainly is. I need architecture to express myself, so on my photography bucket list there are a few things that one way or the other, I will shoot at some point in my life.

One of the locations I have in mind, which is in general a fascinating place that I want to discover from many points of view is the ancient city of Machu Picchu. For me, it is a magical place and much more than a subject for photography, but definitely a compelling subject for both architectural and landscape photography. For one reason or the other, I didn’t manage to go there so far, but I can tell it’s on my list for the next long photography trip.

This and other magical places in South and North America, which are filled with photography destinations I have on my “must go to” list.  As for what architects I want to shoot more, there are a few buildings by Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, spread out all over the world, that particularly inspire me and are very high on my list.

There’s also a series of classical modern buildings, as some of Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer or Louis Kahn. After I manage to shoot all these, I still have quite a long list to cover, not to mention that every day new outstanding buildings are being built somewhere in the world, so I’m absolutely sure that I will never run out of subjects for my photography in this life.

What power does black and white have over color? What mood do you think it evokes artistically?

What black and white does is to show light in its purest form. Light does not have a color, it is only from the reflections of the objects it falls on that light shows color. What I do when I use black and white is to go back to where it all begins, to the moment where there was only light. This pure light is able to show much more than color does: form, depth, contrasts, textures…and feelings.

For me, the color of feelings is black and white. The color of pure strong feelings and sensations is the color of pure light, it is black and white. These are the first and the only colors we see as babies when we come to this world and they stay in the background of our mind for all our life. This is one of the reasons why black and white creates such a powerful emotional response in the viewer, it relates him to his first memories about life, to his first sensations and experiences, to his deepest rooted symbols and  representations.

Black and white can evoke any mood, from exuberant joy till the deepest sorrow and the exceptional thing is that B&W evokes all these moods and feelings in a much stronger way than color. For many reasons, one of them being the one mentioned before, a black and white image goes much deeper in creating emotion and mood than a color one.

This doesn’t mean that a color image can’t be outstanding and powerful, but in my opinion the difference is that, regardless the subject matter, color will show something “beautiful” while black and white will show something “profound”, color will stay at the surface, playing with our senses, while black and white will not only play with our senses, but with our mind and heart too.

This is for me the difference between a color and a black and white image: I like color but I am moved by black and white.

In addition, I’ll say that there is a beautiful chapter in the book  From Basics to Fine Art – B&W Photography, on how to create good B&W photography, written by my co-author, Joel Tjintjelaar, the chapter The Rule of Grays (10+1 rules in fact), a lecture I would definitely recommend to all the lovers of B&W photography.

You mention that you prefer to not take multiple exposures for HDR images. Would you say that long exposure photography rivals HDR?

I wouldn’t say that there is any kind of rivalry here, they are just different kinds of artistic expression. Two different techniques used for showing different things. One of them, HDR, shows the moment with all its details, the other, long exposure, shows the passing of time and the change.

In the case of HDR the aim is to emphasize the detail, in long exposure the approach is rather a dual one: we create the effect of smoothening of moving elements like the clouds in the sky or the surfaces covered with water, and we rely on the lack of detail this smoothening brings in order to emphasize, by contrast, the details in the immobile subjects. This is where the power of long exposure comes from, from this dual approach and from using the lack of detail as a mean of artistic expression.

While HDR tries to add information to create the image, sometimes even more than it exists in the real scene, long exposure removes it in order to create a dreamy world where the viewer will have to add his own information and create his own world to interpret and live the image.

If you are conducting long exposure photography during the day, around what settings does your camera need to be on in order to accomplish this? Does this process every take multiple tries to get right?

I am mainly working with daylight long exposures, but I have done at times night long exposures too. The effect I am after  in my long exposure images is one of very smooth looking clouds in the sky and of just as smooth water, in case I shoot seascapes or other scenes with water surfaces. The longer the exposure, the smoother the clouds and the water, which means that to obtain this kind of smooth look I need very long exposures of more than 5 minutes and when the clouds are slow these exposures can become even longer.

To be able to create such long exposures I need to use most of the times 16 stops of neutral density filters. Sometimes, when I shoot in lower light, 13 stops of ND filters may be enough, but the norm is 16 stops (meaning a 10 and a 6-stop stacked together).

I always shoot at ISO 100, because in the case I have the shutter open for multiple minutes I will anyway get enough noise due to the long exposure so I try to keep it at a minimum and not add to it by increasing the ISO. A very good tool that helps me with removing the noise in post-processing is Topaz DeNoise AI, which gives me great results and is part of my usual processing workflow for long exposures and generally. But, the best thing is to not introduce noise in the image in the first place, so you don’t push too hard your image in post-processing. One solution to achieve this is to always shoot at the native lowest ISO of your camera.

If the shooting conditions are good (right amount of clouds and right speed) I don’t need more than one try to get the desired effect. More than one shot may be required if the clouds are not where I want them at the moment of the first exposure. That’s when I repeat the shot to get a better effect and placement when the conditions change. Sometimes if you repeat the shot after a few minutes, the results can be very different. I won’t hesitate to repeat the shot if I think I can obtain a better result.

After time and acquiring some experience with shooting LE, unless the scene has a confusing lighting which may create problems with metering the light, you don’t even need to meter the light or calculate the exposure, you just know how many minutes you need for a certain level of light and a certain effect. But it’s best to meter the light in the scene and then use a LE calculator to find out the needed exposure. This will help you make sure you don’t miss a perfect shot just because of some guesswork. So, a good piece of advice, try to not skip this step even when you think you know the right settings without it.

Again, many more tips on long exposure photography, tips that I cannot mention now due to the limited space, are available in the book.

How do these daytime settings vary from long exposure photography at night?

In the cases of the exposures that are done to obtain the effect of the smooth clouds in the sky or of the smooth water, the settings you need  to obtain this effect are not so different as principle for the exposures done at night comparing to those done in daylight, in the sense that you will still need exposures of a few minutes long so you can capture enough motion in the clouds. The difference will lie in how you obtain this exposure and this will be by using more ND stops by day than by night, obviously because by night you don’t need to make up for the light you do by day.

Where the settings differ as principle is in the case where  by night you need a longer exposure than by day to capture a scene, just because there is no light to rely on when shooting so the longer exposure is needed only for getting a proper capture of the scene. There you will just need to meter the light in the scene and find out which is the exposure that will give you a well lit night shot. This will vary from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds but will not reach a few minutes as in the case of the exposures needed to obtain the specific long exposure effect.

In both cases, when shooting long exposures by day or by night, I try to stick with an aperture of around f/8 and not go higher than  f/11, meaning I try to keep the aperture close to the sweet spot of my lens, so I can capture the most clear and sharp image I can capture. This is important in long exposure since the longer the exposure the more the raw file will be exposed to diffraction (which happens at apertures of f/16 or more) a phenomenon that deteriorates the clarity of the images.

What difference does it make artistically to crop your image in a square as opposed to leaving it as a rectangle?

One of the main reasons I’m using the square crop is because it helps me focus on my subject and not have too much information in the frame. I tend to work with clear subjects and minimal compositions so the message I covey can be easily understood and the viewer can spend the time  “living” the image and not in trying to find the key to interpreting it, and the square is one of the shapes that helps most in emphasizing the subject. Besides, the square is a very balanced shape, a minimal shape that doesn’t attract the eye on itself, but instead sustains the composition and creates an elegant result.

Besides all this, it is also a personal preference, as I like this shape and I feel drawn to it. I have tried to work my fine art images in classic rectangular 35mm crop but, while I like it for street photography, it just does not speak to me when it comes to fine art images. The only one other format that attracts me as for my fine art work is the large format 4×5 and sometimes the 2×1 that can give interesting results with some subjects.

What is the most abstract image you’ve ever created in terms of the transformation from before to after (photo-manipulation wise)?

I always try to abstract my images up to a point, but I always want the object in my images to be recognizable. When capturing architecture I am guided by the same principles as when I’m designing, abstracting my subjects in context. My aim with this “almost abstract” approach of a building is to put the mind of the viewer in a different space, where he needs to find different rules to interpret what he sees, a different language.

I’m not interested in showing only an interesting or unexpected play of lines or patterns.  I strive to give the viewer a glance at the essence and the soul of the structure that I photographed, giving substance and emotional value to the photograph. It makes it become warm and alive, helps it find a quicker way to the soul of the viewer.

This is what I eventually aim to touch with my work; I’m not interested in touching the viewer’s mind, I’m not addressing to his logic, I’m aiming to his soul and to everything that transcends the logical understanding and cold plain analyze. I’m aiming to create art and, in my world, art doesn’t address to the mind, but to the soul.

This is what defines my work and sets it apart–the fact that I’m not aiming at a logical perfection, but at an emotional one. In this respect, I could call the style of my architectural photography emotional abstract, term that also defines my way of thinking in general.

One of the images that I think shows the best this “emotional abstract” trait of my work is an image of the Willis building in the City of London from my series Ode to Black (Black Hope), the one called Self Black and that leads the series.

Do you ever refer to a zone system? If so, how does this help you with getting the tonality and light manipulation that you desire?

Coincidentally, I was just talking about how one can apply the Zone System to the processing part of the creation of an image. I consider this feature as one of the vital tools in my B&W workflow, since the possibility of controlling the gray tones in your image the way you envision them is the core of the B&W processing in my opinion.

This care for the gray tones one will have in an image has to start even before processing, in the moment of capturing the image and this will be done by selecting very carefully the point that you need as neutral gray in the image so everything else follows in terms of exposure and then in terms of gray tones in the image you will work with. This is in fact the essence of the Zone System as Ansel Adams created and used it in his work. Adapt your exposure (thus resulted gray tones) to your vision, to the result you need and not necessarily to what is “correct”.

Explain the concept of (en)visionography. What advice to you give to somebody who wants to put this into practice?

A concept that I explain in depth in the book, (en)Visionography is a concept I created to describe the whole process I go through when creating my images. It’s a process which is mainly based on finding my vision and on how to transpose it into image. In the book I give examples related to the theoretical and practical side of creating (en)Visionography and I go in depth into analyzing it. The space is too limited here to go into such detail, but I can still say a few things to open your appetite to find out more.

What is (en)Visionography? In short, (en)Visionography, which has a designated space at, is the New Photography. It is photography the way we do it in the digital era, which is something almost totally different from what we used to call photography in the film days.

What changed in photography in the digital era? Many things. The first big difference between analog and digital is the replacement of the base where we capture the image, which changed from film to an electronic sensor. If we try to think objectively and not assume that digital and analog photography are the same only because they have the same name, from the way we capture the images till the way we process them, the differences between them are so important that it’s safe to say we are talking about two almost totally different kinds of art and two different techniques.

While in the case of traditional photography, we rely on the outer world to take the photograph and we are very limited in how we can  transform it through editing, since we can only use classical developing techniques, in the case of digital photography we have much more freedom in interpreting and transforming the image to suit our vision, since we can rely much more on processing and on using processing software to create the image.

Etymologically, “photography”comes from the Greek “φωτογραφία” which was created from φως (light) + γράφω (write). Therefore photography is the way light writes on film creating the image. But in the digital era, even if the light is still what “writes” on the sensor creating an image, the final image can be so deeply transformed comparing to the initial image.

Thus in the digital era, “vision” replaces “light” in creating the image so it can suit the photographer’s VISION. The final image can now get so much closer to what the artist ENVISIONS, therefore (en)Visionography is a much more suited name for creating photographs in the digital era than “photography”.

The tool that helps us transpose the vision into the image is the software we use.

In essence we can say that vision and processing software have become much more important in creating the image in the digital era and they replaced the traditional methods of doing photography, liberating the photographer and opening totally new creative paths for expressing vision and creating art. This is why it is very important to use the right software to work on our images, the software that will help us the most in conveying our vision to the world. Which is one of the reasons I use Topaz plugins so extensively in my workflow. They help me get to where I want in the easiest and most effective way.

The method I use to create my (en)Visionography is a processing method I called Photography Drawing (PhtD). a  method of processing that uses techniques similar with the techniques  used when drawing in B&W. It is a method that shows in essence  how to use light and shadow the way classical drawing does and which is highly effective.

You just finished a book ‘From Basics to Fine Art – B&W Photography’ with co-author Joel Tjintjelaar that contains over 400 pages of valuable information. Tell me a little bit about what this book highlights.

The book is called From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography – Architecture and Beyond and, as I mentioned before, is a collaboration with award-winning B&W photographer Joel Tjintjelaar. It is an extensive study on B&W Photography, with an accent on architectural fine art and long exposure photography, but going far beyond it. You can read a preview of the book here.

It is a book where we share our knowledge from our extensive experience as fine art photographers and from the long years of studying art, architecture and everything related to image representation.

We cover subject belonging to the artistic side, the practical side, the philosophical side but also the business and financial side of photography.

We are talking about our B&W processing methods, our long exposure methods and workflows analyzed in depth with examples and extensive hands-on explanations, we make extended analysis of our award-winning images, plus provide the theoretical base for what we do so the readers won’t just apply a method, but start creating their own B&W style right away.

One of the interesting aspects of this book is that I’m talking extensively about how I use the Topaz plugins in my personal processing method Photography Drawing (PhtD), where exactly in my workflow I use one or other of the plugins and how can anyone that will follow this method use Topaz in their workflow too to get similar results with what you see in my images.

We just launched the book a little while ago but the response to it was fantastic so we are really very happy for that. We have worked on this book for almost two years and have put in it a lot of passion, dedication and time and now the fact that it is so well received and that it can help so many people makes all the work be worth it.  If you’re interested in more details about the book you can find them here or on my site.

About Julia Anna Gospodarou

Architect and International Award-Winning B&W Fine Art photographer with high distinctions in the most important photography competitions worldwide (IPA, SWPA, PX3, IFPA, B&W Spider Awards etc.), Julia is mostly known for her B&W long exposure architectural photography.

She calls her style of photography (en)Visionography™ , a new name for photography and a concept saying that fine art photography has to do much more with the vision of the artist than with the subject or how the camera captures it, this being what sets free the imagination and creativity of the photographer. This concept reflects also in her personal creative and processing method called Photography Drawing (PhtD), method based on how light interacts with volumes and how this can be translated in an image in order to provoke emotion, by using the principles of classical B&W drawing applied to B&W photography.

Her professional activities also include writing fine art photography books, i.e. “From Basics to Fine Art“, teaching fine art architectural photography workshops worldwide, for groups or private, mentoring students online in B&W photography and working on commissioned photography projects.

Published internationally in numerous books and magazines, her photographic work can also be seen online on the most important photography sites.

Multiple awards  and distinctions in:

  • International Photography Awards (IPA),
  • Sony – World Photography Awards (SWPA),
  • Prix de la Photographie de Paris (PX3),
  • International Fine Art Photography Awards (IFPA),
  • Black and White Spider Awards.

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Heath Robinson