The Seattle Space Needle: a photographing guide
Updated: May 9, 2021
Vistas that seemed to have been sketched with a sumi-brush dipped in hypnotic quicksilver, pine, emerald, puffy clouds and coffee, Seattle offers a hybrid headspace to its travellers — full with beautiful complexities and not yet garish, unlike many other prominent cities in North America.
While the city offers much to be discovered, the sweeping panorama of 650-foot tall observation deck called The Seattle Space Needle with the world's first and only rotating glass floor (The Loupe) continues to remain one of the favourite landmarks of tourists and wanderers alike. You can get a jaw-dropping expansive view of the city, Mount Rainier, Olympic and Cascade mountains, Queen Anne hills, Puget sound and Seattle skyline from its top on a clear day after enjoying a delightful 41-second rapid ascent in the glass elevator.
Views from observation deck:
There are multiple places which provides you with the sight of this iconic landmark. If you only decide to click its photograph after reaching the spot at 400 Broad Street as most tourists do, you will mostly get to click edifice of an engineering marvel like the image below.
Though I waited for the airplane to add some external element to make it look a little less bland and the natural light was excellent, at the end of the day, this doesn't really offer an interesting perspective for the imagination to kick in, doesn't sketch a story or looks good to our eyes either.
I tried ambling around Seattle waterfront for a good angle and got the below view. It didn't speak to me.
While there are no rules, emphasis on a couple of considerations can make the photograph stand out. As internet is flooded with visitors' clicks of Space Needle, how can we leave an impression of 'us' on the narrative? I'm writing this post just to fuel readers' own imagination. Otherwise, architecture photographs merely serve as a record-keeper.
Alternative perspective, storytelling, aesthetics — regardless of the genre, I believe that a photograph is decent if it has at least one of these three attributes, it's good if it subscribes to at least two, it's great when it ticks all the boxes, it's excellent when it also accompanies technical precision and it's exceptional when it also compels you to think differently.
Chicago-based Hedrich-Blessing, one of the prestigious architectural photography firms, provides valuable insight on how differently architectural landscape photos should be looked at. Marion Brenner, one of the leading photographers of landscape architecture, believes that 'The best photographs of landscape architecture make you feel like you’re in the space.'
While at an advanced level one can use wide-angle lens to cover the interior and special tilt-shift lens or drones to capture the exterior of iconic monuments and buildings, my intention here is to provide few cues to the beginners of photography, to those hobbyists like me who most likely use elementary lens.
I have primarily used Nikon 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-P DX and Nikon AF Zoom-NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G telephoto zoom to capture Space Needle from close distance and faraway. If you need to shoot from close quarters, then 12 mm to 35 mm wide angle lenses are desired. If you can afford better and more effective lenses suitable for your purpose, that's great. However, there are few things we need to consider regardless of the precision and sophistry of our equipment, and the embellishment we can manage through post-processing.
Let us first consider the type of architecture we want to capture.
Is it ancient, expressionist, modern, post-modern, historic? This will decide what we want to focus on. The technological wonder portraying human ambition, the remnants of the past against a stunning backdrop, the cultural influence on the built land and nature, or the human movement around the structure?
The world's oldest surviving camera photo, View from the Window at Le Gras, taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1827 has in fact captured parts of buildings in France countryside. Jeremy Till, the author of “Architecture Depends,” summarizes this in his chapter “Out Of Time”: “The photograph allows us to forget what has come before (the pain of extended labor to achieve the delivery of the fully formed building) and what is to come after (the affront of time as dirt, users, change, and weather move in). It freezes time or, rather, freezes out time. Architectural photography ‘lifts the building out of time, out of breath,’ and in this provides solace for architects who can dream for a moment that architecture is a stable power existing over and above the tides of time.”
In the historical context of landmark pavilions, Space Needle's futuristic architecture style, influenced by the Stuttgart Television Tower and Belgian Atomium, in a way serves as a representation of western aspiration towards technological prowess. So from that perspective, we can focus on its altitude, constituent materials and design, which includes patterns, details, shapes, textures and so on.
In the next two images, I have used glass tree of Chihuly garden in juxtaposition with a real tree in the backdrop and a sculpture at the surrounding garden exhibit with slanted design of Space Needle to correlate different reference frames in terms of height and impression. The idea was not to distort the proportion, but to offer a relativistic scale of reference.
We can, of course, further deep dive to get more propinquity with what we are photographing.
For example, what the designers were thinking while bringing this to life? On whose instruction was it made? An independent contractor named Victor Steinbrueck felt slighted as architect John “Jack” Graham, Jr. got lion's share of the credit. Graham's team worked on the sketches of President of the nonprofit World's Fair Corporation Edward E. Carlson, the one who was inspired by Stuttgart's broadcast tower. Would we like to take on the difficult challenge of portraying his perspective?
Also, occasionally Space Needle goes through a wardrobe makeover and it gets redesigned to some extent for special events. In 2017, it went through the largest renovation attempt in history during which multi-level outdoor observation decks with open-air glass walls were introduced. Capturing it to commemorate those occasions needs different approach.
Symmetrical composition is undesirable in architectural photography and so it's best not to focus right in the middle of the construction for exterior shots.
Multiple locations can provide different vistas and angles, so it's good to explore different parts of the city to capture such a towering structure. Also, weather conditions can make huge difference in terms of natural lighting.
In this below photograph, I tried to put Space Needle under a perspective of larger canvas and I captured it as one of the lofty background elements in the entire city. The focus however lies on the boat, the mast of which made shape of a skyscraper on the water! I'd wished to get more time to capture the frame I wanted but I was on a cruise, and the chilling weather and undulating waves didn't help in the absence of a tripod. Which brings me to recommend a tripod for capturing landscape architecture. Nevertheless, I liked what I achieved here.
I produced sharper and clearer picture of the background in a different time of the day (during the blue hour). However, it looks uninteresting and lifeless in my eyes. The above photograph, with its slight blur and obscurity, reveals more than it conceals. The one below, with all its transparency, remains thickly tight-lipped and doesn't tell me anything about the city beyond bricks, bolts and blocks. It's flat.
The next image offers Mount Rainier, a large active stratovolcano, as the backdrop and I headed to Kerry Park on a rare bright day to get a postcard view of city skyline along with the Space Needle. Mount Rainier is visible only under favorable weather condition and so we need to be on our toes to spot this sight. Here the idea was to make natural distinctive with what's man-made, using light as a dreamy evocation.
Shooting at night can also create distinctively different result from similar shots. Middle of the day often will not provide the perfect condition in terms of lighting, but I will not turn a blind eye and will keep my gears ready if the condition is welcoming. Shooting early or late has its advantage, specially during the blue hour (the darker stages of morning and evening twilight, when the sky gets a deep bluish hue as the sun is far below the horizon) which doesn't typically last more than 20 minutes or so.
For low-light conditions, which one may often face in Seattle, the best option is to take a stroll around the spot or building multiple times to get the interplay of light and shadows, eventually to settle on few vantage points.
The easiest way to provide perspective is to introduce known ground-level elements in the vicinity (people, tree, a leaf with interesting design, cars with motion blur etc.) inside the frame and it also introduces a sense of scale. However, conscious implementation of low-angle to create an impression of towering formation can induce converging vertical lines. This can be transformed with horizontal correction during post-processing or shooting carefully from a distance.
Panorama photo stitcher software like Hugin can be used to sew panoramic shots together and they can provide a different perspective. Wide-eyed depiction without stitching tools is possible if it is shot from a distance as a part of the landscape. Take the next image as an example. Even though the architecture is barely visible, the mere sight of Space Needle resonates as home to every Seattleite while everything else may appear to be a quotidian blur. This capture is driven by that sentiment.
Added a touch of surrealism during post-processing in the below image, but ensured it's not too far from the original, which I liked almost equally. The important factor to consider during retouching is that it shouldn't override the elements and designs one wants to portray. I mostly play with colour and saturation but my take towards the essence doesn't change and I would recommend as little deviation as possible from the original to achieve the intended effect.
Disclaimer : As a photographer, I am still in the discovery mode. I am learning and exploring new things. I still make silly mistakes. So don't take my words as photography literature. This is written to open our mind to possibilities. I would love to know your insights and experience with capturing landscape architecture.
PhotoStory Date: 11.9.2020
Words and Photograph: Amrita Ghosh