Documenting A Building Through Photography: The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

My final project for a photography class involved documenting a building through 25–30 high quality images. This is what I ended up with.

I’ve owned a digital SLR since November 2010, a camera that I chose not to bring to university when I moved to the United States in 2011.

In hindsight… it was a stupid decision. But, y’know, hindsight is 20/20. I got to travel a fair bit from my first to my third year at USC (Thailand, London, Hong Kong, Kerala, Washington D.C., and the Bay Area to name a few places) — and all I had to document my travels was my cell phone (from cheap HTC phones, to the Nexus 4 — all of which is pretty sub-standard).

This December, however, I went back home to India to travel to the isolated Rann of Kutch near the India-Pakistan border in Gujarat… and decided to bring my SLR along for the ride. That’s when I realized what I was missing all this time.

I know, I know, this isn’t particularly high-res nor does it look like it was shot on a digital SLR. I was essentially treating a Ferrari like a Fiat (not that my Canon T2i is close to being a Ferrari compared to most cameras…)

So I brought it along for my last semester at USC. I also took a photography class (Digital Architectural Photography, to be exact) — to force myself to use my DSLR on a regular basis — y’know, practice makes perfect. And it was great. I learnt a lot about how to use my camera, how to use Lightroom, and how to do HDR the hard way (the easy way being clicking on the HDR option on an iPhone). I also invested in a tripod and cable release, and spent many many many hours on my final project, where we were asked to document a building through 25–30 photographs.

I picked a building called the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, which was interesting for many reasons. First of all, it wasn’t the first building that sprung to mind when we were told to pick buildings to document. I’d never heard of it, and to be frank, I wanted to do a building that was within the confines of USC simply because making multiple trips to Downtown Los Angeles seemed like a bit of a hassle. That said, for whatever reason I ended up taking the plunge and picked this building not too far from Little Tokyo in DTLA.

The Cathedral was opened in 2002, was designed by Rafael Moneo in contemporary modern + deconstructivist style.

It replaced another cathedral in Los Angeles, the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana — a building built in 1876 that was the “official cathedral of Los Angeles see for over 100 years” that was damaged during an earthquake in 1994. That said, it still stands, and is one of the last few buildings left “from the early period of Los Angeles history”.

Taking 25–30 high quality shots meant that you inevitably took a *lot* of shots and cut out a lot of bang average photographs. The numbers vary, but I’d say that most of us took over 300–500 shots in total that was eventually whittled down to a top 25 of sorts that fit the requirements of our project. The project involved taking a number of different kinds of pictures — from HDR, to black and white, to dusk shots, to merging a minimum of 3 photographs to create a panorama shot of sorts, to even daylight/indoor shots.

This was at the entrance to the cathedral.

Indoor shots were particularly interesting — they usually require HDR shots given the varying amounts of light indoors. In a regular shot, for example, areas around see-through windows are likely to be over-exposed, while areas that are not near windows are likely to be under-exposed.

HDR shots are created by merging three (or more) shots of varying exposures, all shot at the exact same location. This usually requires the use of a tripod, but I wasn’t allowed a tripod in this cathedral. I ended up making do with chairs and finding ways to ensure that my camera didn’t move around too much while I took my photographs.

This shot, oddly enough, wasn’t a HDR shot that managed to balance the two rather well.

That being said, the HDR shots did come out a whole lot better than the non-HDR indoor shots. The second of the two below is my favorite of my entire project.

This one’s not half-bad either though. Particularly considering it didn’t involve the use of a tripod.

The shot below was a panorama shot I put together by merging a total of 5 RAW images.

More HDR images…

This was taken from the back of the cathedral — with my camera placed on a chair.
This was taken with me sitting cross-legged on the floor, hoping that my legs would provide a steady surface to take three photographs on.
And this was taken on top of a chair, if I remember correctly. Not being allowed a tripod forced me to use all sorts of contraptions to keep my camera steady.

I really like taking look-up shots, mostly because you tend to see stuff that you wouldn’t really see in your peripheral vision unless you took the time to look up. Here were the best few…

And here’s my favorite look-up shot I took from the outside of the building.

My dusk shots were (to me), average at best. The cathedral closed at 6pm, which meant that the views you could get for dusk shots weren’t particularly exciting.

This shot was interesting to me only because of the reflections of traffic from right across the street.

Aaaand that’s it.

It took me a total of 6 trips to the cathedral in DTLA, a total of 486 photographs, and just $18–20 in travel costs! (LA actually has public transport, who would’ve thought?)

If you got all the way here… I really, really appreciate you taking the time to read this! If I don’t know who you are (or if I do), feel free to say hi on Twitter.

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