The Art of Moving Buildings

Nerdy photo retouch process behind architectural photography.

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What is it?

Last week I launched a personal project that I have been working on and off since last year called Misplaced Series. Imagine the buildings that you have seen many times, maybe even passed by walking in New York or have seen on photographs. Buildings that are lost in all the city noise, people, tourists, traffic. Buildings that are now covered in street signs, or ugly pharmacy branding that is located on the first floor. Now imagine those buildings “restored” to it’s original design, with clean facade, no garbage, no scaffolding and on top of that they are now somewhere else, somewhere very far. Architectural shape and form becomes more defined and easily understood. Some of these buildings now look even more beautiful and almost get a second life. Some of them actually don’t work in isolated environment and look completely wrong taken out of context.

It all started as an experiment, and not until this series started to get a lof of press I thought of it as a “project”. In this post I wanted to share some of the behind the scenes information and process I went through. Just so you know, I am gonna bore you to death, I have been nerding out on photo retouch for so long and I am about to spill all this right here.

Cover slide of www.misplaced.design

How it all started

As I mentioned previously this wasn’t a “project” for me at all. It started a photo experiment where I was curious about what would be the best and most efficient way to take architectural photos. In general there were many different inspirations that were coming to me over time as I have been working on the series.

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© Markus Brunetti — www.markus-brunetti.de

The main inspiration for me was the work of German artist Markus Brunetti. I have seen his “Facades” series online and was just blown away by his photography. Basically he photographed church facades in Europe in the way that nobody has done before — without distracting figures, tourists, shitty street markets or restoration scaffolding. He managed to capture the architectural grandeur of those churches head-on, from top to bottom in the most impressive way. After reading some interviews about this project, I discovered that he spent 10(!!!) years producing the entire series. To create a single work, Brunetti exhaustively explored each façade from bottom to top, taking a large number of frames over the course of a few weeks or, if necessary, a few years. I was mesmorized by the Facades series and basically wanted to explore the techniques of taking a head-on photo of buildings. Since I live in New York I had a few buildings at my disposal. Just so we are clear what Markus did is clearly 10 out of 10 and what I did probably a 4.

Techniques

As it started as an experiment on taking architectural photography I had to figure out what would be the best technique to do it. I did some research online, spoke to a couple of friends and looked at many different examples. At some point I just biked over to Manhattan and started taking photos of Flatiron Building. All I was curious about is what would be the best way to capture building head-on. Here’s a quick summary of how it can be done:

1: Tilt-Shift.

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Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L

The “proper” way to photograph architecture is using tilt-shift lens. Unfortunatelly I don’t own one and they are pretty expensive. For those who don’t know tilt-shift lens is structured in the way where you can move the glass in two directions (by tilting and shifting) to straighten the converging lines effect that you get if you shoot up at the building from the sidewalk across the street. I rented one during this process just to try it, but it was unreasonable to rent it each time when I had a moment to go at take a photo.

2: Wide angle + Perspective Correction.

This is the simplest way to a take photo of the building. About half of the images I did were photographed this way. I was using wide angle lens (in my case Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L) to take a single photo of an entire building and then with dedicated software adjusting perspective before brining image into Photoshop. The main advantages of this technique is that you can use a single file (no need to stitch multiple shots together) as well as it allowed me to capture building in New York City where most of the time streets are super narrow. The disadvantage is that you get a lot of distortion on the upper part of the shot. Take a look at the first test I did with Flatiron Building. To the left is the original image straight out of camera and to the right is the same photo but with perspective being corrected. You notice how the angle of the roof is skewed and takes 1/3 of the height of the building.

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Flatiron Building photographed with wide angle and then with perspective correction.

3: Multiple Images + Stitching + Perspective Correction.

From my experience this was the best way to take architectural photography so far. Best results were also achieved by taking multiple shots of the building using zoom lens (in my case Canon EF 70–200mm f2.8L). The main advantage of this technique is that you get way less distortion on the upper part of the image in comparison to the point No2 above. Take a look at the image below and compare the roof (top part of the image) to the roof of Flatiron Building captured using second method. You will notice way less distortion and more realistic roof. The other advantage is that you get much larger files in terms of pixels to work with, that makes it easier to retouch and copy/clone elements. There are a couple of disadvantages too: need to stitch images together using specific software (takes a lot of time), file and image size gets super large to work with (processor speed), narrow streets in New York most of the time do not have space to shoot with 70–200mm lens.

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Image of Flatiron Building captured from the distance with zoom lens. Multiple images were taken and then stitched together.

Just so we are clear, none of the 3 techniques mentioned above give you the “correct” head-on and flat facade of the building. No matter what you do, if you stay on the street level and photograph a building, the taller it is, the more information you get from axis Y. Imagine a balcony, the lower the balcony is the more “flat” it looks to you and your camera. You don’t see much of a surface that is underneath the balcony. The higher the balcony is, the more of that surface underneath starts to appear. No matter how you correct your perspective that information always remains captured. The only way to get rid of it is to manually “redraw/remove” all that in Photoshop. Below is an example using Breuer Building:

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Breuer Building example. The higher the sticking out object, the more you see it’s surface.

The only way to get completely “flat” image of the building without any distrotion is to take a drone and take photos of all the floors from different levels and then stich image together. Or one of the other two options below:

4: Photo from Far Away + Zoom Lens

The other option is you can go really really far and take a photo using tele/zoom lens (200mm and above). In this case the amount of distrotion is going to be minimal. Unfortunately it is quite unrealistic due to narrow streets and extremely dense construction (especially in New York). Unless the building is in the middle of the field that is not an option.

Below is a quick and dirty Photoshop mockup of Breuer Building where I manually removed the “depth” of the building. This is approximately how the building would look it I were to capture it from far away with zoom lens. This is somewhat how the building actually looked on original architectural drawings.

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Quick and dirty Photoshop mockup of Breuer Building without any distrotion.

5: 3D Mapping.

As I was exploring different options I was chatting with a friend of mine who suggested to make a 3D model of the building (with 3D software or infrared capture technology such as Microsoft Kinekt) and then map real photos on top of that. That seemed a bit too advanced for me and I honestly don’t have enough knowledge to pull this off.

Software

Working on this project I did a lot of research on software that would allow me to stitch images together as well as correct perspective. The first thing that I tried was Photoshop and Lightroom built in automation features to stitch panoramic images and correct perspective. Unfortunatelly both Photoshop and Lightroom are extremelly bad and handling these two things and I went on exploring different types of specialized software.

Image Stitching.

The software I liked the most for stitching images together was PT Gui. It does look quite antiquated, but does the job extremelly well. What you see on the example below is that I took 6 individual shots of Cooper Union Building first (3 shots horizontally in two rows). Then I processed RAW files in Lightroom — adjusted color balance and tint, removed shadows and highlights, applied automatic lens correction to straightent the shot a little bit as well as remove vignetting. Only then I exported 6 individual images as TIFF files and imported them into PT Gui.

On the right you can see that I have two shots selected next to each other (0 and 1), using little color dots I map the same points in two different images to tell the software what are the same elements. The more points you mark, the more accurate your final image will be. On the left you see a quick pre-render of what your image is going to look like. It takes some time, but totally worth it. If whatever you are shooting is pretty simple and doesn’t have a lot of “noise”, PT Gui does automatically match a lot of points for you.

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Stitching Cooper Union building using PT Gui.

PT Gui has some built in functionality for correcting perspective, but I wasn’t thrilled with the result. So I just exported high resolution TIFF file stitched together, but still with skewed geometry.

Perspective Correction

There’s a software for perspective correction I really wanted to try called Hugin, but could not manage to install it. Unfortunately it’s not your typical “double click to install” situation, and requires some “hacking” to make it work. Since I am a tech moron, I could not make it run properly on my machine and started looking for the alternatives.

The one I found is pretty simple DxO Viewpoint 2. It is also quite handy as it has Photoshop plugin and works from a filter dropdown. After loading image into DxO I usually used 4 line adjustment tool — I specify which lines I want to straight in vertical and horizontal position. On the image below you can see an example with The New Museum and two vertical and horizontal lines mapped on the photo. After clicking “apply” button there’s enough flexibility to tweak image more with the sliders on the right side panel.

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DxO Viewpoint 2 in action.

Landscapes

When I was retouching my photos and removing all the city noise such as scaffolding, signs, people, cars etc. I got to the point where I started removing other surroundings as well — buildings in the frame, streets, sky until there was just one isolated construction left. That’s when I decided to use something else for the backdrop, some surreal landscape that would match each building and bring more focus and attention to it.

I spent nearly a week going through tens of throusands photographs from my travels that I have on my hardrive selecting images that I thought would work. When selecting the landscape for each scene, I had to make sure that shadows of the scene would match shadows of the building. So I would pay attention at where the shadow drops from the stone or any other object in the scene and then make sure that shadows on the building are quite similar or at least go in the same direction.

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Adobe Lightroom and scenes selection.

Most of the landscapes used in the Series are from Maui and Lanai Islands on Hawaii. I have been there four times and travelled the island back and forth. Some other scenes are from desert on the North Shore of Brazil around Jericoacora, some are from volcanoes in Costa Rica and a few from Peru. I wish I have been to Iceland, I would have had much more environments to work with.

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Me taking photos of landscapes in Lanai island, Hawaii.

Photo Retouch

In order to take a photo of every building I had to do quite some research. One of the most important thing to consider was the sun location. If the building is facing West, I had to photograph it super early in the morning, while the sun is right behind it (basically taking photos against the sun most of the time). The problem in New York is that if the sun would be right behind me lighting up the facade of the building, then I would get an insane amount of shadows from the buildings across the street, from cars passing by, trees or any other surrounding objects. So I would wake up at 5AM in the morning on weekends and bike around Manhattan taking photographs while there were no people and cars on the street. Another thing to consider was the parking rules in New York, I had to look up the days when cars wouldn’t be parked on the side of the building that I had to capture.

Some of the buildings turned out to be more realistic than others. Here’s a quick overview of all 11 locations that made into the Series and before/after retouch comparison:

No1. Breuer Building. To take this proto I had to go to Midtown Manhattan early morning before the sunrise to make sure that the sun was behind the building as well as to avoid traffic and people. The original image consists of three separate shots merged together and then the perspective was corrected with DxO Viewpoint 2. The image wasn’t really challenging to retouch, all I had to do is remove scaffolding on the right and some sign posts. The only tricky part was the window on the front with multiple reflections. I wanted to keep original circular shapes, so I had to manually reconstruct each and then apply “desert” reflection on them. The landscape that appears in this shot is from the “Garden of the Gods” on Lanai Island, Hawaii.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/80 at f/8.0

No 2. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. So this is one of the buildings I though I would never finish. I got to Guggenheim super early in the morning around 6AM on the weekend expecting no people and very few cars, but the street right in front of the building was already occupied by vans that sell shitty I❤︎NY chachkies to tourists. So as you can see on the original photo an entire lower floor is completely covered with cars and there was no way I would re-create/redraw the entire floor, basically there wasn’t enough information for me to “clone” textures from. I had to cheat with the landscape and find an image that would allow me to cover the first floor of the building and still keep it natural. Actual image of the building is created from three original files. Having any type of curves is a nightmare to stich together. If you have any curves on the edge of your photo (in this case circular domes on the left and right) after perspective correction it will never look circular, but rather have weird egg shape. To solve this I ended up taking three individual photos — one with the building in the center, and then two images with each dome in the center of the frame. Then I corrected perspective on three individual shots. I used centered photograph to set base of the building just without both domes. And then I “attached” domes back from the other two shots. The landscape that appears in this shot is volcanic structures on Maui Island, Hawaii.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/250 at f/8.0

No3. Headquarters of the United Nations. There were no real challenges capturing this building, just two shots to stitch together. But since it was captured during the day I got an entire city skyline reflected on the lower half of the building that I had to get rid of. Since this building has pretty simple facade and I had a lot of monotone windows to work with and clone them floor by floor to get rid of all reflections. The scene used for this photograph is from the desert near Jericoacora in Brazil. Three lonely mules were actually part of the original landcape shot.

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Photographed with Fuji X100 built in 23mm. Exposure 1/550 at f/5.6.

No4. IAC Building. Single image with perspective correction. In terms of retouch I had to get rid of building reflections on the surface and then add some desert reflections instead. Similar cheat with hills in-front of the building covering first floor. Unfortunately no matter at what time you want to photograph IAC Building, there is always traffic on the highway right in-front of it. Landscape image is from the desert near Jericoacora in Brazil.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/250 at f/8.0

No5. The New Museum. This was the first building from the Series that I finished. The issue was that the original photo was taken right before the sunrise and is extremely dark. Luckily no objects cover the facade except one traffic light that I had to remove. Captured in one shot with perspective correction applied afterwards. Landscape image is from Haleakala Volcano on Maui, Hawaii.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/160 at f/8.0

No6. Whitney Museum. Single image with perspective correction. Removed reflections on the glass and added reflections from the scene instead. Got rid of street lamp, cars, chairs and had to redraw lower left corner of construction. The scene is the Southern slope of Haleakala volcano on Maui, Hawaii.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/250 at f/8.0

No7. Standard Hotel. Two individual images photographed from the distance with 70mm focal lens and then stitched together using PT Gui. I could have redrawn the lower right part of the building that is covered by trees, but this was the last image of the series and I just wanted to finish it. Had to get creative with the landscape image to cover the exact part of the building. The landscape that appears in this shot is volcanic structures on Maui Island, Hawaii.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/800 at f/10.0

No8. Metropolitan Opera. To be honest this is my least favorite image. I got too optimistic thinking that I would be able to get rid of all reflections on the massive glass that covers pretty much 85% of the building. There is also a large amount of people hanging out on the balcony that had to be removed. Hopefully I can reshoot this particular image in the future and retouch it from scratch again. The landscape that appears in this shot is from the “Garden of the Gods” on Lanai Island, Hawaii.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/250 at f/8.0

No9. 8 Spruce Street. This is one of the rare examples when building was captured from far away using zoom lens. 8 Spruce St building is located in the middle of Lower Manhattan surrounded by buildings where streets are super narrow and dark. Since lower part of this building is surrounded by other buildings I could only capture the upper half of construction standing across the river in Brooklyn. I had to get creative with the scene and use this massive dune that goes down with 45 degrees angle “covering” the part of the building I didn’t actually have. This is the only shot where I decided not to remove people climbing the dune. It added more dramatic effect to the final image. I can just imagine people getting back home from grocery store. Landscape image is from the desert near Jericoacora in Brazil.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 70–200mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/125 at f/5.0

No10. Cooper Union. This building set a record for me! I had to reshoot it 5 times as well as I spent over 14 hours retouching it. It is nearly impossible to photograph Cooper Union with just one shot using wide angle lens because the street it is on is too narrow. If you step back a little, there’s a park with lots of trees. Here’s the original attempt with one shot and trying to use trees as part of the scene:

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Unfortunately this way building does not look isolated enough and I had to come back and try find ways to capture it without trees by getting really close. I ended up with 6 individual shots that I merged together with PT Gui. The other issue was the lower floor being covered with street construction. I couldn’t “cover” this up with another hill, because then building would look like it’s being on its belly. The lower floor here is important for the entire shape of construction and it had to stay. I spent just 4 hours “redrawing” it from scratch. Landscape image is from Irazú Volcano National Park in Costa Rica. The “pink” grass is artificially colored in Photoshop as originally it was yellow.

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hotographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/250 at f/8.0
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Close up

No11. Chrysler Building. Chrysler Building was also photographed from far away (from Williamsburg Bridge) using zoom lens at 200mm. Similarly as with 8 Spruce Building where I only have the upper part of the building and had to get creative by putting it in a cleft. The scene is the Southern slope of Haleakala volcano on Maui, Hawaii.

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Photographed with Canon 5D Mark III and Canon EF 70–200mm f/2.8L. Exposure 1/1250 at f/7.1

Site

It wasn’t until last couple of weeks that I decided to launch a separate site with the series. For me it was just a thing that I did in the evenings and then posted on my Instagram. As a “professional” hyper-social-media manager I even made up a tag #misplacedseries (Boom!). Until someone just screenshot my images off Instagram and posted an article online that spread around other design and architecture blogs. Seeing this project spreading around the interwebs and not have a single destination made me put my shit together and finish it. For the next two weeks I focused, I reshot some of the buildings, retouched the ones that were unfinished and launched the project.

There was one more thing left to do. Just putting images of the buildings seemed a bit boring and something that has been done before. When looking at final result I was imagining what it would be like to actually build those buildings up there, what would the stories architects tell about their challenges? I floated this idea by a friend of mine a journalist and audioproducer Jon Earle. He liked the idea and agreed to contribute short fictional stories about each building. I encourage you to read them, because they are super funny and make this project more real and alive.

To build the actual site I got back to my favorite online tool ReadyMag.

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Screenshot of ReadyMag editor view building Misplaced Series cover page with animations.

If you have any questions shoot me a mail — repponen@gmail.com

By the way, some of the building prints are available on my Society6 store.

Thanks!

Written by

Designer/Co-Founder Anton & Irene www.antonandirene.com

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