Shots in the Dark: Scott Frances on Lighting Structures with What’s Available

August 23, 2012

By Meghan Ahearn

© Scott Frances/

An example of Scott Frances's style of using available light sources to shoot architecture assignments. To see more of his work, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

For photographer Scott Frances, a building’s interior lights play a more important role in his nighttime architecture shoots than any exterior lighting set-up could.

“My work is only interested in the natural motivation of light, the logical motivation of light,” he says. “I’m more willing to experiment with longer exposures, higher ISOs and more wide-open f-stops. I would resort to almost anything rather than supplement the lighting.”

Instead, he looks to other sources to light his shots: lamps, track lighting, chandeliers, and other interior and exterior lights that already exist in the residential homes and commercial buildings he photographs. Natural light is also a source; Frances shoots around sunset, which he says provides “the right balance of dusk light on the exterior of the building.”

A photo of a country house in upstate New York, which was made for Steven Harris Architects LLP, shows a gorgeous evening sky and a white-shingled, two-story house with its interior lights on. Set amongst the plush greenery of the yard is a curved set of benches, where a man and dog sit, lit by a campfire in an outdoor pit.

The photo, Frances says, is a “really good example of my obsession with logical motivation of light. [The man] is completely lit by the fire. Of course, I had to ask him to sit very still. But there’s the light in the distance, there are the lights on in the house, there’s a very dramatic sky: That’s all happening at the same time.”

The architecture firm, which the photographer has been working with for 25 years, prefers this kind of lifestyle-oriented photography in lieu of exact reproductions of the buildings. Frances also prefers this style of photography, unless the building’s architecture is incredibly complex and requires a more direct approach. “I’m looking to capture the air and light and atmosphere and smell and touch of a space: all of the senses,” he says.

Frances created a party scene to show the potential of a high-rise apartment in New York City, which he also shot for Steven Harris Architects LLP. The image shows a couple sitting inside a penthouse apartment, illuminated by the ceiling lights, while a woman is alone on the roof deck smoking. A nearby candle is her light source, and the ember of her cigarette glows in the shot. The background is the west side of Manhattan at dusk punctuated by The Standard hotel illuminated by lights within the guests’ rooms.

“In a way, if you shoot [architecture] without people, you have no idea how big the building is. You need a reference point, something that’s familiar,” Frances says. “So having people in it expresses scale and, more importantly, it can express function because in architecture different elements of the buildings always have what they call a program, so whether it’s a break room or a conference room or a CEO’s office, everything has a function.”

One benefit of relying on existing light is that Frances doesn’t have to worry about toting around a lot of gear. He uses a Canon 5D Mark III, which he says affords him the widest angle possible. He also has three different Gitzo tripods: a ten-foot, a seven-foot and a travel-size. For lenses, he mostly relies on Canon’s 17mm and 24mm perspective control lenses, which allow him to shift the lens in any direction without having to tilt the camera and therefore create a parallax.

A walk-through of a location with the client and/or creatives involved is crucial for every architecture assignment. Frances plans an approximate time of day for each shot, once he gets a sense of where the light will be coming from, and usually allots no more than 45 minutes for interiors and often only 20 minutes for exteriors. For large-scale commercial buildings, the client must ensure that on the day of the shoot all the lights are working, no construction is going on and that an engineer is on site in case something goes wrong.

Twenty years spent as a contributing photographer for Architectural Digest, along with other publications, has taught him to be quick on location. But Frances will spend two to six hours collaborating with a master Photoshop technician on the post production for each image.

He works with the New York City-based retouching company HOUSE, and to achieve the right balance of interior light and exterior beauty, the building’s windows are treated as a different element within Photoshop. If talent featured in the shot needs to be lit by a strobe, the building will still be illuminated with available lights and the two shots will be put together in post production.

Frances explains, “Since there is no artifice or supplement to that light, and because I’m working in Photoshop and doing a lot of post production, I’m mixing and painting together various exposures from a scene. So it’s become more of painterly endeavor for me, the photography. Which is a return to my roots of drawing and painting.”

Related Article:

Scott Frances Photo Gallery