Architectural photographer Scot Zimmerman has been a part of our Utah Style & Design team for a long time—you might recognize him from the popular Photo Friday series on our blog. In this interview, USD talked with Scot about his why he thinks architectural photography is the world’s best job.
USD: How did you get started as an architectural photographer?
I actually started out as a ski photographer. But after a while, I realized that anyone who could ski better than me—which is basically everyone—was going to get better ski pictures than me.
But I was that kind of geeky kid in school on the yearbook team, and photography is all I ever wanted to do, so I went hunting for something I wouldn’t have as much competition on. Luckily, I had some experience with interiors because my dad used to take me along to make photos of projects by his architectural firm (he sold architecture products), and I just fell into this career.
Most people think architecture is really boring, but I just loved it. There isn’t really an education in architecture photography, so I am mostly self-taught. For a while I just worked on my technique in Utah, but for a bit I moved to California and stumbled into a guy who was a Frank Lloyd Wright-trained architect. He was my mentor of sorts and opened a lot of doors for me. He also helped me look at photography a little differently and fall in love with the art of shooting architecture. Now I’m still at it and I still love it. In fact, I’m still learning every day and find myself evolving in style approach and in tech every day.
USD: Do you have a favorite/most memorable project?
All of the Frank Lloyd Wright stuff by far. There are projects I’ve had the opportunity to shoot that are no longer open to the public. It feels very cool to know I was one of the last people in the building before they became private residences. Plus they are all absolutely incredible. (Note: Zimmerman has a portfolio packed with historic and often closed-to-the-public Frank Lloyd Wright properties.)
USD: What is it like to see your work on a magazine cover?
Seeing it is absolutely thrilling. My first cover was with a fancy Italian design magazine called La Architectura. Your ego goes through the roof for a bit. I don’t know if many people really understand that thrill. You put your heart and soul into this work as a creative, and you get so into seeing it on display.
Covers open a lot of doors for you as well. My first cover in Utah was on the old Salt Lake magazine: They featured a shot of the Frank Lloyd Wright property in Bountiful. I had just moved back from California, and that feature did wonders for me starting a business here.
USD: Do you have any pointers for designers on how to prep their rooms for a shoot?
Keep in mind that these shoots are a process. With all the new iPhones and technology these days, people assume that shooting a project is a 30-minute job then they’re rid of me. In reality, these shoots are 4 to 5 hour ordeals.
I need commitment from the designer, architect and property owner that I’ll be allowed to move and arrange freely in that space for that long of a time. Another important consideration is the layout of the room. Occasionally, a space requires rearranging to accommodate lighting or the perspective of the lens, because the camera works differently than your eye. It helps to have a designer on-site to help me rearrange in a way that presents well, but that they are still happy with.
USD: What are your favorite spaces to shoot?
I love a space that looks livable. Modern architecture is often a work of art and makes fabulous photographs, but it’s not very warm or inviting. It seems a little trite, but I love spaces that have personality, emotion and that feel like they have life in them. People have very interesting lives, and I love to see that in their rooms. That is one of the best parts of my job: I get to meet people who are fascinating, and show off their personality as it’s reflected in their living spaces.
USD: What equipment do you use?
I am almost exclusively a Canon guy. I use a 5D Mark 4 camera, and perspective control lenses. On top of that, I’ve kind of invented my own lighting system over the years with very low-tech equipment. I use lighting to make your eye look where I want it to, and how I do that is by lighting in layers.
First, I’ll light a back part of the room to pull your eye all the way through the space, then I’ll strategically light other areas to highlight details or help the room appear larger. It’s very basic, but the main goal is to make my photos look as if I didn’t light them. I want it to look natural, but unfortunately your eye works differently than a camera, so I have to light for the equipment.
USD: What do you do differently when shooting interiors vs. taking photos of architecture?
With interiors and homes, they are usually styled heavily. Designers bring paintings and furniture and food items and furniture—they’re styled to look like they’re perfect. With architecture, you don’t and can’t do that, so the photos have to make the project look good with other means.
My job is all composition and a little bit of lighting. With architecture, I can’t say “ok turn to your left and look down” to a wall. My projects are stuck, so I have to be the one to move around a lot. It’s surprisingly physical. I can log 2-5 miles easily just on one shoot.
Architecture stuff, you can straighten things up but often you have to work around what’s there. It’s all about lighting, time of day and composition.
USD: Final question: What is your favorite part of photographing architecture?
I think architecture is cool because it’s real stuff, not fluff. It’s our homes, schools, environments we live and work in that have a tremendous impact on the quality of our lives. Good architecture and design have a huge impact on the people who use a space, and I’ve seen so many examples of that impact over the years.
I truly do believe that I have the world’s best job. Forty years after I got started, I am still doing what I love. I get so excited to go to work sometimes that I can hardly control myself. In fact, I have an old leg injury that usually bothers me when I walk, but when I’m on a shoot I get so hypnotized by what I’m doing that I don’t even notice it. I can’t believe people pay me to do this work.