Photographing Your Own Reference: Architecture At Dusk
By Neil Blevins
Created On: June 26th 2020

When working on the V1 Interactive game Disintegration a few years back as a concept artist, I was presented with a design challenge. I was asked to do a painting of a shopping mall type area at dusk. Why is this a challenge? Two main reasons. First, the word "dusk" I have found to be a loaded word, as everyone has a slightly different idea in their brain of what dusk looks like. And second, the image would combine ambient sky lighting and artificial lighting (from the shops), and getting the right mix of these two elements was going to be a tough. Here's a bunch of questions I felt I needed answers to in order to move forward...

Generally, I'll do a google image search to find reference. But in this case, I decided that the best way to answer all these questions would be to take my own reference. Why? Well first because a shopping mall is easily accessible for most of us in North America (I had one down the street). Second, I wanted to take the same picture at multiple times of day to have a number of choices, which is generally not easy to find on the internet. And third, I wanted to get some highres photos, there's more of those on the internet now than there was 10 years ago, but my own photos would still be better. And last, I wanted to get out of the house :)

Photographing Process

So that night at about 8pm, I walked out to the local shopping mall. I brought my DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex) camera with me and my iphone. The mall was already pretty deserted, so I hoped that no one would mind me sitting down and taking a few pictures.

After scouting different areas of the mall, I decided to plunk myself down in front of the microsoft store. It had a view of the sky. It had a nice big sign that would light up as night time hit. It had a large interior that would light up. Basically it would have all the elements I needed for my painting.

Next I had to decide which camera to use. Ideally, using the DSLR set to manual would be the best choice. If I used automatic, it would try to color correct and expose my photos to get the "optimum" picture. It was important to not have the "optimum" picture, instead it was more important to have a realistic photo of what the light was doing. Having at least a basic knowledge of photography can be a huge help when getting reference, especially if you want to photograph things at night, since night time photography, even for pros, is a much more difficult task than daytime photography.

After setting the DSLR it to manual, I then played with the settings, f-stop, film speed, shutter speed, etc, until the resulting photo looked pretty accurate to what I was seeing with my eyes. There would be some variation of course, but that's ok, you want to capture what the camera sees and not what your eye sees, since you're trying to paint something that feels photographic.

Finally, I took a photograph every 5 minutes or so until it was dark.

Post Process

I then went home and brought the photos into photoshop. Because I didn't use a tripod (didn't want to attract too much attention at the mall), I had to manually crop and reposition the photos a bit to make a series of almost identical views. Then I set up the wedge (a wedge test is where you do a sequence of images where you change one variable. In this case, the variable is the lighting).


Here's a contact sheet of the results:

And here's higher res images of each...


So first, I handed the client these images and said "Which dusk would you prefer". After they chose their favorite (basically between the last two images), I broke it down. What's the sky gradient doing in the chosen pic? How dark should I make the lighting in my 3d scene so that a white concrete object in the scene looks the correct value? If I have a lamp or neon logo in my scene, how much should it glow? And what do the insides of the shops look like?

Taking these pictures gave me a template, a good starting spot, for my 3d image, and then the subsequent painting (most of my work is done by making a simple 3d scene and then painting over top in Photoshop).

My final painting didn't follow the reference exactly. I reduced the amount of glow a bit to make the signs more readable. And I increased the amount of bounce light so the shadows weren't as dark as they were in the real photo, so that the shadowed details were a little more readable. But that's where artistry comes in, you shouldn't be a slave to the photoreal (unless the goal of the project is to achieve perfect photorealism), but the photoreal should guide your initial starting point. In the end the painting was more stylized, but it was stylized by choice instead of because we didn't know what the real actually looked like. And the photos helped show me some details that I wouldn't have ahd had I not gotten the reference.


So next time you're asked to replicate a certain lighting condition, consider going outside, finding the real thing, and take some test shots, then use those shots to help calibrate your final painting. It'll help give you that extra boost of realism.

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