Cameras perceive light differently than the human eye, adding even more layers of complexity to lighting design and architectural photography. Sam Koerbel, a photographer, embraces complexities like these to convey light’s multifaceted qualities in his work.
Koerbel is also the mastermind behind Lytei, a dynamic educational video series about lighting and controls. He tells stories about light in his videos and inspires lighting design and architecture professionals to embrace their creativity at home and on the field.
Read our interview with Koerbel to learn how his lighting design experience advises his unique approach to lighting design and architectural photography.
A Brilliant Career in Lighting Design
What inspired you to pursue a career in lighting?
I was always fascinated with what light could do. It started in the theater, mixing a bank of sliders to convey a particular emotion on stage. I think back to it, and what made me excited was how the same space could look so different based on where the light came from, what color it was and how bright it ended up being. With a love for architecture, I came across the University of Colorado Boulder and architectural engineering. The rest is pretty much history.
How would you describe your lighting or artistic style?
I always try to convey emotion and tell a story. For that reason, I always try to find moments that people often would not think to see, but once they do, they search out for it themselves.
What types of spaces or projects do you enjoy illuminating?
I find there to be an equal challenge in both interior and exterior spaces. I always like capturing a hero shot of the exterior at blue hour, though!
Can you tell us about one of your favorite lighting projects? What was it about the final product that made it a standout project for you?
Illuminating the Hotel Jerome is one of my favorite projects. It was incredible to be able to capture the before and after of a simple lighting detail being coordinated, updated and integrated into one of the most historic buildings in the western part of the United States.
Light truly brought the facade back to life and let the energy from the inside of the space translate to the exterior. Photographing it was amazing, because it required the perfect balance of daylight and electric light. It's also set in the beautiful town of Aspen, Colorado!
What’s one of your most profound memories as a photographer and lighting designer?
As a photographer, I would say my best memories are every 4 a.m. wakeup call that turned into spectacular sunrises. As a lighting professional, it would have to be spending a weekend with Howard Brandston and learning about his philosophy on life and how that translated into an amazing and successful career in lighting and architecture.
If you could articulate your philosophy about light in one sentence, what would you say?
Light is one of two necessities of life; it should always be considered no matter the circumstances. After all, can you imagine not being able to see?
What do you look to for inspiration?
Timeless images and work that embodies this concept inspire me. I like to create things that will last a lifetime and beyond.
What should lighting designers be discussing today?
Why their fees are worth more now than ever (because they are).
What should architects be discussing in terms of lighting a space today?
They should always consider lighting from day one and hire someone who is dedicated to the profession.
Lighting Tips & Tricks
What’s the most valuable lighting tip you can share?
Put light where you need it, for what you need it. If you can't answer those questions, you haven't done your job.
What advice would you give to lighting designers starting out in the field?
Listen to what Charles Stone says: learn 3,000 things before you give an opinion.
Tell us about one of your favorite lighting techniques and why?
It's simple: unless the light is dynamic, it's not interesting to me. In contrast, finding light with shadow and letting the light guide you is imperative.
The Future of Lighting Design
Where do you think the lighting design industry is headed? How do you feel about the direction it’s taking?
It will either flourish or perish. Personally, I think this is a great moment to let it flourish. However, this will take a united industry and dedication to make sure people understand light, the effect it has on humans and how it is the most important single element in a space.
What are you most excited about in terms of future products or technology still in the early stages?
I'm excited for the day 2x4s don't exist anymore! I'm most excited about new form factors that are invented as a concept. Finding new ways to integrate light into architecture plays into this, too. Sometimes, the source should be hidden.
Capturing Architectural and Lighting Design Projects
What are some essential tools for completing a successful architectural shoot?
A camera that has good dynamic range and can shoot in a RAW format (Sony, Nikon and Canon are all good options). A wide angle lens in the range of 16-35MM, a sturdy tripod and a remote trigger (known as an intervalometer) are critical as well. The more sturdy your setup is, the cleaner the shot. Invest in a tripod!
What do you think about when creating and framing a shot for a design project?
It’s always important to tell a story. Interviewing the design team to understand the audience’s intent is helpful. Otherwise, try to scout the scene ahead of time and observe how people move through the space and where they stop to congregate.
While most projects have an “overall image,” it’s best to capture the space as people would see it in real life. Our eyes constantly wander, so it’s critical to really think about picking the right position that gives a true sense of feeling, all while giving the eye a natural place to land. Typically, this is a place you would walk to, such as a desk, door or lounge area.
Is it possible to capture lighting design appropriately without post-processing?
If you only want to capture the luminaire, maybe. Most of the time, it’s impossible. The subtle contrast of well-executed lighting design is hard to capture without toning an image and adjusting contrast. Photographing a bright aperture next to a soft ceiling will often result in a fuzz effect, for example. This is a good place to layer in a second or even third image to create a crisp line that our eyes can see but the camera cannot capture.
Oftentimes, traditional architectural photographers will use a set of high power “fill lights” or photograph a space with an abundance of daylight to get around this challenge. Unfortunately, that doesn’t render the lighting design properly.
What are the key elements of composition?
A foreground, midground and background should be established. This is easiest to accomplish by elevating your position. Identifying the hero (subject) and placing it in a third of the image is best.
Breaking the rules and placing the hero in the middle of the frame can work, but it often leads to distracting elements around the edge of the image. Beyond that, look for leading lines from the corners towards the hero of the shot, or make an organic s-curve.
It’s also important to tell the story about what you’re looking at or where you might go. Zooming in and out to eliminate or include parts of that story are critical. Don’t go as wide as possible “just because.”
What is the difference between a single image and HDR?
HDR stands for high dynamic range. The human eye has a dynamic range that is beyond that of any camera. HDR photography typically takes several images and blends them together. One image exposes the brightest part of the space, another exposes the darkest part of the space and a third image captures mid-range tones.
There are software programs that automate this with a certain degree of success, but the manual process is the best way to control the end result. A single image can still have a decent range today. High-end professional cameras have 19+ stops of dynamic range. Combine that with shooting in RAW and there is a chance you might not need to blend images, depending on the field conditions.
What is a tilt-shift lens?
A tilt-shift lens is a lens that adjusts itself to correct a photograph’s perspective. It’s an alternative for wide-angle lenses and can come in handy for awkward rooms or cramped spaces. It isn’t critical to have one, but it can be a useful tool to keep in your bag!
Becoming an Architectural and Lighting Design Photographer<
How do you get business as an architectural videographer or photographer?
Practice, network and perform! You’ll need a portfolio to get a chance. Offer to shoot at local restaurants or boutique stores that you notice are opening or remodeling. They might give you a free lunch or a gift card for your work!
From there, look for a list of local architects and use tools like LinkedIn to see if you might have a mutual connection to get an introduction. Start small and offer to be a second shooter on a project free of charge. From there, you can negotiate hourly rates and license fees per image for a finite period of time.
Do I need expensive gear to get started?
No. The composition is first and foremost. The next part would be the lens, or “the glass.” This is what captures the scene, so you should always invest in one. Any full frame camera that shoots in RAW will do the trick to get you started. You’ll want to get at least 50-100 hours of practice in Photoshop, too!
Connect With Sam Koerbel and Lytei
|Work Address:||2444 N Washington St. Suite 100
Denver, CO 80205