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Best of ASMP 2009

In this gem of an assignment, Mike Butler had a rare opportunity to test the limits of supplemental lighting, to make full use of his innovative talents in elevating the complex physical characteristics of the architectural surfaces to their maximum potential. Butler’s proposition to explore both the literal and the created, reflective environment (which exists only in the photograph) required that many of the surfaces be lit and photographed twice, once for the reflection and then again for the literal, later to be combined in post.

Mike Butler

Web site:

Project: Architectural project for Jade South Miami, FL

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

MB: 9 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

MB: 3 years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

MB: Architecture, Interiors and Exteriors.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

MB: In terms of pure functionality, the lights; in terms of a vehicle to the creative, it would be child-like imagination.

© Mike Butler
All images in this article © Mike Butler

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

MB: Beyond the lighting, I have a methodology that lets me break the tedium down and decide what is really important and what is superfluous. I calculate the maximum potential for an image and engage that process minus the protocol many photographers get caught up in. Having a very clear directive and a fluid understanding of the technical end, I am able to know what will and will not have an effect on the image. Within this modus operandi I provide myself a the full gamut of efficient esthetic solutions, from quick shots with blown out highlights to a full 12-hour exterior shot with generators and crew, maximizing every tone. This provides my clients, whether they know it or not, almost unlimited outcomes.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

MB: I began to work with this process of multiple images in about 2000 - 2001, working with scanned 4x5 negatives, and then outputting chromes for delivery.

Because of the super complex surfaces, high contrast subject and the chosen angle, there is really only one way to correctly engage the image. Every surface needed to be assigned a look and/or texture that would be built around a solid composition and time of day, in this case dusk. Knowing what the final image was to look like, I started on the far left of the image and worked counter clockwise around the image, lighting each section individually. Because of cross over, some sections needed to be lit completely and some sections could be condensed out and lit individually. Of course there was some talk, mainly from the assistants, to simply flip the image, and I imagine that could have worked, but it fully misses the point.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: How did you come to receive this assignment? Had you worked with this client before?

MB: I have worked with this client for many years, on numerous equally interesting projects. Photographing this space was the fruition of an earlier shoot some years ago, in which I photographed the model center, itself a totally unique piece of architectural art, of course since torn down.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: What was your timeframe for working on this project? How many shots were there in total?

MB: Initial budget called for 5 days but was really determined by my needs. In total, I shot for 3.5 days with a total of 11 interiors and many exteriors.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: Was the image requiring six hours of on-site production time the longest period spent on one shot? What was the least amount of time you spent on site to produce a single image?

MB: Yes, the six-hour production of the horizontal image was the longest on this particular shoot. The shortest valid shot took around an hour.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: What was the largest number of image components that were combined in one image in order to achieve your desired lighting effect?

MB: For the horizontal overall 27 individual captures were blended together. In those 27 images, every conceivable lighting strategy was implemented from large diffuser panels, to bounce reflections, bounce fill and of course direct light.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: How much time was spent on post production? Do you have a dedicated person on staff for this work?

MB: Post production work on this image took about 5 hours. I do all the major post-production myself and farm out the minor jobs.

ASMP: What type(s) of lighting did you use for this project?

MB: Standard hot lights (Lowel) and strobes (Dynalite).

© Mike Butler

ASMP: Since you were lighting many of the surfaces more than once, for a single image to be combined in post, were you working tethered and doing initial post production work on site? Do you have any tips for troubleshooting logistics or efficient workflow when doing such a complex project?

MB: The IDs Mark III was locked down and tethered to a laptop. For shots like this, I have a pretty specific idea of what needs to happen and, like a complex lighting puzzle, execute the pieces as we go through the shot, making sure each will fit with the next.

As for logistics and workflow, one must know what is important to the shot and what is fluff. If you get bogged down in tedium for the sake of tedium, one would have a hard time pulling something like this off in any reasonable amount of time. Even with an expedited workflow, shots like this can take up to 6 hours. On the flip side, moving with this kind of efficiency can lead to silly mistakes that would otherwise be avoided using a more conservative approach; yet again balancing all inputs, the outcome clearly outweighs any negative effects that might be encountered.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: You say that you have a passion for “Extreme Lighting,” can you elaborate further about this? Do you have a general philosophy for lighting a space or does this vary from project to project?

MB: Lighting at any level in the architectural industry, especially now with digital, is somewhat out of vogue, or if used, is applied in a manner that de-accentuates its presence. I have never quite understood this philosophy, as the idea of extreme lighting has the tendency to maximize the potential of many spaces, and thus defines most of my work. The concept of extreme lighting in itself is not an end, for me it really is a function within a larger framework, a framework that maximizes the potential of all available tools.

Although the majority of spaces I see do not either have the capacity or the esthetic potential for this application (thus it is not applied), I am always looking for ways to push the boundaries of this method.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: Do you have any favorite tips or tricks for lighting a space to share with others?

MB: Tips and tricks is an overdone topic. My only advice is to learn the functional rules, then break all those rules.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: Due to the complex nature of your lighting for this project, do you make use of diagrams or any other forms of preliminary planning or note taking to work out your ideas? If so, please elaborate.

MB: As far as precise pre-planning, most of the time this happens mentally, although every once in a while the construct of the space is such that some simple plans need to be laid out. Once I have determined the angle through a series of both technical and visceral dead reckoning, I will begin to mentally piece together the shot, understanding the pitfalls and possibilities. The longer I have for this the better. For the more complex shots, it sometimes it takes days of walking around with the space in my head until my subconscious comes up with the most amazing solution. Once on location and the equipment is set up, it is just a matter of executing that vision.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: You mention that this client allowed you a maximum of creative freedom. Do you have any strategies for working with clients to try and maximize this type of open and trusting relationship?

MB: Every client is of course different, and I need to read how far I can stretch that creative realm. Most times this is no problem; they hire me for the look, although other times I have certainly given the client work they don’t understand. You need to push the client, and at times not listen to the client. This all depends on your level of creative expression and how important that is to you.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: When discussing a prospective assignment with clients, is there any one question that you find to be most important or telling?

MB: This would not be my strong suit. I of course ask the standard list of questions, yet in the end they are hiring me for a very specific vision of the world; that’s what they get.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: Given your interest in taking the time needed to achieve a look that elevated each surface to its maximum potential (no matter how long it took), do you feel that you were adequately compensated by the fee that you received for this assignment?

MB: I would say so, although I know there are photographers that would disagree. I have to walk a fine line between what I produce and what I get paid. If I were to base the final esthetic potential of shots on what I was getting paid, half the work in my portfolio would not be there. This is actually of concern to me, as more and more clients get that “Walmart” mentality, and certain photographers cater to that genre of shooting. I have noticed that, because of this, clients are becoming less concerned and aware of the esthetic potential, instead accepting what amounts to scouting shots as final images. These scouting shots are published and recognized as passing. We are indeed here to make money, yet if we as a group lessen our expectations of our work to assimilate with that, it becomes a grave path towards group and social mediocrity.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: Looking back on this assignment is there anything that you would do differently?

MB: I would have photographed this image at dawn to generate a more dynamic sky.

© Mike Butler

ASMP: Has this assignment brought you any new clients or garnered added visibility for your business? Are you planning to incorporate these images in any upcoming marketing plans or promotions?

MB: Not to my knowledge. It is unlikely I will use this particular image for anything but the Web site portfolio, as its aesthetic application is a bit intellectual and does not lend itself to mass marketing.

© Mike Butler