East meets West: American Photographer in Singapore

Interview in August 2018 Photo World Magazine. The magazine is written in Chinese so the text has been translated from English to Chinese and then back to English so it’s paraphrased here and there. A very interesting experience.

by Tatiana Rosenstein

 

After travelling the world, native of Michigan, USA, Christopher O’Grady settled down in a place, where it is “never cold and everything functions efficiently”, in Singapore.

Singapore is a unique mix of Asian and Western cultures, often described as a place where East meets West. Most of the local companies have significant influence of the traditional values of the Chinese, who make up 75 % of Singapore’s population. It’s the world’s only fully functioning city-state, a global hub for commerce, finance and travel. It is not the cheapest place. In fact it ranked as the 5th expensive in Asia after Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong and Beijing. However the tax system, safety and life quality are great advantage of the region. Maybe Singapore does not offer huge deal of the cultural heritage like countries in Europe. It can also have advantages. The local museums are opened for news genres and experiments as well as for new technologies. It has also unique and enriching tradition of the Peranakan culture, descended from marriages between Chinese or Indian men and local Malay and Indonesian women from the Malay Archipelago, is a fascinating blend of cultures from the region.

Western culture is well known for valuing of individual achievements. Working ethic in Singapore is based on a collectivist culture, groups or better to say private clubs. Of course being a photographer mostly means to launch a freelancer business, actual goal of O’Grady after his arrival to Singapore. He chose architectural and interior photography, the niche that is focused on commercial clients. He was looking to work with architects, builders, hospitality industry like restaurants, hotels and luxury resorts, creating essential relationship between photography and branding, helping his clients to document and sell their spaces. O’Grady is famous for his intense focus to every detail, starting with the way he creates a single image. Photographing architecture is similar to constructing the narrative and telling the story. Christopher O’Grady tells us his own story and another one created by his images.

On the way to Singapore

My way to Singapore was through Europe. 1999 I moved from the USA to Paris; two years later to London, where I obtained my bachelor’s degree in the Recording Arts. Indeed I studied music and worked in the music industry for a long time until I realized that the career I was studying might not exist for long due to the emergence of MP3s and the digital music revolution. I always had an interest in photography. But I think my interest first came simply because I was passionate about documenting my travels. I was fascinated with the technical aspects and processing techniques needed to create a compelling image. At times, I was hauling 10-15 kilograms of photography equipment while travelling. Taking pictures is one thing, managing the business side of photography is another, and it can be tough.

I have always been fascinated by high-end interior photography and I told myself that I would do whatever it takes to learn how to create these high quality images. My professional career in photography started in 2008. I was creating 360 virtual tours and photographing real estate, commercial interiors and hotels in Paris and Dublin. In 2013 I subsequently signed a contract with my first photography agency in Paris. I studied photography and polished my skills by working on hotel photography editing requests.

When I moved back to Paris and later to Dublin, I was nearly settling down there with my wife, when we realized that we would like to move to some place “where we would never would be cold again”.

 

A place I never would be cold again.

I booked one-way ticket to Singapore. It was a good decision to come to a place where everything runs efficiently and the weather is fantastic, especially for working on architectural photography through the whole year.

Arriving in Singapore I started contacting potential clients directly, looking for meetings to present my portfolio. Interior and architecture photography is a very special field, if you manage to impress clients with great images and hard work they will start recommending you. Networking is the key word and one of the most important things as a freelancer is building a healthy network, finding people who like your work and are willing to hire you at some point.

I usually try to learn basics of the language of the countries I am working in, so I can easily communicate. However my clients generally have English-speaking representatives working with me. When I am asked, if there are any differences is my work with the work of the local photographers, I could say that it has nothing to do with being local. I think that my attention to details during the staging of the image, my style of lighting and demanding postproduction makes me different from the others. However every photographer uses different techniques and has a different look to their images. I like punchy images with clean colors and images that pop.

Being already an established professional in Singapore I am enjoying that the fact, that most of my clients come to me by “word of mouth”, many of them started to contact me though my website, which is important to launch and keep updated. I have just recently set up a new private limited company called “Visual Narrative”. Through the year 2018 I have been fully booked with shoots scheduled in Dubai, in San Francisco, South East Asia, across China and Singapore.

There are many professional photographers in Singapore who work in the field of interior and architecture photography. There is a big gap between the low-end and the high-end work. It’s competitive at the lower end when everyone fights to become affordable, trying to bring the market down to the level. The clients I am interested in working with have healthier budgets more because they look for quality. There are budgets and standard rates usual for the industry. But of course, budget is the matter of negotiation. For lower budget the quality will be also different. Each country has own preferences of how the end images should look like. Nevertheless the basics of architectural and interior photography are the same around the world.

Composition, lighting, postproduction

Architectural and Interior photography requires specialized knowledge of composition, lighting and postproduction techniques. Mainly, interior photography is about lighting. The human eye can capture more light than the camera sensor. So I try to use lights to bring the ambient light levels up in the room to the same level. The ambient light bouncing around the room tends to contaminate the colors of the objects. Using lights it allows me to capture the true color of the objects and surfaces in the room. I use a technique called “flash exposure blending”. It means that I add flash to areas of the frame and then blend them together in postproduction. Sometimes, I will work on an eight-gigabyte image with a up to 75 or 100 layers and it takes between two and five hours to put together a single image. It depends on the space and the image.

I never imagine the final image as one frame produced by camera. That would be too easy. For example, the project the Bugis Junction Mall in Singapore is comprised of three blocks of preserved pre-war shop-houses developed into a mall. It was the first glass covered galleria shopping mall in Singapore and Asia linking Malay, Bugis and Hylam streets. I captured the interior of the mall in several different exposures to capture the full dynamic range of light, which I manually blend together in postproduction. I slowed the shutter of the camera then to produce a slight blurred effect on people. I took numerous photos capturing interesting people and filled with them areas of the frame. In postproduction I composited these people on the places I thought they would complete composition of the image. In addition I created images of the details like of the galleria ceiling.

Another interior design photography project – the Singaporean restaurant “Hans Im Glueck” – has a quite unique design filled with birch trees coming up through the floor. I wanted to create little pathways between the trees to the viewer special dining space within the image. It has a bright-airy lunchtime atmosphere and dark-intimate dinner one. I needed to capture these two moods. So the daytime images show the seating arrangement where the viewer has their seat within the trees. The dinnertime is captured trough the intimate lighting and images are more focused on the bar. These images have 35 flash exposures blended into the ambient exposure to create a crisp and warm feel.

In the Warehouse hotel in Singapore I was especially focusing on Astro Lighting system, on shooting the lighting fixtures, bedside and desk lamps, in the room as a product of photography shoot. The variety of shades and moods required shooting at different times of day. Depicting the hotel lobby belongs to the key photo of the hotel and also to my preferable motive. It’s the face of the hotel and the first point of contact for arriving guests. I sometimes choose a dramatic lighting technique to add contrast to objects and space and to create a warm, inviting mood to the space.

Every hotel has different brand standard, some of them do not want to have staff included in photographs. For various requests I have developed a special lighting and editing technique, which allows me including or removing staff on commercial images like in the project Ramada and Days Hotel at Zhongshan Park Singapore. Photo-shoot of the project took two days in total. It was scheduled at midnight until 6 am on the first day, and from noon until 8 pm the next day. Some of the photographed areas had to be free from people. For the same project I also delivered images of meeting and ballrooms as well as restaurants. I photograph the meeting room with a blank screen, the logo can be digitally updated in the future if the client rebrands without reshooting the room. With the screens in place it allows me to digitally add the logo in postproduction.

Sometimes, I invest a full day into the postproduction of one image. I would say that in my workflow the photo shoot is about the half of the process of creating the final image. During the postproduction process I can experiment with a photograph in many different ways, processing them so they will look their best. Therefore I also work with retouchers for tedious edit requests as well as for the complex object removal according to the client’s wish. I take time to discuss various techniques with my clients before and during the shoot so they understand my approach to the images. I think that discussing elements of composition with client helps lead the eye through the image. I want to ensure that I am capturing what is most important about each space.

I love editing, that is where the art of photography starts for me. For years I was using Canon but then I found the company is not innovating anymore and I have moved on to the Sony A7R ii and recently to the A7R iii. The main lenses of my preference are the Canon 17 mm, 24 mm and 50 mm tilt-shift on a Metabones adapter. These tilt-shift lenses allow me to shift the perspective up and down while keeping the verticals straight. I use Godox lights, which are very innovative. They recently came out with incredibly powerful lights that have a small form factor at a decent price.

I enjoy the precise staging of interior photography perfectly arranging everything within the composition, figuring out techniques for overcoming the technical challenges of shooting interiors, sharing my knowledge and communicating with clients in order to leave them completely satisfied. I also love the travelling aspect of my work even though it often can be exhausting.

Of course each projects can have ups and downs. Shoots are always subjected to the Murphy’s law, meaning that “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong!”. That is why it is important to be able to adapt to different situations and to solve problems quickly. Sometimes my clients come up with very “imaginative” edit requests but I enjoy complex edits and postproduction. I think that the best way of learning new techniques is to face the challenge and to learn how to overcome it. Luckily I never had a problem yet that I could not overcome. Solving problems is a normal part of every job.