Capturing space in time
Architectural photographer Darren Soh shares how he builds memories.
It was a clear sunny day in Singapore when local photographer Darren Soh was walking across a recently washed basketball court layered with many puddles. Soh noticed the striking reflections of nearby buildings in those puddles, thanks to strong sunlight. So, he took a picture.
After snapping the same frame almost 40 times, Soh looked back at his Camera Roll and realised that only one of them captured a bird mid-flight. That photo ended up winning the Shot on iPhone Challenge, which occurred in early 2019.
Recognising a picture-perfect moment isn’t incidental: Soh is an accomplished architectural photographer, whose work has featured in Monocle and Wallpaper*, been used by the Singapore Tourism Board and he has also been contracted by many architects and developers.
“I am very fortunate to be able to do the kind of photography that I love personally for work,” says Soh. He goes on to explain his photographic philosophy as a “documentarian of spaces”.
“Some things change at a rate that you don’t notice. By the time you compare things far enough apart, you realise it’s too late because they don’t exist anymore,” he elaborates.
It’s only in the last decade or so of his career that he has focused on architectural photography. The idea came mainly from the realisation that the cityscape of Singapore was changing rapidly, with iconic vernacular buildings being slated for redevelopment.
We keep tearing down old buildings and building new ones. I wanted to photograph a lot of the older buildings in Singapore before they were demolished.
- Darren Soh
His young son also plays a big part in his personal mission. In fact, Soh has published a book, a collection of images of public spaces in Singapore, entitled For My Son. He explains, “It is precious for him to have a visual record of places his parents used to live in, play at and use in other ways if those places cannot be kept unchanged physically.”
Because he sees his photos as “potential historical documents”, Soh is careful in his approach. As a big believer in respecting the building, his take on architectural photography is formal. That means the resulting images should show a building as it was designed to look, with straight lines instead of skewed perspectives. To do so, he typically speaks to the architect of the space before he translates it into a photo.
“A lot of these buildings will not survive our lifetime. And I believe that if you cannot save all of them, then you should take as decent pictures of them as possible.”
To build his archive of architectural memories, Soh uses these techniques:
Find the light
Soh relies on natural light to make buildings come to life in his photos, preferring to shoot early or late in the day to avoid the harsh midday light. He makes exceptions when the situation calls for it and recommends watching how the light interacts with the building at different times of the day to bring out the colour, shadows and contrast.
Capture the detail
When Soh photographs scenes with a lot of detail, like a cityscape from the Taipei 101 building or buildings with intricate facades, he uses Hydra, a multi-shot processing app that delivers much larger files with real detail.
Even if a building doesn’t get demolished, it will change over time. Getting the most faithful photo of a building is so important to him that he returns to his childhood home at 82 Commonwealth Close to capture it over the years. And with the latest technology, Soh hopes that his legacy of Block 82 photos will be the best possible quality.
Play with perspective
For Soh, it’s not just about the straight and the narrow. Once he has snapped those formal photos, he likes to experiment with angles, going very low or shooting bottom up for a different perspective. If a building is built to be symmetrical, he looks for the perspective where everything converges towards one point of the image or the building.
Having previously been on the judging panel for architectural photo competitions, Soh also recognises that it’s the small, interesting elements that make great photos.
“There are little bits that will push the image from good to great, like a person in it doing something that will give you a sense of scale or an optimal time of the day when the light is so perfect that it gives the building a look that you don’t usually get,” he explains.
The proof is in the picture: you only need to look at his winning Shot on iPhone photo to see that it’s all about the little things.
Apps Soh uses: