5 useful tips for photographing Art Deco buildings in Vancouver

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The Power Block is a great example of Art Deco in Vancouver. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

The invention of Art Deco was a breath of fresh air for the world of architecture.

Born in the 1920s in glamorous Paris, France, Art Deco marked a significant departure in architectural style – stuffy neoclassical edifices that once dominated cityscapes were ousted in favour of the bold new style, which better reflected the fun-loving atmosphere of the Jazz Age.

Taking influences from Ancient Egyptian, Mayan and African cultures, Art Deco skipped stately columns in favour of bright colours and decadent details that juxtaposed straight lines and smooth curves.

It didn’t take long for Art Deco to spread and it quickly made its way to Canada’s western shores where it took root. Many striking Art Deco structures still stand in Vancouver today, from the Burrard Bridge to City Hall.

Art Deco Photowalk

The Commodore Ballroom. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

The Commodore Ballroom. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Local tour companies Forbidden Vancouver and Vancouver Photowalks have teamed up to create an Art Deco Photowalk intended to help locals and visitors alike discover the city’s impressive array of Art Deco architecture.

The new photowalk focuses on the unique aesthetics and history of Vancouver’s Art Deco architectural style – from the streamlined façade of the Vogue Theatre to the ornate decadence of the Marine Building.

It’s a hybrid historical walking tour and photowalk that teaches guests about the buildings they’re shooting while also instructing them on the best way to shoot them.

In celebration of the launch of this new tour, Vancouver Photowalks founder Suzanne Rushton has five useful tips for photographers on how best to capture Art Deco buildings. Grab your camera and try them all!

Then, discover the city’s most beautiful architecture and take your photography skills to the next level with the new Art Deco Photowalk, starting this summer.

1. Think about your vantage point

The Vogue Theatre on Granville Street. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

The Vogue Theatre on Granville Street. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

This may seem counter-productive, but sometimes the best thing you can do when you want to photograph a building is to step away from it – way away. Buildings often look their best when shot from a distance.

“If you’re able to be across the street on a second floor balcony, that would be the best vantage point,” says Rushton.

“Failing that, if your desired heritage building is on a hill, be at the top of the hill.”

This is where telephoto and zoom lenses come in particularly handy, though it can be done with any type of camera or lens.

Additionally, choosing a vantage point at a distance can help you line up your shot. Ideally, you want to keep the lines of the building as straight as possible.

“It’s tempting to aim the camera upwards to ‘get the whole building in the shot,’” says Rushton, “but tilting creates distortion.”

Try taking the obvious shot from the first perspective that pops into your mind, then challenge yourself to find new ways to approach the scene. Think about different angles that would change the way your building looks. Get down on the ground or shoot from up high – just change your perspective. You’d be surprised by what you may get.

2. Include context

The Marine Building. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

The Marine Building. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Your subject – i.e. your chosen Art Deco building – doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so embrace its surroundings and photograph it in the context of its environment.

Most Art Deco buildings in Vancouver don’t stand alongside their peers. They’re often surrounded by more modern structures, or, in some cases, even older buildings.

Remembering to include context of your building’s surroundings is also a good way to ensure you give your building some breathing room. Taking photos that leave visual space can come in handy later on.

“I always think about empty space in case I one day want to overlay some text on the image or crop it for a photo book or frame,” says Rushton.

3. Focus on details

Details on the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art building. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Details on the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art building. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Ornate carvings, patterns and the use of bright colours are features typical of Art Deco architecture. All together, these details are what makes the building special.

Think about what makes your Art Deco building unique and focus in on it. While they may show up in your shots of the whole building, focusing in on the little things that set your building apart adds interest to a series of photos.

“On our photowalks, I encourage people to think like photojournalists and capture a variety of frames of the subject,” says Rushton.

If possible, consider venturing inside the building to capture details both inside and out.

“Look for staircases, tiles, balconies, skylights,” says Rushton.

“Don’t be afraid to wander around and look for hidden gems, angles and perspectives.”

4. Pay attention to patterns

Power Block Patterns. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Power Block Patterns. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Look at your Art Deco building – really look – and search for its points of repetition and pattern. Patterns intrigue the viewer and add interest to the shot.

Popular reference points for Art Deco architects were the geometric patterns found inside Ancient Egyptian tombs or woven into the textiles designed by indigenous African craftspeople.

Because many of their buildings paid homage to these ancient designs, Art Deco architecture is rife with complex and intricate patterns, which photograph beautifully.

Found a pattern – perhaps a row of windows or collection of reliefs?

“Shoot in odd numbers,” says Rushton.

“Experiment with either keeping them symmetrical or angled. Pick one or the other – don’t try to shoot straight and be crooked.”

A simple way to ensure your pattern is nicely lined up in your frame is to use the grid function on your viewfinder. Grid overlays can be activated on nearly any kind of camera from DSLRs down to mobile phones and greatly improve your framing.

5. Keep history in mind

Power Block Heritage Plaque. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Power Block Heritage Plaque. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Have you ever gone on holiday where you learned lots of interesting things about the place you were visiting – and snapped tons of photos to go with those facts – but couldn’t remember the information when you got home?

In Vancouver, all designated heritage buildings – including many of the city’s Art Deco buildings – have signage that explains their heritage status. Ensure you’ll remember the most important details about a building (such as its name or the year it was constructed) by snapping a photo of its plaque.

“This is a handy reference if you wish to go back and get some context on the building or research the history of it after the fact,” says Rushton.

Art Deco Photowalk Vancouver

Art Deco on Granville Street. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Art Deco on Granville Street. Photo by Suzanne Rushton.

Starting outside the Vogue Theatre on Granville Street, the new Art Deco Photowalk from Forbidden Vancouver and Vancouver Photowalks will take guests on a winding journey through downtown Vancouver’s Art Deco history – from notable standouts that best exemplify the style of the Roaring ‘20s to lesser-known gems hidden away in the most unexpected of places…

Tickets are $49 per person. Tours run at 2 p.m. every Saturday through July, August and September. The Art Deco Photowalk is a creative, rather than a technical photowalk, so all types of cameras are welcome from DSLRs to mobile phones.

For more information and to book tickets, visit www.forbiddenvancouver.ca or www.vancouverphotowalks.ca.

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