The EMP Museum (now the Museum of Pop Culture or MoPOP) in Seattle is a marvel of abstract architecture and honestly not the easiest thing to take a decent picture of. Designed by renown architect Frank Gehry, the 140,000 square foot structure is a testament to the free spirit of rock and roll with a unique combination of hard and rounded contours, shapes, and colors. If you want to dive into the deep end of architectural photography, you’ve found a worthy subject.
What details you will choose to focus on is sometimes just a matter of dealing with and adjusting to the sky on the day you happen to be there. The 21,000 shaped steel and aluminum shingles are highly reflective and make shooting on a clear, sunny day difficult. On the flip side, unless you focus on smaller details on an overcast day the sky becomes a blanket of bleh(that’s a technical term) and is equally frustrating. I’ve found broken cloud cover to provide the best opportunities for a great images. For the above shot, I used a Lee Big Stopper to push out my shutter speed to a minute and a half. With a slight breeze, the clouds appear to race over the shutter interval and it adds an element of additional visual interest and suggests the passage of time which I like in an architectural shot. Note: I get no money from Lee Filters to pitch their stuff but they could help a brother out.
I’m a big believer in spontaneity in making art but being mentally prepared or better yet pre-visualizing what you want to create can help you determine how you want to shoot a particular subject. I had in mind from the beginning that I wanted a black and white treatment of the subject and I simply would not have been as happy with this image had I not brought along my Big Stopper. I think I’m going to just leave it in my bag from now on but my point is to be prepared. To that end, here are a few tips on where to stand when trying to make sense of the scene.
The North Side
This is my least favorite side to shoot the EMP Museum (MoPOP). You start off with a much lower perspective to the building itself from street level and it's quite busy on this side in terms of traffic so you would have to stand farther back or get really close. If you are shooting to the southwest, you could include the Space Needle but I haven't gotten a composition I'm yet happy with from here. The fans on the opposite side of Harrison Street can produce a nice abstract image but keep in mind that the wind will shake them if you are trying a longer shutter interval. Maybe that's something you like but for me I can't see putting it on a wall and that's my end game.
The West Side
If you like street photography, this is your side. There are often buskers on a nicer day which are great subject matter to include against the backdrop of the museum. A quick note on the buskers, if you are including them in your image composition take the time to chat with them and give them a tip. They will most likely be happy to work with you to get a better shot if you help them out as well. The building tiles on this side are more colorful with purple, pink, and violet tones extending south until they become a uniform light blue. Right at the transition juncture, you can get an abstract silhouette of the Space Needle in your frame with the blue section dropping down in folds like a messy blanket. It isn't my cup of tea but perhaps you will love it.
The South Side
I really like shooting from this side and the feature image from this post was from this angle. The light blue tiles cover a smoother, continuous curve sloping downward and the backdrop to them is a swash of copper and gold tones undulating like a vertical metal wave. One thing to watch out for here is the tram coming and going so mind the framing if you don't want it in your shot. It's normally not a big deal but I had my shutter open for a minute and a half. Also, mind where you set up to shoot. I foolishly wasn't paying attention and set up right in the middle of the street where they drop off for the Space Needle. It did't amount to anything but I don't want you to get run over.
The East Side
The east side of the museum off of 5th Ave N offers lots of architectural diversity for your creative image-making mind. It's the easiest side to include both the Space Needle and the EMP in one frame. The above shot is from the southeast corner. Another good spot for both icons is about halfway down where the ribbons of clear glass cover part of the red section of the museum's exterior. It's a bit too much like worms after an apple in my mind but I digress. If you take a step back towards 5th Ave N between the planted trees you will see the Space Needle emerge over the top. There is usually lots of oblivious foot traffic here so this is another opportunity to do a bit of street photography as someone wonders into your frame which looks nice against the abstract backdrop of the museum but please don't weird anyone out ok. I've found the red panels to be too uniform for an image with just them alone so try including some of the gold/copper ones as well. Where the two types come together is a great spot to include a passerby Seattleite.
Make sure to have your polarizer with you above all things. The panels are highly reflective and having it along will help you to reduce the glare and those nasty blown out highlights that nobody wants. I would also recommend a tripod but please remember to be a photographic ambassador and don't use it where somebody is likely to trip over it or where it would impede the normal flow of foot traffic. We don't want to create a bad reputation for photographers and you sure don't want your shit broken. I think this is a great location for a neutral density filter as well. I have both the Lee Big Stopper and the Singh Ray Vari ND. I tend to be happier with the Big Stopper myself but it does require a mount whereas the Singh Ray Vari ND can thread right on the end of your lens. Oh, it is Seattle so a rain cover is always a good idea to leave the house with. You need not bother with a fancy one unless you just want to spend the money. I've got one of those reusable shopping bags that I cut a hole in that covers the camera and any lens I own while still with enough room to move my hands around comfortably. Yeah, it's ghetto but it cost me a dollar.
My Gear on this shoot
People seem to care what I use on any given shoot for reasons I don't yet understand so I'll play your silly game.
Canon 5DS R
Canon 24-70mm lens
Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ballhead
Lee Filters Foundation Kit
Lee Big Stopper
Until next time,