Donna Dotan

Share
Donna Dotan
Architectural Photographer
By Grant Willing

Characterized by straight lines, expansive views, and unique angles, architectural photography is seemingly one of the most rigid genres of photography. However, within a loosely defined set of rules lies one of the more conceptually challenging and technical fields where creativity and personality can truly highlight the world around us. By nature, architectural photography exists mainly within the realm of commission-based, commercial work, but a great deal of charisma and intuition is employed in such imagery to bring light and a subjective take to scenes many people interact with on a daily basis.

Championing this idea of infusing personality into imagery, along with a family background in real estate, is architectural and interior photographer Donna Dotan. Based in New York City and raised in Israel, Dotan's personal history has been contextualized by her surroundings, which directly influence the photographs she creates. After some refinement during college in Manhattan, Dotan remarks on the transition from her earliest images of the homes of Jerusalem to her current focus on New York. "I knew I loved the images I was creating [of Jerusalem], but it wasn't until after college that I decided to take classes at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. At the time, I was working at the Carlyle Hotel while studying photography at night. During my breaks I was given permission to photograph the gorgeous rooms of the Carlyle. This portfolio of images led to my first gig shooting apartments for sale in New York City."

Macy's, Herald Square New York City

Coupled with her family's history in the real estate business, Dotan quickly adopted one of the most essential tools for successfully photographing architectural subjects: the ability to gain access. Beginning with photographing the rooms of a famed historic hotel due to her job at the time, she now uses myriad ways of gaining access, ranging from a physical perspective being incorporated into the job to simply finding a workaround solution to getting a better vantage point. "I have to photograph a lot of tall skyscrapers, so I'm often sweet-talking my way into buildings that are across the street from my subjects so that I can get some elevation. If I spot an outdoor courtyard, approximately 5-10 flights up, that's where I want to be... I was recently escorted up to a 5th-floor terrace by two security guards at a hotel in midtown after explaining to them that I'm shooting a building across the street. The vantage point was perfect and enabled me to get the shot I wanted."

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II 1/3 sec. f/11 ISO 160

Beyond access in general, Dotan makes use of an extensive range of technical tools as well to help achieve her characteristic clean, symmetrical, and straight style. Working with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR, as well as a 5D Mark II as her backup body, she makes extensive use of the high-resolution output from these cameras, especially in regard to the rigorous post-production methods she employs for most imagery. In front of the sensors, however, are the traditional architectural photographer's best friends, tilt-shift lenses, or as Canon calls them, TS-E lenses. The most oft-used lens, and as she dubs it, her "workhorse," is the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II. As a standard wide-angle lens, the broad innate perspective this lens offers opens up a realm of shooting possibilities within the compact and confined spaces of Manhattan. Serving this purpose even better is Dotan's other perspective control lens, the TS-E 17mm f/4L. Rounding out her lens kit are the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM and EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lenses, and she will also rent the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the TS-E 45mm f/2.8 as needed. Complementing each of these lenses, additionally, Dotan makes use of circular polarizer filters to help lessen glare from hardwood floors and windows when necessary. 


As an architectural and interior photographer, a tilt-shift lens can be a photographer's best friend, due to its ability to mimic the camera movements of a traditional view camera and correct for convergence and other perspective distortions. Most commonly, this will mean to have all of the vertical lines within an image perfectly perpendicular to the horizon, regardless of whether the camera is pointed up or down. When photographed with a traditional fixed-plane camera and lens setup, the vertical lines of a tall skyscraper will always exhibit some kind of keystoning or convergence. The other tremendous benefit afforded by these lenses is their ability to employ the Scheimpflug principle for extended depth of field and sharpness, which benefits the expansive scenes and grand subject matter common to Dotan's photographs.


The second component to Donna Dotan's working process is a fairly routine, yet critical digital post-processing workflow. "I spend a significant amount of time doing the post processing, about 2-3 hours on each image that I create. I sweep over the entire image while zoomed in at 200-300% to make sure I don't miss any details. My verticals are usually perfect since I'm using TS-E lenses." Due to the technical nature of her work and the rigorous imaging needs of the real estate markets, Dotan often also shoots using compositing and manual HDR techniques, where she will blend and stitch together multiple images in order to achieve otherwise unattainable results. "I also composite bracketed exposures by hand, I don't use HDR software, and I don't use artificial lighting, so I'll blend exposures to bring in details in the super-bright areas of the photo."


The use of tilt-shift lenses also benefits the compositing technique, as Dotan remarks on recently shooting interior images of Madison Square Garden, "I photograph the lower half of the image first, then shift the lens upwards and photograph the upper half. This is helpful for rooms with very high ceilings, and tall buildings." Since the shift of the lens maintains a consistent planar relationship between the camera's sensor and the subject, stitching multiple images is much more seamless since the actual perspective of the camera has not changed. She is also able to mix perspective-corrected imagery with other imagery in order to attain expansive viewpoints that would also not be possible from a similar single frame, especially when trying to fit an entire skyscraper or large building within a frame while maintaining the perpendicular lines that are needed for a clean overall composition.


Madison Square Garden NYC


Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II 20 sec f/11 ISO 320

When beginning a project, Dotan will often try to scout locations and develop a shot list prior to the day of the shoot. "Scouting the location with the client is extremely helpful. It gives me an opportunity to learn their vision, which areas and details are most important to them, and it also gives them an insight as to how I am going to approach the project. At the end of the scout I'll have created a rough shot list and will (hopefully) have all the information of what I'll need for the shoot." Since each assignment is drastically different, the pre-shot routine can vary from days to hours, depending on the subject being photographed. "I was hired to photograph the newly remodeled Madison Square Garden, an enormous project that took several days on site. I had to work fast to get the shots I wanted, otherwise I'd be there for months. Other days I'm shooting interior design projects where the designer and I will spend as much as an hour styling and composing each shot. Every shoot demands its own approach, and I'm always conscious of that when discussing a new project with a client." In addition to planning the shots and angles alone, one challenge that New York City brings is the sheer amount of congestion, whether it be people, traffic, or even just the buildings themselves.


"I was recently hired to photograph Macy's Herald Square, which was a really exciting challenge. It's such a busy part of the city, with swarms of people going in every direction throughout the day. Morning dusk was the best time to shoot because I had the fewest people and still got the magical light that I wanted."


While there is certainly a lot of work involved prior to and after the actual shooting, it is still the shooting and fondness for architecture and design elements alone that piques Dotan's interest and desire to be working in this field. "I love the task of photographing a building. I have to figure out the most appealing angle from which to capture it and then wait for the most flattering light. I enjoy working together with my clients to portray their vision and design, but when it comes time to create the final images, it's just me and my subject, which is very peaceful." Even though working with inanimate objects, this sensitivity that Dotan brings to her work helps to infuse life and personality into the interiors and buildings she photographs. Through her detail-oriented sense of composition and penchant for "modern architecture with warm and inviting design elements," she has attained a sense of continuity throughout her vast body of work.


Beyond the images themselves, the general location of working in New York City also contributes to the dynamic consistency in her work, "New York City is the best place in the world to photograph architecture. It's pretty amazing that this little island presents the most opportunity, the most awe-inspiring work, and the most eclectic mix of design and creativity. Every day I'm thankful that I get to work in this incredible metropolis... there's no better feeling than getting paid to do something you love. Being an architectural photographer in New York City is challenging, to say the least, but there's nothing I'd rather do and no place I'd rather do it."

Discussion 4

Add new comment

Add comment Cancel

Love you work. Espically the columbus circle one!

Sam

Vale ler

I feel very identified with Donna's work and methods from the vision, approach, capture and post production. I do similar works in Argentina for architectural heritage of the country (Minitsry of Culture), with emphasis on interiors photohraphy.

Architectural photography is a very specialized field that requires special skills as well as patience, handling of light and of course specialized equipment. Canon cameras and lenses give me great satisfaction and help me achieve what I want with great quality and my favorite gear for this work are the 5D Mark III and 16-35mm L f / 4 IS

Best regards,
Diego Eidelman
Buenos Aires, Argentina

First of all I don't do architectural photography(doubt that I could).  That being said, her(your) photos are very-very good but there is one thing that kind of bugs me.  In the Herald Square photo it seems weirdly distorted in that there is no perspective to the vertical lines on the buildings.  Since the tops of the buildings are further away from the viewer/camera it seems that optically, the tops should be at least a little smaller/narrower than the bases, which are closer.  Maybe I'm picking nits, or just don't have a clue, but it just doesn't look right, at least to me.  Just my opinion, for what it's worth.  No need to post this as it's not your usual ooh-ahh comment, although the photos do deserve them.

Daniel