Tom Holdsworth – Architectural Photographer
Not everyone is able to travel and see the buildings and structures they admire or are inspired by. Not everyone is able to physically explore, and be immersed in, a space they find characteristic. It is the work of an architectural photographer that allows for the public to visually enjoy and explore the collaborative creations of architects, engineers, contractors, and owners. This post will share the career story of Architectural Photographer Tom Holdsworth. Tom has been a part of the AECO industry for twelve years. His job, according to Tom, is to “photograph the built environment for architects, engineers, contractors, and end users – primarily for their marketing use.” His areas of photographic focus are educational projects, large-scale residential projects, and healthcare projects.
Tom had spent some of his personal time during college pursuing photography, but it had not occurred to him then that it’d be a viable profession. The interest to practice photography as a full-time venture didn’t come about until he’d met with and viewed the work of various local photographers during his career as an architectural designer. “It took me nearly a decade to muster up the courage.” In that decade, Tom practiced architecture in Baltimore. His strength and enjoyment during that practice area was in construction administration, working in the field, alongside contractors.
Hailing from coastal Connecticut, Tom had taken an immediate liking to the geographic location of Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. He was also aware of Virginia Tech’s reputation of having a strong architecture program. During his enrollment at Virginia Tech, Tom was also involved with a graduate program in Theatrical and Lighting Design. He considered himself the equivalent of a teaching assistant at that time, as he was working five days a week in the Scene Shop. His favorite college project occurred during his fifth year of study, a collaboration with the Theatre Department in the design of a show production’s staging. Some of his best college memories were shooting film and spending time in a darkroom. In 1999, Tom graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture and started his career. Come the recession in 2008, Tom viewed the situation as an opportunity to pursue photography as a career.
For some, the transition from school to profession can be dissatisfying; “a pretty dispiriting experience and far from the exploratory environment in college.” For Tom, some of his successes in his first profession are the skills and people he was exposed to. He considers the presentation and marketing work of architectural practice to have best informed his career switch to photography, namely the development of proficiency in Photoshop. As it was, Tom didn’t formally learn photography, he hadn’t many opportunities to attend workshops prior to his career transition. “I was largely self-taught early in my career, and I think some outside mentorship would’ve helped me, had I done so before I made the switch.”
The transition to architectural photography is difficult, in that there’s a high upfront financial investment. “It’s very difficult to get hired without a portfolio – you’re asking a firm to take a big risk.” There may not be many opportunities to shoot a building or space. Oftentimes there’s a single opportunity and established photographers with a deep portfolio will instill stronger confidence in a client’s decision.
An architectural photographer is most commonly hired by architects, then contractors and developers to document the built environment. This is largely accomplished with still photography, but there’s an increase in importance for aerial photography and videos. The challenge with architectural photography is “being prepared and technically competent enough to control the environment (vagaries of weather, building readiness, unexpected situations) while delivering high quality, evocative imagery to support a client’s narrative of their work.” An architect could spend two, three, or more years on a single project delivery. A photographer could spend one or two days on that same project, to capture its best light and framing in a still moment. The contrast of time spent per role is why architectural photographers are not cost-effective as an in-house resource, and why AECO industry members hire architectural photographers on a project-by-project basis.
“If you do your job correctly, the enthusiasm of a client responding to the resulting images is incredibly rewarding.” Tom loves the immediacy and variety of his work. He’s able to spend time within the physical result of a successful collaboration, then quickly and widely, share that result in its best moments with others.
There is no industry standard requirement to become an architectural photographer. Tom knows photographers with no prior background in architecture who can shoot at a high level. He also knows photographers with no formal college education that are able to shoot at a high level. Tom is fluent in the industry with an architectural designer’s perspective. He considers his fluency in photography to be an on-going, life-long pursuit. A part of his pursuit is the attendance of professional workshops with various notable photographers. Tom advises to “spend money on workshops, education – things that build technique and knowledge.”
“Spend money on workshops, education – things that build technique and knowledge.”Tom Holdsworth
This is an unpredictable, competitive career. There’s more to it than pointing a camera at a building. “In truth, it is an intensely physical, time-demanding, and capital-intensive profession; that also takes a lot of self-critique and analysis.” There is no career timeline an emerging professional can measure themselves against. No checklist of success to complete. “There’s an element of luck involved. The right project or client can change the trajectory of one’s career.” In the AECO industry, repeat clients are a strong trend for work. People will continue to pursue work with those they trust and like. This well-developed connection is a challenge for novice photographers.
“There is quite a bit of talent out there. A photographer has to adapt and learn new techniques or gear quickly.” As with other professions in the AECO industry, technological developments bring with it a shift in workflow and deliverables. There’s also the race for lowest fees. In architectural photography, the race started with magazines. “Working for exposure is a common pitch.” There are clients who lack the industry experience to understand fee-value structure. There are novice photographers who lack the industry experience to be willing to charge for their skill-value in order to transition into the profession. This lack of understanding affects not only established photographers, but ripple to the greater AECO industry as well. Other challenges include “copyright violations and indifference to social media reposting without credit.”
Tom has generally grown his professional network organically, as new projects and clients. He has a long-term goal of photographing “larger, more complex projects for national firms, with an eye to being featured in industry publications.” In the meantime, he continues to seek out workshops that are relevant to his photography focus and/or led by a photographer he has respect and admiration for. Sometime in the future, professionals can look to attend Tom’s own workshop.
To emerging professionals interested in architectural photography, Tom has already done mentoring at the high school level. He is responsive to connecting via social media platforms to share advice on industry-relation questions. He also believes that the incoming professionals have their own skill sets that are valuable and more established professionals could learn from. Industry-wide, there’s a lot of interdependencies between the professions, and Tom believes it’s only an advantage to be aware of the related professions and professionals. “It’s up to the individual creatives within it to foster a better dialogue and openness with upcoming professionals.”
“You’re more likely to put time and energy into something that is emotionally rewarding.”Tom Holdsworth
Through transitioning career into architectural photography, Tom has found it very fulfilling to have made it to a place where he could work for himself. His crafted career path has led him to the ability to pursue work that interested him and be more fulfilling than any salary could provide. “It’s important to seek out opportunities that make you feel professionally fulfilled. You’re more likely to put time and energy into something that is emotionally rewarding. The financial aspect will follow. While I believe people underestimate how much luck plays a part in a successful career – doing the preparation so that you’re READY for luck is incredibly important. And that takes time, energy, and often sacrifice. Comfort isn’t always the best thing – it can lure us into complacency, and we may wake up one day realizing we missed out on something that resonates more deeply.”
Connect with Tom and view his portfolio on any of the following platforms: