Born and raised in Hong Kong, Irwin Chan loves the diversity of his home city: the way Chinese tradition mixes with Western influence. Irwin explains that this mixture creates the best of both worlds, a place where people from across the globe can find a welcoming, accepting, and creative community.
As an architectural designer who studied in the U.K. before moving back to Hong Kong to pursue architecture at a local firm, Irwin only discovered photography two years ago, though his shots are so crisp and compositionally pleasing that you’d think he’s an old hand.
After picking up a camera to document his time at university, he was struck by how much he enjoyed his new hobby, and now uses it for design research and when he needs a break from architecture.
We caught up with Irwin and gleaned some advice about photographing the buildings around Hong Kong.
Mix it up
“When I started out, I learned to take photos of the structures by simply observing them. I obtained a foundation in architecture photography by checking out building sites. I know that conventional architectural photos are very lined up and compositionally straight, but I believe that there’s a way to take photos in which the lines of the buildings lead in unique directions. There’s always a way to bend conventional architecture photography and make it your own. Look for different angles and perspectives, play with light, and see if you can create something unique.”
Keep it steady
Irwin prefers to photograph during the day, so if there is enough light, he doesn’t usually rely on a tripod. But Irwin recommends using tripods to your advantage by doing something different with the tool. When he uses a tripod, it is to create images with background blur by using long exposures, so viewers can get a sense of movement within the environment.
What’s in a lens?
When exploring the city and looking for subjects, Irwin is sure to bring along his 24-70mm lens, which allows for both wide-angle and close-up shots of buildings’ details. Having a lens with such variability will allow you to follow lines and frame a composition while still including subjects and objects of the street that will add depth to your overall photo composition.
Pick your place
Irwin loves taking street photos that incorporate buildings and their surrounding environments. He likes visiting Mongkok, a dense and architecturally traditional area that is home to various industrial buildings. The area is also chock-full of traditional neon signs, which make for a complex, layered scene.
He’ll also head to North Point on Hong Kong Island, where he finds the rich atmosphere that people typically associate with Hong Kong.
If he ventures to the Island side of the city, he’s sure to capture the towering skyscrapers, the business districts, and the pure density of the city environment across the water. He also loves viewing Hong Kong from above, either from Victoria Peak or a local rooftop.
Time of Day
Irwin encourages aspiring architectural photographers to walk around and observe how an area changes over the course of the day. Visit during the morning, noon, night, and rush hour, because the spaces will always look different. For Irwin, capturing the activity of road, the movement of crowds of people, and the character of a place is more important than simply snapping a building’s various angles. Irwin notes that if you look at an area from a more nuanced perspective, you’ll have a greater idea of how the architecture blends into the city, how people use it functionally, and how it impacts the overall environment.
For Irwin, photography is more than a means to capture the lines, curves, and angles of his city’s architecture — though he’s grateful that his initial pursuit led him to a hobby he now holds so dearly.
“I’ve met a lot of friends through photography who don’t focus on architecture, but if you look around and get to know your city quite well, you will see it in a different light. You’ll see how people interact, how they move and orient themselves around buildings and structures. That’s more of what I observe when I’m looking at architecture now: how it helps the city and how it supports the city’s growth.”