Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Cathedral Of Learning: Above The Lights

My photographing at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning has moved from a random place to make photos, to a series, and I suspect is now a full-fledged project. I made this particular photo because I liked the way that the lights seemed to illuminate the column while also throwing a circle of light on the floor. The whole scene seemed to look fairly mysterious to me, particularly with the two arched and dark doorways in the background.

Inside The Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill

Inside The Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill


Cathedral of Learning: Nationality Rooms

Lest I’ve bored you with multiple photographs of the architecture in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, there is more than just architecture to be found here. Inside the cathedral are multiple “Nationality Rooms”. These rooms were designed to represent the culture of the various ethnic groups that settled in Allegheny County.

At this point I have only photographed in one of these rooms, the Austrian Room. I was taken with how it seemed like one was entering a separate world when going through the door from the poorly lit hallway. I wanted to try to convey that feeling by photographing the room from outside of it, rather than the inside.

Austrian Nationality Room © Howard Grill

Austrian Nationality Room © Howard Grill


Here is a short video about the room itself:

Cathedral of Learning IV

Two more of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning photos are included in this post. The first is a new image and the second is one I have posted before, but it has been reprocessed.

Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill

Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill


I had previously posted the next photo as an example of color grading, but it was presented as a blue toned image. This version is sepia toned to fit in with the presentation of the other Cathedral images.

Cathedral Of Learning Stairwell © Howard Grill

Cathedral Of Learning Stairwell © Howard Grill


Over time there will be more to come!

Cathedral of Learnng

I have very much enjoyed the two times I have been out to photograph the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning with my friends. The architecture is truly wonderful. For more on the Cathedral see here.

It’s been a while since I’ve really felt drawn to photographing one particular thing, but I think I may be feeling a series coming on……

Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill

Cathedral Of Learning © Howard Grill


The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh

Last weekend I had the opportunity to photograph in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning with several friends, a location I had not had the chance to make photos in before. The indoor architecture is quite Gothic, which is not surprising since the building was designed by Charles Klaude, one of the leading Gothic architects of the era. At the time construction started in 1926, the Cathedral was to be the tallest building in Pittsburgh. While it lost that distinction some time ago, it still remains the second tallest university building in the world at 787 feet.

The Gothic architecture certainly lends itself to many different and interesting compositions and I wanted to share some of the images I made. I think the building holds a lot of photographic opportunities that we have just begun to explore.

For starters, I was very taken by the flow of the lines and beams in the Commons Room!

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


More From Carnegie Mellon University

A week or so ago I had written a post about a pleasant experience I had with law enforcement when photographing architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. In short, the officer turned out to be very supportive of the architectural photography I was doing. If you are interested, the full story can be found here.

But what about that building that the officer was guarding when I first arrived? It really is a special building....and here it is. Or at least one view of it. From the ground. Looking up! 

This particular building is Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall and is the home to both the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture and the School of Design.

Repeating Patterns

Recently, I have had somewhat of a renewed interest in photographing architecture. Not so much the 'literal interpretation' of the building (though that is fun to do as well), but more so the details, particularly in an abstract way. I am particularly fond of repeating patterns and contrasts.

I was recently photographing at Carnegie Mellon University and had an interesting experience. In the past, when photographing buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, I have had building security guards tell me to leave because I am not allowed to photograph 'their' building, based on rules from building management. Of course, they fail to recognize that this is the United States and that one IS, in fact, allowed to photograph any building they want (short, I believe, of Federal Buildings and military installations perhaps) as long as they are on a public street and not on private property. I have made several posts over the years about being kicked out of various areas for doing perfectly legal photography.

At any rate, I went to Carnegie Mellon to make some architectural photos and there was a CMU police car parked in front of the first building I went to photograph. Inside was a police officer apparently guarding the building. Rather than get involved in debate (since these are not city policemen, who I assume would know the law) I decided to go photograph another building first and then return later. The image I made at that other building is the one seen below. I liked the repeating pattern and the repeating contrast.

So, what became of the first building? Well, the story ends well.  I went back and there was no longer a police car there. I set up to photograph, standing in a public street.  As I was photographing, the police car returned and drove up the street. I try to look nonchalant and pay no attention. However, as I was looking into the viewfinder of my tripod mounted camera, the car pulled up along side of me and the officer rolled down the window. "Here we go again", I start thinking.

But to my surprise, the officer said "They don't build them like that any more, do they? It's a great building to take pictures of!". And with that we got into a very pleasant conversation regarding craftsmanship and architecture in years gone by. In fact, he told me some other places he thought I would enjoy photographing!

I guess there is a lesson here. It is probably a good idea to expect the best in people and be prepared for the worst than to expect the worst to start with. All in all, it was a very pleasant morning out photographing on the July 4th holiday weekend.

Station Square

Some time ago I was out on the Smithfield Bridge trying to make some images for my Pittsburgh Bridge series.....but it just wasn't happening. I wasn't seeing any good compositions that included the bridge. I'm not sure if it was the weather, my mindset, or what.....but I did find myself drawn to this building in Station Square (which is situated at one end of the bridge). The colors and shapes just all seemed to come together in my mind.

Station Square, Pittsburgh    © Howard Grill

Mausoleum Architectural Details

Recently, I discussed my evolving cemetery project and the types of images I was making. This particular photograph falls into the 'Mausoleum Architectural Details' type. It would also fit in well with my 'Geometry' series.  I am strongly drawn to repeating and interesting patterns and like to photograph them isolated and 'out of context' from what they are part of.


Mausoleum Architectural Detail    © Howard Grill


The Demise Of Amsterdam's Snake House

A few months ago, I wrote two posts about the Snake House in Amsterdam entitled "The Snake House, Amsterdam" and "The Snake House - Follow Up". The Snake House, pictured below, was a building I photographed while visiting Amsterdam, but knew very little about.  It had such a fascinating looking facade that I tried to find out more, and as I wrote in the second post:

"It turns out that for many years the Snake House has been inhabited by squatting artists. Now, in Amsterdam, squatting apparently means something a little different than it does in the US. It means living cheaply and covering costs like heating and electricity, at least from what I can gather.  And the artist's living there made the first floor into something of an art and cultural center hosting events for the local community.

The Snake House is reported to have been inhabited by such squatters for over thirty years, long enough to make the building theirs (believe me, I don't have the slightest idea if this is truly the case based on Dutch law) but in 2010 squatting was made illegal.  In 2008 the building was bought by a group that wants to convert it into luxury condos (sound like a familiar story?). The court is apparently set to rule on the issue in January."


The Snake House in Amsterdam    © Howard Grill


So, how did the Snake House story end? I tried in vain for many months to find out. Only recently was I able to obtain some information and it doesn't turn out well for the squatting artists. Apparently the squatters lost the court case and the Snake House, as well as some of the surrounding buildings, were to be renovated and turned into 69 condos and 2000 square meters of office and retail space.

However, the artist/squatters did not leave without a fight which culminated in 19 arrests. Luckily there does not appear to have been any serious injuries sustained in the stand off. The full details can be found in this article from the NLTimes entitled "Amsterdam Squatter Demonstration Ends With 19 Arrests".  As you can see from the image below (from Zack Newmark of the NL Times), the Snake House will not be there on my next visit to Amsterdam.

The Demise Of Amsterdam's Snake House    © Zack Newmark / NL Times

Using A Texture To Add Warmth

Some time back I had posted an image of the interior of The First Presbyterian Church Of Pittsburgh, along with a short story about how I came to be able to photograph the interior of the church that day. I always liked that picture of the interior, but in that same post I also showed a photo of the beautiful exterior doors of the church.....however, I never really felt that the photo of the doors was quite right.  It just didn't pull out the deep warm hues and the depth of the wood of the imposing doors.

In the past, I had tried several things to try to achieve the effect I felt the door deserved.  This included increasing contrast with an "S" curve, increasing saturation, painting with a warm color on a separate layer using the color blend mode and blending the image with itself using soft light or overlay blend modes. No matter what I tried, the image just never seemed .....well, I think "rich enough" or "deep enough"  are probably the best words I could use to describe it.

But I finally got it to look the way I have always envisioned it.  And I did so in a bit of an unusual way.  I had been playing around with some textures and wondered if one with warm, rich colors might give me the effect I was looking for. I picked one that I thought might work and tried blending it into the image with the soft light blend mode.  Lo and behold, it gave me the exact feel and color depth I was looking for without really screaming 'this is a texturized image'.  In fact, even viewed large, for all intents and purposes, you really can't tell that there is an underlying texture applied at all.

The final image is seen below, and I will show you what came before.


Doors of The First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh

© Howard Grill


Below is the image before the texture was applied, but after I had made all Lightroom and Photoshop adjustments. There is what appears to be a bit of glare off the surface of the varnished wood and not as much 'depth' as I had hoped for.

Doors of The First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh

Doors of The First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh


The texture below is the one that I used for the blend.  Nothing else was done to the image other than blending in the texture using a soft light blend mode at 100% opacity and making a very trivial curves adjustment .  The difference exhibited by the final image is relatively subtle, but I think very important to its feel. Sometimes the little things do make a difference. 



I have written about photographer's rights several times in the past.  The reason for this has been the multitude of times my friends and I have been told to leave when making photographs in downtown Pittsburgh by misguided private security guards working for large downtown office buildings.  We all know (well, except for some security guards) that if you are on a public sidewalk you can make photos of almost anything you want (yes, I know there are a few exceptions, but those were not the case when we were shooed away).  Well, today I get to tell another story, a story that is much more pleasant.....a story of welcome! So, it was one of those Sunday's when, instead of doing nature photography with my 'Sunday morning photo group', we decided to do some urban shooting.  Walking around Downtown Pittsburgh we happened across the historic First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh (curent building construction started in 1903).  We were taking pictures of the exterior using our tripods when someone came to open the Church doors at 8 AM.....naturally enough they asked what we were doing and, of course, we stated the obvious....the same as we have told many security guards.....that we are amateur photographers who enjoy taking pictures of Pittsburgh architecture.  As usual, we prepared ourselved to be asked to leave the premesis (the PPG Building is the absolute worse in this regard as I have been told to leave there several times, even though you can find thousands of pictures of the building on line).

But this time we had a surprise.  Instead of being asked to leave we were told "Oh, well if that's the case why don't you come in and take pictures of the inside as well.  You can bring your tripods, nobody is going to be here this early".  And he welcomed us in and left.

It was quite dark inside, with the only light coming from the incandescent fixtures and whatever came through the stained glass windows.  I took a number of  HDR sequences inside the church.  On the way out, we were stopped by a church member who saw that we had been taking photos and wanted to tell us about the two 80 foot beams in the church that had been cut from two tall trees that had been imported all the way from Oregon.

That chance meeting made me change the way I wanted to interpret the photographs.  I had originally planned to keep them quite dark, to reflect the actual appearance of the interior.  However, this gentleman made me realize that for him the beauty was in the interior details and wood. With that, I decided to portray the interior as filled with detail, even though most of it could not be well discerned when we were there.

The interior image is from a 5 sequence tripod mounted HDR bracket, merged to HDR Pro in Photoshop, brought directly back into ACR for tone mapping, converted to a 16 bit TIFF and then adjusted with a few curves, a hue and saturation layer, and some minor adjustments in the Nik Color Efex Pro tonal contrast filter.  This has really become my favorite way to process HDR images as it lets me produce a very natural looking photo in a very intuitive way.

The exterior door photo is from a single exposure.

Doors, First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh

Copyright Howard Grill

First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh

5 Photo HDR Bracketed Sequence

Copyright Howard Grill