David English: Luminescent Lobby

It’s always a challenge to find unusual subjects to photograph. Either we’ve seen variations of that same image thousands of times before, or what seemed unique in real life doesn’t translate well into a flattened photograph. I travel frequently to Las Vegas for tradeshows, and I’m always on the lookout there for something new and different. One of the most interesting sights that I’ve found in Vegas is the hotel lobby at The Cosmopolitan.

What makes this hotel lobby so interesting? It’s a large high-ceiling room that’s filled with LCD monitors and strategically placed mirrors. The displays and mirrors are designed to create a repetitive and reflective space that’s constantly shifting. The effect is quite stunning, as you can see on people’s faces and physical demeanor as they first enter the area. Though we’re not the target audience for this visual echo chamber, photographers can use this space to experiment with contrapuntal-like compositions.

I try to drop by the lobby whenever I’m in Vegas because the hotel varies the segment programs that run on the displays. In addition, the programs cycle throughout the day, so if you see something you like, and you catch just the tail-end of it, you can wait for it to repeat — or come back later that day. Often a segment will repeat within a half-hour cycle, so it may be worth waiting to catch it again.

These photos were captured on two different days last June. I spent about 30 minutes there each day to see which segments might be in the program cycle. Fortunately, you don’t have stay at the hotel in order to hang out in the lobby. The management was very tolerant of my taking pictures there, probably because I kept out of the way when I wasn’t shooting.

All the photos were shot with a Leica M Monochrom camera and 24 mm Elmar-M f/3.8 ASPH. lens. I’ve shot with various focal lengths there over the past few years, and I feel that a 24 mm lens is probably the best choice overall. You want the perspective to be wide enough to take in a significant number of displays and mirrors. However, if the perspective is too wide, the shots will be too similar.

Even though the 24 mm Elmar has a maximum aperture of only f/3.8, bumping up the ISO to 640 from the Monochrom’s base ISO 320 worked well, even with the modest amount of light in the lobby. All of the photos were shot at ISO 640, though I did brighten them a bit while processing them in Adobe Lightroom. I routed a few of them through Silver Efex Pro 2.0, though most were corrected using only Lightroom’s basic tonal controls.

With the photo titled “Cosmopolitan Lobby #1,” you can see the surprising amount of spatial depth that’s created by the LCD monitors, ceiling-mounted mirrors, and semi-reflective surfaces on the displays. Here the people waiting to check in are seen upside down, because the camera is tilted up toward the ceiling. As you might imagine, moving the camera up, down, left, or right would give you an entirely different view of the spectacle that’s unfolding in front of you. Keep in mind that the display content isn’t static. In this case, the silhouetted figures are starting to climb up and down the virtual walls. If you have a preference for wide-angle lenses and geometric patterns, you’ll have a fine time deciding where and when to aim the camera. You can see a higher-resolution version of this photo here at Leica Fotopark.

One of the main advantages of shooting with a rangefinder camera is the ability to see outside the frame lines as you compose the shot. You’re able to decide at the last moment whether to include any content just beyond the frame. With the photo titled “Cosmopolitan Lobby #2,” the “Just a Peek” text appeared suddenly, and I didn’t know how long the text would remain there. I was able to take a quick look at where the text appeared in front of me. Then I rapidly snapped the image before it disappeared. With a less responsive camera, or a viewfinder that doesn’t allow an outside-the-frame view, I don’t think I would have gotten this shot. A larger version of this photo is available here at Leica Fotopark.

With the photo titled “Cosmopolitan Lobby #3,” you can see how the reflective floor and ceiling provide a seemingly infinite space. Here the vertical lines from the displays are nicely contrasted with the horizontal and diagonal lines from the columns and floor. The creative process for a photographer in this kind of dynamic environment might be described as instinctive or improvisational. Just as a jazz musician has to listen intently knowing that the music might shift into any direction, a rapidly changing environment can heighten your photographic senses, as you watch and wait for the optimal shot. You can see a higher-resolution version of this photo here at Leica Fotopark.

One of the more intriguing segments showed human figures that appeared to be encased inside the columns. While the potential was there for viewers to feel some discomfit for the trapped individuals, the mood was more contemplative than threatening. With the photo titled “Cosmopolitan Lobby #4,” you can see how the simulated figures and actual people combine to create a dreamlike environment. The tonal range was rather extreme here, so I was glad to be shooting with a Monochrom. Its lack of a color-splitting Bayer filter gave me a wider dynamic range than I would have had if I had been using a traditional color-optimized digital camera. You can get a better sense of the dynamic range by viewing a larger version of this photo here at Leica Fotopark.

I’ve never actually stayed at The Cosmopolitan, so I can’t recommend it — or not recommend it — as a place to spend the night. I can, however, recommend that you visit the lobby with your camera, as it’s a wonderfully fluid environment filled with reflected light and shadow. And when the right segment is running on the displays, you can almost aim the camera anywhere and capture an interesting shot.

— David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky, and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M Monochrom and X Vario. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.

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