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On Balance
Jeffrey Totaro builds his images--and his business--on a foundation of creativity and pragmatism


Jeffrey Totaro


Jeffrey Totaro


Jeffrey Totaro


Jeffrey Totaro


Jeffrey Totaro


Jeffrey Totaro


Jeffrey Totaro


Jeffrey Totaro



Two curved walls stand resolutely across from one another, leading the eye through a vivid pathway strewn with red and black chairs positioned rhythmically across lustrous floors. A red triangle cries out for attention as it cuts through the patterned ceiling above. What lies beyond those curved walls? It's poetry, it's math, it's Totaro.

The scene described above-our cover image-as captured in Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, defines architectural photographer Jeffrey Totaro's signature style. In a word, balance. Like Totaro himself, his work is an amalgam of science and creativity.

A man quite effectively using both sides of his brain, Totaro wasn't always an architectural photographer. After working for five years at EwingCole as an architect and structural engineer, he realized it wasn't the math that brought him to the field, it was the buildings. "Math is something I like understanding, but not something I want to do every day. That is what I learned about engineering," Totaro explains. "Looking back, I think my interest, or what I thought was my interest in architecture, was actually an interest in buildings and photography."

A professional photographer since 1996, Totaro has built an impressive portfolio of commercial, office, and residential work for a prestigious clientele that includes EwingCole, Brennan Beer Gorman Monk, RTKL, Poulin+Morris, Rafael Vinoly (architect for our Princeton University cover photo), Wallace Roberts & Todd, Clarke Caton Hintz, and DAS Architects.

Slow and Steady

Totaro has trained his eye to find the subtleties of any room or building. "My brain works in a very graphic way and the forms of buildings are inspiring. Whether it's a repeating rhythm of windows or curved diamond arches, the graphic nature of the forms, the balance of it all, has always appealed to me," he explains.

Part of Totaro's graphic sense is being meticulous and disciplined in his craft. "What I like about photography in general is the science, the process, the result," he says. "I taught myself while I was still an architect how to use large-format 4x5 cameras. They interested me because they are methodical and very deliberate; it takes time to refine the composition."

The view camera is an integral part of Totaro's capture style. "My interest in photography really solidified once I started using a view camera. Before I was introduced to large-format cameras, I was using a 35mm. Seeing and comparing what I could do with a view camera influenced me to look and study the scene more closely. I like the slow nature of a view camera; it forces you to observe your subjects very carefully," he explains.

Lighting to Heighten Appeal

Totaro maintains a harmony in his pictures by accenting the room or building with faint hints of light. He manages light simply and precisely-backlighting to add character and highlighting to emphasize shape. "A lot of times you need light to bring out the color of painted surfaces, and especially wood surfaces. I'll try to add subtle lighting to these areas to make the subject look natural. We're not trying to overpower the existing light, just make the camera see it as our eyes do," he explains.

Using light to separate objects or spaces, Totaro articulates what might be going on just outside the edges of the photo. "For instance, I may use light coming through a window to make a pattern on the floor, even though the window itself may be out of view," he says.

Through strobes and hot lights, Totaro manipulates existing light to heighten the room's visual appeal. "If the space is predominately daylight, then we'll use strobes, otherwise I prefer hot lights. Hot lights allow better control of the pattern and shape of the light, and blend in better with the existing lighting, in most cases," he explains.

Sometimes Totaro will use sunlight as his primary light source for interiors as well as exteriors. "Lighting a multi-story office building atrium can be almost impossible. But, if you know that at noon, in May, June, and July, the sun reaches the floor and lights the whole structure, you may not have to light anything," he says.

Time of year is also an important factor when lighting a building. "I live near Philadelphia and there are only two or three months a year when the sun will hit the north side of a building, and it's better in the morning since the city grid faces slightly northeast. It will come around in the evening, as well, but not as strong," Totaro explains.

"The most important part of lighting a building is balance. We're always trying to balance color temperature-or use the difference to our advantage-and brightness of window views to interior lighting. In the film days, these were always challenges we had to overcome onsite. Now, with digital, we can move a bit more quickly since we can balance color or window brightness in post-production."

Indeed, Totaro uses digital retouching to "bring a photo around to its final form," he explains. "Dropping in windows or placing a light in view and masking it out later are creative tools that I take advantage of often. In fact, with some shots we may do more lighting than we did with film because we are not restricted to lighting from the edges of the view anymore. One shot we did required lighting the left side first, with several lights standing in view on the right side, then moving the lights to the opposite side and compositing the two exposures in post."

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