Profile: Shannon McGrath
For many of us, there’s few things that evoke emotions quite like architecture. A beautifully captured interior can make you wish you lived in a space, inspire you to renovate your own home, redecorate, or even buy another.
Today, Shannon McGrath’s work is a staple in some of our most prestigious home interior design and architectural magazines; with Belle, Vogue, and House and Garden all carrying her imagery of some of the world’s most beautiful interiors.
Shannon says she discovered her interest in photography when Earl Carter, the renowned architecture photographer from Melbourne, was photographing her mother’s home.
At the time, she was studying Fine Arts, majoring in ceramics with a focus on architectural subjects. Intrigued that it was possible to have a career in photographing beautiful homes, she decided to do a course at RMIT TAFE.
“I went from not even knowing how to put on an SLR lens in my first class, to finishing the course, to shooting for the Herald Sun display section, and being asked back to teach at the very course that I completed!” she laughs.
Following this, she completed a two-year apprenticeship with her mentor, Trevor Mein, another noted Melbourne architectural photographer. Eventually, he took her aside and told her she was ready to go out on her own.
Later, some twelve years into her photography career, she went on to complete a Master’s in Fine Arts.
“I started mostly as an architectural photographer, but over time I was booked more and more for interior shoots,” she explains.
“I guess I found an affinity with internal spaces, and the reason they make you feel as they do.”
A day in the life
An interior shoot will typically begin with a phone call from the client, followed by a reconnaissance visit to get a measure of the place, its scale, features, and furniture arrangement. Sometimes Shannon says she will take ‘happy snaps’ to help visualise the final images for a stylist, in the way that an artist does a preparatory drawing before beginning a painting.
“Each project is different, and I approach each one very differently,” she says.
“On a shoot it’s me with my assistant, and mostly I direct the shoot. This is because I want to get the most out of the day for my client. They trust me, but I also welcome the collaborative situation.”
In fact, Shannon believes, the best interior shoots are when there’s co-operation between the designer, the stylist, and the client.
“Often you are in the client’s house, and you must tread lightly or somehow manipulate the image to get what the designer needs without offence to the client,” she says.
And then there’s the weather and how it influences light.
“The weather will determine how I approach a project,” explains Shannon.
“Coming from an architect’s perspective, the client may want shards of light emphasising the architectural components, or from an interior designer’s perspective, soft light to let the design pieces speak.”
When it comes to interiors, the use of light also makes a huge difference to the end result. In many ways Shannon’s work is a study in how the skilful use of ambient light draws out subtleties of shade and tone in a scene.
“You’d be surprised what you can capture with long exposures,” she explains. “When I’m there the whole day, I can see what’s happening with the light to make a calculation about when there will be the light in an area.”
“I never use flash, but occasionally, I use tungsten lighting. I have a little trick where I sometimes expose as much available light as I possibly can, and then I might just give it a little ‘flick’, and that will just give me enough light that’s not too orange or warm that I can balance out with the available light.”
Unlike film, digital makes it easier to manage a mixture of light sources because the auto white balance generally will neutralise most issues within an image, she adds.
Ideal conditions are often in bad weather.
“Some of my best shoots happen when it has been storming outside.”
“I think it gives a beautiful soft ambient vibe, and I don’t like dealing with the hard contrasts of sunlight. It just highlights the richness in the materials, the fabrics, and all the colours just come through. For external architecture work, yes, you pack up and you go home, but for interiors, bad weather can be ideal.”
A story to every space
To capture the personality and atmosphere of an interior, Shannon says she tries to judge the values and ideas the designer had in mind in creating the interior.
“There is a story to every space,” she says.
“Every residential house shoot on a large scale is an interesting challenge because every interior is unique, with its own values.”
“You also need to decide the important aspects, as usually you cannot shoot everything, and so you need to map what’s important and make sure you get that covered in the time you have.”
“If I find a certain colour or object is pulling my eye, and that is not meant to be the focus of the image, then I’ll take it out, or if I want that to be the focus, then I’ll make sure to frame around it.”
With a chuckle, she says, “I’m a millimetre shifter. I will move a chair a little bit left, a little bit right, a little left. Sometimes I’ll get a couch carried out. I am very hands on!”
The further that you can get back from a large object, the more natural it will appear.
“If I’m dealing with beds, couches, big chairs, and things of that size, I always look for a sense of space, and I put on a longer lens rather than shoot wide. Also, I never allow my camera to be at a high viewpoint because I find that approach more suitable for real estate shots.”
“The only time I will look up,” she explains, “is if I want to point up to an architectural detail on a tall building. All my lenses are shift. I learned on large format four by five-inch cameras, so I do a lot of shift photography, moving and straightening converging lines. I shoot mostly with shift to keep everything straight.”
The evolution of style
Shannon says she directs her shoots intuitively.
“I just let it happen,” she reflects, “without much thought or rather the thought is there, but it’s so much second nature that I’m not conscious of it. I’m into the beauty of the project, and some might say that I shoot in a realistic way without too much trickery in post. I’m not a fan of that.”
“Even today I’m looking to advance my eye, always looking for ways to improve, small things like height of camera, shooting elevation, and shooting opposite to the sun or with the sun.”
Shannon’s basic kit all fits into one medium-sized Bowens case, and contains a camera and approximately six lenses, a large black collapsible pop up for reflections in art works, and a computer.
“There are two main reasons my gear is limited. The lighting is ambient and available, so there is no need for a lighting kit, and the second is weight,” she explains.
“I don’t like my kit to be heavy and cumbersome, as I don’t like arriving at someone’s house with too much gear. It needs to be easy and simple.”
Today, Shannon is in the enviable position of being able to outsource her post-production to a team who understands her aesthetic.
“They have been working with me for many years,” she says. “I look for people who understand tone, colour, and light, and have a good understanding of shape, and a good understanding of photography.”
All the same, she has never been big on image manipulation.
“I like things to be as natural as they can be, with no trickery. The most important aspect is to get the colours and tones right.” Shannon uses Capture One as her digital editing software program of choice. The process is simple.
“I shoot, create a contact selection sheet which then goes to the client. They select from this, then the files are handled. I check them, and then send them to the client for approval, and it’s away.”
Shannon believes the key to her success is her desire to never stop learning.
“When I look back at my images from the beginning to where I have come to today, I have learned so much about light and style and I’m forever evolving,” she reflects.
“I think I’ve always had that kind of brain where I’ve been very interested in the technical side of things, and how technique can create an outcome that has emotional impact.
Each time you shoot you will see something different – embrace this.” ❂
You can see more of Shannon's work here.