After we launched “Where the Internet lives” (http://goo.gl/mYfo4), with more than 80 vivid photos of our data centers, a lot of you wanted to know more about how the photos were taken. We sat down with Connie Zhou, our photographer, to talk about her experience. (The album contains the photos Connie mentions.)

First, a bit about you. What’s your background, and how did you get into architecture photography?
Growing up in New York, I went to an art high school, and then I went to Parsons, the New School for Design. I always knew I wanted to do photography, but it wasn’t until later when I knew the genre I wanted to get into. I started as an assistant to an architectural photographer, and he taught me a lot. Architecture was so graphic and different from general photography.    

My past clients have included small architecture firms, designers and galleries, and I’ve shot “Art Basel” in Miami, an art festival with designers and artists from around the world. I also went to Beijing right before the Olympics to photograph the structures there as a personal project.

This project with Google has been the biggest one I’ve done. I had a lot of access to photograph things that very few people had ever seen. It was amazing to be the first person allowed inside with a camera. I loved it.   

What did you do to capture the lighting so well?
For a lot of the internal shots on the server floors, I used long exposures. Usually it was hard to get all the lights turned off—a lot of people work in these data centers. But for the photo of the server floor in Hamina, Finland it turned out that when I was on the floor, no one happened to be around. So keeping the lights off was OK. I didn’t expect the light to bleed through so much, but because I was there for a long time, I captured all these nice colors. In post-production, I combined some layers to bring out the colors and took out the exit sign that was glowing in the foreground.

Council Bluffs, Iowa was one of the later sites I visited, and I was running out of ideas for new shots. But then I saw this “cherry picker” lift, and I asked one of the workers to help me use it on the server floor. I used a long exposure to capture the light, and I was excited to get this shot because the high perspective was something different.  

What lens do you use? What kind of camera?
Most people expect that architectural photographers use a tilt shift lens which corrects for perspective. Instead, I use a 16-35mm, which is a wide angle, and then I correct all perspectives and lines in post-production.

For portraits, I often used an 85mm for a shallow depth of field—in other words, to make the person sharply in focus and the background in a softer focus. 

For landscapes, I often used a 24-105mm lens, a zoom lens. Nothing too special.  

Regarding my camera, I use a Canon 5D Markii as my primary camera.  

How do you think of beauty in your photography?
Beauty is something with a lot of symmetry. It’s more about the lines of everything I photograph. I’m interested in shooting structures that look a bit otherworldly. Color comes a lot into play, too, but it’s more about the structures and how they come to life in my photos. I like to bring out the unusual aspects of architecture as much as I can...sometimes even things that look a little like sci-fi. That’s why I really like the photo of the back of the server aisle. Although I have to say, I was a little spooked when taking it. I was behind the server rows, it’s hot in there, and all the doors were closed so I could capture the light from the LEDs on the machines. And it really does look like something out of an Aliens movie. But I like that kind of unusual beauty.    

What artistic guidelines did you have for the photography project?
My goal was to help people see the beauty of the data centers. I had a certain artistic license to interpret the scene, but Google didn’t want me to hide or obscure anything—any changes I made to a scene were aesthetic. 

For instance, on this photo of Denise diagnosing a CPU in The Dalles, I saw a space beside Denise, and I decided to try using it for extra lighting. My assistant, Ethan, put a light in the space, and we also tried using a flashlight. So the light on her face is a combination from the laptop and the other lighting techniques we used. But I didn’t want the empty space next to Denise in the final photo. I’m obsessed with everything being symmetrical for all my work, so I cloned over the left servers to the right side. It just bothered me that there would be a hole when usually servers would be there. I wanted it to look beautiful, and symmetry is beautiful to me.  

How many times do you take the same photo?
It really depends on the photo. If it’s a wide shot, I’ll shoot at least 30 different images of the same thing with many different situations—some with lights on, some with lights off, maybe break out a strobe, maybe use a flashlight. I might have someone walk through it. The most images I’d take would be 40, but I don’t use all those layers. The most I’d use is five for post-production.  For instance, I combined one image of the equipment with another showing an employee walking at the end of the same aisle to get one photo with both in the photo of the campus network room in Council Bluffs.

Did you do anything especially cool to capture the right shot?
Yes, we used a Cessna plane a couple of times. We first tried a Cessna in The Dalles, but it wasn’t the right time of day. It was 11 a.m., and we didn’t get any unusual lighting.

So we tried it again in Oklahoma because that’s a really flat area and good for landscapes. We struggled all day to find a pilot, but last minute, around 6 p.m., and we got a call from a pilot looking to log more hours. So we went up with him. The sunset was scheduled for 7:38 p.m., and we got up there at 8 p.m., which was perfect. We captured a great shot with a gorgeous sunset.
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Connie Zhou's photos for "Where the Internet lives"—before and after (12 photos)
12 Photos - View album
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