Photographing architecture is a specialty business, one that requires a trained eye and a unique knowledge base. Architects spend years bringing design to physical form, and the architectural photographer must help tell that story.
The challenge, of course, is to creatively use light and perspective to represent the character and personality of a space or structure. High-end equipment isn’t a must, but getting started does require a basic understanding of the fundamentals. Collected here are some of the on-the-job considerations that the pros work with everyday.
1. It’s All About Perspective
Architecture comes in all the shapes and sizes, but it’s really about the lines. Taking great photos is about working with those lines, and using perspective to draw attention to detail and bring your subject to life.
While not absolute, the general rule is to keep vertical lines vertical, and perpendicular to the horizon. Camera lenses distort perspective. When you point and shoot in front of a building, the vertical lines tend to slant inwards, converging at a point beyond the frame. Converging lines can be used for emphasis and dramatic effect, but to create an accurate representation a clean geometric, or straightforward, shot is preferred.
2. Take A Few Steps Back
Photographers spend a lot of time walking around in search of the perfect camera position.
Most will avoid straight-on, eye-level shots. This angle tends to flatten images and produces boring uninteresting shots. On the other hand, things get weird and unpleasant when working angles that are too low or too high, or pointing too far right or left. Telling the story of space is always a balance between creative and practical decision-making.
Putting more distance between yourself and your subject adds perspective to straighten those converging lines. Shooting from a higher vantage point, such as a nearby building, also helps build a more realistic perspective of the subject’s elevation.
3. Steady and Level
A proper tripod allows you to level the camera parallel to the horizon and with the focal plane perpendicular to vertical lines, which helps to control perspective. A tripod is also essential for stabilizing the camera to reduce noise or blurriness and give sharp images.
4. Go Long and Wide
For architectural photos, the goal is to fit as much background detail into the frame as possible. This means using wide-angle lenses that give a large depth of field and a long focal length. Photographers commonly rely on tilt-shift lenses that can control perspective and converging lines right within the lens. These lenses are expensive and absolutely not necessary unless you’re a working pro. A standard zoom lens that covers anywhere in the range of 16mm to 70mm will satisfy most needs and budgets.
5. The Perfect Light
Light is a challenge that must be understood and controlled. Most architectural photographers prefer to shoot with as much natural light as possible. Thankfully, natural light is readily available, and it helps show how structures truly exist within their environments. The key to working with natural light is determining the right time of day to shoot at.
Front lighting and backlighting are least preferred because these angles reduce detail and make subjects look flat. Side-front lighting is ideal. Capturing light at a 45-degree angle across the elevation of the building brings surface details alive, casting shadows and giving a sense of dimension.
High dynamic range (HDR) is widely used by professional architectural photographers. Photographers can take several different exposures of the same fixed setup, and then render them together with editing software, making for a far greater range of light levels within one image.
Professionals are keenly aware of the weather and how it will affect lighting. Bright sunny days makes for hard contrasting light, while overcast clouds create softer edges. The sun is always on the move and depending on the time of day, and day of year, it can have drastically different effects on an image. Apps like Sun Seeker are useful for figuring out the sun’s position in relation to your subject.
The hour right before sunset or before sunrise is the “golden hour” — a prime time to shoot. This is an hour of golden sunlight and long shadows that add warmth, depth, and texture to a subject. Nighttime can be a fantastic time to shoot depending on the available light sources and overhead sky, but it does take some lens work and experimentation. Staged lighting is also an option, but also requires another level of technical knowledge and understanding of how the lights will affect the color and temperature of the shot.
When considering color, the goal is to remain true to the building and its character. Many pros use polarizing filters or color collaborators to get the right color. Artificial lights can skew color perceptions, so there is caution to be had when shooting at night or indoors.
7. Simple composition
Lines and patterns are the aesthetic basis of architecture. Photographers use leading lines to guide the viewers’ attention across the scene or subject matter. For good composition, keep things simple and focus on the lines; direct them towards the corners when you can. Vertically, think about those converging lines. Horizontally, think about the Rule of Thirds. There are infinite angles to work with, and walking around to explore will help compose more creative and impactful images.
Scale is also important to consider. If you need to give a sense of size, think about the foreground and background and how you can make reference points out of objects like people or trees.
8. Clear the Stage
The less distraction the better, so it helps to keep the scene clean and clear of debris. Cars and people are frustrating environmental obstacles to work with. Try to move if you can, or seek creative ways to crop or incorporate. Smaller items like trash or leaves tidy easily, and their absence will make a difference in the final product.
9. Reflections Kill
Take a moment to look around and see what might be looking back at you. Mirrors and shiny surfaces can ruin shots with unwanted reflections, and often these aren’t viewed until back at home.
Editing software is there to help correct and enhance light, color, and even perspective. But not all errors are fixable, and doing as much as possible onsite and in camera creates better photographers.
And finally, keep in mind that patience is a virtue. It takes time to train the photographic eye, especially for architecture. Like any skilled art and craft, it’s about experimenting, exploring, and having the patience to learn through experience.