9 architectural photography tips
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A Post By: Natalie Denton (nee Johnson)
Classical or contemporary; architectural photography can be as challenging as it is rewarding. Here are some pointers to help you get started…
Ice Skating at Rockefeller Center – by Stuck in Customs
1. Be sensitive to the direction of light as this can increase contrast, shadows, textures and reflections. High levels of contrast can fool cameras into exposing the scene incorrectly, but shooters can easily overcome this by applying exposure compensation. Another trick is to bracket shots at different exposure values (exposing one for the highlights, one for the midtones and one for the shadows) and later merge them in a dedicated HDR program (such as Photomatix).
2. A fish eye or wide-angle lens (and focal length) is ideal for this genre as it enables photographers to frame the entire building
within its environment. However sometimes your glass may not be able to encompass the whole scene, which is where the helpful panoramic format can come in handy. Many compacts now offer a specific Scene mode for stitching together several shots in camera, but the same effect can be achieved post-shoot with dedicated panoramic software such as; as Hugin or PTgui if you are shooting with a DSLR.
3. We are told it’s what’s on the inside that counts and sure enough architecture photography isn’t restricted to the facia of a building. It can be difficult to correctly white balance an interior setting, especially ones that are reliant on various forms of artificial lighting, so remember to compensate accordingly in the White Balance menu or take a reading from a grey card. Interior shots in older buildings tend to be more irksome because they traditionally feature small windows and doors – thus lack natural light. Try using a tripod and executing a long-exposure and remember you could always utilise an ND filter to stop highlights being blown out when shooting in the day. Alternatively you could use supplementary lighting, such as a diffused flash but be careful as this may rob the scene of its atmosphere and detail.
4. When the sun goes down a new form of architectural photographer can surface. To shoot a structure as a silhouette during sunset, position the architecture between yourself and the sun. Make sure the flash is deactivated and expose for the sky. If the foreground is too light set the exposure compensation to a negative value to darken it. This effect can produce particularly enigmatic results. Night shots can be very dramatic and atmospheric too, but remember to take them when there is still some light and colour left in the sky as this adds tone to the backdrop and help to illuminate details. As before get into a good position and set your camera on a tripod and wait for the dazzling display of urban lights from windows, street lights, signs – all of these in their rainbow of neon colours will add to the ambience. Use a wide aperture and long exposure, and if your camera is supported you’ll be able to employ a low ISO to ensure details aren’t depreciated by noise.
The Neo Monoliths of Chicago – by Stuck in Customs
5. Unlike other forms of photography, exciting architectural images can be produced in all weathers. A church on a clear day may strike the viewer as pleasant but maybe a bit bland, revisit it when there’s a storm brewing overhead or a mist rising from the damp earth and the results can be altogether more intriguing. By revisiting and shooting the same building in these various weather conditions, photographer’s can produce a neat portfolio of shots – maybe select the best three and you’ll have yourself an interest triptych.
6. Reflections add an extra dimension to architectural images and allow the photographer to create a canvas on which the building can be playfully distorted. Urban environments are littered with a multitude of reflective surfaces, so you’ll never have to look too far to practice, for example: windows, water features, puddles and wet streets, sunglasses, rivers and modern art.
Tervuren, Belgium – by fatboyke (Luc)
7. Research the reason why the architecture exists – you’ll be surprised how a little bit of background information can fuel a great deal of inspiration. Ask a guide to point out small yet interesting aspects that perhaps go unnoticed by the general public. Buildings of architectural merit usually include focal points so try cropping in close on these for frame-filling abstracts. Furthermore you may want to include repeated artefacts that are littered across the exterior, for example; intricate brickwork or chequer board windows. Use a telephoto lens to zoom in close and don’t forget a tripod to support those longer focal lengths.
8. The average building is far taller than the tallest photographer so there will inevitably be some element of distortion in an architectural photo, but this can be employed to create a source of tension within the frame. Simply position yourself as near to the base of the building as possible and shoot straight up. If playing with perspective isn’t for you then stand further back and add a sense of scale to your image by incorporating everyday objects such as people, trees, transport and benches, etc. To retain detail throughout the scene plump for a small aperture (large f stop) such as f14, alternatively try throwing out the sharpness of either the foreground or background by choosing a large aperture (small f stop).
Finance Central – by HKmPUA
9. Architectural images shouldn’t just be aesthetic and graphic; they should also provide dynamism and movement – so play with the lines, the light and the shadows to provide interest and consider the hierarchy of levels and areas. Architecture is built on the principle of symmetry, so capturing this
symmetry will ultimately reinforce the subject matter and hopefully strengthen the composition. Discover the centre of the symmetry by placing your hand between your eye-line and construct your frame around this centre. Alternatively break free of the cold and sterile straight lines and rectilinear angles and follow the principles of nature by including curves and circles in the form of shadows or reflections can help to soften the structure.
When photographing old architecture, a straightforward and simple composition usually works best, showing the natural beauty and elegance of the building. It usually helps to include some of the surrounding scenery to give context to the architecture and make it feel less cramped.
A simple composition gives a stately feel to older buildings. Image by Stephen Murphy.
When photographing modern architecture you can get away with using a much more modern, abstract style. Experiment with wide angle lenses to produce extreme perspective, or photograph the building from unusual angles. Also, because modern buildings are often squeezed in very close to one another, you can crop in tightly on the building without making the photo feel unnatural.
A more abstract style works well when photographing modern architecture. Image by Rohit Mattoo.
Put Your Architecture in Context... or Don't
The question of whether to show your building's surroundings depends on the situation and the message you want to convey. Ask yourself whether putting your building in context would add to or detract from the photo. If the scenery compliments your building then shoot a wider photo, but if the surroundings don't fit with the message you want to convey, cut them out.
Including some scenery in your photograph can help put your subject in context. Image by Rob Overcash.
As an example consider an old building in the middle of a modern city. If you wanted to capture this sense of not belonging then it would be important to include some of the surrounding modern buildings. But if you just want to emphasise the beautiful old architecture then the newer buildings would only detract from the photo, so you should crop them out.
Lighting is a crucial part of architectural photography. Of course we have no say over the position and orientation of a building, and lighting the building ourselves is usually out of the question (not to mention expensive!). Instead we have to make do with what nature provides.
Side-front lighting usually produces the best architecture photos. It provides plenty of illumination and also casts long, interesting shadows across the face of the building, making its surface details stand out and giving the building a more three-dimensional look.
You can bring out the texture and detail of the architecture using front-size lighting. Image byGianni Domenici.
Back lighting is the worst kind for architectural photography because it creates very uniform, dark surfaces. The best way to deal with a backlit building is to either crop out the sky and use a longer exposure to rescue some of the detail, or photograph the building as a silhouette. Alternatively you could wait until it gets dark...
Shoot at Night
Even the most boring architecture can come alive at night - in fact many modern buildings and city centres are designed specifically with night time in mind. After dark these buildings are lit by dozens of lights which bring colour and vibrancy, and cast fantastic shadows across the face of the building.
Dramatic night lighting can really bring a building to life. Image by Trey Ratcliff.
When photographing architecture at night be sure to use a tripod and set your camera to its lowest ISO setting to reduce digital noise to a minimum.
Reduce Distortion by Using a Longer Lens
If you photograph a building from too close it can leave the walls looking distorted, as if the whole building is bulging outwards. Although this can be an interesting effect in itself, we usually want to reduce it so that it doesn't become distracting.
By using a telephoto lens and photographing your architecture from further away you will find that your building's walls and lines appear acceptably straight.
Use a telephoto lens to flatten the perspective and eliminate distortion. Image by Álvaro Vega Fuentes.
You can also use a telephoto lens to create some great abstract effects. By photographing your architecture from a long way away and using a long focal length lens, you will flatten the perspective, making the lines of the building appear parallel, giving your photo a slightly surreal feel.
Pick Out Interesting Details
Most architecture is covered with small-scale details which make fascinating photos in their own right - from ornate windows to patterns of rivets to decorative cornices.
Find an interesting detail to focus on, rather than just photographing the entire building. Image byPaul Hocksenar.
Be on the lookout for these details and crop in tightly on them for a more intimate photograph that conveys the character of the architecture.
It's Not Just About Buildings
When photographing architecture it is easy to get stuck in the mindset that "architecture equals buildings". Of course this couldn't be far from the truth, and in fact most man-made structures come under the architecture umbrella - bridges, towers, windmills, monuments, and even lamp posts. Think laterally and see if you can find some interesting photos that most people would miss.
Architecture covers a lot more than just buildings. Image by Lou Bueno.