Artful Architecture Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Artful Architecture Photography

by David Peterson 5 comments

It seems like it ought to be easy to take photographs of buildings. After all, they don't move, they don't make faces, they don't want you to wait a second while they primp their hair and they don't have public tantrums because you're taking too long. Yes, it's true, I spend way too much time taking photographs of children.

Unfortunately it's not as easy to take photographs of architecture as it really seems like it should be. Sure, the whole no-tantrum thing is a huge plus, but a stationary object is not automatically easy to shoot just because it's stationary. It's deceptive, though, to the average photographer - because what could be simpler than raising your camera, framing your subject and clicking the button? Well you can answer this question yourself by going to Google images and doing a quick search for "Washington Monument." How many photos do you see in the search results? How many of them are taken from the exact same angle? How many of them look exactly like a hundred other images of the Washington Monument?


[ Top image University – Universidad Valladolid (Spain) HDR by Flickr user marcp_dmoz]



The grass is a little bit different, the sky is a little bit different, but for the most part this is the same shot of the Washington Monument. There's nothing really wrong with that, but we've all seen this image before. Buildings don't change, so we have to change the way we look at them. It's always a good idea to find a unique perspective for your architectural subjects, especially if they are often-photographed structures like this one.

Are you beginning to see the problem? Buildings aren't easy to photograph because they don't move, they're difficult to photograph because they don't move. Sure, you can get a great shot of the Washington Monument that looks like every single other Washington Monument photo ever taken, and that's fine for your Washington D.C. scrapbook. But what you'll have is the obvious photo, the easy one, the one that a million tourists also have in their Washington D.C. scrapbooks. To really master architectural photography, what you need to capture is that other photo, the one that hardly anyone has.

What is architectural photography?

Let's back up a bit. Architectural photography is not just the art of photographing buildings from the outside, it's also the art of photographing them from the inside. When you photograph architecture you are concerned with structure—the way a building has been put together, the beauty of its form, and often the sheer enormity of it. Your photograph must convey some or all these things to the viewer, whether it is a wide-angle shot of an enormous structure or zoomed-in shot of a beautiful staircase.

  • Canon PowerShot S3 IS
  • f/2.7
  • 0.125 sec (1/8)
  • 6 mm

Αναστάσεως ημέρα by Flickr user fusion-of-horizons

What you'll need

A wide-angle lens is really essential for this kind of photography. You can get by without one if you never plan to photograph buildings in their entirety, but then you'd be missing something. Buildings are really some of the largest photographic subjects you'll probably ever shoot, so don't underestimate just how wide you may need to go. Most of the time, your point-and-shoot camera isn't going to get the job done, unless you go for a hike, then turn around and take the shot. If you're going out for the express purpose of shooting architecture, bring a wide angle lens somewhere in the range of 12mm to 35mm.

A wide angle lens isn't the only lens you're going to need, though. You will also need a telephoto lens. This is going to help you minimize the distortion that inevitably happens when shooting large structures. It will also give you a chance to zoom in on important details.


    Panoramas work well for particularly large buildings or, if you like, for entire city squares. If your camera doesn't have a panoramic setting you can stitch a series of images together yourself, but make sure you set your camera to manual so that changes in exposure won't make it difficult to match colors and tones in post-processing.Piazza di Spagna and Trinità dei Monti, panoramic hdr - Rome, Italy by Flickr user Paolo Margari

    A camera that can do panoramics is also going to be useful, though not entirely necessary. Panoramics are an option for those very large buildings that you can't capture all in one go, even with a wide angle lens. If your camera doesn't have a panoramic setting, you can still stitch images together yourself in post processing, but make sure you shoot in manual mode because changes in exposure caused by the auto or semi-auto settings will create distinctly different tones that won't be easy to stitch together without an obvious line.

    Polarizing Filters can be enormously helpful with those external photographs. They will help darken the sky and eliminate any reflections you decide you don't want to have in an image. It will also help deepen the colors in your photos. A lens hood will also be helpful, particularly if you're using a wide angle lens. Your lens hood will help cut back on unwanted glare.

    Finally, you will need a tripod - whether you are shooting interior or exterior photos. Shooting a building may require a long exposure, for many different reasons, the most obvious being that a small aperture makes for greater depth of field, which is something that is often going to be important when shooting very large structures. Small apertures, of course, require slower shutter speeds, which often require camera stabilization: tripods.

    Settings

    In general, you should opt for a small ISO to eliminate even slight digital noise in your image. Digital noise can interfere with image clarity, and clarity is particularly important when shooting buildings. Use a small aperture to achieve maximum depth of field. Shoot in RAW - the RAW setting will help you capture the full range of tones from highlight to shadow, and will maintain detail in areas where it would have otherwise been thrown out by the JPG format. And if you have to make a choice, lean towards underexposing. Underexposing will allow you to keep the detail in areas where you might otherwise lose it, especially with very glass-heavy structures.

    First, master the technical stuff

    Before you can master the art of capturing your favorite building as no one else has captured it before, you'll need to master the technical stuff. Architectural photography has special challenges compared to other subjects, and it's important to know what they are and how to cope with them.

    Now, the fact that buildings don't move does give you some advantages. The first is time. Unless there's a nuclear attack, an earthquake or some other catastrophic incident, you really have all the time in the world to think about what you want to accomplish with your image. You don't have to wait for your building to execute a perfect pirouette, score a touchdown or do something adorable. Your building stays where it is and it does what it does and nothing else. That's why there's really no excuse for walking up to a building, snapping a photo and then walking away again. You have time, so take advantage of it.

    • OLYMPUS E-500
    • 100
    • f/6.3
    • 36 mm

    Spend some time on Flickr studying architectural photographs. What works and what doesn't? How does the photographer use line, shape, form and color?~~~~ by Flickr user Paco CT

    It's always a good idea to spend a lot of time looking at other photos in the genre you're interested in. I won't say it's particularly true for architectural photography, because it's particularly true for all kinds of photography. But before you spend all that money on your trip to Washington D.C., or Barcelona, or Athens, spend a lot of time on Flickr or in your local library or bookshop looking at architectural photography, preferably photos of the places you plan to visit. Pay particular attention to the way architectural photographers make use of shape, form, light and color.

    Buildings are usually large, except in the case of garden sheds and outhouses. For the most part, though, a building is a large structure and you want to be able to capture that sense of size in your photograph. That's not really an easy task, because you have a couple of things working against you. The first is that you're losing a dimension. A building is a three dimensional object, and a photograph has only two dimensions. The second is that you're taking your large building and putting it into a small photograph. Unless you have a very, very large piece of paper, you're stuck with displaying that image at a much smaller scale than the original. So you have to find other ways to create a sense of size in your photographs. You can do this by including objects in the foreground that give the viewer a sense of scale—a person, for example, or a tree. You can also take advantage of the vertical distortion you often get when you shoot a building from up close—that distortion can make a structure look looming and massive.

    Composition

    Perhaps more than any other kind of photography, architecture is about form and shape. When you take a photograph of a building, it shouldn't just be a photograph of a building. Even a beautiful building will look mediocre if you use this approach. Instead, look at a building as a series of lines and shapes. Think about how the light falls on your subject and how to make best use of it. Think about the building in terms of color—both its own color and the color of the things around it.

    • Olympus E-5
    • 100
    • f/8.0
    • 0.25 sec (1/4)
    • 14 mm

    Perhaps more than any other type of photography, architectural photography is about form, shape and line. Look for interesting shapes and lines that work together to create a pattern or a mood.wishbone spiral by Flickr user paul bica

    Pay attention to your environment

    If you're taking a photograph of a stunning building, it doesn't really matter which building it is, you're probably going to have people in it. Stunning buildings attract tourists. Now, in some cases including people in your photo is fine—when you want to suggest scale, for example. People can also give a photo some context; Grand Central Station wouldn't be Grand Central Station if there weren't a bunch of people scurrying around. With other buildings—the Pyramids of Giza, for example, tourists look like a bunch of squash-worthy bugs and you may wish you didn't have to include them.

    • Nikon D90
    • 250
    • f/11.0
    • 82 mm

    Grand Central Station by Flickr user bobbybradley

    So your choices are, you can wait for a lull in the traffic and then take your photo, but you and I both know that's never going to happen. As soon as one brightly-colored tourist moves out of the frame, another one saunters in. What to do? You can't clone out every tourist, though I'll personally admit to cloning out my fair share of them (and if you are patient, there's a trick you can use to remove tourists). Instead, travel with a neutral density filter (use a dark one that blocks out at least eight stops of light). Mount it on your lens and set your camera up on a tripod, and then take the longest exposure you can. Unless you have a particularly lingery tourist in your shot, most of the tourists who are hanging around your building are going to get blurred out of existence. Yay!


      Parked cars love to wreck an otherwise beautiful shot. For this image, the photographer could have eliminated most of the parked cars by crossing the street and shooting from the edge of the lawn. That may also have required a wider angle lens, of course, which is why you should always have one on hand when shooting architecture.U.S. Capitol, view from southeast by Flickr user StevenM_61

      Now for that other stuff that gets in the way of your beautiful architectural images. You know what I mean. Trash bins, for example. Don't get me wrong, without those trash bins you'd be cloning McDonald's wrappers, Coke bottles and newspapers out of your architectural images, so they certainly have their place. But no offense trash bins, you still don't want them in your photographs. This goes for parked cars, benches, bicycle racks and anything else that detracts from all that line and form. You'd be surprised by how many photographers just don't seem to notice these things. If I had to guess, I'd say it was because these objects just get dwarfed by their huge companions, so we don't tend to see them. It's probably also because we humans are very good at filtering out visual noise—those mundane, everyday objects that are always there and are therefore just not something we pay attention to. Not in real life, anyway. Accidentally include one of them in a photograph, though, and we're suddenly painfully aware of them. That's why it's important to train yourself to take notice of those mundane things and to angle them out whenever possible.


        This image has wonderful texture and detail, but the shadows add an additional layer of interest to the composition.Bahia Palace – Palacio Bahia, Marrakech (Morocco) HDR by Flickr user marcp_dmoz

        Light and color

        Light plays a key role in the success of an architectural photograph. A front-lit building, for example, may look flat and dimensionless, which is something you want to avoid when you're trying to suggest form and size. Try to shoot your buildings with side light whenever possible. Shoot early or late in the day and avoid direct overhead light, which can form hard shadows and high contrast. Architectural photography looks particularly wonderful in HDR, so if you do find yourself standing in front of that building at high noon, try bracketing your shots. Take three shots: one with well-exposed shadows, one with well-exposed midtones and another with well-exposed highlights. Then combine them into a single HDR file in post-processing.

        • Canon PowerShot S3 IS
        • f/3.5
        • 0.008 sec (1/125)
        • 22.5 mm

        Color creates mood--find color in unexpected places, and use it as a focal point for your architectural photographs.10 MAI by Flickr user fusion-of-horizons

        Pay attention to light but also pay attention to shadow—shadows can help accentuate line and add dimension to an image. Shadows can also hide detail. Make sure you are aware of every shadow in your scene and whether or not it helps or hinders your composition.

        Color is a very important element in architectural photography. You can use it as a natural frame, and you can also use it to provide a focal point in your image or simply to accent the less colorful parts of the scene.

        Form, shape and line

        Pay close attention to line—diagonals can create a sense of depth, curves and spirals can create a sense of beauty and peace. Horizontals are calming and orderly—verticals suggest power, strength and timelessness. Make yourself aware of the form and shape of every building, and also the form and shape of those smaller details. Try to take images that emphasize geometry and pattern.

        • Nikon Coolpix P1
        • 74
        • f/2.7
        • 0.017 sec (1/60)
        • 7.5 mm

        Curved lines create a sense of peace and tranquility. This image has so many curves that it becomes almost an abstraction rather than simply a shot of the interior of a building.Times Square by Flickr user dachalan

        The sky

        When you're dutifully doing your homework and studying all those architectural photographs on Flickr, pay attention to the way photographers utilize the sky in their compositions. A high percentage of truly excellent architectural photographs are those that include a dramatic or at least interesting sky. A cloudless, deep blue sky can add wonderful color to an image, especially when that color is reflected in glass. But a stormy sky can create a completely different look. It can make a building seem dramatic, even ominous. If you have an interesting sky, by all means make sure you take some wide shots of your building that include the sky in the composition.


        A dramatic sky can really make a photograph. Imagine this image without those clouds—would it convey the same mood? Would it hold your interest as long?Torre by Flickr user Chechi Pe

        Reflections

        Modern buildings often have a lot of glass, and glass (as you know) is highly reflective. Pay attention to the way the clouds, other buildings, birds etc. reflect off of the glass, and use those reflections in your composition. Reflections can be found in other places in the city, too, don't neglect a sidewalk that is covered with water during or after a rainstorm. At night, water makes a particularly interesting feature for your photography, especially if there are a lot of colored lights in your setting.


          In this photograph, the building isn't the star—it's the reflections. Sky, clouds, other buildings and even reflections of reflections make this composition a visual feast.Torre Marenostrum - 1/4 by Flickr user . SantiMB .

          Shooting interiors

          The first thing to remember about taking pictures indoors—architectural or otherwise—is that you need to take white balance into account. This is particularly true in large spaces, where there may be several different types of lighting present—natural light from the windows, fluorescents overhead, and incandescent on the receptionist's desk. Any time you have a mixed lighting situation, you will need to set up a custom white balance, which you can do with a photographer's gray card or white card. Dialing in the correct white balance setting will save you from having to make tweaks in post-processing.

          The other essential tool you will need for shooting interiors is a tripod. Except in the cases of newer buildings where there is a lot of glass, most of the time interiors are not going to have enough light to let you get a decent depth of field at those smaller ISOs that you really need to be shooting at in any situation where it's important to capture details with great clarity. If you mount your camera on a tripod and opt for a long exposure, you'll be able to use that smaller aperture and you'll have the added bonus of eliminating people from the shot.


          The interior features of a building are often just as compelling as the features on the outside. Make sure you always spend some time looking up, or you might miss interesting ceilings. Look for symmetry, shape, and for fine details such as carvings and brickwork. And don't neglect your camera's white balance setting—building interiors often have mixed lighting, which will require custom white balance.House of the Spirits by Flickr user country_boy_shane

          Shooting at night

          There is something really wonderful about architecture at night. Buildings that had plenty of drama during the day look even more dramatic at night, especially when accentuated by artificial lighting either inside or outside.

          The best time to shoot buildings at "night" is actually in the early evening, just after the sun has gone down when there is still some color and texture in the sky.


            Artificial lights, deep blue skies and distinctly fewer tourists are just some of the advantages of shooting architecture at night. Nighttime shots also have a dramatically different mood than those captured during the day.Switzerland - Bundeshaus Bern - Curia Confoederationis Helveticae - Federal Palace of Switzerland by Flickr user Kuster & Wildhaber Photography

            The details

            Don't get so overwhelmed by the enormity of your subject that you neglect the details. Older buildings in particular often feature intricate, smaller details that are worthy of a photograph all by themselves. Structural details provide for wonderful, geometric compositions. Make sure you always look up whenever you are in a building—ceilings may be beautiful features and if you don't look up you're going to miss them. Look closely at stair railings, brickwork, structural supports such as columns and at smaller areas where the architect has included intricate carvings or other details. Get close to these features and shoot them for texture and detail.

            • Canon PowerShot S3 IS
            • f/3.5
            • 0.008 sec (1/125)
            • 22.5 mm

            Sometimes the smallest details can make the most compelling images. This close shot of the door hardware in a cathedral says a lot about the careful design and attention to details that went into the construction of this old building.10 MAI by Flickr user fusion-of-horizons

            Distortion

            You're going to find that distortion is a common problem when shooting buildings—or a bonus, depending on your perspective. If you stand at the bottom of a building and shoot straight up, you're going to get a leaning effect in the final image. This can help add to the drama and sense of enormity in your photograph. Or it may just bug you.

            • Canon EOS 7D
            • 100
            • f/4.5
            • 5
            • 8 mm

            Distortion can be a problem for architecture photographers, especially when shooting large buildings from up close. Or, it can be a bonus. This photo has a lot of vertical distortion, but combined with a dramatic sky the result is an otherwise friendly-looking building that suddenly takes on an ominous appearance.Magic Kingdom - Pinocchio Village Haus by Flickr user SpreadTheMagic

            If you're going for realism rather than artistic license, you will want to try keeping those vertical lines as vertical as possible. This often means standing back, since that vertical distortion increases the closer you get to your subject. Fish Eye lenses, of course, will make distortion even worse, so avoid using one if you want to minimize this problem.

            Remember that distortion can also work in your favor—a wide angle lens will make foreground objects look much larger compared to objects in the distance, and that can create a sense of size and drama.

            If you aren't able to eliminate that distortion in camera, you can minimize it in post processing by using the perspective or distort function. This requires a little bit of getting used to, but for the most part a slight adjustment to the corners of the image will correct the distortion and make your verticals look vertical.

            Forget the rule of thirds

            Well, don't forget it entirely. The rule of thirds should always be at the back of your head for those times when you need it. But architecture in particular is very symmetrical in nature, so you're going to find a lot of scenes where you'll want to highlight that sense of balance and symmetry by placing your subject in the center of the frame. I'm not saying of course that all architectural photos should be symmetrical and there will certainly be cases where that old stand-by rule of thirds will serve you well, but make sure you're very aware of symmetry and when you should feature it in your images.

            Pay attention to those other rules of composition, too. Spiral staircases, for example, can be a great opportunity to shoot according to the golden spiral. Look carefully and you'll find triangle and diagonal compositions, too.


            Architecture has a lot of symmetry, and symmetry often means breaking the rule of thirds. When you find yourself facing a very balanced scene such as this one, try centering your subject to emphasize symmetry.ABS38_2 by Flickr user artzubi

            Mix it up

            Most tourists walk up to a building, take one photograph and then move on to the next attraction. You are not a tourist. Don't settle for a single image of any one building; take lots of them. Walk around the building and shoot from as many different perspectives as you can. Go back at night and shoot the building again, then shoot it at dawn and compare the impact of each image. Shoot from below, looking up. Try shooting from lower than eye level, to provide a different perspective than what the average person has when approaching that building. Or shoot from above eye-level—from the balcony of a building opposite, for example.

            Experimenting will not only give you loads of different images to choose from, it will also give you a great eye for what works and what doesn't. Eventually you're going to have a nose for this stuff, and you'll be able to approach any building and instantly hone in on the most unique, compelling angle there is. Don't get me wrong, there's still a place for those standard, every-tourist-has-one photos, too. Your scrapbook. For architectural photos that really wow people, though, keep the above tips in mind, take lots of photos and eventually you'll be a master.

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            Comments

            1. jackie dawe-rumbolt says:

              David,
              I received this email at the perfect time. I am going to Venice, Rome, and Flrence in two weeks. Awesome info.

              Thanks,
              Jackie

            2. Leahyphoto says:

              Don't use the polarising filter with a panorama, because it will only work on part of the image

            3. Umesh says:

              David,
              I loved this article. It is so informative for a travel photographer like me who is confronted with midday harsh light while visiting these buildings and limited time. You have given me new ways of looking and photographing in these situations. So Thank you again.
              With regards.
              Umesh

            4. Alejandro says:

              ACD see, a picture editor, has a distorcion icon which can be used to keep the architectural building straigh as seen in real sight. The building pictures should be taken from distance, calculating not to lose space in both sides or heights.
              Alejandro

            5. Andy. Paton says:

              David, I loved your article about buildings and panoramic shots. I combatted the long image that one has by asking a photo paper supplier to send me some long sheets of paper. Some thing that is twice as long and the same width as an A 4 paper. It allowed we to print some lovely seaside villages, unfortunately I did not notice a grey Renault car driving in the same direction as my pan on one of them, so I have many images of this car, very frustrating but fun unless you do not like grey renaults!

              Regards
              Andy

              By the way I had to misinform the printer to print the paper, but it does very well.

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