Photographing Buildings: The One Mistake You Can't Afford To Make :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing Buildings: The One Mistake You Can't Afford To Make

by David Peterson 1 comment

Does your architectural photography look a bit strange? Do your buildings bend backwards, almost as if you’re always taking a picture of the leaning tower of Pisa? You might be making this one mistake. Architectural photography is the most prone to visual distortions, so much so that’s it very common for most people to make the mistake I’m about to discuss. Learn what it is and how you can fix it in Photoshop Elements.

Why buildings are different

Buildings are very large and oftentimes very linear. I know it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, but it’s important to understand how it can effect the image created on your camera. You may have heard of lens distortion, or the bending of light as it enters your camera. Most pictures have a small amount of lens distortion, but you hardly notice it because most subjects aren’t uniform or linear.

Buildings are linear... very linear. Just like the way a white shirt brings out dirt stains, buildings bring out lens distortion. Because you expect to see straight lines, you are surprised when you find out that the buildings are, in fact, curving backwards. What can be done about this?

How to solve building distortion with the right lens

You can cut down on distortion by using a fixed focal length lens at the 50mm range (a.k.a. “normal” lens). These lenses bend the light as little as possible, but they do have a significant drawback. You can’t zoom. You need to stand at the right distance to take the photo, and that’s not always an easy feat.

In an ideal world, every building you photograph would have zero obstructions in front of it. You could walk down the street, get your 50mm lens, and take a photo of the building with a perfect perspective and no distortion. Unfortunately, the real world isn’t like that. There are trees, light poles, and electrical wires always getting in the way. Because of these distractions, most photographers are forced to photograph buildings up close.

A useful way to fit the entire building into the frame is to use a wide angle lens. At 18-35mm, most buildings will fit the frame (except for the occasional skyscraper you photograph from the entrance). The only problem is that the wider you go, the more distortion you introduce into the equation. Solving one problem just leads to another.

Lens distortion is very evident when you use a Fish Eye Lens (like the example to the right). These lenses allow you “zoom out” further than a wide angle lens - further even than the standard human range of vision, giving you an almost insect-like experience. These kinds of lenses are best when you’re photographing something very closeup.

Photoshop Elements does a fine job

So why try to solve it with the camera? Post processing software like Adobe Photoshop Elements can easily straighten out a lopsided building. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1. Open up the image in Photoshop Elements. For this tutorial, we sourced an image of a somewhat tall building from Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Notice how the building bends slightly backwards and is angled to the right.
Photo By Flickr User cliff1066

Step 2. Go to Filter -> Correct Camera Distortion from the top menu.

Doing so will bring up the camera distortion editor. You should see a grid view that looks like this:

The camera distortion correction window in Photoshop Elements

Step 3. Adjust the vertical perspective to make the building look more upright.

In this photo, I tilted the building forward until I was just about to cut off the top. I’m willing to accept a little bit of distortion if it means I can keep the building in the frame.

Step 4. Remove other sources of lens distortion.

You can do this by using the “Remove Distortion” slider. Move it to the left, and your image gets fat in the middle. Move it to the right, and the image gets skinny in the middle. I used the yellow line on the pavement in conjunction with the grid to figure out how much distortion the image still has. You can stop adjusting once the lines appear straight.

Step 5. Rotate.

This image was slightly rotated to the right, so we’re going to balance it out by rotating everything to the left. Take your time experimenting with angles. The dial didn’t quite do the job, so I had to enter numbers manually.

For this image, just one half of a degree was enough to make a huge difference. Be careful when rotating!

Step 6. Crop And Save.

Once you hit O.K., you’ll end up with an image that’s not quite ready for exporting. You still have to crop out the empty areas on the image by using the rectangular selection tool, copying, and then creating a new file to paste your cropped image into.

Our final image. Looks a lot better, doesn’t it?

Be aware that you will lose some data in this process. That’s just the way it goes when you fix lens distortion. Keep a mental note of it the next time you’re out shooting. If you’re photographing buildings, some of the photo will inevitably get cropped out when you’re correcting lens distortion later on.

You can deal with that, or you can pay over $1,000 for a tilt-shift lens. Pick your poison.

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  1. Larry Coleman says:

    As you say, you lose some of the image when you crop in the final step. Sometimes I haver been forced to crop so much that important parts were cropped out. To avoid that, I try to zoom out to include more of the view than I actually want so I have extra space to crop down to what I really want.

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7 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.