Visually Speaking


The Art of Architectural Photography

People are highly animated, emotional creatures. Even while sitting still, their faces constantly change. They yawn, frown, blink—making it hard for photographers to capture them at their absolute best. On the other hand, buildings don’t move. And buildings don’t have emotions. So it should be really easy for anyone to get a good architectural shot, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t so. Buildings don’t move, but photographically they present an irksome set of perspective problems. They also have unique proportions, visual personalities and yes, even visual moods.

The key to good architectural photos is twofold: understanding image distortion and determining the time of day when the building is at its glamorous best.

Most people take a straightforward approach to architectural photography. They stand dead center in front of the building, at ground level at midday, and include everything. The result, while documentarily accurate, is usually visually boring. A noonday sun will cast little or no shadow, making the building appear flat. Shooting straight on directly parallel to one façade without including any other sides will add to the two-dimensional flat effect. And if the structure is quite tall, chances are there will be some distortion in the perspective—the vertical lines of the building will warp, making it appear as if it is falling over.

Generally with architectural shots, you want your audience to view details on many parts of the building, so it becomes important that all of the structure be in sharp focus. That means using a low ISO setting, which will cut down on noise (graininess) and a small aperture camera setting to ensure everything is in focus. The resulting slow shutter speed makes it necessary to use a tripod to prevent any camera shake—nobody has hands that steady! Since buildings don’t move, only a lazy photographer would opt to shoot at a high ISO setting while holding a camera.

The problem of distortion is harder to solve. When you look at a photo of a building, often the horizontal and vertical lines appear bent. This image distortion is caused by choosing the wrong place to put the camera and/or the wrong camera equipment. Ideally the right equipment is a view camera that will allow you to shoot from any angle with minimal distortion. There are also lenses specially designed to correct warping. Any serious architectural photographer will possess both. And nowadays, software programs like Photoshop have tools that will allow you to easily straighten and stretch objects in your image with reasonably good effect.

Barring expensive, specialized equipment, there are some things you can do that will help straighten those lines up. Here are a few general rules to follow:

  • The wider your lens, the more your horizontal and vertical lines will twist.
  • Shooting near the base of a tall building will make the ground level appear disproportionately massive as compared to the top.
  • Keeping your camera level to the ground (not tilting up) will help reduce warping.
  • A high vantage point will minimize image distortion.
  • Shooting from a distance and using a telephoto lens to compress the scene often creates interesting patterns that aren’t noticeable from close up.

Lighting for architectural photography (unlike lighting for photographing people) is usually dependent upon nature and beyond the control of the photographer. The time of day and the direction of the sun become all important. Does the building face east? Then it’s probably best to plan on a morning shot. The same building shot in the evening with the sun behind it will appear dull and lifeless or even only as a silhouette, with all details lost in shadow. Many times side lighting is the most interesting. Light raking in at a low or side angle will create long shadows that provide a mood.

A serious architectural photographer will make several visits to a site to determine when the light on the structure is best. The great English novelist and philosopher G.K. Chesterton rightly noted, “All architecture is great architecture after sunset.” A structure that is artificially well lit either from within or without, can provide very interesting nighttime photos even if it is not that attractive by day. Industrial plants are a prime example. A tripod is a must for the long exposure necessary to bring out details in low light.

Just about the best time of day for a modern architectural shot is when the light level outside is low enough to bring out the interior lighting but some detail remains visible in the sky. This perfect balance of outdoor and indoor light will last only a few minutes, and it may take several trips to get both the camera position and time of day perfect.

Even though artificial light of some sort is always available inside buildings, architectural interiors can be every bit as demanding as exteriors. Interiors can often look cold, lifeless and uninviting in photographs. To avoid a clinical feel, turn off the overhead general lighting and use floor lamps and low-level table lamps instead. This will create pools of light that will feel warm and welcoming. If you are using strobes, be particularly mindful of distracting light reflections in mirrors, windows and other shiny surfaces.

Before shooting an interior shot, take a careful look around the room at the details. Are the chairs straightened? Trash cans emptied and/or hidden? Appropriate books, magazines, etc., on the table? Be sure to remove anything with inappropriate logos.

Many times, adding layers of light will soften the look of an interior or bring out a hidden detail. Expensive photo lights are not always needed. A strategically placed floor lamp or even an industrial shoplight, if hidden, will do the trick. Here are some situations where added light will help with interior shots:

  • When the ambient light level is too low to provide an acceptable depth of field.
  • To bring the interior and exterior light levels into balance, allowing the view from a window to be seen rather than appearing blasted out white.
  • To highlight a staircase or doorway to give a sense of life elsewhere in the building.

Shooting buildings, bridges and other structures is great photo practice. You will learn about the importance of light intensity and direction and how to recognize and deal with image distortion. Professional architectural photography is a specialization, just like portraiture or fashion imagery. To do it well requires the right tools, the right time of day, the right talent—and lots of practice!