While the photographic skills needed for architectural photography have many parallels with other genres of photography, particularly when shooting landscapes, some aspects and challenges are specific to this area.
This article gives you a series of tips on how to hone your photographic skills specifically for the architectural field. I'll start by setting the scene: what is architectural photography?
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The simple answer is that it incorporates photography of all aspects of the design of the human-built environment. This ranges from views of entire city skylines (through photographs of individual buildings and the tiniest architectural details on those buildings) to their interiors.
External architectural and interior photography represent two sides of the same coin and should be considered together. However, in the interests of space, this article will look at only architectural photography of exteriors – I’ll save the interior photography tips for a later blog.
Architectural photography skills apply not just to spectacular modern buildings but also historic buildings and every kind of human-built structure, whether it be a world-famous palace or museum or an old and tumbledown cottage. They’re all architectural creations, although, admittedly, we might struggle to find much architectural or photographic merit in many!
Assuming, however, that we're only going to be drawn to point our cameras at those structures that do have some architectural – and hence photographic – merit, how do we go about capturing them?
In my view, there are, essentially, two broad styles or categories of architectural photography: technically correct and creative.
The two styles are quite distinct from one another and yet not mutually exclusive. Both are intended to deal with – in very different ways – one of the biggest challenges of architectural photography: converging parallels.
These styles are important throughout much of architectural photography, whether the subject is an entire skyline, a single building (or small cluster of buildings), or an interior, and whether the building(s) is/are modern or historic. The only area where there is sometimes less distinction between the two styles is in the photography of details.
One of the main features of many building photos is that the photographed building appears to be leaning backwards, with its walls slanting and converging towards the top. This is what is meant by converging parallels.
It’s an inevitable result of the frequent need – particularly when shooting tall buildings – to tip the camera backwards to fit the entire building into the image frame. Doing so means that the camera's digital sensor (or film) isn’t parallel to the building's walls, with its angle of tilt then reflected in those slanting walls in the final image.
Obviously, in the real world, those walls aren’t slanting at all – they’re vertical and parallel to one another. And yet, we’ve become so used to seeing photos of buildings with a slant that we largely accept it as normal. It’s vital that the photographer doesn’t accept this but rather does something about it, through either the technically correct style or a range of creative techniques, or a combination of both.
The technically correct style of photography aims to banish those converging parallels and to depict that building as it really is. In the creative style, however, just about anything goes, with those converging parallels frequently incorporated into – and often exaggerated – in a more artistic (though perhaps less realistic) representation of the architecture.
Keeping the walls of any building vertical and parallel in the final images can be quite a challenge – particularly if you’re taking a photograph of a tall building – but there are several ways to achieve this.
These can be summarised as the use of a shift lens, 'normal' wide-angle lenses with a displaced perspective, and post-photography software.
a) The shift lens
This is arguably the most important piece of kit for any professional architectural photographer. A shift lens is a very specialised kind of lens (usually with a short focal length, i.e., a wide-angle view) that fits onto the front of a camera in the normal way, but in which the lens part itself can then be slid up and down, or side-to-side, on a rail.
Sliding the lens upwards enables the photographer to keep the camera back (and hence the sensor or film) vertical and so parallel to the building's wall while at the same time looking upwards. If you follow this process correctly, the result is a technically correct image of the building, with all walls vertical and parallel.
b) Normal wide-angle lenses
Useful if the buildings you're photographing are only a couple of stories high, you can use a normal wide-angle lens (usually as short a focal length as you can get). Keeping the camera back vertical will, again, ensure that the building's walls are vertical and parallel. However, it’ll put the building firmly in the top half of the image frame, leaving an awful lot of foreground in the lower half.
So, if doing this, you need to make darned sure that the foreground is interesting – plain concrete, scruffy grass, or tangled brambles just won't cut it! A much more engaging foreground would be, for example, some calm water giving a nice reflection of the building. Or it could be a diagonal boulder, path, or stream pointing and leading the way towards the building.
Not surprisingly, this does limit the ability to shoot in this way – a reflective pool can’t go in front of every building. So, it’s important to be quite selective about what buildings you capture in this way. You may find it useful to move around quite a bit before shooting in order to find the best perspective, not so much from the point of view of the building but how to make the best use of the foreground.
A slightly different alternative (that’s sometimes possible) is for the photographer to get themselves in a raised viewpoint at least part way up the height of their subject building. This can enable a correct perspective to be possible and reduce the amount of inevitable foreground. Of course, unless you can carry around your own very tall ladder or crane, this option is only available occasionally, but it's always worth keeping an eye out for this possibility.
c) Post-photography software
These days Photoshop, and other photo editing programmes, have some very effective perspective-correcting tools that allow the photographer to shoot a building with converging parallels and correct them on the computer later.
This works well for images with only a modest amount of convergence, but when it starts to become extreme, it’s not quite so ideal. The reason for this issue is that, in correcting the perspective, the software has to stretch the top part of the image, creating new pixels, and in so doing, has to interpolate (or guess) what those pixels should contain. This is great for modest amounts of perspective correction, but it has the potential to cause loss of image quality if done to the extreme.
To avoid this risk, try to shoot using either of the first two techniques listed above (using a shift or normal wide-angle lens), and then fine-tune the image in-computer.
d) Optical illusions
As a final note about the technically correct style of photography, it’s worth mentioning one problem of an optical illusion that sometimes results.
We’ve become so used to images of buildings slanting backwards and becoming narrower towards the top that the upper parts of tall buildings can appear to be bulging outwards when these images are reproduced with the correct perspective! This is an optical illusion because when such an image is carefully examined, it becomes clear that the walls are parallel, not leaning outwards.
This problem is so distracting that many architectural photographers don't fully correct the converging parallels, at least in images of tall buildings. They leave just a little convergence in place to ensure that the photographed building looks correct.
The creative style of architectural photography is the very antithesis of the technically correct style. Gone is the strict discipline of ensuring that all the verticals are parallel and actually vertical. Now just about anything goes, provided it makes a great composition and has a visual impact.
This means, inevitably, that the process is quite fluid and, therefore, rather hard to define and describe. Many of the architecturally creative images that really work have a strong graphic element, incorporating diagonal, horizontal, vertical, and curving lines into a unifying composition and often setting this off against the interplay of light and colour.
One of the main processes is to take those converging parallels and make a virtue of them, incorporating them into the image's graphic composition, frequently exaggerating them to enhance their dramatic and dynamic impact.
The result is that, instead of being a pesky drain on the image's correctness, they now become one of the main driving forces in creating a strong, impactful image. In terms of architectural design, such an image will almost certainly be wholly incorrect, but as an artistic, creative piece of imagery, it’s likely to be stunning.
One of the most common features of the creative style is that – unlike technically correct photography – there’s often little attempt to photograph an entire building, particularly a tall one. Instead, one or perhaps a couple of the most interesting sections are selected, perhaps areas that contain particularly strong architectural features and/or which are receiving sunlight at an especially effective angle.
By doing the above, you get an image that cuts past any potentially distracting or photographically damaging intrusions (e.g., street lights, overhead cables, and satellite dishes). You also get an image that homes in specifically on the building's best design features, something that should delight the architect's inner artist!
In many ways, the creative style starts us down the road towards the photography of details, but of large portions of a building rather than just a tiny segment. That part comes next.
Architectural photography should not be simply about the broader view of an entire building, a cluster of buildings, or an urban skyline. It’s important to delve a little deeper to examine some of the minutiae.
From those little embellishments that the architect deliberately included to make a statement to those serendipitous moments caused by the play of light on a window, or the shape and contrast caused by a juxtaposition of shadow and sunlight, every detail is important.
Embellishments are, of course, usually associated with historical buildings, such as cathedrals and stately homes. On such buildings an exuberance of gargoyles, statues, spires, and turrets can provide an inexhaustible, but sometimes rather cluttered, supply of possible detail subjects. In this situation, it’s important to be highly selective and photograph only the detail subjects that are well-lit and not interfered with by a clutter of adjacent figures.
By 'well-lit', when it comes to architectural embellishments, I generally mean a rather soft, almost flat lighting. It’s tempting to want to photograph everything in bright sunlight, and sometimes this works nicely.
However, when it comes to details, it can also mean an excess of bright highlights on one side and deep shadow on the other, disrupting the appearance of that detail. It’s often better to photograph such details either on a cloudy day or while in shadow.
In terms of modern buildings, details tend to take quite a different form. They tend to be the shapes of windows or the reflection of light off them, the structure of a steel framework, or the interplay of diagonals and curves within the overall shape of the building.
Whatever the kind of external detail, successful photography will require them to be isolated from the rest of the surrounding building and likely quite distant. In other words, a moderately strong telephoto lens will be needed, particularly if you’re shooting details on a tall structure.
Converging parallels will be much less of a concern in this kind of photography since you're photographing only very small components and from (usually) quite some distance with a telephoto lens. Occasionally, you may find that a window photographed from below will show some convergence in its frame, but this can easily be corrected on the computer if need be.
There are many occasions, of course, when you want to shoot just one or two views of any building that grabs your interest.
But, with the armoury of techniques described in this article, it should be possible – and hopefully more tempting – to go out and generate a series of images, a photo essay that tells something of a story about a chosen building.
Such a sequence of shots could range from a couple of technically correct images that show more or less the whole building, followed by a series of more creative images, that then as a final touch to complete the story blend with a few details, whether they be gargoyles or light on a steel-framed window.
This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.
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