Photographing Architecture: A Guide to Getting the Perfect Shot

Date Posted:4 July 2017 

Architecture is all around us. We live, work and play in structures that use space and form to shape our lifestyles. But for photographers, capturing architecture involves a unique set of techniques and a well-trained eye.

Not sure where to start? Follow these tips and you’ll be shooting like Ezra Stoller in no time.

Architectural photography involves many components

Shooting architecture is an exercise in outdoor photography. Understanding the role sunlight, clouds and other environmental factors play in the sum of your composition will make you a better photographer.

Equally, elements of landscape photography, conceptual, geometric and even travel photography can all be harnessed to make your architectural portraits stand out to an audience. It all starts with understanding the vertical line.

Vertical lines

In architectural photography, the general rule of thumb is ‘keep vertical lines vertical’, appearing perpendicular to the horizon. Your camera lense naturally distorts perspective, so vertical lines tend to slant inwards from the front of a building to converge beyond the frame. For dramatic effect, these convergences can be captured, conversely, for cleaner and more accurate shots, take advantage of the geometrical patterns of most structures to engage the eye of the viewer.

Try it now. Find the nearest structure and view it through your camera. Can you see how vertical lines affect perspective? Once you grasp this concept, it will be easier to adjust the focal plane.

Use a tripod

Architectural photography often focuses on balance and symmetry, with the focal plane perpendicular to vertical lines in the composition. A tripod assists this by allowing the photographer to level the camera parallel to the horizon. Tripods also reduce noise, producing a cleaner, crisper image that is often desirable in architectural shots.

You can still capture the relationship between focal plane and vertical lines without a tripod. To practice freehand shooting, look for subjects within the structure. Tunnels, walkways and staircases offer geometric guidance for the budding architectural photographer.

Changing perspective

New and interesting perspectives can make or break a great architectural shot. Avoid shooting from street level where possible as the subjects will appear flat and bland. Better options come from high vantage points, distance and geometric positions. Up close, your subjects should be features of the structure, rather than the structure itself.

One of the great pleasures of shooting architecture is that there's always new ways to capture the image. Broaden your horizons, look further afield for untapped perspectives and moods. By starting early, you're tapping into creative elements that will help define your photography style down the track.

Lighting considerations

Photography with natural light is desirable and on a good day there’s usually plenty available. That’s only half the battle. When shooting architecture, back and front lighting are best avoided, as both reduce detail in the composition and make the subjects look flat and uninteresting.

Ideal light is usually at around a 45-degree angle side-front to the subject across the elevation of the structure. This casts shadows and helps surface detail pop, giving character and dimension to every shot.

Sunlight and clouds

The time of year, time of day and cloud cover all play a part in outdoor photography considerations. Apps like Sun Seeker can help anticipate weather and sun position throughout the year, but in general, sunny, clear days with bright light will add hard contrast to your composition, while more cloud cover will soften edges.

As with all outdoor photography the golden hour – the period of time right before sunset or just after sunrise – is usually primetime for shooting buildings and other architectural works. Warm shadows, deep golden colouring and depth of texture and character add mood and detail to subjects.

Depending on available light sources, shooting at night can also be an option, though it’s generally more advanced and will take some experimentation with lenses to achieve a compelling shot.

For example, a night shot that captures the ‘galaxy’ in the sky requires wide aperture and high sensitivity. Similarly, capturing many distantly lit buildings in a cityscape benefits from similar considerations.

Overall, capturing structures lit naturally or from artificial sources requires patience, planning and a bit of creativity. 

Mirror’s edge

Many buildings employ reflective glass in their construction, and built-up urban environments are full of deadly reflective surfaces like cars, storefronts and signage, all capable of ruining even the most considered shot. Often, these reflections aren’t noticed until you’re back in the studio, so spend a bit of time scanning for potential reflections and adjust your composition accordingly.

Popular types of architectural photography

Within the broad church of architectural photography there are popular types that focus on particular technical and artistic capacities when shooting buildings.

URBEX (Urban Exploring)

URBEX is a photography movement that has evolved with our changing natural and manmade landscapes. Discovering abandoned, unused and dilapidated architecture and then photographing it.

Some photographers explore the interiors, focusing on subjects and geometric concepts, others deploy a wider focus, positioning old buildings in the landscape to create haunting, ghostlike images.

Long Exposure

Gaining popularity over the last decade, long exposure photography employs ND (Neutral Density) filters to 'give subjects a timeless a feel’. Long exposure works best capturing landscape around the structures, particularly moving objects like cars on freeways and clouds moving through the sky.

High Dynamic Range (HDR) and post processing

HDR photography is popular among professional architectural photographers. HDR photography involves taking several shots from the same fixed setup (using a tripod) and then blending those images together using software to produce a single image with a greater range of light.

HDR is one of many ways software and post production can enhance your image. Programs like Adobe Lightroom enable you to edit, crop and manipulate your images in post production to make them even more compelling.

Endless opportunities with architectural photography

Architecture can engage our desires, make us think, feel, stand in awe or be transported both to the past and into the future. For the photographer, architecture offers unlimited opportunities to create unique and immersive compositions. If you’re ready to start shooting architecture it’s time to check out Paxton's exciting range of tripods and other accessories and make your next shoot a total success.

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