Images that have strong geometric elements, good light, interesting tonality and great composition have always been the ingredients that get me most excited about a photograph! So it should come as no surprise that architectural photography has always been on my radar! Whilst I’ve always loved the idea of pursuing the genre more seriously I long held the incorrect belief that I “must” have expensive perspective control lenses. That was always a bit of a deal breaker for me because I didn’t have a camera body from either of the main manufacturers for these lenses and would have required me to buy into a whole new system. I’ve subsequently bought lenses and cameras that have technical movements, and over the course of this month I will cover them. But for starters I want to look at techniques, ideas and software that can help you get in to architectural photography without spending any money on new gear! Some of the software you probably already own and some are free, such as Snapseed which is one of my favourite editing apps on mobile devices.
This is the first in a three part series.
Cameras and Lenses
Before we jump in to Technique, let me say I am not an “expert” on architectural photography. It’s something I have slowly built up an interest in. I’m very much in the midst of my journey with this genre and everything I share below is only what I’ve learned thus far.
Find Inspiring locations that you can visit regularly
So a little back story on what inspired me to get more serious about architecture. I frequently used to spend time in Los Angeles for work trips (let’s hope those days return soon!). The hotel we stayed at is located a short walk away from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. This is a magnificent structure, designed by the legendary Frank Gehry. Gehry's designs are instantly recognisable! When I look at the Walt Disney Concert Hall the structure is almost like a visual representation of music! At least that’s what happens in my wild imagination! It is a concert hall after all! The outside of the building is made of matt stainless steel, and the tones reflected off its surface can change dramatically depending on the time of day and weather. It really is a marvel, and the subject of an unfinished photography project that I hope to get back to someday! This was the spark for me! It brings me to my first recommendation. Once you've found a subject you love, visit regularly! I think this is so important! Every place I’ve visited has interesting structures, and no doubt, wherever you are in the World there will be interesting buildings to photograph. Be it museums, skyscrapers, stadiums, hotels, concert halls or whatever! Even old barns and abandoned buildings make for excellent architectural subject matter!! You could even start with your own home!
Learn about the building
Learn about the building! Why was it built? Who designed it? Does it have an interesting history or is it some technological marvel? Studying up on the Walt Disney Concert Hall lead me to do a lot more reading about Frank Gehry. I've learned so much about architecture in general too, and other architects in my own city that have designed some wonderful structures! I don't think there will ever be a shortage of interesting subject matter in the field of architecture!
Research the light and best times of day to visit on apps like TPE or Photopills. Do some research online to find out how accessible the building is. Look at online photo sharing sites like Flickr to see what kind of images have been made of that location before. You might be amazed to find how many people have visited the location you have in mind.
Light, Composition, Texture & Story
For me this is the most fun! Being on location and exploring the elements of the building you attempting to capture! Walk around the location as much as possible and see how it looks from as many positions as you can.
Incorporate light, texture, shape and context where you can and when it’s relevant. If it’s a building that the general public interact with all the time then it may be helpful to incorporate people in the frame (think airports, train stations, malls etc). Sometimes people are not directly part of the story, as is the case in my opinion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall… to me the story of the building is really about the fascinating shape of it… and personally how that is a physical description of music. I won’t go into great detail here about gear, as we will cover it in a future article, but for now plan to take the widest lens you have as well as a normal (35-50mm) and a short telephoto (75-100mm)… or if you have a zoom lens that covers a range between 24-28mm on the wide end and 75-100mm on the long end, you could happily start working with that lens alone!
The wide lenses will be used to fit the whole building in, or as much of it as you can. They give context and allow for story telling. The telephoto lenses will be great for emphasising details and patterns.
Normal lenses like a 35mm or 50mm lens are not necessarily common focal lengths for making architectural pictures. Yet two of my favourite images from the Walt Disney Concert Hall were made at 35mm... so having a range of focal lengths or a zoom at your disposal is definitely helpful.
Get the camera straight and level
This is a fundamental part of architectural photography. Wherever prominent vertical lines appear on the building, they should normally be perfectly vertical in your photograph. It’s a really important part of architectural photography and it is the point where gear may become a consideration, again, we will be covering that separately. For now, work on getting the camera perfectly level and straight. If the camera is tilted up the vertical lines begin to converge inwards towards the top of the frame. This is called perspective distortion. Try to find positions where you can fit the building in to your picture whilst keeping the camera level. For bigger structures see if there is a location a bit further away that affords a good view. For skyscrapers in particular, being further away and slightly elevated can be very helpful! If it’s not possible to fit the building in, then consider compositions that crop in to interesting elements of the structure while keeping the camera level.
Black and White or Colour?
This really depends on your own subjective tastes and what you’d like to communicate about the building you’re photographing. Some buildings the colour is a prominent feature and the choice is easy, others the shapes, texture and overall design are most important and you might prefer then to go with B&W. Buildings and city scapes at twilight with warm tungsten lighting inside and out is a very popular colour combination used by photographers the World over.
As regular readers will know, my passion is analog photography and printing in the darkroom, so I am often looking to make dramatic B&W images on film.
Most of all, have fun!
So all of the above I feel are some useful guidelines that can set you off in the right direction to photographing architecture. However many of the pictures I've made of buildings do not conform to the guidelines and yet provide me with the greatest sense of satisfaction! Having fun with your photography is more important than abiding by a strict set of rules. Breaking the rules does not invalidate your photography, on the contrary it demonstrates your willingness to be creative! Wandering around buildings and composing photographs is partly visual problem solving and partly visual meditation, allowing me to hit the "off switch" from everyday life. Regardless of whether I manage to make a good photograph or not, I simply enjoy the process and I hope this piece inspires you to do the same!
Next we will be talking software and post production… happy shooting!