Show the building as you experience it

Posted by Donna Rouviere Anderson July 30, 2015

Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves.

— Julia Morgan

Photos by Forrest Anderson

The point of architecture photography is to show the building as it should look and to allow the viewer to feel what you felt as you saw the building, to experience it.

Good architectural photography begins with planning. If possible, research structures you plan to photograph, by walking through them in advance or googling pictures of them so that you can plan for the best vantage points, times of day and lighting and can figure out how to eliminate unwanted obstructions from your photographs.

You want to shoot four things – the interior, the exterior, the exterior with its garden space and the exterior in its general environment.

Architectural photography includes wide angle, medium and detail shots.

 Ideally, equipment for architectural photography includes the following:

  • A high resolution DSLR camera.
  • A very wide-angle lens, which you need to use carefully to avoid distortion.
  • If you're rich, a 24 mm f/4 perspective correction lens or wider.
  • A 50 mm lens. 
  • A sturdy tripod with a ball head that you can level. It should have a pan and tilt head with a fluid drag.
  • Have a quick-release plate that you attach to the underside of your camera to allow you to dismount the camera and shoot handheld when you want to.
  • Possibly a step ladder so you can get up high enough to maintain non-tilt positioning.
  • If you have time and lots of space to shoot, mount your laptop on another tripod and tether it to the camera with Lightroom. Then you can see what you are shooting as you go to see what is working and what isn't.

Be careful if you are shooting video, as shooting 25 fps under 60 Hz American current will cause your footage to have a slow pulsing illumination effect. Shooting 24 fps under 50 Hz lighting in Europe will do the same. Test it with different settings to avoid this problem if you can.

If possible, have filters that you can place on the lens as needed. Useful ones include:

Neutral density, graduate neutral density for cooling a hot sky  and a polarizing filter to reduce surface glare on water or metal surfaces.

If you don’t have all of this equipment, don’t let that stop you from shooting architecture. Shoot what you can and do the best you can anyway. This list of gear just makes it easier to get good architectural pictures.

On-site, start with taking a survey of the building’s exterior, interior and landscaping as well as distant vantage points from which you may be able to see it.

Identify the following shots:

  • The best angle for the overall shot.
  • A shot of the structure in its environment, especially if the structure is stunning.
  • Various views through the building.
  • Paths and gardens.
  • Create a “chair” for the viewer to put themselves in to look around the building, inside or out.
  • Identify the important details or views that define the structure and tell its story - ornamentation, doorknobs, art, furniture.
  • Look for places that can be separated with lighting.
  • Identify lighting challenges.

Look for the sun’s angle and choose the optimum time to shoot. If possible, work when the sun is out, as you will get better definition. Set up your tripod and camera, shoot if the sun isn’t out and then wait for it to come out. If it doesn’t, shoot the building at dusk from the outside with the windows lit. From the inside, do the same and get the interior with blue windows outside. If it’s raining, shoot the interior with tungsten lights and let the windows go blue.

Making this kind of a shot list can totally change the quality of the photography you shoot. Here are examples of two architectural structures that we shot from a variety of different angles and in different lighting to get totally different results. The first is the Opera House in Sydney Harbor, Australia....




... and the second is the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. 





As much as you can, declutter the scene.  Avoid vehicles parked outside. Take pictures both with and without people. You don’t have to show everything in a scene. Concentrate on what will give it a personality.

Use a color checker to have a known color reference in the space and as white balance. Look for an average because you can't remember when you leave the space what the colors look like.

In cramped rooms, tape light stands in place using black photo paper tape. Then crop or retouch them out later.

To solve the problem of tilting in pictures:

  • In post-processing, do perspective correction after you've done everything you can to eliminate the problem in the camera.
  • Photograph tall buildings from other buildings or from across a river when possible. Shoot tall buildings vertically unless you are doing video.
  • Move further away and shoot with a short zoom lens.
  • Get up to a high viewpoint on a ladder or scaffold.
  • Point the center of the lens at the center of the building. Photograph it from the middle point from across the street, from the floor of a building that is halfway up the building you are shooting. Sometimes you have to move some distance away to be able to photograph it.
  • Use a grid to keep things level.

Break up things that line up - they flatten an image.

When you see moire on a photo, look at it at 200 percent zoom on your monitor. It may not be on the file, but just on the screen. If so, it will disappear at 100 percent zoom.

Juxtapose light objects in front of dark ones.

Above all, focus on what interests you. Each photo should have one main focus.