From the pyramids of Giza to the temples of Ancient Rome, from a suburban home to a sprawling urban mall or soaring modern skyscraper, architecture is one of the most dynamic art forms etched into the fabric of human civilization.
“Architecture” refers to the design, engineering, and construction of structures and the final structures themselves. Endless styles, each with their own unique expressions, have emerged throughout the centuries, including Romanesque, Gothic, Classical, Neoclassical, Baroque, Modernist, and Brutalist. Architecture is a popular subject for photographers, since no two structures are alike and no two angles yield the same image. Famous architectural photographers include the genre’s pioneer Albert Levy, who began photographing older buildings in the 1870s, and the American mid-century modernist Julius Shulman, who became popular after photographing modern buildings.
While it is certainly possible to simply point a camera at a building or a bridge and snap a picture, there are some basic photography skills we will cover so you can get that perfect architectural shot.
There are two types of architecture photography: exterior, in which you photograph the outside of a structure, and interior, in which you photograph the inside. Exteriors benefit from a wealth of natural light, which makes them easier to photograph. Depending on the whims of nature, exteriors may also produce wildly varying, moody, and dramatic results. Interiors are often more challenging to capture since the natural light available through windows or skylights is limited, and sometimes filtered, like through colorful stained glass windows in churches. Supplemental lighting in the form of a flash helps accurately capture interiors. However, don’t let this stop you; there is plenty of opportunity for creativity in both exterior and interior architectural photography.
Any camera, be it smartphone or DSLR camera, can capture interesting architectural shots. Digital cameras, especially mirrorless DSLRs, provide more freedom in experimentation with lenses and more control in manual mode for camera settings like exposure, shutter speed, and ISO. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all offer a range of functional cameras, from affordable point and shoot cameras to top of the line mirrorless cameras. affordable to investment View cameras, which allow for large format photography, are the best camera for providing the most professional looking images and are preferred by dedicated architecture photographers the world over. However, their bulk and hefty price tag does not make them ideal for new or hobbyist architecture photographers. Thankfully, there is an assortment of photography equipment to select from that, when used properly, will yield similarly spectacular results.
The basic photography equipment required for architecture photography is a camera, a flash, and a tripod (and a camera bag to hold it all together). Additional camera lenses like wide-angle, fish-eye, zoom lens, and tilt-shift allow a photographer to experiment with perspective and depth in creative ways, but a regular lens will suffice for capturing detail shots, both inside and outside. Architecture photography is not simply limited to shooting from ground level; elevation can provide a unique take on an otherwise common shot. Since most structures are much larger than the average photographer, angles become as important as a sense of adventure. Ladders, stairs, rocks, skyboxes, and rooftops of other buildings are some ideas to get you started on exploring perspectives. Tilt-shift lenses, which fake a shallow depth of field, provide a valuable assist in getting interesting captures from high elevations, like rooftops. Wide-angle lenses are ideal for exterior shots, especially when paired with a wide aperture, while fish-eye lenses amplify interiors nicely.
Each structure that is built has a story; research the architect, his or her influences, the style, and the date the building was built or renovated as a starting point When standing in front of or inside a structure, first look around and take stock of what you see; if you’ve done your research, you’ll begin to notice small details that line up with the narrative. But if you haven’t done any research, or the building’s history isn’t sparking any particular inspiration, there is still plenty to explore. Consider the shape of the roof or the materials that comprise the ceiling or floor. Notice repeating design elements or unusual symbols. Architecture photography is as much about capturing the details as it is about documenting the whole. For this reason, it is also important to survey the landscape and place the architecture in question in context. If there is a body of water nearby, try capturing the reflection of the building alongside the building itself. If there are other structures that contrast nicely with your subject, try incorporating them into the frame. Photographing these details provides an additional layer of complexity and interest to architecture photography.
The simplest way to achieve a stunning picture is to position the camera exactly perpendicular with the vertical lines of a building. Produce a visually arresting image by controlling the perspective and adjusting the focal plane to capture multiple parallel vertical lines. Clean lines set against a clear sky highlight the symmetry of a structure, but keep an eye out for curves or other dynamic shapes that add motion or movement to an otherwise still image. Wait for the light to shift and capture the change in shadows stretching off windows or columns. If the light is not ideal, adjust your shutter speed and aperture (or, on a smartphone, your exposure setting) with the aim of grabbing three shots: underexposed, automatically exposed, and overexposed. Since each scene is different, play with the shutter speed and aperture for these three shots, grabbing one that is darker than you’d like, one that is brighter, and one that seems fine, but could use some work. Perfection does not matter at this point in the process, as you will be merging these three images during post-processing to produce a final, balanced image.
Post-processing and photo editing are important finishing steps in architectural photography. Once you have an array of raw, unedited images, upload them to your computer and edit with Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, the industry standard. Both Photoshop and Lightroom are photo editing software (on the computer), and available as photo editing apps for both Android and iOS. They provide a full suite of tools to edit photos.
Photoshop is more suited for retouching small areas (like say, if a single, errant piece of trash sneaked into your shot), for layering, and for compositing and stitching images to create composite images like triptychs or panoramas. Lightroom is a more comprehensive post-processing app that gives the photographer control over detailed and global adjustments when you edit photos. The most common editing tools include fixing perspective, exposure, contrast, and cropping, but Lightroom is also known for its presets, which is an express way to automatically apply layers of filters with a single click. There are other apps like Photomatix that specifically focus on a certain aspect of editing, like merging underexposed and overexposed photos to create a properly balanced final image.
Considering we are surrounded by architecture, from the ancient to the hyper-modern, it’s a good thing little skill or expertise is required to nab that perfect shot. As long as you have a camera in hand, you can begin experimenting with architecture photography, starting in your own home before exploring the world beyond.
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