What is the best lens for architectural photography?

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Image - Reflections - to illustrate best lens for architectural photography article

For a detailed overview of architectural photography, please start at our Architectural Photography – An introduction page.

What is the best lens for architectural photography?

Among many things, it depends what you are going to photograph, what your camera system is, and what your budget is.

Using a smartphone camera

Yes, you can use a smartphone camera for architectural photography, and you will have a built-in lens, check out this article for more on this, and you can get some great shots that will look good on the internet, and can also be printed. You can also easily turn on the camera’s panorama function and create some good views. But, realistically, a smartphone isn’t going to get you very far, you will soon need to move onwards, upwards, and into the realm of interchangeable lens cameras.

To see what you can do with a smartphone camera, take a look at these two images taken at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The one on the left was taken with a Canon 5D Mk3 fitted with a zoom lens set at 32mm, while the one on the right was taken with a Samsung S4 smartphone – far from the top of Samsung’s current smartphone range. 

Image - Reflections - to illustrate best lens for architectural photography article
Reflections - Canon 5D MkIII
Image to illustrate best lens for architectural photography article
Reflections - Samsung S4 smartphone

DSLR / mirrorless camera systems

The rest of this article assumes you are using a 35mm equivalent DSLR / mirrorless camera

Image - Blurred shutter speed dial
Camera shutter speed dial - Artistic impression

Cost

Put simply, buy the best lenses you can afford. Don’t skimp on your glass!

Quality prime lenses are expensive, take a look at the latest prices for Canon’s “L” range here.

As you will see, you need fairly deep pockets to buy quality lenses. But don’t forget that you can also hire cameras and lenses if you have a specialist job coming up, you don’t have to break the bank to do the job. Check out your local camera shops, or online rental providers such as Wex rental.

Zoom lens or prime?

There’s plenty of good information available about the quality of prime lenses compared to that of zooms. Fast prime lenses (lenses having a single, fixed focal length, and a wide maximum aperture) are excellent, but also expensive. But you will probably be on a budget and be pushed for time.

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A good quality zoom lens allows you to set the camera where you want it and compose the shot, especially for architectural interior shots. With a prime lens you may have to move the camera to get the composition you want, which is not always easy.

Image - Canon 85mm f1.2 prime lens
Canon 85mm f1.2 prime lens

Wide-angle or telephoto?

You are almost certainly going to need a wide-angle lens. A good starting point would be something like Canon’s EF 16-35mm F2.8L III USM. Other brands will have their own, similar focal length zoom lenses.

The 35mm end of the range is extremely useful. Renowned photographers Joel Meyerowitz and David Yarrow both sing the praises of 35mm lenses, (they use prime lenses of course), Meyerowitz for street photography, and Yarrow for his wildlife and other work.

So, with a 16-35mm lens in your bag, you will have a very capable lens that will support you across several genres of photography. 

When photographing interiors, even with a wide-angle zoom, try to use the longest focal length that you can.

Of course, the size of the building you are photographing, and your vantage point will also influence your choice of lens.

To see an example of the use of a wide-angle lens, take a look at The Magnificent Al Noor Mosque – Sharjah – UAE – 2016, and for the use of  a telephoto lens, see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – Abu Dhabi – UAE – 2016-18. You will see the dramatic differences between telephoto and wide-angle lenses.

Ulitmately, of course, It’s your choice. If you have developed your shot list, you will know which lens or lenses you will need on your shoot.

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Image - Canon wide-angle zoom lens - architectural photography equipment
Canon 16-35mm wide-angle zoom lens

Tilt-shift lenses

You probably won’t practice architectural photography for very long before you begin to consider the use of a tilt-shift lens. These lenses will rapidly become your best friend for architectural photography. They allow users to benefit from making adjustments similar to those available on a view camera. They are ideal for correcting perspective, ensuring that vertical walls remain vertical in the image, instead of sloping inwards toward the top of an image. While perspective can be corrected in post-processing, it comes at the cost of reduced image quality. It is much better, and much more satisfying, to get things right in-camera. The tilt function allows the plane of sharp focus to be moved in relation to the film/ sensor plane.

Photographer and author James Ewing confirms that the DSLR camera, paired with a tilt-shift lens is, as of 2016, an industry standard for architectural photography.

How to use the tilt shift lens will be the subject of another post.

To find out how to save money and still make use of tilt and shift effects, take a look at “Architectural photography on a budget“.

Image: Canon 17mm TS-E tilt-shit lens
Canon 17mm TS-E Tilt-shift lens

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