How to #1: Great architectural photography

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Image: Dubai Creek Golf Club

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

How to get started with architectural photography

Looking to get started with architectural photography? These tips will set you off in the right direction.

To find out about what architectural photography is, what it is used for, and which lens may suit your needs, read these articles:

What is architectural photography

What is architectural photography used for?

What is the best lens for architectural photography?

If you would like to know more about how to price architectural photography, take a look at this article, and subscribe to our newsletter in order to download the associated spreadsheet.

The following tips will help get you off to a good start, and prepare you to take good images from the outset.

Preparation

Do some research online to find out how others have photographed your target building. Get some ideas, but don’t set out with the idea of taking the exact same photograph as someone else.

There is a lot more to architectural photography than pressing the shutter release. You should, if possible, visit the site before your scheduled shoot. Do you need to obtain permission to access the site in order to photograph it? If so, how do you get that permission? What documents will you need?  (Hint: Insurance is usually high on the list…). When you are at the location, walk around your target building; view it from all angles. Look for where the best angles are, try to picture whether a certain architectural element would look good in sunlight or shadow. These simple preparation activities will help ensure a successful shoot. You will have identified the equipment you know you will need. You will be able access the site, and you will know how long you have to get your shots.

If you are going to shoot the interior, walk around that too. How does the light fall through the windows? How does the interior lighting balance with the exterior light from the windows and/ or skylights? Bear in mind that you may need public liability insurance, and permission to take photographs before your shoot starts.

Find the unique angles and detail that will make your images stand out from the crowd.

Do you want to capture a shot of a building in splendid isolation, or in its wider urban context? Why not both?

Once you have some idea of the shots you want, and the lighting you need, use an app such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris to help you decide the best time of day to get sunlight or shadow on the key elements of your composition.

Architectural photography image displayed at the Collective Visions 2 exhibition- Minaret and Domes - Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque - Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates - Collective Visions exhibition
Know when and how shadows will fall

Don't undervalue your smartphone camera!

You can use your smartphone camera to take quick reference images during your walk round, to help you tweak your possible compositions. It’s much easier than humping a couple of DSLR’s, lenses, and a tripod around. You can also use an app such as Cadrage to take a smartphone shot with an overlay of different size lens frames for your particular camera/ lens combination. This will help you select and fit your lens in advance of your shoot. Check out the image on the right to see the information that Cadrage provides.

Already you have scouted the location, created a shot list, and prepared your equipment;  you are on your way to success.

Also check the weather. There are plenty of useful weather apps available.

Set your exposure too; see below for more on this. While you may need to adjust this on location, it’s better to have your camera well prepared, rather than having to fiddle with everything when it’s less convenient.

Image - Cadrage screenshot - How to: Architectural photography
Cadrage output

Equipment

Apart from your camera and lenses, use a tripod if possible. You may be able to take some good arty, long-exposure shots with clouds streaking over your building, without fear of camera shake. A tripod will also help you overcome the issue of your viewfinder misting over, or glasses steaming up as you breathe if you are wearing a face covering to protect from Covid!

Be aware that you will attract attention when using a tripod; many facilities do not allow them without prior permission. And again, you may need insurance. Beware the tripod police..!

On the subject of Police, (the real Police this time), the Met Police has this to say: “Members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel.”

Inside buildings is another matter of course… Interior architectural photography often means working with subdued lighting levels; a tripod is often a necessity indoors too.

Image: How to - Architechtural photography - Tripod use
Using a tripod

If you do use a tripod, remember to turn your image stabilization / vibration reduction system off, so that the system itself doesn’t cause any issues.  Also, if using a tilt-shift lens, remember to check that your camera is level, both horizontally and vertically. Some tripod heads have levels built into them, while your camera may also provide an indiciation of level – see the section below on reading the manual…

You should also make sure that your camera batteries are fully charged, your storage card is formatted and actually in the camera, and that everything is clean before you set out. Don’t forget to take a cleaning kit with you too, a good blower, lens cloth/ wipes, LensPen etc.

Set your camera to capture RAW images rather than jpeg, or both RAW and jpeg. RAW files give you the most post-processing potential. If you’re not sure how to process RAW files, don’t worry, we will cover that in a future article on editing.

Include people

Sometimes it’s good just to get a clean shot of a building. Other times the inclusion of people in the frame introduces a sense of scale which may otherwise be missing. Don’t forget that buildings are designed for use, people are a normal sight. Great architectural photography often includes people in the shot.

Image - Architectural photography for travel and tourism use
Using people for scale

Focusing

So, you have set up your camera ready to take your shot, but what do you focus on? Like other genres, architectural photography can be very demanding when it comes to focusing. It can be difficult sometimes to know how to get everything sharp from front to back of your image. If you are using a mirrorless camera, such as one of Canon’s EOS R series, you are in luck. Simply turn on focus peaking, switch to manual focus, and as you adjust the focus ring you will see clearly which parts of your composition are in focus. 

If you’re using a DSLR your focus-peaking options may be limited. There are still options though. If you are a Canon user you can always check whether your camera is supported by Magic Lantern. If you do consider using Magic Lantern, please make sure to read the documentation first, familiarize yourself with how to use it, and consider any warranty implications (I use Magic Lantern on an old Canon camera, and have had no problem at all, while gaining some great features, including being able to use a previously redundant camera as a camera trap). 

Image: How to - Architectural photography - Magic Lantern screenshot
Magic Lantern Focus peaking menu on Canon DSLR

If all else fails, use an app such as DOF Calculator. This app will give you depth of field, and near and far focus distances after you have entered your aperture and lens details. If you are unsure which aperture to choose, use the app to see the impact of any changes. Do remember though that your lens will have a “sweet spot” aperture that will give you the best results. You can usually find what this aperture is through a quick internet search, but f8 is usually a good starting point.

Image: How to: Architectural Photography - Screenshot of DoF Calculator app
DOF Calculator

Exposure

You need at least a basic understanding of exposure. Do you want to expose for a certain point in your image, the sky, the foreground, or do you want an exposure setting that attempts to average the whole scene in front of the camera?  Knowing which part of your scene that you want to be correctly exposed allows you to produce an image that meets your needs and creative intent. Knowing how to set the exposure is a key skill for any photographer.

Exposure is a function of the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO setting. We touched on aperture above; a wide aperture (low f number) will reduce your depth of field, while a small aperture (high f number) increases it. But as you decrease the aperture there comes a point where the quality of your image may start to fall off.

Image - Under-exposed
Under-exposed image

Next to consider is shutter speed. If you want to show clouds streaking across your image you will need a slow shutter speed (and a tripod…). If you want to prevent blur from people or vehicles moving, you will need a faster shutter speed.

You also need to set the ISO setting, which increases or decreases the sensitivity to light of your camera sensor to light. Aim for as low an ISO setting as possible, usually ISO 100, to avoid noise in your image.

Image - Normal exposure
Well exposed image

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO form the 3 sides of what is often referred to as the exposure triangle. Any adjustment to one requires a corresponding adjustment to either one or both of the other sides to maintain the same exposure value. The exposure triangle is ok for visualizing the relationship between the 3 factors, but does not indicate what a correct, or current exposure level is.

If you are not concerned about blurring motion, set your camera to aperture priority, select your aperture setting, and set the ISO to 100, or any other setting that might suit your own creativity. Your camera will set the shutter speed automatically and, depending on the light levels, it may be slow, so be prepared to use a tripod.

Image - Over exposed
Over-exposed image

In shutter priority mode you can set the shutter speed yourself, and also your ISO, for your shot, and your camera will set the aperture, but remember your depth of field may well be compromised in this mode.

ISO represents the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive to light, and the greater the potential for noise.

If you use your camera in manual mode and set aperture, shutter speed,  and ISO yourself, you can check the camera’s assessment of your exposure level by looking at the exposure indicator in the viewfinder or on the screen.

Your camera can provide help here, simply refer to the the histogram, but that’s a topic for another post. You also need to be aware of the metering modes available on your camera.

Great architectural photography comes from knowing how to use the tools at your disposal, whether that is a camera, lens, tripod, phone app etc; establishing a vision of the final image, and often adding a dash of your own artistic creativity, depending on the intended final use of the image. Practice before you set out to your location, so that everything is easy for you on site. The more you practice, the more accomplished a photographer you will become.

Remeber that architectural photography can be used in several ways. Sometimes you can unleash the creative within you, at other times you will not be able to alter anything.

One final point for this article, and one that is often overlooked: If in doubt, read the manual! Your camera manual will provide a great deal of useful information. If you keep a soft copy on your phone you can always dip into it and do a quick electronic search for whatever it is you need help with. The camera manual is itself a good “how to” guide. Use it to help improve your architectural photography.

You may also find James Ewing’s book “Follow the sun – A field guide to architectural photography” of interest. Take a look at Book review #3: James Ewing – Follow the sun to find out what we think of it.

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