In this article I introduce the key architectural photography equipment you will need to successfully capture the urban environment. We will take a look at cameras, lenses, tripods and heads, filters, lighting, triggers, external camera monitor, and colour grading.
There are items of equipment that we won’t need on every shoot, but if we don’t take what we need we risk failing to get the shots we are looking for. Why not make a checklist that you can keep on your phone to make sure you have got everything you need?
For information relating to which software to use to edit your architectural photography images, please take a look at our image editing software, article.
One piece of equipment that every photographer needs is a camera. Perhaps the obvious choice for architectural photography is the view camera, which offers rise and fall, swing, shift, and tilt adjustments.
The adjustments available to the photographer are impressive, but view cameras can be large and unwieldy. Carrying a view camera and tripod around town can be hard work.
Over time, the digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR) has replaced the view camera as the tool of choice for the architectural photographer, with the DSLR itself now challenged by mirrorless cameras.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras come with full frame or APS-C sensors, commonly referred to as cropped, sensors. It is the full frame camera that best meets the needs of the architectural photographer.
We should not overlook the value of other cameras though. Even a smartphone camera can produce worthy architectural images.
Drone photography is also gaining a growing following, offering aerial views of property that can provide a unique perspective.
One important consideration for all photography equipment is the end use of the image. If you only want to post an image to social media, perhaps a smartphone is everything you need.
If, on the other hand, you intend to print your images to a reasonable size, and sell the prints as fine art, perhaps a higher-end camera will be needed.
There is a range of lenses that can be used for architectural photography, from very wide angle, to telephoto. For more on lenses, see our “What is the best lens for architectural photography?“ article.
Prime lenses offer a single focal length, and are also available with wide maximum apertures, such as f1.2. Wider aperture lenses are often referred to as fast lenses. “Slower” lenses, with smaller maximum apertures, are usually much cheaper than faster lenses of the same focal length.
Zoom lenses cover a range of focal lengths, such as 16-35mm, 24mm to 105mm, 100 to 400mm. The maximum aperture often varies with focal length; Canon’s EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, has a maximum aperture of f4.5 at 100mm focal length, and f5.6 at 400mm.
Other zoom lenses, such as Canon’s EF 16-35mm f2.8L II USM lens offer the same maximum aperture (f2.8) across the full zoom range. Expect to pay more for lenses which can maintain the widest aperture across the full zoom range.
A wide-angle lens is typically any lens with a wider field of view than the standard lens for the particular camera. The standard lens for a full frame DSLR is usually taken as being 50mm, which relates loosely to the length of the diagonal across the image sensor, but note that a 35mm lens also relates loosely to the same dimension, and is also considered to be standard.
So, for our purposes, let’s consider a lens with a focal length less than 35mm to be wide-angle.
Wide angle lenses are particularly useful in architectural photography, as we may try to show as much of a room as possible in a single image. Very often though, we should use the longest focal length that we can, rather than the widest, to get the results we need.
In contrast to wide-angle lenses, telephoto lenses have longer focal lengths, usually greater than 85mm
Telephoto lenses may be prime lenses, or zoom.
Short telephoto lenses cover the 85-135mm range, while medium telephoto lenses fall into the 135-300mm range. Super-telephoto lenses are those with focal lengths above 300mm, such as Canon’s EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, or Sigma’s APO 150-500mm F5.6-6.3 DG OS HSM lens, both of which start their zoom range from within the medium telephoto range, crossing into the super-telephoto category.
But is there a use for super-telephoto lenses within architectural photography? The answer is most definitely yes. When searching out architectural detail on a large building, a long focal length lens can be your best ally.
See the image below, taken with a telephoto lens.
After the camera, the tilt-shift lens will soon become a key component of your architectural photography equipment. Author and award-winning architectural photographer James Ewing confirms that the DSLR and tilt-shift lens combination has become the industry standard. (Why not check out my review of Ewing’s book, Follow the sun..?)
One of the most used functions of tilt-shift lens is to allow the architectural photographer to control perspective distortion, in a manner not available with standard lenses. When using a standard lens, and having to tilt the camera toward the sky to fit a tall building into the frame, vertical lines will tend to converge.
Many photographers are happy to try to correct this distortion on a computer in post-processing. The problem with this is that it degrades the original image quality. Your composition also has to allow for the adjustments that have to be made in post-processing.
Using a tilt-shift lens allows us to adjust the lens to control perspective before we take the shot.
When using a tilt-shift lens we keep the camera sensor plane vertical to the building, and shift the lens up or down to capture the image we want, without converging verticals.
The tilt function of the lens allows us to reposition the plane of sharp focus. By doing so we can ensure that objects at different distances from the camera be in focus, when with a standard lens we might not be able to achieve this.
Whenever you need to support your camera and lens, you risk attracting more attention than a photographer who is wandering around happily shooting hand-held.
Many places do not allow tripods, and it is quite difficult to hide one from view. You will at some point undoubtedly attract the attention of those who are lovingly referred to by photographers as the tripod police: “you can’t use that here mate!”
Tripods range in size from very small, suitable for holding a mobile phone, through to large, heavy models. As with almost everything to do with photography, buy the best you can afford.
Your tripod has to carry the weight of your camera, lens, monitor, strobes, triggers etc. Cheaply made tripods will probably come back to bite you at the very worst moment, just when you need it to perform.
Once you have your gear mounted on a tripod, it needs to provide stability, you don’t want your camera to move during a long exposure. For this reason, also remember to turn off image stabilization/ vibration reduction when using your camera on a tripod, or the system itself can introduce movement. There is often a tradeoff between the stability a tripod can offer, and what you can actually carry around with you. Consider the weight of all the gear you need to carry when planning a shoot.
Monopods can provide convenient camera support that may be useful to you. You can often rest the foot in a belt pouch, such as a phone or compact camera case, rather than on the floor, if you need to.
Some monopods can also be fitted with stabilizing “feet”, providing more stability.
Gorillapods offer tripod-like legs that can be wrapped around railings etc. to stabilize a camera, but be aware of the weight of your gear and what the GorillaPod can safely support.
Beanbags and camera bags
When all else fails, a bean bag or camera bag can suddenly turn in to your most prized accessory. You can rest you camera on a bag and get the shot in many situations.
Having a tripod is all well and good, but you will also need a tripod head to mount your camera on, and there are a few to choose from. Here I introduce the most common, but there are also variants on these available.
Quick release systems are also available, enabling the easy mounting and removal of your camera. Some heads also come with small spirit/ bubble levels to assist with setting up the camera, but don’t forget that many cameras also provide horizontal and vertical level indicators too.
3-way pan-tilt heads offer horizontal and vertical tilting, and panning, through the adjustment of the levers. While useful, it can be difficult sometimes to get the small adjustments you might need, and on some heads, particularly the cheaper ones, you might find that the camera moves slightly as soon as you let go of the lever.
Ball heads provide a simple, single knob adjustment mechanism, making them fairly easy to use. The downside is that when you need to make a slight adjustment in one direction, you have to try to hold the camera steady in the other directions, as once the friction head is unlocked, the camera is free to move.
While convenient in use, you will probably find that they are not the head of choice for architectural work, which often requires fine adjustments on only one axis.
Geared tripod heads are the tool of choice for architectural photographers, providing excellent stability along with ease of fine adjustment. There is of course a trade-off here too. Geared heads can be heavy. When fitted to a heavy tripod, and supporting a heavy DSLR/ lens, the whole rig can weigh several kg.
That said, geared heads enable you to shoot architecture without much of the fiddling around associated with pan-tilt, or ball heads. The geared head adjustment knobs provide accurate movement, without the shifting, or drift, associated with the adjustment of the other types of head.
The result is that you can adjust the camera quickly, precisely and accurately, hold it stable, take your shots, and get off site as quickly as possible. Making fiddly little adjustments with other heads will slow your shoot down.
A geared tripod head is also useful for macro photography.
Perhaps not the first tripod head that springs to mind for architectural photography, but many photographers use smaller gimbals now as they record walk-through videos of properties. Gimbals help stabilize the camera as you move with them.
If, like me, you also happen to enjoy photographing birds in flight, then a gimbal is worth every penny you will pay for it. The gimbal lets you balance a heavy DSLR with a long lens effortlessly, allowing you to pan and tilt with minimum effort. It’s far more comfortable than holding the camera and lens in your hands waiting for a particular bird to do a fly past…
Panoramic tripod heads are excellent tools to enable the photographer to photograph landscapes/ architecture while eliminating parallax error.
These heads allow the camera and lens to be carefully mounted to a no-parallax point, also often referred to as the nodal point.
This allows the stitching of multiple images with no parallex error.
To find out more about image editing software that supports the creation of panoramas, take a look at our “image editing software” article.
The most common uses for filters in architectural photography are to overcome high dynamic ranges in a scene, allow the use of longer shutter speeds, control reflections, and boost colour and contrast. While there is a wide range of filters available for other purposes, we will only look at these uses here.
Neutral density (ND) filters
Yes, you can apply ND filters in post-processing, but if you have already blown out the highlights you’re already in trouble.
Graduated ND filters (ND grads) allow the photographer to reduce the light level hitting the image sensor from bright parts of a scene such as the sky. By using an ND grad, we can prevent the highlights being blown out, and retain detail.
A full ND filter, will reduce the light hitting the image sensor uniformly across the scene. This enables us to obtain longer shutter speeds to allow, for instance, clouds to streak across a scene, creating a sense of movement. This is a useful tool, particularly for fine art architectural photography.
Circular polarizers enable us to control reflection and boost colour, such as a blue sky, when used correctly. Best results will come when using a polarizer at 90° to the sun. Polarizers can also help to control highlights in a scene.
Some filters are mounted in frames, while others screw to your lens, or another filter. Be aware of the potential for unwanted vignetting when using filters, particularly in wide-angle shots.
When the camera is mounted on a tripod, we still need a way to release the shutter. The cable release is the tried and tested method to achieve this. We plug one end into the camera, and trigger the shutter by pressing a button at the other end, simple! Why bother with this? We don’t have to touch the camera again after we have set it up.
We could, of course, set the self-timer function of the camera, press the button, and allow the set time interval to pass before the shutter fires. This should give the camera time to stabilize after we have touched it.
There are also battery-powered remote triggers available that send a signal to the camera to fire the shutter. If you use this method, be ready for the battery in the remote unit to fail just when you need it; it happens!
Lighting interiors can be difficult; the sun may light one part of a room, while another remains in deep shadow. Off-camera flash units can help here. Carry several flash units with you, and have a reliable trigger system.
My own bag contains Godox flash units for both Canon and Fujifilm cameras, and I also use an older, and otherwise redundant Sigma flash unit. Using the Godox radio transmitter, I can fire the different Godox flash units, whether they are Canon or Fujifilm, and by adding a fairly cheap Godox receiver, I can also fire the Sigma unit. I can also fire the different units by optical trigger if needed. I can light the dark recesses of a room with little effort.
It is convenient to be able to alter the power of each group of flash units from the transmitter on the camera, it saves time and effort.
There are times when the weather doesn’t play ball, and we don’t get the sunlight streaming through the window that we had hoped for. Why not use an array of flash units or a larger studio strobe, in a soft-box, and punch some light in from outside the window?
If you do this, try to direct the light in the direction that the sun would shine, to help the scene appear natural. Due to the orientation of some properties, the sun can only shine directly into a room between certain angles, and at certain times of the year. If necessary, consider using an app such as the Photographer’s Ephemeris to help you keep things looking natural.
For battery operated flash units, remember to carry enough batteries. If you use rechargeable Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) AA or AAA type batteries, note that some of the chargers you can get in the local supermarket often take more than 8 hours to fully charge 4 batteries. You may need to buy more batteries, or invest more in a rapid charger.
If you would like to view the scene you are about to shoot on a larger screen than that available on your camera, an external monitor might be just what you need. These monitors come in various screen sizes, and often fit to the camera by way of a hot shoe fitting.
If you’re in the market for a monitor, be sure to check out the available features, such as touch-screen and focus peaking, to make sure you get one that supports your needs.
When taking indoor images, it is essential to get the colour grading right. This might not be the first point that springs to mind when considering architectural photography equipment, but you would be surprised how a little change of camera position or lighting can affect the colour of your final images.
Consider using something like the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport to help get your images looking as they should, with consistent colour.
About the money...
You will see from the above that you can spend a lot of money on architectural photography equipment, but you don’t need to buy everything on this page to take photographs of architecture.
You can certainly start out as an architectural photographer with your mobile phone. The image below was taken with a Samsung S4 smartphone camera mounted in a holder, and triggered by voice activation. Smartphone cameras have evolved considerably since the S4, so imagine what you can achieve with today’s devices.
You can also hire equipment to meet your specific needs, rather than forking out thousands of pounds to buy new gear.
Another option is to lease equipment. This enables you to acquire equipment without a huge initial outlay, enabling you to maintain liquidity.
Don’t splash your hard-earned cash on the latest equipment in the belief it will make you a better photographer, it probably won’t. Spend wisely…