Architectural photography and cityscape photography can be very similar because you will find most buildings or constructions within the cities. As far as I’m concerned, however, cityscapes can also include city life. While for the pure architectural photography, I focus on isolated buildings or constructions. Sometimes it is interesting to show a building or construction within the framework of the city.
Interior photography could also be part of architectural or estate photography but in this blog, I limit myself to the exteriors of buildings and other constructions like bridges, stairs, monuments. Interior photography is on my list as a future blog.
1. Composition in architectural photography
The first thing that you will notice when you look at an architectural picture is the composition. It can make or break a photograph. Have also look at my specific blog on composition.
Symmetry or not?
When we look at a building while composing our image, we make a conscious decision between a symmetrical or an asymmetrical composition. The normal approach is to avoid putting our main subject in the centre. But rules can be broken and there are photos of very symmetrical buildings where the image can become more powerful by centring it. Reflections usually work very well when using symmetry. As an architectural photographer or fine art artist, you decide what effect you want to achieve. Symmetry can be powerful but going off-centre could bring more dynamism to your picture. As often, there is no right or wrong answer.
Thirds and diagonals.
When we choose asymmetry, then taking into account the rule of thirds is a very good starting point to build up our picture. In most cases, this will prove to be a good choice. Arranging our subjects on a diagonal line draws attention to the focal point. Playing with leading lines, patterns, breaking patterns, shadows and light, positive and negative space, opens a lot of creative opportunities.
In architectural photography, we look for volumes and light effects. The light on the building will create shape, colour and texture in the materials. Intersections of lines and surfaces, overlapping volumes or shapes will complete one another or contrast with one another.
Buildings can have complex structures but, depending on the light, we can reduce them to simple stacked volumes. We try to find dominant lines in those structures which will lead us to a harmonious composition. As already explained in other blogs, as a photographer we have to produce a 2-dimensional picture of a 3-dimensional reality. With the help of the light, we recreate the suggestion of volume and depth.
Abstract architectural photography
By focusing on specific details of a building or construction we can turn our photo into an abstract picture. Converting the image into black and white can enhance this effect.
2. The importance of light and architectural photography
In previous blogs, I already emphasised the importance of light. Light is not a constant factor. Different types of light and different directions of the light will define the effects. It will create different looks or moods in your pictures. Have also a look at my blog about the weather.
On overcast days we will have softer light. So, that also means that there will be less contrast and/or drama in the details of the construction and background. Early morning or late afternoon light brings more golden colours and much longer shadows. Floodlight, coming from the left or right, will create shadows and build up the three-dimensional feeling.
During the middle of the day, the light will be harsh. This could give us interesting contrasts with interplay between light and shadows. Most of the times, however, harsh light causes details to fade away.
Later in the evening, we get the opportunity to combine the fading natural light with artificial light.
3. What camera settings for architectural photography?
One can shoot buildings with any type of camera, but I prefer my full-frame, Nikon.
Buildings do not move or run away so you can take your time and work with lower ISO settings.
As for any type of photo, shoot in RAW, there is so much more detail available in your files.
A cable release or off-camera shutter release system or remote control is useful to avoid mirror or camera shake.
A spirit level can be very helpful. In architectural photography, straight lines are very important. There are small gadget spirit levels to put on your camera. Sometimes it is built-in in your tripod. Most modern cameras have now built-in electronic spirit levels. So, use them to the fullest.
When you continue reading it will become obvious that a tripod is also indispensable.
4. Do you need filters in architectural photography?
I do not see many people use them, but the use of a polarizing filter seems very handy to me. The polarising filter will remove unwanted reflections from the shiny surfaces of the buildings, boost the intensity of the sky and clouds and increase overall contrast and saturation.
Although buildings do not move, long exposures with the help of neutral density filters (ND) will bring extra drama to the sky. When wind moves the clouds, pleasing lines can be created against a darker sky.
Long exposures can come to the rescue when you cannot avoid the presences of moving people in front of your lens. With long exposures of several minutes, you can miraculously eliminate commuters and tourists.
When shooting at night, which might be challenging because of the artificial light inside or outside the buildings, the use of a special nightscape filter can come in useful. This type of filter will remove the light spectrums and colour cast of light pollution and sodium lamps.
5. Tilt-shift lenses and architectural photography
We all know about the effect of tilting our camera and lens upwards when photographing tall buildings. Our picture will show converging lines instead of straight lines. Our eyes and our brains automatically compensate for this effect, we see verticals on the spot.
Precisely to avoid this problem of converging lines, tilt-shift lenses were created for architectural photographers. The tilt-shift is a very different lens from a regular lens. These fairly expensive lenses have a special structure allowing you to move the lens in front of your camera, straightening the vertical lines in your architectural photo.
The tilt-shift lens makes it possible to modify the lens plane independently from the camera sensor plane by tilting. This means swing movements (rotating relatively to the sensor plane). Shifting means moving parallel up and down (or left and right) relative to the sensor plane. (Most tilt-shift lenses can be rotated 90 degrees).
The best first step is to place the camera on a tripod, in a parallel position with the plane of the building (perfectly vertical). Then we start composing the image so that, the verticals are parallel while slowly shifting the lens upwards so that the entire building comes into our frame without the convergence of the verticals.
To start, I needed some practice to get used to this type of lens. If you are not familiar with this type of lens there is a lot of information available on the internet. Why not google the “Scheimpflug Principle”? The name sounds exotic, but this will clarify the principle of the tilt-shift lens much better.
Some creative photographers use it the opposite way, to create or to exaggerate distortions. But that, of course, is the free choice of the artist. Converging verticals can be used to deliberately add dynamics to an architectural photo, but the standard in architectural and interior photography is that the lines must be straight. This makes a photo calmer.
6. Should we include people in architectural photography?
Whether we include or exclude people in architectural photography depends on what you want to achieve with your pictures. Or what your client expects from them. This is the freedom of choice for the artist. In more abstract pictures, you will rarely see people. However, when we include people in our images, we add a sense of scale and show how humans interact with the object. Bear in mind that the viewers will automatically focus on the people in the image. It could be your choice to make the picture more engaging. If you include people, do not forget to ask their permission and pay extra attention to their body language.
As already mentioned, you could exclude people by using ND filters for long exposures. If you do not make the shutter time too long, you could leave some ghostly streaks where they passed to create a special atmosphere and dynamic in the picture.
The photo above of the Millennium Bridge in London with streaks of people could, in fact, be seen as a cityscape. Here one sees the interaction of moving people as well as the bridge and the Cathedral in the background.
7. Post-processing and architectural photography
Getting the picture right in the camera as much as possible is the first assignment for photographers. Besides the basic tweaking of your RAW image (contrast, sharpening, white balance), post-processing opens a window of opportunity for a second creative process. Turning it into black and white and playing with dodging and burning can make you a fine art artist.
If you do not own a tilt-shift lens, Photoshop or Lightroom have also very advanced features to straighten buildings in post-processing.
One of the simplest things to do is to convert your pictures into black and white. This adds to the simplification of the picture.
I might elaborate more on the post-processing process in a future blog.
As always, please leave your comments or questions below!