Learn how to bring personality and authenticity to your architecture shots and get amazing results each time - with these 9 top tips.
The first encounter I had with a design by the architect Zaha Hadid forever changed the way I thought about the built environment. It was the Nordpark Railway Stations in Innsbruck, Austria and I was taking the train from the city to a mountain station.
As we departed, I noticed the passengers all looking out the window, admiring the design of the tunnel. It struck me how design changed what would normally be a mundane event into a memorable and interesting experience.
I had always enjoyed architecture photography, but this event helped me understand some of the reasons why. Almost 10 years have passed since the railway experience and I am now well into a career as a full-time architectural photographer.
In this article, I’ll attempt to distil some of the lessons I’ve learnt through my career as an architecture photographer, and show you how you can create stunning images of the built environment too.
What is an architectural image?
First of all, when it comes to authentic architecture photography, a distinction needs to be made between an architectural image and images of buildings.
Before I became an architectural photographer I was a travel photographer, and many of the commissions I received involved photographing buildings. In most cases, these were not true architectural images, but rather they served a purpose to make the building look attractive to tourists.
A true architectural image should be an accurate record of a building, that showcases its design and contents. And it's these types of images that you'll see used by architects, product designers and craftsmen.
To nail that authentic architecture shot, there are specific guidelines that you should try to stick to:
1 Equipment to make life easier
Great architectural photography can be done using any equipment, however, using equipment designed for architectural photography can make the process far easier. Here are some equipment recommendations:
- A tilt shift lens has two main benefits for architectural photography. The first is that it helps correct perspective, a process that is detailed below. Secondly, a good tilt shift lens will be a lenticular lens. A fish eye lens bends straight lines, whereas a lenticular lens does the opposite – straight lines are kept straight with minimal distortion. For a visual of how a tilt-shift lens works, see tip 2. You can also view some of Canon's tilt shift lenses here.
- A sturdy tripod is useful for architectural photography because most of your work should be done with small apertures and the lowest ISO sensitivity. This is to keep all the details in your shot crisp and clear. And this combination of camera settings will require slow shutter speeds, making the use of a tripod a necessity. I use a Nova Explora T20.
- A geared tripod head helps you make micro adjustments when your camera is attached to the tripod, to ensure your camera is level and your composition is as close to perfect as possible. I use a Manfrotto 405 Geared Head.
- A full frame camera will help create images that have a large dynamic range (range of detail between highlights and shadows) and will help keep digital noise levels down. This will help save time in post-production. I use Canon mirrorless cameras, but in the past, I’ve also used Sony and Canon DSLRs.
Most of your images should be taken with small apertures and the lowest ISO sensitivity, so you can keep all the details in your shot crisp and clear. This is important in architecture photography in order to get an accurate record of the space. And as above, you'll need to use slightly longer shutter speeds. If you need a refresher on how aperture (depth of field), ISO and shutter speed work, you can find dedicated articles here.
As a guide for the type of settings you should use to take your shots, the camera settings for each image in this article are provided.
2 Keep your vertical lines at 90 degrees
Almost all architectural drawings and renders are created from a level perspective, and this is also how we naturally perceive spaces.
However, when we photograph architecture, we tend to point our cameras upwards in order to show the entire scene. As soon as we do this, the vertical lines of the building lean inwards. See the example below:
People expect to see spaces from a level perspective. This requires keeping the vertical lines at 90 degrees to the horizontal frame.
This is done in three ways:
1 Photograph from the mid-point height of the building which enables you to keep the camera level.
2 Photograph using a tilt shift lens which also enables you to keep the camera level.
3 Point upwards, take the photograph and correct the perspective in post-production. For more detail on correcting perspective, please see this article.
3 The 1-point perspective
Simply put, a 1-point perspective is the straight on view and should be used to capture elevations.
Elevations are angles of a building that show parallel, horizontal lines at 0 degrees, and are standard to document in architectural photography. Three key elevations are:
1 Front elevation – view of the front
2 Side elevation – view of the sides
3 Rear elevation – view of the back
To capture these elevations in full requires a 1-point perspective.
In order to find this angle, align the top of the frame of your viewfinder/LCD with a horizontal line near the top of the building and do the same with the bottom of the frame of your view finder/LCD. See this example:
The 1-point perspective is also useful for interiors:
4 The 2-point perspective
A 2-point perspective introduces a second dimension to the image. Simply put, a 2-point perspective is any angle this is not straight on, while keeping vertical lines at 90 degrees.
For an exterior, the 2-point perspective will show the corner of the building, including a view of both the façade and the side of the building. For an interior image, the 2-point perspective will be from one corner to the diagonal opposite corner.
The 2-point perspective is useful for adding depth to the image. It also creates a sense of movement which can help make the composition more interesting.
5 Use intentional angles
A lot of architectural images fail because there is no clear intention as to what angle is being used to document the building. This can result in an image that looks like a 1 or 2-point perspective shot that is slightly off.
There are times when this is the only angle possible for the shot – for example, you may have to choose a less than ideal angle because of space constraints. If a weak angle is the only option, then by all means, choose it, but I recommend always being deliberate with angles when composing your images.
Remember for a true 1-point perspective, you should see many parallel, horizontal lines at 0 degrees. A 2-point perspective tends to create triangle shape
6 Document the story of the space
During my first few years as an architectural photographer, I spent the majority of my effort trying to create the “hero” image, the showstopper, the image that gets all the clicks. After working with architects for a while, I noticed that they were less interested in a hero image and more interested in a series of images as a package. Architects want images that provide a sense of the space. This is impossible to do in a single image.
For me personally, this is where architectural photography is most interesting. Ask yourself, how can you photograph the space to give a sense of what it is like to be there and experience it in person?
This may seem like a formula, but to get used to the process of creating a story - take the approach as if the viewer were on a building tour. Start with the far-out exterior view, showing the building in context with its’ surroundings. Come in closer with a front elevation. Continue to explore the exterior with a wide-angle lens. Next, enter the space from the main entrance, photographing the interior space with a wide (20-30mm) lens.
Once you’ve covered the important interior spaces, try a longer lens and isolate interesting or important detail, both inside and out. Look for textures and the use of unusual or high-quality material. Aim to create detail images that people want to touch.
Throughout this walkthrough, take note of how the light is interacting with each space. As the sun moves through the sky, the play of light will create different looks. Ideally, you want to shoot each space in the perfect light, but in reality, you always have to compromise. I flag 3 or 4 locations to cover for when the light is perfect.
When on location, you might want to carve out little bit of time to experiment. By experiment, I mean trying something new that you normally wouldn’t do.
For example, I shoot all of my images on a tripod and a geared head for precise movements. Sometimes, to shake things up, I take the camera off the tripod and I shoot handheld. This results mostly in throw away images, but occasionally leads to a photograph that I love that I wouldn’t have considered on a tripod.
The use of drones has greatly increased the opportunity for experimentation in architecture photography. I started shooting video with drones as an experiment and now it is another service that I can offer to my clients. Consider adding drone work to your portfolio as it can increase your offering to customers.
8 Add your personality
The first four tips in this article focus on the basic rules of architectural photography, but even when photographs stick perfectly to these rules, you should still add your unique style to your images.
Part of style is personality and I encourage you to photograph the things that interest you. In the introduction, I mentioned I enjoy how design can make a mundane situation an interesting experience. And because this interests me, I look for it whenever I photograph architecture. This is some of my personality rubbing off on my images:
Add your unique style to make your images instantly recognisable. I’ve seen other photographers add personality to their images by working with colour, or how they document the way one space leads to another. When you add a recognisable element to your images, they will become more interesting.
9 If it looks good, do it
The problem with rules and guidelines is that we start to treat images that don’t conform to them as bad images. This simply isn't true.
Rules and guidelines are helpful as a starting point for getting the best possible image. But if you break the rules, and the shot looks great and adds value to the series of images, keep it!
There are many instances where it is necessary to break these traditional rules to get the best possible composition.
Take a look at this series of 'rule-breaking' shots below, normally I would avoid including people in my architecture shots (another rule), however in these images, the people add life to the space:
Bonus 10th tip: practice
Like any skill, architectural photography becomes better with practice. Fortunately, as we are surrounded by the built environment, there is plenty of opportunity to practice.
It may be tempting to wait until you’re able to access incredible architecture, but your skills will be sharpened more effectively if you learn to create beautiful images of everyday spaces around you.
As photographer, Nick Onken says... “ABS”... always be shooting!
What to photograph in your local area?
You often don't need to go very far in order to find interesting architecture close to you. In many towns and cities, public spaces are home to some groundbreaking architecture, and there might be an amazing space that you walk past every day that you haven't ever noticed!
Do some research, scour Google Maps and make a list of where you'd like to visit. To get you started, here are some places where you might find inspiring architecture:
- Theatres and opera houses
- Leisure spaces
- Transport hubs
- Commercial buildings such as shopping malls and office blocks
- Town halls and municipal buildings
Always check to see if you need permission to take pictures in the space you intend to visit.
While many public spaces freely allow photography, places such as shopping malls and office blocks are often privately owned. You should always check in advance whether you need to ask permission to take pictures there.
For security reasons, places like railway stations and airports may actively prohibit photography and you could even get into trouble if you turned up unannounced and started setting up your camera equipment. This doesn't necessarily mean that you can't take pictures there, but may need to seek official authorisation in advance of your visit.
The rules can vary hugely depending on the location, and even the country that the place is in, so there's no one-rule-fits-all approach. Therefore, it's always worth doing research in advance.
All images by Jonathan Reid unless otherwise stated.