by John D. Roach
February 27, 2015
A few months ago I was to asked give a talk and share some of my architectural photography images to a Milwaukee photography group. I do not pretend for a moment to be an expert in architectural photography and so, while I was pleased to have been asked, I really found this opportunity forced me to learn more. I already knew a tiny bit through some reading and practice. Now I have learned a lot of new things while preparing for the talk that I will give next week. This is not in-depth, but simply an overview.
What is Architectural Photography —
An architect is an artist that paints with brick, steel, wood, and glass. His canvas is space and he is one whose designs involve structure, shape, and volume. The architect seeks to have his art both perform a function as well as fulfill an artistic vision within the environmental space selected, as well as structural and financial limits.
An architectural photographer reproduces the architect’s three-dimensional creation on a sheet of two-dimensional photography media. Such a photographer strives to communicate one of two things. First, he may seek to record the original intent of the architect, particularly if he is commissioned by the architect or owner, of the outward appearance and proportions of the building with a proper perspective that include capturing the mood and presence that the architect intended regarding the buildings relation to its surrounds. Second, the photographer may have no reference point to the original designer or owners and just seeks to capture the presence of the building within its environment to satisfy a personal vision choosing lighting and some unique angles to capture a mood for that purpose.
All through history, humans have had an interest in presenting and communicating the “hand of man” building structures through art such as tapestries, paintings, and more recently through photography.
Photographers who are successful in architectural photography have a love of architecture and attempt to be attuned to its nuances and details. Particularly, a photographer must understand how to use a camera to achieve and maintain proper geometrical perspective. This includes in our digital age the use of software to assist if the photographer needs to adjust that perspective.
A Little History through Images —
Before Photography, tapestries and paintings often were used to share artistically human interest in architectural spaces. Usually these forms of artistic expression of man-made structures are far more artistic in nature and included many elements that were exclusively about the personal vision the artist or the person who commissioned the artist to present a work that included architectural elements.
Here are some examples of both tapestries and paintings:
A Museum with a Collection of Tapestries
A Botticelli Tapestry
Rafael's School of Athens Painting
An Unknown Renaissance Painting
Bartholomeus Van Bassen - The Parable (Painting)
Jaykayt - A Modern Building (Painting)
Photography, while not replacing paintings, has certainly begun with its discovery and through the present become a most popular way to document structures as well as express an artistic vision. Here are some interesting photographs created during the first century of photography (all in black & white).
A London Street Scene around 1845
Unknown Assembly House circa 1870s
A Scen of the Eiffel Tower circa 1888
Scene of New York City by Andreas Meininger circa 1940
Brooklyn Bridge by Andreas Meininger circa 1940
Brooklyn Army Base Warehouse Depot by Andreas Meininger 1949
View Camera Details
The View Cameras were usually large format cameras that allowed the photographer to adjust both the front (lens) plane as well as the rear plane to achieve the best geometric perspective. With the advent of the 35mm cameras and then the equivalent digital camera came the Tilt-Shift Lens to achieve the same goal. This allowed the photographer to adjust the relationship of the lens elements with the sensor to correct for distortion, reducing converging lines and straighten lines to make a building look real, straight and similar to what the human eye sees.
Canon 24mm Tilt-Shift Lens
Without lens tilt, the plain of the sensor cause image to fall off
It is definitely not necessary to have an expensive tilt-shift lens. Quality wide-angle as well as telephoto lenses can achieve a fine image. However, the photographer must be very careful about where he stands in relation to the the scene he wishes to capture to avoid fall off, tilting backing or to the side of the structure as well as getting lines that do not converge offensively.
With digital cameras and suitable lenses, even when this occurs, the photographer can resort to software to adjust for distortion, vertical and/or horizontal line irregularities and other aspects of the image to get a true representation. Sometimes the photographer may elect to let the digital camera and lens combination fulfill his or her vision by letting the angles seem unrealistic for artistic reasons.
Wide-angle lenses can, when used properly, give the photographer all the room he or she needs to fit the structure in the frame. This is particularly necessary when adjustments in perspective need to occur during post processing.
Typical Wide Angle Lenses
Typical Telephoto Lenses
Software such as Lightroom and/or Photoshop have built-in adjustment tools (sliders on the right of each image) that allow the photographer to make adjustments for positional distortion such as vertical tilt, horizontal shift, lens distortion, scale, level and straitening of lines, and aspect ratio:
Lightroom Above & Photoshop Below
Now that we have achieved a historical overview all the way to the prsent, what next?
First - Several Tips for architectural Photography:
- Choose your focal length — go wide to capture all of the structure and desired surrounds.
- Stabilize your camera — use a tripod, cable release and appropriate filters.
- Shoot Low ISO — when ever possible to keep noise at a minimum.
- Close the Aperture — There is less distortion and lens errors if stopped down to at least f8.
- Avoid converging lines — be prepared to move and post process to correct for this.
- Get the most desirable camera position to achieve the desired effect.
- Be careful about where you photograph…know local laws against photography.
- Use the right lenses — wide-angle, fish-eye for getting it all.
- Use the right lenses — telephoto lens may be great for getting details.
- Pay attention to the weather….great images occur in a variety of weather conditions.
- Be open to reflections in glass…that can add a real wow factor.
- Research what you photograph before and after so that you can properly promote it.
- Let the image be dynamic…remember lines and symmetry draw the viewer into the image.
- Fine images can be created without a view camera or shift tilt lens.
- Practice on all types of architecture and then pick the genera that works for you.
- Put your Architecture Images in context with surrounding to add impact.
- Capture images in morning and evening light…recognize images may be flat at mid-day.
- Avoid hazy days when possible and definitely photography at night.
- Pick out interesting details and look for unusual perspectives.
- It is not just about buildings — remember bridges, towers, monuments and even lamp post.
Second - A Primer in Perspective Lens (and keeping room for lens correction post processing):
- Keeping the camera level with an ordinary lens captures only the bottom of the building.
- Tilting the camera results in vertical perspective.
- Shifting the lens upwards results in a picture of the interior subject.
- Without a Tilt-Shift Lens leave plenty of room at the top to adjust vertical in post processing.
- Remember that shift the lens right or left will change the angle of vertical lines.
- Rent a Perspective Tilt-Shift Lens to learn about them…that can be fun.
Third - Use the tools you have learned in all other photography:
- HDR is sometimes very powerful in Architectural Photography.
- Use people or other elements to great a sense of dimension.
- Use leading lines to the guide the viewer into the image.
- Pay attention to rule of thirds, use of negative space, and other elements of composition.
- Use Polarizer filters and/or Neutral Density filters.
- Consider time last for construction projects.
- Look for cityscapes, too. Look for foreground elements when appropriate.
- Consider panoramic either stitched images or cropped single images.
- Do not be afraid to experiment to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.
- Photography the same scene at different times of the year.
- Let shadows work for you.
- Do it.
Examples of My Architectural Photography
Milwaukee Center - Taken with 24mm Tilt-Shift Lens
Condos on the Milwaukee Lake Front
taken with 24mm Tilt-Shift Lens
Chicago Skyscapers - Artistic View captured from sun roof of my car
Chicago Cityscape - Panorama (HDR)
Chicago Board of Trade on La Salle Street
Chicago's Picasso in the City
South Loop Chicago
Luminous Sky over Chicago
Hot & Hazy Day in July at Chicago's Ohio Street Beach
The Skyscraper Church - First Methodist Chicago
Milwaukee at Night
Milwaukee Art Museum's Burke Brise Soleil by Calatrava
A Milwaukee View from Veterans Park
Architectural Contrasts - in Milwaukee
Milwaukee at Night
Milwaukee view from 6th Street Bridge
Balconies - Taken with Lensbaby with its tilt-shift effect
Milwaukee at Twilight
The Adobe - Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
The Columns, somewhere in Rome, Italy
The Baha'i Temple
Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois by Frank Lloyd Wright
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church by Frank Lloyd Wright (above/below)
Spiral Stair Case in Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church - Milwaukee
US Bank Building - Milwaukee
Details of the Baha'i Temple
Duomo - Florence Italy
Presbyterian Church - Oak Park, Illinois
St. Peters - Vatican City
Two Condominium Skyscrapers - Milwaukee
The Light over Chicago
Copyright February 27, 2015 by John D. Roach