A Guide to Architectural Photography

Architecture surrounds us every day, and is a very popular photography subject. Follow this guide to help you take some stunning architectural shots.

Architecture is a broad subject, encompassing everything from skyscrapers to shacks. Virtually everywhere we go, we are surrounded by some sort of architecture on a daily basis. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that architecture is such a popular subject in photography.

Despite its diversity, there are a number of principles and techniques which can be applies to most situations. Keeping them in mind at all times will encourage you to think more carefully about your framing, composition, and lighting.

With practice, you'll develop your eye for architecture photography. This will help you shoot your subjects in a more interesting way, avoiding commonly-repeated compositions and injecting more personality into your photos.

Old Architecture

When photographing old architecture, a straightforward and simple composition usually works best, showing the natural beauty and elegance of the building. It usually helps to include some of the surrounding scenery to give context to the architecture and make it feel less cramped.

Southern Castle

A simple composition gives a stately feel to older buildings. Image by Stephen Murphy.

Modern Architecture

When photographing modern architecture you can get away with using a much more modern, abstract style. Experiment with wide angle lenses to produce extreme perspective, or photograph the building from unusual angles. Also, because modern buildings are often squeezed in very close to one another, you can crop in tightly on the building without making the photo feel unnatural.

Birmingham Bullring

A more abstract style works well when photographing modern architecture. Image by Rohit Mattoo.

Put Your Architecture in Context... or Don't

The question of whether to show your building's surroundings depends on the situation and the message you want to convey. Ask yourself whether putting your building in context would add to or detract from the photo. If the scenery compliments your building then shoot a wider photo, but if the surroundings don't fit with the message you want to convey, cut them out.

House in snow at night

Including some scenery in your photograph can help put your subject in context. Image by Rob Overcash.

As an example consider an old building in the middle of a modern city. If you wanted to capture this sense of not belonging then it would be important to include some of the surrounding modern buildings. But if you just want to emphasise the beautiful old architecture then the newer buildings would only detract from the photo, so you should crop them out.

Lighting

Lighting is a crucial part of architectural photography. Of course we have no say over the position and orientation of a building, and lighting the building ourselves is usually out of the question (not to mention expensive!). Instead we have to make do with what nature provides.

Side-front lighting usually produces the best architecture photos. It provides plenty of illumination and also casts long, interesting shadows across the face of the building, making its surface details stand out and giving the building a more three-dimensional look.

Sunlit wall in Rome

You can bring out the texture and detail of the architecture using front-size lighting. Image by Gianni Domenici.

Back lighting is the worst kind for architectural photography because it creates very uniform, dark surfaces. The best way to deal with a backlit building is to either crop out the sky and use a longer exposure to rescue some of the detail, or photograph the building as a silhouette. Alternatively you could wait until it gets dark...

Shoot at Night

Even the most boring architecture can come alive at night - in fact many modern buildings and city centres are designed specifically with night time in mind. After dark these buildings are lit by dozens of lights which bring colour and vibrancy, and cast fantastic shadows across the face of the building.

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Iceland

Dramatic night lighting can really bring a building to life. Image by Trey Ratcliff.

When photographing architecture at night be sure to use a tripod and set your camera to its lowest ISO setting to reduce digital noise to a minimum.

Reduce Distortion by Using a Longer Lens

If you photograph a building from too close it can leave the walls looking distorted, as if the whole building is bulging outwards. Although this can be an interesting effect in itself, we usually want to reduce it so that it doesn't become distracting.

By using a telephoto lens and photographing your architecture from further away you will find that your building's walls and lines appear acceptably straight.

Tower block

Use a telephoto lens to flatten the perspective and eliminate distortion. Image by Álvaro Vega Fuentes.

You can also use a telephoto lens to create some great abstract effects. By photographing your architecture from a long way away and using a long focal length lens, you will flatten the perspective, making the lines of the building appear parallel, giving your photo a slightly surreal feel.

Pick Out Interesting Details

Most architecture is covered with small-scale details which make fascinating photos in their own right - from ornate windows to patterns of rivets to decorative cornices.

Interior of Federation Square, Melbourne

Find an interesting detail to focus on, rather than just photographing the entire building. Image by Paul Hocksenar.

Be on the lookout for these details and crop in tightly on them for a more intimate photograph that conveys the character of the architecture.

It's Not Just About Buildings

When photographing architecture it is easy to get stuck in the mindset that "architecture equals buildings". Of course this couldn't be far from the truth, and in fact most man-made structures come under the architecture umbrella - bridges, towers, windmills, monuments, and even lamp posts. Think laterally and see if you can find some interesting photos that most people would miss.

Brookyln Bridge, New York at sunset

Architecture covers a lot more than just buildings. Image by Lou Bueno.

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