The Basics of Architectural Photography
You would think that taking a photo of a building would be pretty straight forward. After all, they aren’t moving about, they don’t get red eye nor do they say, Can you get my best side? Well, there are many small things that can make or break an architectural photo. Let’s explore how you can improve the building photos you take.
First, there is a distinction between in-progress photos and photos of finished projects. In-progress shots are more forgiving since things are changing daily and it is understood that shooting conditions may be far from optimal. This doesn’t mean that taking a shot out of the truck window as you are leaving the job site is a good thing, though. It means there are different things to be looking for to make the photos successful.
In-progress shots assume that there is workers and equipment that must be taken into consideration. You have to be aware of things like OSHA violations and hardhat usage. Are there aspects of the process that are proprietary? Do the workers in the shot want to be photographed? All these things and more should be considered before the shutter is released. In fact, pre-planning with the job super or the architect can avoid problems once the photos are taken. Once on the job site, the photographer should then strive for good composition, proper exposure and all the rest that make for a successful photo. Taking time and shooting many different scenes will reduce the chance of not getting a usable photo.
Finished projects have another set of criteria. The workers are gone, things are cleaned up and the building is in its glory. But there are things to check. Is the landscaping complete? Are there snow banks that will spoil the shot? Is the parking lot looking good and the lines painted? Where is the sun in relation to the face of the building? As you can see, just because the building is finished, a good photo requires the same pre-planning and legwork as in-progress photos. In both cases, the time taken to get the best photos on-site will pay off when the need to cover up mistakes using Photoshop work is avoided.
So, just what do you need to do for both in-progress and finished building photos? First is to pick a shot that will highlight the best features of the building. This sounds simple, but electrical wires, trees, parked cars or other buildings may cause problems. When setting up, either on a tripod or hand-held, try to keep the camera level to the building site. This will keep perspective distortion (called key stoning) to a minimum. With tall buildings, this will not be possible, but using a step ladder or nearby rise of ground may help to get the camera more level. Buildings generally look best when not viewed straight on but rather at a 3/4 angle. This especially true with large, long steel buildings on flat sites. In these cases, there is often an entrance or office area that is more interesting architecturally. Focus your shot using this as the main part of the photo and allow the rest of the building to stretch off to the background. If this doesn’t work, try using interior photos. For daylight exterior photos, choose a time of day when the sunlight will be falling on the side of the building you want to shoot. If this is not possible, be sure to manually increase the exposure on the fade to prevent it from being too dark in the photo.
To keep all the building in focus, use the aperture mode on your camera and set the lens at f11 or f16. This may cause the shutter speed to be too slow to hand hold, so have a support for the camera (tripod or a pad on a steady surface) and use a remote release or the self-timer to avoid the movement touching the camera would cause. Early morning, sunset or night shots can be very dramatic. Scouting the location prior to the day of the shoot will avoid problems that could ruin the entire session. Sunsets are fleeting and you need to be ready before the dramatic colors show. The interior lighting of the building will need to be turned on when taking evening and night shots, so coordination with the owner or job super will be required. Also, the camera will need to be supported as mentioned above. In all low-light shooting, pick an ISO in the 100 to 200 range. This will avoid the noise (unwanted speckling in the color) in dark areas of the photo. Time and planning are your best allies. Preparing for a shoot will save much more time than it takes. It can mean the difference of having a usable photo or having none.