Most buildings are designed with two purposes: a practical use, or function, and an aesthetic quality, which complements the surrounding environment and represents the architect’s vision or expression. The challenge for the architectural photographer is to create images that reveal the essence of a structure. Some photos could emphasize the practical function, showing humans interacting with and using the building as planned. Another form of architectural photography focuses solely on the shape, the details and the design elements, portraying a building much like a piece of sculpture, pure art with no other function than to please the eye and mind.
To photograph a building as something more than a building requires more than a slapdash approach. First, you want to find interesting buildings. They could be the most modern skyscraper or an old barn. Study them carefully with no thought of shooting them immediately. Look at them from various angles and distances. A full-view architectural photograph conveys an entirely different message than close-ups of the details that you can’t see at full view, and vice versa.
Typically, the best examples of architecture photography are shot with a wide-angle lens, 35mm focal length or wider. The practical reason is that you must position your camera rather close to the building, so you can eliminate any foreground clutter: people, vehicles, etc. If your subject matter is an isolated, old barn or any structure outside the city, then you could include the foreground to help emphasis the building’s isolation. An object in the foreground that relates to and/or complements the building could help tell the story of the building’s use: a rusty farm implement in front of the barn or an abandoned piece of equipment in front of a closed industrial plant.
Although there are many opportunities to shoot handheld architectural photos, you’ll quickly discover that your best work comes with your camera on a tripod and the optional use of a remote, wireless shutter release. Because the building doesn’t move, not even a twitch, you can shoot at longer shutter speeds, so you don’t need artificial light. Your best night architecture shots will be set up this way: slow shutter speed, low ISO number to reduce any digital noise and a narrow aperture, such as f/8, to give you more depth-of-field control.
One of the reasons it is so important to study your architectural subject matter thoroughly before shooting photos is so you can check for parallel lines. The lines created by buildings or on buildings must appear to be parallel; otherwise, viewers’ minds will be confused by the distortion and they are less likely to find your photos interesting. Typically, the further you position your camera from a building (or group of buildings), the more parallel the lines will appear.
Sometimes what is most interesting about a building is only seen at one time of day, or night, or under specific lighting conditions. Monolithic government buildings that are nothing but a great concrete mass in the full light of day present you with a completely different palette at night, especially if they are illuminated with accent lights.
Buildings make it very easy for you to study them. They don’t move; they don’t complain about the hours in front of hot lights. They give you all the time you need to think of unique and interesting images and plan an architectural photo shoot thoroughly.
There will be occasions when you’re able to compose a great image of a building with a longer focal length. For example, you may be able to receive permission to shoot from the roof of a smaller building to elevate your angle of larger buildings.
Once you understand this concept and can execute it in your architectural photos, feel free to break this “rule,” positioning your camera at various distances from a subject building to give you more artistic options.
Photo copyright PhotographyTalk member Gary Truchelut
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