Photo tip of the week: Better architecture images
Despite most of us spending our lives surrounded by amazing architecture, it's a genre of photography that many amateur photographers struggle to do well. It shouldn't be the case.
Architectural scenes are typically packed with interesting focal points, textures, tones and shapes – perfect visual fodder for photographers who know what they're doing. So grab your camera, get yourself to your favourite building and try these nine pro tips and techniques to supercharge your architectural portfolio.
1. Banish converging verticals
Ever taken a photo of a building, looked at it back at the computer and thought; ‘that just looks a bit weird’? The combination of taking a wide angle image of a building, particularly if you have tilted the camera up, can cause converging verticals, a phenomenon where the top of the building appears to lean in.
Professional architecture photographers use special lenses called ‘tilt/shift’ which correct these issues, but these optics are usually very expensive. However, there’s also some more affordable precautions you can take too. To start with and if you can, back up a little from the building or whatever subject you’re shooting.
Next, don’t always go for the widest focal length your lens offers - if you are using a 18-35mm lens for example, try zooming in as this will help reduce the risk of converging verticals. When you process the image in software like Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom, use the Profile tab options to select the lens you used to take the image as this will help you enable any lens correction.
Finally, if you already have an architecture image that suffers from converging verticals you can use a Photoshop trick to rescue the image. Open the image in Photoshop and then click Control & A (Apple & A on a Mac) to select the whole image. Then click Edit > Transform > Skew, before dragging the top corner handles outwards to correct the converging verticals effect.
2. Mix up materials
Architecture draws many parallels with landscape photography and it’s always wise to try mixing textures in the frame. However, in the case of architecture photography. We’re swapping sand and water, for varied materials like brick, glass and steel and a great approach is to look for scene that juxtapose different materials.
For example, including a frame with brickwork or steel rivets alongside the more modern materials of glass and aluminum will show workmanship from totally different eras. This technique can be incredibly successful if you are trying to tell the story of a singular building, perhaps one that stands out as new in an older urban location.
3. Experiment with tones
Thanks to the unique shapes of buildings and structures, architecture photography is a great genre to fuse with black and white photography. Removing colour from the picture will help viewers focus more on the form and shape of the building, along with the textures it’s made from (brick, steel, etc). Typically, the best black and white images will come when there is high contrast lighting as this will help embellish shadows and highlights in the scene. When met with these conditions, give yourself the best chance of keeping the exposure in the image under control by shooting in the RAW file format.
Although RAW files take up more room on your memory card than JPEGs, they offer far more tolerance when editing in software such as Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom. When shooting scene for black and white, it can be hard to visualise how the frame will look in mono, so one trick to help with this is to shoot using your camera’s black and white Picture Style or Art Filter mode. This will enable you to review the scene in mono on your camera’s LCD, while a colour RAW file will be saved to the memory card.
4. Time your shoot correctly
As we’ve mentioned, light plays a huge part in the success of an architecture image. While the quality of light is ultimately down to Mother Nature, there is plenty you can do to ensure you are prepared and ready when the right light arrives. Just like landscape photography, it can really pay to use an app such as ‘Photo Pills’ to view not only the direction of light, but also the exact time of sunrise and sunset.
These factors are particularly important when shooting in the city as other tall buildings may partially or totally block light falling on the location you want to capture at certain times of the day. What’s more, you may want to go for a certain ‘look’ with your architecture image - for example, you may wish to backlight the scene to include stylish flare in the frame and using an app can help with the planning needed to achieve the photo.
5. Experiment with motion
Architecture locations are, by their nature, static subjects but there are ways to introduce motion into the frame to add much-needed energy. By artificially extending the length of the exposure, you can capture motion in the clouds above a building or in the people and traffic passing below it and this technique works especially well with architecture locations with water running in front of them. To achieve an extended exposure, you will need to reduce the amount of light passing through the lens using a ND filter.
These filters come in two shapes; square and circular. Circular versions need to match the filter thread of your lens, while square versions require a dedicated filter holder that screw on the front of your lens. ND filters come in different strengths (stops) so you can go for a mild long exposure lasting a few seconds or an extreme long exposure lasting minutes. Be aware that cheaper ND filters can add colour casts to your images so reliable brands to watch out for are Haida, NiSi, Lee Filters and B&W.
6. Add subjects for scale (people in view)
Part of architecture photography is to tell the story of the subject and as cities build ever-bigger structures, it can be hard to show the sheer scale of the building. A solution to this challenge is to include easily identifiable secondary subjects so that a viewer can truly understand and appreciate the scale of the building.
An easy way to do is is to include people in the frame as we all know how big a human is and they also add a human element to the frame. One issue to be aware of though is that, if you are shooting in a city with a tripod, you’re likely to encounter security staff who may question what you’re doing. Make sure you are fully aware of your rights, what you can do and what you can’t do. The best approach is to be polite and spend a moment explaining what you’re photographing as this usually satisfies most people.
7. Search for symmetry
In architecture photography, strong compositions can increase the impact of a subject and one of the most successful approaches is to search out symmetrical scenes. Symmetry brings a welcome sense of balance to a location and there are some tricks you can use to make sure you get your compositions perfectly lined up.
For starters, switch on the grid lines on your camera’s LCD and Viewfinder and for a precise approach, use the camera on a tripod so you can easily keep the camera in a set position (especially if you are using a long exposure). Finally, most cameras these days are also fitted with electronic horizons, which will tell you when the camera is straight and level and using these techniques will save you time making any corrections to the image in post-processing.
8. Frame with natural borders
Using additional composition techniques can help add an extra layer of interest to your architecture image. One of the best techniques you can use is to add a natural border to your subject. Why? Well because surrounding a building with blue sky all the time can leave frames looking a little samey.
Instead, experiment by framing up a subject in the distance using thing like windows, doors and arches. Not only will this help add interest around the edge of the frame, but it will also help draw the viewer’s eye in to the main subject.
9. Don’t ignore the details
Architects spend hundreds of painstaking hours finessing blueprints and including intricate finishing touches that can transform buildings into art. With a wide-angle lens, it can be hard to fully appreciate special details, but by switching lenses to a telezoom and focusing in on these details, you can help tell the full story of the subject.
Remember, shake can be more of an issue when using longer focal lengths so secure the camera, or if you don’t have a tripod to hand, support the camera by tucking your elbows in and bracing yourself against a wall or lamppost. If you are stuck hand holding your camera, this is where image stabilisation technology (whether in the lens or in the came body) really can be beneficial.
Most IS systems offer around four stops of compensation, which can really make the difference between a sharp, useable shot and a blurred mess.