The magic of mono: Tips for creative architecture b&w shots (part one)
This is the first part of a two part series on capturing architectural black and white long exposure images. Look out for part two, which covers editing, next week.
The world is a beautiful tapestry of colours, where nature’s wonders are displayed through lush landscapes and fluffy clouds.
However, far from this appealing and colourful landscape, a different kind of opportunity can be found in urban landscapes of concrete and steel. And, when you combine this with black and white photography, it can bring an entirely different feel to these locations that many of us live in.
It took me years of experimenting and learning about photography, and dealing with colour, before I truly grasped the creative potential of black and white.
Over time I’ve reevaluated how I approach photography, colour, and design, leading me to embrace a new path, and today I specialise in black and white architectural photography.
So, if you’re needing a fresh spark or inspiration for your own photography, here are some practical steps to help you delve into the creative world of bw architectural imagery.
Research plays a big role in any photography journey, and it’s just as important when you’re exploring architecture. Key is to start by first understanding what elements to focus on and how to spot them.
Modern architectural designs are rich with details perfect for this style of photography. Typically, modern architecture lends itself to black and white, with its shapes, textures, and play of light and shadow.
Seek out buildings with interesting structures, lines that lead the eye, repeating patterns, clean edges, balanced layouts, and especially, a mix of light and shadow. This interaction helps emphasise the architectural details in black and white shots. Think about white accents against a dark background, or vice versa. These comparisons catch our eye and can tell engaging stories.
Once you have a clear vision or idea of what elements to look for with your subject, it’s time to seek them out.
This phase is important as it will help you maximise your time. Google Maps and its street view feature are key for how I identify potential locations.
For instance, before my first trip to Perth, I used Google Street view to look around the hotel where I was staying. From there, I navigated through the local streets and the city centre to observe the local architecture. I took note of any interesting locations, addresses, and possible photographic angles.
And while not all subjects or angles may align with your initial google search, it will give you a solid starting point for a day of exploration and photographing.
For this type of photography, you’ll be using long exposure techniques which require specific equipment. Long exposures will help render moving subjects such as clouds as smooth trails, providing a contrast to the impeccably sharp and still elements of buildings and design.
Your toolkit should include the standard essentials – a trusted camera, a reliable sturdy tripod, and a quality lens with medium zoom capabilities, such as a 24-70mm.
In addition, you’ll want a shutter release cable or remote, and most importantly, ND (Neutral Density) filters with a minimum stop rating of 10.
ND filters play a pivotal role by prolonging the passage of time through the lens, by reducing the intensity of light that hits the lens and sensor, enabling the shutter to be open longer.
A 10-stop ND filter is a good starting point as it gives you the ability to create exposures up to 60 seconds in bright sunlight conditions without too much intensity. Combining successive ND filters on top of the standard 10-stop will let you capture ever lengthier exposures, creating smoother and elongated visual patterns.
For optimal results, an ideal scenario for the weather would be to have 60-70% cloud coverage. This will help give you a mix of smooth, white cloud patterns you can capture against a backdrop of black areas, which can be further refined in editing.
However, weather is unpredictable. Just remember that weather patterns can shift, and rain can subside, which can still leave usable clouds. You’ll probably need to be patient.
That said, a cloudless sky also presents a unique opportunity. This is when you can capture intricate architectural details against a striking, dark background.
Architectural photography often involves a fair amount of looking upwards, so try to avoid straining your neck. It also means identifying a secure location to position your tripod is key.
You’ll likely need to decide between landscape and portrait mode, and your choice will be influenced by the structure’s height and architectural design.
A taller building from a distance might be better in portrait mode, whereas standing closer to a building gives off a wider presence and therefore may lend itself to landscape orientation.
Begin by selecting the ‘Shutter’ mode to ‘Bulb’ for precise time control. If this option isn’t available, choose the longest shutter setting possible. I like to set the aperture to its highest value (f/22) to achieve optimal sharpness. Even though this can create darker exposures making an image virtually impossible to see, this will be counteracted using ND filters and extended shutter speeds.
Then, set your ISO to its lowest value (typically 100) to minimise grain. Direct your focus to the building or details of interest, and once you’re content with the focal points, switch to manual focus.
This prevents the camera from attempting to autofocus, which can be challenging due to the dark ND filters. Once you’ve ensured proper focus, attach your ND filters carefully. If you’re using rounded screw-on filters, take care not to inadvertently bump the zoom or focus rings.
It’s a good idea to use an ND Filter Shutter Speed Conversion/Exposure Chart (or Exposure Calculation table). These charts are readily available online and offer recommended settings for shutter speeds and aperture settings for various ND filter strengths. However, the process may also require just a touch of experimentation for best results.
One last step before holding down the shutter remote is to try and cover any other sections that may allow light in, as this can affect the exposure. This includes the viewfinder - use a cloth or purchase a cheap viewfinder cover for this step.
Now you are ready to let the shutter go.
Remember that weather will influence the available light. I try to capture an array of photographs using different shutter speeds, often beginning with 30 seconds.
What we’re hoping to capture is an image that when converted to black and white, will make the clear sky transform into a rich, deep black tone, enhancing the textures of the building.