May 23, 2024

Architecture Photography: A Full-Scale Guide

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When we think about architecture photography, the first thing that comes to mind might be an image of a skyscraper that dominates a city’s skyline, maybe a church, or an elegant hotel. An exciting genre of photography, it involves capturing the unique characteristics – the beauty, design, and details of buildings in a visually appealing way.

Software company Adobe offers a simple definition for architectural photography: “photos that primarily showcase the interior or exterior of manmade structures.” So that may include a bridge, a water tower, even a fence, or a sidewalk.

In this article, we’ll give you a little history of architectural photography, some of the styles of this genre, the equipment you’ll need, and a bit of career advice.

A Brief History of Architecture Photography

One of the earliest examples of architectural photography is the iconic View from the Window at Le Gras captured by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Taken in 1826, it marks the birth of photography. And since early photographs required long exposure times, many hours in some cases, buildings were the subject of choice. Therefore, architectures became the first photographic genre.

architectural photography history.
View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (public domain).

Fast Forward to the Mid-20th Century

Photos of architecture evolved into a significant genre of photography and an art form in the 20th century. Notable photographers emerged, such as Julius Shulman. Shulman photographed modern buildings, capturing the clean lines, innovative designs, and the interplay between the main subject and its surroundings.

architectural photography julius shulman.
Chemosphere House © Julius Shulman, 1961.

Another influential 20th century architecture photograper was Ezra Stoller. His work showed meticulous attention to detail and composition. He captured the grandeur and scale of architecture. Stoller set the standard for composition with the image below: a prominent sign announcing the name of the building in the foreground, the large building in the background, and people to show the size of the structure. This style of composition is common in marketing and media.

stoller twa terminal.
TWA Terminal at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport © Ezra Stoller, 1962.

Contemporary Architecture Photographers

We look to accomplished photographers to inspire us. To that end, here are a few who excel at architectural photography.

Dutch photographer Iwan Baan incorporates the environment to create context in his work.

A photographer who works with film and advocates analog photography, Hélène Binet has published several books on her images and has been featured in international exhibitions.

Fernando Guerra worked in the industry for five years and is Canon Ambassador of Europe for architectural photography.

In the digital age, architectural photos continue to evolve with advancements in technology. Photographers leverage powerful digital cameras and editing software. And social media showcases their work to a global audience, expanding their reach and influence. 

The Styles of Architecture Photography

Architectural photography comes in many styles. As a starting point, let’s look at two basic categories.

Exterior Architecture Photography

Capturing photographs of a building’s exterior, placing it as the main subject, possibly with landscaping or other structures to give it context – this is exterior architecture photography. Normally, being outdoors provides plenty of light. And different times of day and weather conditions give us an opportunity to use light in more creative ways.

Bright sunlight creates highlights and shadows that may create a dramatic effect on the structure. An overcast sky diffuses the light and brings out the details of the building.

The two previous images are examples of exterior photography.

Interior Architecture Photography

This presents photographers with a different set of challenges, since there is limited natural light from within the confines of a building. Photographing an interior may require opening all the curtains and shades as well as the use of a flash or additional interior lighting.

Often interior photos need staging. You may want to move some furnishings or remove items that distract from the scene that you envision. The careful arrangement of the space for contemporary interior photography pays off with an uncluttered look that appeals to the eye.

interior architecture photography.
Interior photograph showing a staged, well-lighted room.

Within these two categories, we identify several different styles.

Realistic Photography

Realistic style photography prioritizes authenticity. It features the design elements and functionality of the building in an easy-to-understand rendering. Therefore, realistic photography seeks to produce captivating images that show the building as it is with precise detail.

architecture photography realistic style.
The exterior of a home shot in the realistic style.

Cityscape and Urban Photography

Cityscapes capture the urban landscape with its patchwork of buildings and imposing skylines. Cityscape photography focuses on the big picture of the built environment and how the buildings, bridges, towers, and streets form distinctive patterns.

cityscape.
Cityscape at night.

Skyscraper Photography

The sleek lines and geometric shapes of towering skyscrapers highlight the modern and futuristic design elements in urban development. Light and shadow on the facades of skyscrapers create a dynamic effect. Furthermore, tall buildings are the heart of the urban landscape created by contemporary architects.

skyscraper buildings.
The ground-level view illustrates the imposing buildings of a financial district.

Abstract Photography

Photographers release their creative outlet to find art within architectural structures with abstract photos. Look for texture, a singular vantage point, and unusual lines that bring the image to life. You may find details within the structure that animate the beauty of the architect’s design.

abstract architectural photography.
An abstract photo focuses on the design details of a structure.

Minimalist Photography

The minimalist style is defined by clean lines, simple shapes, and negative space to emphasize the essence of the design. It may feature the contrast between shadow and light to create a dramatic sense of space.

part of a building in minimalist style.
A minimalist-style photo of a building.

Urban Exploration

This style captures the abandoned buildings and forgotten spaces within city landscapes. Journey into deserted or deteriorating structures, immerse yourself in the architectural distinction of historic buildings and discover a story obscured by the passage of time.

Abandoned building.
Abandoned buildings tell a powerful story about the changing urban landscape.

Aerial Photography

One of the best ways to add a wow factor to your images is to shoot from an aerial perspective. If you want to show the neighborhood – other buildings, shopping centers, freeway access – take to the air. For this, you might charter a helicopter, which is an expensive proposition, or invest in a drone. If you choose a drone, familiarize yourself with laws regulating their use.

aerial architectural photography.
Aerial view places the house in its context.

Choosing the Best Camera and Gear for Architectural Photography

Selecting the right camera is crucial to capture the intricate details and grandeur of architectural structures. An interchangeable lens camera, either digital single lens reflex (DSLR) or mirrorless, is a good choice. Cameras with full frame sensors set standard for this genre since they deliver top quality images at reasonable prices. 

Canon, Nikon, and Sony offer a range of cameras providing excellent image resolution and dynamic range. They are versatile and suitable for a wide range of architectural images, from capturing cityscapes to interior and exterior shots.

Medium format cameras, like the Fujifilm GFX 50S or the Hasselblad X1D II 50C, offer higher image quality and detail. With a sensor size significantly larger than full frame cameras, medium format cameras excel at capturing fine details, textures, and tonal range. They are particularly well-suited for architectural photography, where detail is a top priority. However, medium format cameras are bulkier, heavier, and more expensive compared to full frame cameras.

The best camera for photographing architecture depends on individual preferences and requirements, along with your budget.

Lenses

My first choice for a lens might be the 50mm, the standard lens. It offers a field of view similar to the human eye with very low distortion around the edges. That’s what I would want. However, it won’t take long before I’m in a situation where I’m unable get the whole building in the frame, and another building prevents me from moving back.

Wide-angle lenses are a versatile solution for architecture photography. A 16-35mm lens extends the field of view, making it a good choice for capturing the grandeur and scale of architectural marvels. Additionally, wide-angle lenses create a sense of depth and perspective, making the architectural elements appear more prominent and visually striking.

If your budget allows it, choose a prime lens. While the fixed focal length limits your options, prime lenses offer exceptional image quality and sharpness. They are often preferred by architectural photographers for their ability to capture intricate details with precision. Prime lenses also tend to have wider maximum apertures, allowing for better low-light performance.

Tilt-shift lenses have a specialized function for taking architectural photos. These lenses allow the photographer to adjust the angle of the lens in relation to the camera, gaining greater control over perspective. A tilt-shift lens can maintain straight lines and prevent distortion in tall buildings; that is, an image of a tall building that appears to be leaning back. In addition, it can create a miniaturization effect, a nice addition to your portfolio of architectural images.

nikon tilt shift lens.
Nikkor 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens © Nikon USA.

Other Necessary Gear

A tripod keeps your camera steady, especially when a long exposure is called for, such as low-light situations. Also, if you’re in windy conditions or doing an extremely long exposure, you’ll want a five- or 10-pound sand bag to stabilize the tripod.

A cable release or remote release system prevents camera movement when you release the shutter. A cable release uses a button attached to the camera by a wire. A remote trigger system is wireless and more versatile.

A polarizing filter minimizes reflections and glare that distract from the overall composition and brings out the colors and contrast of the subject.

Additional lighting may be required indoors. Include other equipment like a flash, reflectors, and shoot-through umbrellas in your package.

Camera Settings for Photographing Architectures

For architecture, shoot in Aperture Priority or Manual mode. I recommend Manual. Since the building is not going anywhere, you have plenty of time to make your settings. And manual gives you full control.

Two important factors in architectural photography are aperture and ISO. Again, the subject is stationary, so a slow shutter speed works well. And that gives you more flexibility with aperture and ISO. Use a tripod.

Shoot with a small aperture to increase the depth of field and get the entire building in focus, between f/8 and f/14. And shoot at the lowest possible ISO setting to ensure that the image is clear and noise-free. We have an article on the exposure triangle if you need a refresher on how aperture, ISO, and shutter speed interact.

Tips for Taking Great Photos of Architecture

Follow the tips below to create the best images of architecture.

1. Find a Location

You have a world of options, so start with buildings that interest you. Older buildings, churches, and universities contain interesting architectural features. The shape of the roof, building material, and design elements may spark your imagination. In addition, look around at the landscaping and the setting to add context to the image.

2. Shoot at Different Times of the Day

Midday sun, the golden hours, and nighttime give us very different light. Also, a cloudy sky diffuses the light and eliminates harsh shadows. Weather conditions such as rain or fog create an entirely different mood.

city skyline at midday.
Downtown Tampa shot at midday.
city skyline night.
Downtown Tampa is shot from the same vantage point at night.

3. Try Different Perspectives

Frame your shot from different angles. For example, move to the side to add variations of the straight-on realistic shot. Zoom in and focus on design details that result in abstraction or use a wide angle lens with its edge distortion as a creative outlet.

4. Compose the Image

Leading lines and shapes highlight the symmetry and form of the building. Diagonal lines lend a sense of motion. Horizontal lines add an aura of serenity. Vertical lines illustrate the structure’s grandeur. Shooting from a low angle plays to the building’s dominance. A higher angle shot accentuates its form.

5. Include Human Beings

People in an architectural photograph show the scale of the subject. Plus, it adds a live element that viewers find appealing. I include people only if they are in the distance and not identifiable.

By concentrating on composition, time of day, and perspective, photographers begin to create a narrative with their images

6. Editing and Post Processing

Post-production and editing are essential steps in photographing architecture. Exposure, shadows and highlights, noise, and saturation are key concerns and can be managed in post processing. Furthermore, adjustments can be made to give your photos the look and feel you envisioned.

Perspective distortion can be mitigated. Lightroom features “Transform”, and Photoshop employs “Perspective Warp” to correct the backward lean that results from photographing tall buildings. 

lightroom transform module.
Lightroom’s Transform module can correct the backward lean of this church image.

Careers as an Architecture Photographer

While architectural photographers find careers in the genre, it may not be a 9-5 type of job. Many architects, interior designers, and Realtors hire photographers on a per-job basis.

Real estate firms need high quality images for listings and ads. You could make a career in real estate photography. Also, architects and designers want professional-looking photographs of their projects for portfolios, websites, and marketing materials. As a freelance photographer, you could develop a variety of clients and be able to take on different types of photography projects.

Conclusion

Architecture photography is the art of capturing the essence and beauty of buildings and structures through the lens of a camera. It showcases the unique design, details, and aesthetics of architectural creations. Of course, this genre of photography requires a keen eye for composition, lighting, and perspective to highlight the architectural elements and convey a narrative about the structure.

With its rich history, variety of styles, and career opportunities, architecture offers a challenging and rewarding field for aspiring photographers. I hope you found some useful information and inspiration in this article. If you have any question or comments, please submit them in the space below.



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