Recently I was photographing at the National Building Museum as I was scouting for my class and I was really excited about the images I came away with. I remember how years ago I had no idea how to photograph buildings and architecture but now it’s second nature and I take my skills for granted. That’s not to say I’m a pro by any means but with a few key tips, it’s easy for anyone to capture strong architectural photographs.
1. Building exteriors usually look better from an angle showing 2 sides. This adds dimension instead of a straight-on shot of the façade. However, depending on the size, shape and the grounds around the building, a straight on symmetrical image might work well too.
2. Photograph early morning and/or late in the afternoon for softer light.
- You’ll want the sun behind you (when you’re looking at the building) for well exposed exterior images with good color and pleasing contrast.
- For east-facing buildings, morning is the best time to shoot.
- For west-facing properties, afternoon is great.
- If the building faces north, any time between 10:00 and 2:00 is ideal.
- If it faces south, take the photos first thing in the morning or late in the day.
3. Polarizing filters can help remove window glare and add nice saturation and contrast.
4. Consider black and white for architecture. Often the absence of color removes distraction and allows the viewer to see the building elements better.
5. Don’t be afraid to show people in the frame, they can show scale.
6. Keep the camera level to the ground and avoid tilting it. Tilting causes distortion and the lines of the building to converge.
- Tilting the camera up or down affects the verticals.
- Tilting the camera right or left affects the horizontals.
- Some cameras feature a level that displays during capture to help you know when you’re straight and level. If your camera doesn’t have a built-in level, they can be purchased as a camera accessory and fitted to your hot shoe.
7. A tripod can also help make sure you’re not tilted and some offer a level on the base plate. Plus, they also allow you to take sharp, crisp photos with low ISO’s hence less graininess.
8. Use a wide angle lens to capture the full building without any tilting.
- Sometimes, the only way to capture the whole building is to step back- way back, even across the street depending on the height of the building.
- Take for example the Washington National Cathedral, to capture the entire church front you have to cross Wisconsin Ave and shoot from the other side of the street. Turning the camera vertically will give you the whole church but also the street. No problem though, simply crop out the street and you have a lovely photo.
- Using a wide angle lens with interiors allows you to frame floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall without tilting. The smaller the room, the wider you’ll want the lens to be.
9. Notice everything that’s in the frame and try to avoid distracting elements. Otherwise, crop or clone them out in post processing.
10. You can remove parked cars or other street elements by getting down low and blocking them out with shrubs or flowers.
11. If you need to remove traffic or moving cars, use a long shutter speed such as 2 to 6 seconds and they’ll move thru the frame without being recorded. Dark filters like a neutral densitys or a polarizers can help prevent overexposure when you need a long shutter speed in daylight.
12. If you want the indoors as well as the view out the window, you’ll most likely have to use a flash unit. If the space is small, a flash should work well. In larger spaces, you may need studio lighting.
- External Flash Units - For smaller spaces try exposing for the bright area out of window then turn on flash to light the interior.
- Try using TTL (auto flash mode for external flash units) and then adjust the brightness of the flash with Flash Compensation (a setting on the camera or flash). Note you’ll have to work within your camera’s sync speed, the fastest shutter speed that can be used while using flash, this is usually 1/200th second.
- A soft box or light sphere can help spread out and soften the light.
- If using flash in the manual flash mode, consider using 1/8th or 1/16th power. Play with the zoom settings on the flash to affect the spread of the flash.
- Try swiveling the flash and bouncing it off the ceiling or a side wall for softer light. (Only use on white or neutral color walls or ceilings.)
13. Another option to capture the indoors and the view out a bright window is to bracket your exposures for HDR (High Dynamic Range). Same for outdoor scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows.
- No camera can capture the dark shadows and the bright highlights (the dynamic range of tones) in the same frame.
- If you have a dark interior room with windows showing the bright outside, you’ll take 3 photos at different exposures (exposure bracketing); capture one shot exposing for the outside brightness, one shot for the mid-tones, and another shot exposing for the dark interior. These can be later be blended together in Lightroom using Photo à Merge to HDR.
14. Practice Makes Perfect. The DC area has plenty of beautiful buildings to practice with both indoors and out. Here are some great ones to start with.
Nat Building Museum, Library of Congress, American Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, the U.S. Capitol... the list is endless. Let's not overlook what is right in front of us with the historic buildings or beautiful homes in our neighborhoods.