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This is an example-based tutorial on photographing buildings.
Your Pictures Need Not Be Pretty
Architectural photography at its best will convey the experience of
being in and around a built environment. In the case of
the Dachau Concentration Camp, this won't
result in comforting attractive images.
Below is a parking garage in Kyoto. The
colors and industrial appearance of the structure are remarkable in the
middle of a city known for its ancient temples and gardens. The purpose
of the image is to capture the feeling of walking by the structure, not
to delight or decorate.
A supermarket exterior is a subject that will probably never make a
wall-worthy image by itself. However, the image below (from the Hawaii flowers
collection) captures the spirit of being in the parking lot at
Give Old Buildings Some Space
In general, the older the structure, the more environmental context is
Using your hands or your mind, crop the preceding images to include just
the structures and see if they would still work. Also, compare them to
a few modern buildings where hardly any context is required:
(The Big Boy pictures are also a good example of coming back repeatedly
to a building in order to capture it in different lights and weather.)
Farms are a good example of where the structures don't make any sense
removed from their context:
Even a Bit of Space Helps
If you're not capturing an entire village or farm, it still makes sense
to think about the space around your subject. Even a little bit of
context helps anchor the image. For example, the image at right, from
the sunset district of San Francisco,
presents a straightforward view of a house. We could use it as a real estate
advertisement. The fragment of the house to the left, however, isn't
wasted space. It tells us how tightly packed the neighborhood is.
In the image below, the sidewalk, the fragment of street, the
pedestrian, and the little open market to the left of the shop help
establish the Guatemalan context:
Step Back and Use a Telephoto Lens
Back up from an work of architecture and use a telephoto lens to
compress the perspective. This often brings out an interesting pattern.
The images below, from Provincetown, Cape
Cod, show the increased abstraction of a telephoto perspective. The
picture on the right was taken with a much longer lens than the one on
Include the Fence
A fence can be an important image element. In the left-hand photo
below (from Gotland, Sweden), the fence works
with the trees to frame the barn. It helps that the fence is not
brightly lit and is a bit out of focus. The viewer's eye will therefore
naturally be drawn to the main subject of the photo, i.e., the barn. In
the right-hand photo, from Cape Cod,
the fence immediately clues a viewer into the exclusive nature of the
Straight on Till Morning
Sometimes a direct approach is all that you need:
Watch the Shadows
Before color, Hollywood directors and cinematographers worked carefully
to cast interesting shadows into scenes. Here are some examples of
images where shadows set the mood.
Watch the Weather
What's the best weather for photographing buildings? Consider the
following photo, from Travels with
The sunlight adds punch to the fire hydrant and makes urban life seem
more appealing. However, if you were trying to show people details in
the buildings, a high overcast day would have been much better. For
example, here is an image from Visby, Sweden:
The Drama of the Staircase
It would seem that staircases are inherently dramatic.
Lead the Eye by Leading the Person
If your composition includes a visible footpath into the scene, it
should naturally draw the viewer.
It is a contrived and hackneyed idea, but it does work to use natural
frames. If you're working without a tripod, you probably won't be able
to stop down the aperture enough to get everything into focus. But it
is okay to have a soft frame and a sharp subject.
The left-hand image, from Rome, has a
classical composition leading the eye into the center of the frame. But
the overview image to its right conveys a truer feeling for the Spanish
Here is a Soviet-built memorial to the Second World War in
Include people in an architecture photo if they give
unexpected information about how a building is being used.
Don't Forget the Sculpture
Occasionally, a swimming pool is a work of art by itself, as in the
image at left (Hearst Castle, from the photo.net
California guide). But most of the time, a pool is best used as an
abstract element in a composition from above, as at right (Israel).
The narrow streets of Europe are always interesting to American eyes.
We're accustomed to structures built on an inhuman scale (cf. the Mall
in Washington, D.C.). To get a better-than-average picture of a narrow
European street, start by looking for an arch:
Both of the above images could have been better. In the left-hand
image, the subject (woman on moped) could be more interesting and more
engaged either with the camera or another subject. In the right-hand
image, some of the black shadow should be cropped out.
If you can't find an arch, try filling the foreground with an
interesting subject of some sort, e.g., this old Citroen:
Another effective technique is to use a long lens to compress the
"Streets flooded. Please advise."
-- Robert Benchley (telegram to his editor upon arrival in Venice)
The three pictures below show increasingly less literal views of
the Golden Gate Bridge in San
Francisco. My favorite is the one on the right. It isn't a very
good view of the bridge--one can hardly see that there are two
towers--but it shows tourists gawking at the bridge's construction and
an avid cyclist using the bridge.
For the next bridge, the story behind it is more important than the
structure. This is the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick, a subisland of
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts (almost part of Cape Cod). In 1969, Ted Kennedy drove off the
side of this bridge into the water. He abandoned his passenger, Mary Jo
Kopechne, to her death by drowning. Kennedy did not report the incident
to the police until the following morning and was found guilty of
leaving the scene of an accident. The bridge fell into disrepair and
was subsequently rebuilt to absurdly heavy duty standards. The
photographs below therefore concentrate on the super-strong guard rails
and the heavy metal gate that is used to close the bridge every night.
The next example is that most tired of photographic subjects: the
covered bridge. For starters, here is the Chamber of Commerce view:
One approach is to get inside the bridge:
Another is to wait for darkness or gloomy weather:
Here are a couple of early morning Brooklyn Bridge photographs. This is
one of the best bridges because of the unusual cabling pattern and also
the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
San Francisco's Bay Bridge is a poor stepchild to the Golden Gate in
terms of photographic coverage. However, if you get off in the middle
of the bridge, at Treasure Island, and are willing to do a little bit of
creative parking, you can get a good picture of the bridge as it is used:
Below we return at different times of day and from different vantage
points to capture the multiple moods of the Ponte Vecchio, in
The stone bridges of Europe are spectacular:
Bridges, this time from a Helicopter
A two-seat helicopter can be rented from any flight
school for about $250/hour. (See my
page if you want to add one more challenge to your life, but it is best not to try to
fly the helicopter and take the pictures at the same time.)
Doors and Windows
A good architect is a fanatic for detail and some of the most beautiful
parts of a structure are best captured in isolation.
A lot of buildings become more interesting at night:
With digital cameras, the main problem is noise from the sensor, which
is best controlled by using a tripod and keeping the ISO set to 400 or
less. In general, physically larger sensors will produce less noise
than smaller sensors, which is why digital SLRs perform so much better
in low light than point and shoot digicams.
Modern 35mm single-lens reflex cameras have such good metering systems
that the suggested exposure for a picture like the ones above is almost
always within 1 f-stop of the best exposure. With slide film, it is
probably best to take 5 bracketed exposures at 1/2 f-stop intervals.
With color negative film, take four pictures: one at 1 f-stop less
exposure than recommended, one at the camera's recommended exposure, one
1 f-stop over, and one 2 f-stops over.
The world of industrial architectural is the world of the large but
simultaneously extremely detailed. You will want the highest
resolution digital camera that you can rent, with the largest physical
sensor (see the
digital camera chapter of Making Photographs). If
you're using a film camera, use a tripod, sharp lenses, and slow
fine-grained film, as with these photos of the Glen Canyon Dam on 35mm ISO
32 Kodak Panatomic-X film:
A good perspective on a ruin is some rubble in the foreground and the
standing structure in the background:
For ruins in the American Southwest, the best images almost always show
quite a bit of context (these are from New Mexico):
The average building is taller than the average photographer. This is
the source of 99% of the distortion in the world's architectural photos.
Distortion isn't always bad. Note the converging vertical lines in the
following image, the Cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterno in Rome:
This is an extreme example and it comes from cozying up to the facade of
the building, mounting a wide-angle lens (14mm) to the camera and
tilting the camera body back so that the entire facade fits in the
frame. This has the effect of projecting a flat surface (the front of
the building) onto an angled surface (the film). Hence the distortion.
Is it bad? The photo isn't very descriptive or accurate. It won't be
bought by any guidebook publishers. However, it expresses the idea of
the enormous cathedral looming over mankind better than a
Suppose we have a humbler building, like this wood-framed house in
Cambridge that contains a few condominiums:
The above left image was taken with a 24mm wide-angle lens held parallel
to the ground. The vertical lines in the subject do not converge. All
is well with the photograph except the composition. The bottom
third of the frame contains the snow drift on the city sidewalk. We're
trying to get a picture of the house. In the middle photo, we've tilted
the camera back. The snow drift is out of the frame but notice that the
vertical lines are converging. The house appears to be falling
backward. In the right-most photo above, we've kept the camera level,
with its film plane parallel to the building facade. To change the
composition, we've shifted the lens up. This is only possible
with a view camera or a special perspective correction lens on a 35mm
camera. In this example, the lens was the Canon 24mm tilt-shift (TS)
lens. Perspective correction lenses cast a larger image circle than
necessary to cover the 24x36mm frame of a 35mm camera. However, it is
possible to exceed the limits of the lens, in which case the corners of
the frame will perceptibly darken:
The above left photo, of the same house in Cambridge as above, is taken
with the camera level to the ground. The composition contains far too
much of the street and the roof of the house is cut off. The center
photo is shifted up enough to center the house. The right-most photo
above shows that the Canon 24mm TS lens can be shifted beyond the limits
of its image circle--note the dark corners at the top. Below is an example from Sweden:
a 17mm lens with the camera back tilted up:
a 24mm PC lens shifted up:
A cheaper method that yields much higher image quality, is to use
Click on the photo above to view a larger version and note the detail in
the church. This photo was taken with Kodak Tri-X film (ISO 400) in
1981. The camera was on a tripod at about the same height as the very
bottom of the church steps. Raising the lens eliminated the
uninteresting green lawn in front of the church and included the steeple
in the composition. See "Choosing a Large Format Camera"
if you're interested in joining the view camera club. If you hope to do
architectural photography commercially, the view camera is an essential
tool. Clients will expect you to use one, though of course in the 21st Century
they will expect to see a digital back instead of a film holder.
Whether you use a view camera or a tilt-shift lens on a rigid camera
body, you'll need a tripod.
"Using Tilt-Shift Lenses" for more
on the topic of achieving correct perspective with a Digital SLR system.
You can also correct these kinds of distortions on a computer in post-processing.)
Buildings don't move. Ergo, only a lazy photographer would use a high
ISO setting or a handheld camera to take a picture of a building. The
professional approach is to start with the camera's lowest ISO (e.g.,
100) for lowest noise. Generally a large depth of field is desirable
in architectural photography. The viewer should have the choice to
look at any part of the structure and find it in adequately sharp
focus. Large depth of field implies a small aperture. A small
aperture plus slow film implies a long shutter speed, too long for
steady hand holding. Consequently, any serious architectural
photographer will carry a tripod.
As noted in the perspective correction section, a professional
architectural photographer will always have some means of controlling
perspective, generally with a view camera.
For capturing the sweep of a courtyard or exaggerating the lines of
a modern building, wide angle lenses are useful. With a full-frame
digital SLR, a 16-35mm professional zoom is adequate 99% of the time.
For showing a building and its environment in natural perspective,
carry a 50mm lens. For compressing perspective and isolating
inaccessible details, carry a telephoto lens of at least 200mm in