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How to Photograph Architecture (Exterior)

by Philip Greenspun
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 oncentration amp! this won"t result in
comforting attractive images.
#elow is a par$ing garage in %yoto. The colors and industrial appearance of the structure
are remar$able in the middle of a city $nown for its ancient temples and gardens. The
purpose of the image is to capture the feeling of wal$ing by the structure! not to delight or
A supermar$et exterior is a sub&ect that will probably never ma$e a wall-worthy image by
itself. 'owever! the image below (from the 'awaii flowers collection) captures the spirit
of being in the par$ing lot at night*
Give Old Buildings Some Space
In general! the older the structure! the more environmental context is re+uired.
,sing your hands or your mind! crop the preceding images to include &ust the structures
and see if they would still wor$. Also! compare them to a few modern buildings where
hardly any context is re+uired*
(The #ig #oy pictures are also a good example of coming bac$ repeatedly to a building in
order to capture it in different lights and weather.)
-arms are a good example of where the structures don"t ma$e any sense removed from
their context*
Even a Bit of Space Helps
If you"re not capturing an entire village or farm! it still ma$es sense to thin$ about the
space around your sub&ect. .ven a little bit of context helps anchor the image. -or
example! the image at right! from the sunset district of /an -rancisco! presents a
straightforward view of a house. 0e 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
pac$ed the neighborhood is.
In the image below! the sidewal$! the fragment of street! the pedestrian! and the little
open mar$et to the left of the shop help establish the Guatemalan context*
Step Back and Use a Telepoto !ens
#ac$ up from an wor$ of architecture and use a telephoto lens to compress the
perspective. This often brings out an interesting pattern.
The images below! from Provincetown! ape od! show the increased abstraction of a
telephoto perspective. The picture on the right was ta$en with a much longer lens than
the one on the left.
"nclude te #ence
A fence can be an important image element. In the left-hand photo below (from Gotland!
/weden)! the fence wor$s 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 sub&ect of the photo! i.e.! the barn. In the right-hand photo! from ape od! the
fence immediately clues a viewer into the exclusive nature of the beach club.
Straigt on Till $orning
/ometimes a direct approach is all that you need*
%atc te Sado&s
#efore color! 'ollywood directors and cinematographers wor$ed carefully to cast
interesting shadows into scenes. 'ere are some examples of images where shadows set
the mood.
%atc te %eater
0hat"s the best weather for photographing buildings1 onsider the following photo! from
Travels with Samantha*
The sunlight adds punch to the fire hydrant and ma$es urban life seem more appealing.
'owever! if you were trying to show people details in the buildings! a high overcast day
would have been much better. -or example! here is an image from 2isby! /weden*
Te 'rama of te Staircase
It would seem that staircases are inherently dramatic.
!ead te Eye (y !eading te Person
If your composition includes a visible footpath into the scene! it should naturally draw
the viewer.
Natural #rames
It is a contrived and hac$neyed idea! but it does wor$ to use natural frames. If you"re
wor$ing without a tripod! you probably won"t be able to stop down the aperture enough
to get everything into focus. #ut it is o$ay to have a soft frame and a sharp sub&ect.
Private )ourtyards
Pu(lic S*uares
The left-hand image! from 3ome! has a classical composition leading the eye into the
center of the frame. #ut the overview image to its right conveys a truer feeling for the
/panish /teps.
4ichelangelo designed the ampidoglio (left) to be viewed from above. The photo at
right is from #urano.
'ere is a /oviet-built memorial to the /econd 0orld 0ar in #erlin*
Include people in an architecture photo if they give unexpected information about how a
building is being used.
'on+t #orget te Sculpture
S&imming Pools
5ccasionally! a swimming pool is a wor$ of art by itself! as in the image at left ('earst
astle! from the photo.net alifornia guide). #ut most of the time! a pool is best used as
an abstract element in a composition from above! as at right (Israel).
Narro& Streets
The narrow streets of .urope are always interesting to American eyes. 0e"re accustomed
to structures built on an inhuman scale (cf. the 4all in 0ashington! D..). To get a
better-than-average picture of a narrow .uropean street! start by loo$ing for an arch*
#oth of the above images could have been better. In the left-hand image! the sub&ect
(woman on moped) could be more interesting and more engaged either with the camera
or another sub&ect. In the right-hand image! some of the blac$ shadow should be cropped
If you can"t find an arch! try filling the foreground with an interesting sub&ect of some
sort! e.g.! this old itroen*
Another effective techni+ue is to use a long lens to compress the perspective*
6/treets flooded. Please advise.6
-- 3obert #enchley (telegram to his editor upon arrival in 2enice)
The three pictures below show increasingly less literal views of the Golden Gate #ridge in
/an -rancisco. 4y 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 gaw$ing at the bridge"s
construction and an avid cyclist using the bridge.
-or the next bridge! the story behind it is more important than the structure. This is the
Di$e #ridge on happa+uiddic$! a subisland of 4artha"s 2ineyard! 4assachusetts
(almost part of ape od). In 7898! Ted %ennedy drove off the side of this bridge into the
water. 'e abandoned his passenger! 4ary :o %opechne! to her death by drowning.
%ennedy did not report the incident to the police until the following morning and was
found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident. The bridge fell into disrepair and was
subse+uently rebuilt to absurdly heavy duty standards. The photographs below therefore
concentrate on the super-strong guard rails and the heavy metal gate that is used to close
the bridge every night.
The next example is that most tired of photographic sub&ects* the covered bridge. -or
starters! here is the hamber of ommerce view*
5ne approach is to get inside the bridge*
Another is to wait for dar$ness or gloomy weather*
'ere are a couple of early morning #roo$lyn #ridge photographs. This is one of the best
bridges because of the unusual cabling pattern and also the bac$drop of the 4anhattan
/an -rancisco"s #ay #ridge is a poor stepchild to the Golden Gate in terms of
photographic coverage. 'owever! if you get off in the middle of the bridge! at Treasure
Island! and are willing to do a little bit of creative par$ing! you can get a good picture of
the bridge as it is used*
#elow we return at different times of day and from different vantage points to capture the
multiple moods of the Ponte 2ecchio! in -lorence*
The stone bridges of .urope are spectacular*
Bridges, tis time from a Helicopter
A two-seat helicopter can be rented from any flight school for about ;<=>?hour. (/ee my
helicopter training page if you want to add one more challenge to your life! but it is best
not to try to fly the helicopter and ta$e the pictures at the same time.)
'oors and %indo&s
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*
0ith digital cameras! the main problem is noise from the sensor! which is best controlled
by using a tripod and $eeping the I/5 set to @>> or less. In general! physically larger
sensors will produce less noise than smaller sensors! which is why digital /A3s perform
so much better in low light than point and shoot digicams.
4odern B=mm single-lens reflex cameras have such good metering systems that the
suggested exposure for a picture li$e the ones above is almost always within 7 f-stop of
the best exposure. 0ith slide film! it is probably best to ta$e = brac$eted exposures at 7?<
f-stop intervals. 0ith color negative film! ta$e four pictures* one at 7 f-stop less exposure
than recommended! one at the camera"s recommended exposure! one 7 f-stop over! and
one < f-stops over.
The world of industrial architectural is the world of the large but simultaneously
extremely detailed. Cou will want the highest resolution digital camera that you can rent!
with the largest physical sensor (see the digital camera chapter of Making Photographs).
If you"re using a film camera! use a tripod! sharp lenses! and slow fine-grained film! as
with these photos of the Glen anyon Dam on B=mm I/5 B< %oda$ Panatomic-D film*
'ere is an image from 2alle&o! alifornia ta$en with the -u&i 97E panoramic camera*
A good perspective on a ruin is some rubble in the foreground and the standing structure
in the bac$ground*
-or ruins in the American /outhwest! the best images almost always show +uite a bit of
context (these are from Few 4exico)*
Perspective )orrection
The average building is taller than the average photographer. This is the source of 88G of
the distortion in the world"s architectural photos. Distortion isn"t always bad. Fote the
converging vertical lines in the following image! the athedral of /an Giovanni in Aaterno
in 3ome*
This is an extreme example and it comes from coHying up to the facade of the building!
mounting a wide-angle lens (7@mm) to the camera and tilting the camera body bac$ so
that the entire facade fits in the frame. This has the effect of pro&ecting a flat surface (the
front of the building) onto an angled surface (the film). 'ence the distortion. Is it bad1
The photo isn"t very descriptive or accurate. It won"t be bought by any guideboo$
publishers. 'owever! it expresses the idea of the enormous cathedral looming over
man$ind better than a perspective-corrected image.
/uppose we have a humbler building! li$e this wood-framed house in ambridge that
contains a few condominiums*
The above left image was ta$en with a <@mm wide-angle lens held parallel to the ground.
The vertical lines in the sub&ect do not converge. All is well with the photograph except
the composition. The bottom third of the frame contains the snow drift on the city
sidewal$. 0e"re trying to get a picture of the house. In the middle photo! we"ve tilted the
camera bac$. The snow drift is out of the frame but notice that the vertical lines are
converging. The house appears to be falling bac$ward. In the right-most photo above!
we"ve $ept the camera level! with its film plane parallel to the building facade. To change
the composition! we"ve shifted the lens up. This is only possible with a view camera or a
special perspective correction lens on a B=mm camera. In this example! the lens was the
anon <@mm tilt-shift (T/) lens. Perspective correction lenses cast a larger image circle
than necessary to cover the <@xB9mm frame of a B=mm camera. 'owever! it is possible
to exceed the limits of the lens! in which case the corners of the frame will perceptibly
The above left photo! of the same house in ambridge as above! is ta$en 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 anon <@mm T/ lens can be shifted beyond the limits
of its image circle--note the dar$ corners at the top. #elow is an example from /weden*
a 7Emm lens with the camera bac$ tilted up*
a <@mm P lens shifted up*
A cheaper method that yields much higher image +uality! is to use a view camera*
lic$ on the photo above to view a larger version and note the detail in the church. This
photo was ta$en with %oda$ Tri-D film (I/5 @>>) in 78I7. The camera was on a tripod at
about the same height as the very bottom of the church steps. 3aising the lens eliminated
the uninteresting green lawn in front of the church and included the steeple in the
composition. /ee 6hoosing a Aarge -ormat amera6 if you"re interested in &oining the
view camera club. If you hope to do architectural photography commercially! the view
camera is an essential tool. lients will expect you to use one! though of course in the <7st
entury they will expect to see a digital bac$ instead of a film holder.
0hether you use a view camera or a tilt-shift lens on a rigid camera body! you"ll need a
(/ee 6,sing Tilt-/hift Aenses6 for more on the topic of achieving correct perspective with
a Digital /A3 system. Cou can also correct these $inds of distortions on a computer in
#uildings don"t move. .rgo! only a laHy photographer would use a high I/5 setting or a
handheld camera to ta$e a picture of a building. The professional approach is to start
with the camera"s lowest I/5 (e.g.! 7>>) for lowest noise. Generally a large depth of field
is desirable in architectural photography. The viewer should have the choice to loo$ at
any part of the structure and find it in ade+uately sharp focus. Aarge depth of field
implies a small aperture. A small aperture plus slow film implies a long shutter speed! too
long for steady hand holding. onse+uently! 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.
-or capturing the sweep of a courtyard or exaggerating the lines of a modern building!
wide angle lenses are useful. 0ith a full-frame digital /A3! a 79-B=mm professional Hoom
is ade+uate 88G of the time. -or showing a building and its environment in natural
perspective! carry a =>mm lens. -or compressing perspective and isolating inaccessible
details! carry a telephoto lens of at least <>>mm in length.
/ometimes buildings are &ust beautiful...