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How to Photograph Architecture | Steeples, Sugar Shacks, and Skyscrapers

How to Photograph Architecture | Steeples, Sugar Shacks, and Skyscrapers
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I love winter. I follow the storms, arriving in recently-snowed-upon towns before they’re properly plowed, shooting winter villages through a lace of fresh fluff on branches, picturing woodlands and villages with a thick frosting of ice. Other photographers are showing us the first sprouts of spring, but my bags are still packed for the next snowstorm.

Nevertheless, it is March, and at some point even I will make the transition to reality. Suddenly I’ll become aware of the drabness of my surroundings. The magical North-country winter will lose its allure. But I will still need my fix of beauty, and New England spring is a long time coming.

But the bare season is just right for shooting my favorite buildings. I noticed long ago that architectural photographers often take pictures before the trees leaf out, to get a clear view and show their subject’s best features. So, sometime this month, I’ll start taking my trusty camera into the city and playing with shiny glass facades in the financial district and stately historic structures along the Freedom Trail. My fascination for architecture doesn’t stop here. I love lighthouses, country churches, historical museums and general stores. After all — buildings aren’t just things we see. They’re our homes, our sanctuaries, and our front to the world. They can be strictly utilitarian or they can express our aspirations. Just as the design of Lincoln Memorial stirs feelings of awe, the sight of a log cabin in the woods makes us feel at home.

Let’s stipulate that we aren’t going anywhere with exotic architecture this week. There are plenty of reasons to photograph buildings in your own town. You may want to make a beautiful portrait of your home as a memento, or photograph a neighbor’s house as a gift. A framed print of a nearby church could bring them income at a raffle. A picture of a quaint local drugstore could be one of your best-selling images. You could be doing real estate photography. Or you could make pictures of an area to document it or to keep a record of your travels.

My library contains several books on architectural photography, and they’re all pretty scary — technical diagrams of lenses, mathematical explanations of lighting fall-off, special effects, and more rules than I can count. The horizon MUST be horizontal and all vertical lines in a building MUST be truly vertical. People can be included only as design elements, but a cat curled up on a bed is much better. I don’t always follow the rules, and sometimes I take casual snapshots of buildings, but I do like to know how to do something right before deciding to add my own style to it.

My goal in taking a picture of architecture is to show the building’s features as they are, without introducing any weird effects created by my camera. I want to include any features that add to your experience of the building without including any distractions. That being said, sometimes it’s more creative and interesting to choose an eccentric angle to show the building’s use or its artistic design.

There are lots of Do’s and Don’ts in architectural photography. I’ll tackle the negative stuff first.

The Don’ts of Architectural Photography

Here’s my list of problems and suggestions on how to overcome them.

Crooked axes:
Remember the rules? The horizontal and vertical axis of your photo should be straight. If they aren’t, none of the other lines in your photo will be straight. As long as your vertical axis (center line) is truly vertical, you can fix many other problems in the computer.

Perspective Distortion:

Perspective distortion, created by cameras and lenses, makes buildings seem to lean inward. Most of the photos we see have this problem. In fact, we’re so accustomed to seeing it that we think it’s normal. But your eyes don’t see buildings leaning toward the center; it’s your camera. Perspective distortion comes from pointing the camera upward. You need to keep the back of the camera parallel to the surface you’re photographing.

Here I climbed up on a big snow bank and included more of the foreground to make the back of the camera vertical. Note that this angle also improved the exposure (lightnes/darkness) by excluding some of the bright sky. It would be great to have an attractive foreground, but I can crop out the road and have a good image. I know of several ways to fix perspective distortion:

  • Buy a DSLR and an expensive tilt-shift lens. Better yet, buy a very expensive large-format camera with tilts and shifts built into the camera, like the professional architectural photographers. Ouch, my aching wallet!
  • Shoot it as well as you can and fix it with photo editing software like Lightroom, Photoshop, or Gimp (it’s free).
  • Don’t use a wide-angle lens if possible. Instead, step back as far as you can and zoom in. This will eliminate much of the distortion introduced by wide lenses.
  • Find a higher position. Stand on a snow bank or the second floor of a nearby building or parking garage to reduce the tilt of your camera.

Barrel Distortion:

Barrel distortion makes the vertical and horizontal lines in a subject look curved. It’s less noticeable than perspective distortion, but shows up when I photograph doors and windows, whose frames should be perfectly straight. This is an extreme example.

Updated Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

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One Response to How to Photograph Architecture | Steeples, Sugar Shacks, and Skyscrapers

  1. florence DelNegro June 9, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    excellent instructions.. learned from it ! now I have to remember to do it ! :)

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