How to Photograph Architecture such as Steeples, Sugar Shacks, and Skyscrapers
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 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.
The left photo of the oil house at Pemaquid Point makes it look like a beach ball. The sides and top are bowed out instead of being straight. Barrel distortion is caused mostly by wide-angle lenses, so try to back up and use a longer lens. You could also fix the picture with photo editing software like Lightroom, as I did on the right.
Light and shadow:
Harsh shadows are a problem in any image, including architectural photography. Because cameras can’t handle contrast as well as our eyes, a picture will lose detail in either the highlights or the shadows or both. If you’re shooting a cathedral, you don’t want to lose the gargoyles in the shadows!
The picture on the left has a pretty blue sky, but the shadows have swallowed the detail of Rockport’s Motif #1 fishing shack. The middle image was taken on a cloudy day, and has excellent detail on all sides. The third photo is a tonemapped (software-enhanced) version of the first picture. Here are my suggestions for getting good light in your architectural photos:
- Shoot on a cloudy day or a day with hazy sunshine to soften the shadows. This is by far the easiest way to get a good exposure. Or shoot at dusk or dawn for a romantic look with soft shadows.
- Observe your subject at different times of the day and take note of the direction of the light. Choose weather and a time that makes the building look good.
- If you must photograph in sunshine, try to include only the sunlit sides of the building. Or try to include only the shaded sides. The problem happens when you try to combine bright and dark.
- Software such as Lightroom and Photoshop can reduce the contrast in the computer.
- Take three bracketed exposures (one normal, one dark, one light) and combine them with HDR software in the computer. If you have only one exposure, HDR apps may still be able to improve the exposure with tonemapping.
I love trees. Buildings without trees look sterile and lifeless. But in the summer, when the leaves block the line of sight to a building, I wish I could move them around a bit. Another problem is their shadow. It is so much easier to get a good picture of architecture in winter or spring, before the trees leaf out. If you’re shooting in summer, as most of us do, try to pick a cloudy day or a time of day that doesn’t throw shadow on the building.
The first picture shows how trees can obscure the view. The other two show bare branches which allow a clear view of the subject. The white house, actually the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, CT, is my favorite because it was taken in April, when the trees were starting to have red buds and delicate, golden leaves. Early spring color breathes life into a scene.
Traffic lights and phone poles are just a mess. Wires clutter sky and subjects. And signs block the view. Try to find an angle that minimizes these distractions. If I’m working with a partner, I will stand in the middle of the street to avoid wires. Or I’ll try the view from the back of the building. Sometimes I go to the second floor of a building across the street to get above the obstructions. If I can’t eliminate them all, I try to place wires in an empty patch of sky, where I can remove them later.
The Do’s of Architectural Photography
Now that we’ve solved all the problems we might find in architecture, let’s have some fun with architectural photography.