Architectural photography has a unique ability to cross time and space and give people the chance to experience buildings they may never encounter in real life.
In its commercial application, an architectural photograph is critical to capturing the scale and beauty of building projects that require immense investment, dedication, and effort to complete.
To capture memorable architectural images requires a solid understanding of the topic. Having an idea of which elements make a building great, and how best to capture them on film.
In this article, we look at 20 tips and tricks you can use to take your architectural photography skills to the next level.
1. Study the building
It is essential to spend time learning about a building and its back-story before heading out to your architectural photoshoot.
Find out which design elements make this building unique and do research to find out what the architects who designed the building consider its greatest strengths to be.
Research the history of older buildings. This can give you access to perspectives, design features, and hidden nooks and crannies that you’d have otherwise missed.
Knowing the story behind a building will also help you understand which elements of the building and its surroundings to focus on to bring the building’s true personality to life.
For example, shooting a reportedly haunted castle in Scotland in bright sunshine would not communicate nearly as much as capturing the same building on a brooding winter evening.
2. Study the laws around photographing buildings
Unless you’ve been commissioned to photograph the exterior and/or interior of a specific building, you may run into conflict with laws or rules prohibiting the photography of that building.
While many countries allow you to take photos of buildings or monuments in public spaces, some countries are less relaxed than others and may even prohibit sharing these images once you have captured them.
So, rather than having to deal with a confrontation or having your shoot shut down, do some homework about any laws that apply to building photography in the area you are targeting.
It also doesn’t hurt to get permission to photograph a building if you are in doubt whether it is permitted, as this can save you from trouble down the line.
3. Understand how copyright applies to building photographs
It is very important to understand how copyright applies to photographs of buildings before planning a building shoot.
Just as you can be restricted from taking photographs of celebrities and then using them for commercial purposes, the same applies to buildings.
If the building was built before 1990 and is in a public space you won’t have any problem, which means most historically famous buildings and monuments are on-side.
However, if the building was built after 1990, is private, and is easily recognizable then you could find yourself on the wrong side of privacy laws, as well as copyright claims, for any commercial use of images of the building.
In such cases, the owners of the building you are photographing will need to sign a release form – much like a model release form – that formally authorizes you to photograph the building and use these photographs for commercial applications.
Even if you are not taking images of private buildings for commercial purposes you may still trigger privacy concerns. Trespassing on private property to capture images of a building is also illegal.
4. Explore a variety of moods
When you’re taking any outdoor photograph, natural lighting and conditions are going to provide the color palette you must work within composing your image.
While it might be tempting to try to wrap up a shoot in one go and target specific light conditions like the golden hour or the bright midday sun, this will only capture one mood of your subject.
Instead, take your time and aim at photographing a building at different times of day, and in different weather conditions.
This can bring out different elements of a building’s personality and help to contextualize its relationship with different aspects of its environment.
5. Get a tilt-shift lens
While the wide-angle lens will be your go-to lens when capturing large structures, a tilt-shift lens is something you’ll want to have in your architectural photography toolbox.
These lenses shift the plane of focus for your camera away from the perpendicular lens axis by allowing you to adjust lens angles without having to adjust the camera position.
This results in a depth of field that increases in width the further you are from the building you’re shooting.
A tilt angle lens can help architectural photographers avoid convergence of vertical lines when shooting tall buildings, and can also create some nifty effects, like miniaturization of buildings taken from a distance.
6. Use a polarizing filter
You have almost no control over your environment when taking external architectural photographs, besides shooting at a specific time of day and avoiding certain weather conditions.
That means your images will be highly vulnerable to saturation from ambient light, like reflections. And unlike a studio scenario, you can’t simply move reflectors around to control lighting.
That’s where using a polarizing filter is essential.
This affordable accessory is ideal for controlling reflected light, particularly light reflected off windows and metallic surfaces on the building you are photographing.
Polarizing lenses can also help reduce glare when shooting in very bright natural light and have the added perk of making blue skies around your image look more striking.
7. Get a neutral density filter
Whereas a polarizing filter selectively filters out light waves of specific polarization, a Neutral Density (ND) filter works best for reducing all light and giving you more control over depth of field and shutter speed.
This gives you a massive degree of control over image exposure while also allowing you to capture deeper, truer colors in your shot.
8. Both the trees and the forest are important
Great architectural photography doesn’t sacrifice detail at the expense of capturing the overall concept of a building. Nor does it sacrifice perspective in favor of finer details.
When shooting a building cover both angles. Find great perspectives to capture the building as a whole, and to communicate its personality in the context in which it finds itself.
Interior and close-up shots can then be used to communicate the intricacy and attention to detail that makes an architectural design truly great.
9. Humanize your images
When focusing on a building in a photography shoot, it can be easy to forget that these buildings exist to serve various human needs.
If you leave humans out of your shoot entirely, you can find that your shoot lacks warmth and context, and instead comes across as coldly functional.
Buildings always intersect with life and activity and including images of people using a building not only humanizes it but brings life, warmth, and dynamism to your images.
10. Use a tripod
If you don’t own a tripod for your camera, it’s time to buy one.
Not only will a tripod ensure image stability, but it will help your camera to stay parallel to the building when taking front-on shots, which is critical for capturing symmetrical images.
A tripod also goes hand in hand with a tilt-shift lens, as you’ll struggle to adjust your tilt-shift lens and hold your camera at the same time.
Finally, a tripod allows you to take images using the lower shutter speeds. Architectural photography is ideally suited to this approach, and it allows you to capture more light and detail in your images.
11. And don’t forget a spirit level
Straight lines are critical to architectural photography, which means establishing a perfectly horizontal plane is essential when using your tripod.
Unless you want to spend hours in post-production trying to find the correct horizontal level in your images, invest in a spirit level to use with your tripod.
This will allow you to balance your camera and tripod on a horizontal plane and capture perfectly following lines and symmetry.
12. Use shadows to create depth
Transferring a three-dimensional object onto a two-dimensional plane inevitably results in the loss of depth, whether you’re taking a portrait of a human or a building.
One of the simplest ways to work around this is to make use of shadows when taking architectural images.
Shadows will by default pull building features out of the two-dimensional plane and communicate depth and shape that may otherwise not be apparent in a photograph of a building.
13. Explore with drones
Drones don’t come cheap, but they facilitate perspectives and shots that architectural photographers from bygone eras could only dream of.
The most obvious application of drones is that they allow you to capture buildings from various perspectives and from height, including bird’s eye views of buildings.
This can be particularly effective when taking shots of very tall buildings, where scale and height are more effectively communicated from a high elevation than from ground level.
Drones will also allow you to capture design details at higher elevations front on, instead of having to rely on taking zoomed-in images from a tilted camera or lens at a lower elevation.
Learning to use drones comes with a learning curve of its own, so consider teaming up with a drone photography specialist to capture great drone images when starting out.
14. Provide a sense of scale
While you’re on a photography shoot it can be easy to forget that the context you’re shooting in gives you cues to building scale that are easily lost in a photograph.
It’s therefore helpful to use familiar objects to provide a sense of scale for a building for viewers of your photos – think of a 4×4 car parked next to a tiny house.
The same holds true of interiors, where using humans is a great way to not only humanize the image but give a sense of its scale relative to its human inhabitants, like a snap of a child in a planetarium.
15. Be flexible with equipment
Don’t put your passion for architectural photography on the backburner while you save up to buy the perfect camera and all the lenses you need to take professional shots.
When you’re starting a multi-camera smartphone that can take wide-angle shots will offer many of the tools you need to capture high-quality images, including in-shot stitching of panoramic images.
If you invest in a proper camera you don’t need to break the bank either. Get a base camera that offers what you need to get the job done.
Lenses are as — or perhaps more — important than the camera you have, and when you’re starting out these can be rented from photography outlets at affordable prices.
16. Experiment with long exposure
A long exposure shot will bring out a side of the building you’d never see if you stuck to short exposure shots.
They are a great way of highlighting the durability and permanence of a building in the face of the changing conditions that surround it.
That’s because moving objects like cars and people will show up as a blur on these images, while natural phenomena like rivers, clouds, or the ocean will become softened and more ethereal.
17. Perfect your image during editing
Post-shoot processing is what allows you to get the best out of your architectural photography images and polish any rough edges in your shots.
Software programs like Adobe Lightroom are purpose-built to help you make your colors deeper and more saturated, bring definition to your images and remove lens distortion.
Other programs to consider are Perfect Photo Suite, which includes a variety of enhancement and effects modules, as well as Apple Aperture and DxO.
If you’re using a smartphone to capture your architectural photographs, you’ll find many have native image editing applications that can do much of what professional applications are capable of, while also making it easy to use pre-set filters to enhance your images quickly and easily.
18. Use High Dynamic Range stacking
It sometimes just isn’t possible to capture the depth and dynamism of a building’s interior or exterior using just a single image.
In these cases, high dynamic range (HDR) image fusion allows you to take photographs at different levels of exposure and then merge them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
This is easier to do than it sounds.
To use HDR, simply take three, five, or seven images of a building at different levels of exposure, then use an image editing program like Photoshop to stack the images into layers.
You will find that overexposed images reveal details otherwise hidden by shadows, while underexposed images can be used to provide contrast and highlights.
This approach works really well when it comes to handling a challenge like revealing the detail of a building that has been photographed against a bright sky.
19. Think outside the box
Before putting together an architectural photography portfolio, ask yourself if the world needs another picture of the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building.
The most memorable architectural photographs are not necessarily the ones that try to leverage the fame of the building being photographed.
Instead, it is the ability to find beauty, character, or unexpected detail in the ordinary that can make an architectural photograph stand out.
This will also showcase your ability to approach architectural photography creatively and capture the unique and compelling aspects of any building you are commissioned to photograph.
20. Get paid for your passion
If you’re creating memorable architectural images and want to turn this into an income stream, then you’re going to need clients.
Cherrydeck is an online platform for commercial photographers that allows them to showcase their work to an engaged audience of potential clients.
Signing up for a Cherrydeck account and setting up your photography profile is quick, free, and easy.
Once you’re signed up your profile will be visible to potential clients searching the website, and you may be contacted to quote on architectural photography briefs.
Once you have signed up with Cherrydeck you’ll also have access to:
- New commissions and collaborations made available on our platform.
- Tools to boost your Instagram reach and following.
- Discounts on software for creative professionals via our Partner Deals program.
- The ability to present your work to our large creative community.
Visit Cherrydeck to set up your online portfolio now.
These were our 20 architectural photography tips and tricks to master. Let’s review them:
- Study the building
- Study the laws around photographing buildings
- Understand how copyright applies to building photographs
- Explore a variety of moods
- Get a tilt-shift lens
- Use a polarizing filter
- Get a neutral density filter
- Both the trees and the forest are important
- Humanize your images
- Use a tripod
- And don’t forget a spirit level
- Use shadows to create depth
- Explore with drones
- Provide a sense of scale
- Be flexible with equipment
- Experiment with long exposure
- Perfect your image during editing
- Use High Dynamic Range stacking
- Think outside the box
- Get paid for your passion