Steps to an Architectural Photograph


Step 1: Walk Around

While there are often great differences between one building and another, their size, their shape, the surrounding landscape, there is a series of steps that ought to be taken in documenting any of them that’s consistent from one to the next.

Before setting up the camera to make the first shot on an assignment to photograph a building it’s absolutely necessary to walk around it, look at it from every conceivable angle with an eye to determining what its most important elements and components are. When shooting a relatively small house, the options may seem limited, however, until you’ve actually walked up and down the street you really won’t know. The house with the high hedge running along the edge of the property may be virtually invisible from the sidewalk, but be quite clearly seen from across the street. If you don’t do the reconnaissance you won’t know.

By the way, generally speaking the taller the structure the wider the effective radius around it that will need to be covered. In the case of mid- and high-rise buildings this will often mean getting in the car to explore possible vantage points. Sometimes the best view is the one from across the freeway on the dead-end street that you didn’t even know existed.

Step 2: Determine Where to Stand

All decisions, what lens to use, height of the camera, aperture and shutter speed, what to include in the frame, etc. radiate from this initial choice. Get it wrong and all the adjusting in the world won’t make it right. The objective is to find those angles that best express what the building is about and how it relates to its surroundings. As has been mentioned here before Garry Winogrand thought what made Eugene Atget such a great photographer was that “He knew where to stand.” Looking at the image to the right of Rue des Ursins located on Ile de la Cite just a couple of blocks from Notre Dame cathedral in Paris it isn’t hard to imagine any number of alternate framings of this general scene. In fact, Atget himself made several variations of the scene over the years but none is quite as effective as this one. (The image seen below was made after the cobblestones had been paved over.) Move forward a foot or two and lose the railing visible in the lower left corner, an element that helps define the camera’s relationship to the street.

At the same time our view of the tower in the center of the frame would become more oblique. Step back and the buildings shrink, altering the delicate balance between them. Shift to the left or the right a little and lose sight of the street snaking its way between the receding buildings.


Step 3: Figure Out What to Include in the Frame

“When we see a part of the moon covered by a cloud, or a tree, or a weed, we feel how round the moon is. But when we see the clear moon without anything covering it, we do not feel that roundness the same way we do when we see it through something else.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

All architecture is about the relationships of its various elements to one another, its larger context, and the ground on which it sits. What you decide to include in the frame has great bearing on the appearance of the subject structure in your photographs.

What at first appear to be obstructions may very well end up being image enhancements. In fact, the trees, people, vehicles or other buildings that intrude on the subject will likely help the viewer understand the subject by so specifically locating it in time and space. How much of this extraneous information to include will usually boil down to one thing: balance.

There are as many ways to strike that balance as there are people with cameras, but not all will get it right. Finding balance will usually require taking the risk of getting it wrong, simply because you can’t know what an arrangement of objects in the frame will look like until you’ve tried it.

The same goes for background elements. Trees, buildings and geological features partially obscured by the subject building all serve to locate it in space and convey three dimensions. Because I can’t always keep all of the vantage points I’ve identified in my head I will at times use drawings, plans and maps to plot out all the angles I want to cover during a shoot. Google Earth has been particularly useful in developing this kind of strategic planning.

Step 4: When to Take the Picture

Study the light from each vantage point and project what will likely be the optimal time of day (and year, for that matter) to express what you want to say about the project. This used to take experience and guesswork alone, however, there are now tools to help make informed decisions. There are websites and smartphone apps that will tell you sunrise and sunset times, the phases of the moon, high tide and low, even determine where the shadows of specific neighboring trees or buildings will fall and when. Not to worry, most of the important decisions are still to be made by the very human photographer. The new tools just make the job a bit easier. Nothing will replace the need to be facing your subject, sometimes for hours in one position, while you wait for the light to change and determine when to open the shutter.

DouglasHill_WingHouse-0449The above photograph, of architect David Hertz’s Wing House in the Santa Monica Mountains, took considerable planning because it was only one of four dusk shots we had to make in a single evening. The trick with a dusk shot is to plant your tripod and frame the image early, then wait until the daylight diminishes to the point of equalizing the artificial light of the subject’s interior. In this instance a pair of 1,000 watt halogen lights were used to illuminate the teardrop ends of the house’s roofs, whach are made from the wings of a Boeing 747. Depending on the time of year and your location’s relationship to the equator there will be a limited window of opportunity to pull this off. Plan ahead, be ready to move quickly and decisively and the results may exceed your expectations.


Step 5: Tonality / Brightness / Contrast

Sure, there’s plenty that can be done in post-production with Photoshop, Lightroom and other applications. What I’m talking about here, though, are the conditions to be considered while actually shooting. An overcast day can have great advantages when photographing architecture. Seemingly by magic, everywhere you point your camera all details are visible, nothing is lost in deep shadow or blinding highlights. At the same time, surfaces can appear dull, bland, with less of a sense of separation between one object and another. The presence of the sun on the scene changes all this. It can at times seem never to be shining from the right direction. But this is rarely true. Architectural photography is one of the more contemplative subsets of the medium, along with landscape and still life. Edward Weston staged his now famous peppers in front of his camera for hours on his porch, lamenting the vibrations of passing trucks that often ruined exposures. Edward Steichen inadvertently recorded movement caused by his roses wilting during daylong exposures. In order to be rewarded, those recording architecture must often display the same kind of patience. Spending hours at a location contemplating minute changes in light before taking a single image is not unheard of. Nor is waiting for the right time of year. These two images were taken for a book that will be released by Rizzoli Publishing in 2015. The image above was made late in the afternoon with the sun setting behind it. The editor thought direct sun would improve the shot, so we returned 6 weeks later to shoot virtually the same angle as the sun came up over the hills in Malibu. The intervening time also gave the architect and landscape designer time to add some plants and reshape the olive tree on the right.

Sunrise and twilight are referred to as “golden hour” or “magic hour” in the movie business. Filtered through far more of Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the day the sun’s rays warm considerably bathing everything in red/yellow light that deepens before it disappears entirely. The process occurs in reverse at sunrise. Along with this shift in tonality, shadows move and lengthen creating shapes that in the two-dimensional environment of photography can be perceived as real, tangible objects. And within moments they’re gone. As for artificial light, incandescent is generally speaking warm in relation to daylight and fluorescent is cool, but each comes in a variety of color temperatures that will have a different effect on one’s subject.


Step 6: What Focal Length Lens Do You Use?

The angle of view of the lens you choose to use, whether it be of fixed focal length, tilt/shift or zoom has a great deal to do with how the building will read in two dimensions. Generally speaking, the wider the lens, the more angular your subject will appear, especially as you get closer to it.

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Most architectural photographers spend a good part of their working lives with their backs against walls or in corners. It feels like there’s never enough room to back up to get everything you want into the frame, or the lens required to capture the entire view will be so wide as to distort objects beyond recognition. Taking a sledge hammer to load-bearing walls to make more room for one’s camera tends to be frowned upon.

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When given what feels like all the room in the world to back up I will usually opt for the longest lens possible. However, this is too easy an answer. Usually there are other factors to take into consideration. With exteriors the relationship of my subject building to others that surround it, trees, cars and other objects will dictate the lens to use. With interiors a good deal of time is spent moving anything that isn’t bolted down around until it looks right to the camera. The tables and chairs in a restaurant that has been set up for a shot will often look ridiculous when seen from any other angle, but the illusion of reality in photographic seeing takes precedence over the actual. The accompanying images were all taken of the Skyline Drive House, designed by Belzberg Architects of Santa Monica for Tatler Magazine, Russia.


Step 7: From What Height?griffith39_rev

The lower the camera, the more monumental one’s subject will generally appear. Architects and designers are acutely aware of the effect their work will have on the average pedestrian from genuinely accessible vantage points.  In an attempt to keep a low profile, both literally and figuratively, Tim Griffith placed his Alpa camera on a short tripod to make the image of the National Swimming Centre in Beijing above.  As a result, the pedestrians achieve greater prominence than they would have in a shot taken from an angle only a few feet higher, and yet the architecture still dominates the frame due to the striking nature of its facade.  becher_artwork_images_139120_185722_bernd-and-hilla-becher

That isn’t to say there aren’t times when a view from considerably higher than the customary four to five or so feet won’t be more desirable.  The German photographers Berndt and Hilla Becher, who specialized in exhaustively cataloging a variety of types of architectural structures, were known to have erected scaffolding up to several stories to reach elevations unavailable from the ground. Their vision dictated what they had to do.

Some photographers such as William Garnett, Emmet Gowin and Michael Light in their search for ways to describe structures and their contexts have shot from aircraft. Their work describes a very different experience.

light_101xlParadoxically, a lower camera angle tends to render an interior or outdoor seating area more intimate. Depending on the size of the space and the scale of its furnishings somewhere between waist level and eye level can be ideal.

Most often somewhere between high enough to see important background elements of a scene over those in the foreground and low enough to keep from looking down on things too much is where the most effective images will be found. How low is too low? If you can see up into the inside of a lampshade or lose sight of the top of a table, counter or desk you’ve probably gone too far.hedrich-blessing_jon_miller

But as with all of these “rules,” it’s suggested you not take them too seriously. They are meant as suggestions only. If you feel moved to take a picture that seems to run counter to what you’ve been told, (by others or the little voices in your head) TAKE IT! You can always edit it out later, although I strongly suggest keeping all of your RAW “failures” stored in a safe place in case you experience a change of heart somewhere down the road.

Step 8: The Equipment Checklist

Beyond the obvious: camera; lenses; tripod, there are conditions that demand special tools, most of which are easy to come by and must never be left at home.  A Swiss Army knife is indispensable, as is a small high-ouput flashlight.  Gaffers tape can be used to bind things together, secure a lamp’s power cord to the underside of a desk or keep a dust ruffle from coming away from a chair leg.  Clothespins are good for keeping gels attached to a light’s barn doors.  Since there never seem to be enough outlets in convenient places, power strips, 100′ extension cords, and portable dimmers are essential.  Figure out what special equipment might be needed based on anticipated shots. If you’ll be shooting from a vantage point higher than eye level, remember to bring a ladder and a tall tripod or a clamp to attach the camera to the ladder.  If shooting in tight places that will require lighting, so be sure to include a C stand or two.  A wheeled cart that can fold flat and stow easily will help avoid wear and tear moving equipment from place to place.


Step 9: Populated or Deserted?08grl_2004r

Some architectural photographs will benefit from the presence of people, for scale and a sense of life, while others are best seen without them.  If you’re not sure which will be better and you have access to people and the additional time required, try both.  Looking at much of the work of Andreas Gursky it’s clear that even tiny human figures or animals, for that matter, will command considerable attention.

Julius Shulman’s 1960 photograph of the Stahl residence, commonly referred to as Case Study House 22, on the right is considered not only one of the most iconic images of Los Angeles, but also of the 20th century Modernist movement in architecture.  As impressive as the appearance that the house is cantilevered out over the city is, the two women in their billowing dresses also play a large part in making the image so memorable.  Remove them from the scene, as in the alternative exposure below, and the image’s impact is quite different.  origin_4157185836The single man in the generic jacket leaning against the door frame, looking off into the cityscape simply doesn’t draw the eye the way the women had.  In addition, the advent of color actually works against the image’s effectiveness by directing more attention to the house’s interior.  The black and white version relies on the lack of color to maintain a delicate balance between the architecture and the environment.


Step 10: Clean It Up!

Few things are as distracting in architectural photographs as trash or misplaced objects.  The brain has an amazing ability to edit such things out of its view as unimportant in real time and space, but the camera records everything.  Taking a few minutes to clean the scene will save hours in Photoshop later on.


Step 11: What is This Photograph About?

The question that must be asked before or after each shot has been made.  Defend your position if necessary, keeping in mind that you won’t always have an adequate answer and that’s all right.  What the question suggests is that there be a clarity of vision.


Step 12: Create a Narrative

The objective of architectural photography is to tell the story of a structure to those who don’t have firsthand access to it. That story cannot often be told in a single image, but is reliant on the presentation of a series of images.  The most effective presentation will usually include wide shots taken from a distance interspersed with close-ups or details taken with longer lenses.