You're at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, armed to the teeth with the latest and greatest in photography equipment. This might be your first attempt to make a magnificent picture of this iconic landmark, but you are only one of millions who've already tried. How, you wonder, can you possibly capture an uncommon image of this common subject?
Architectural photography might seem like an easy genre. After all, buildings, bridges and other big construction projects aren't going anywhere fast. Stationary objects are the easiest subjects for photography, right?
Actually, there are all sorts of variables and conditions that affect architectural photography. If you're not prepared to deal with those dynamics, it will be frustrating for you to apply your creativity and technical know-how toward an unforgettable picture of your subject, even one that's automatically awe-inspiring like the Eiffel Tower.
You don't need a fancy camera or big studio lights to create great architectural images. You do, however, need a keen eye and an imaginative flair. As you approach your subject, pretend you're a visual storyteller. What's the story that you want to share about a structure? Are you going for an epic, wide-angle shot that captures the tower in all its glory at sunrise? Or will you pick out certain symmetrical details and lines that show what it's made of?
However you choose to proceed, a few tips and tricks will help you find an approach that results in amazing images. We'll show you how to build nuanced, powerful pictures of humankind's greatest construction achievements.
Pick Your Perspective
Your perspective and location (and thus, that of your camera) can completely alter the way you compose your shot. Do you want to capture a skyscraper emerging from a cluster of smaller buildings? Or do you want to stand at the base of that building, look straight up and show how it soars into the wild blue sky? For the former shot, you'll be far away; for the latter, you'll be very close. And to make either of these images, you'll need the right equipment.
If you have an SLR (single-lens reflex) camera that lets you use different lenses, choose wisely. A wide-angle lens allows you to take in much more of the scene but it also tends to distort (or curve) lines, especially at the edges of the frame. A telephoto or zoom lens will help you magnify a subject that's far away, but its restricted field of view (the amount of a scene that it sees) is smaller than that of a wide angle lens.
Many architectural shooters buy specialty tilt-shift or perspective control lenses, which allow for wide-angle shots with almost no distortion. They're also quite expensive. Alternately, and more affordably, you might shoot a structure with a wide-angle lens and then correct distortion later in a program such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. With just a few clicks, your warped lines look much straighter and truer to life.
Eye the Skies
Photography is all about quality of light, and weather conditions dramatically change the appearance of all buildings, both indoors and out. So before you ever begin shooting, consider the clouds.
If you're trotting across the globe for your shoot, you'll want to begin by checking average weather conditions for your destination. Hitting New Orleans in August? Prepare for monsoon season, with heavy, intermittent rain followed by blue skies full of enormous, puffy clouds. Winnipeg in December? Be ready for snow.
Varying degrees of cloud cover, precipitation and sun change architecture's appearance in profound ways. Hard sunlight can create strong contrast, bringing out lines and patterns. An overcast day, though, diffuses light, softens edges and reveals colors and tones that strong light might overpower. And rain can add a glossy sheen to all sorts of construction materials.
Outdoor light matters for indoor photography, too. On a sunny day, you might see lovely streaks of light strewn throughout a building that on cloudier afternoons seems dank and unwelcoming. Or, you might find yourself wishing for a few clouds so that you can capture more even, smooth lighting inside a quiet chapel.
Remember that light is a changeable thing. It can be boring or magical depending on the minute, and the only way to find the best light for a subject is to experiment repeatedly.
Frankly, My Gear
When it comes to architectural photography, gear does matter. You don't need the latest and greatest, though. You need basic equipment that will push a good image into the realm of perfection.
It starts with a solid tripod. Yes, tripods are often clunky, awkward and generally a pain in the neck to tote around town. But any frustration spurred by their unwieldy nature is always offset by their tremendous usefulness, especially with regards to architectural photography.
Here's why. When you're shooting buildings, you'll often set your camera to a smaller aperture, or f-stop, because doing so keeps more of your subject sharp. If you aren't familiar with terms like depth of field, read How to Know What F-Stop to Use. The trade-off with using a smaller f-stop is that you must set your camera for slower shutter speeds so enough light reaches the sensor or film. Nudge the camera even a tiny bit and the image will blur.
You might think that a tripod is necessary only for dim, indoor shooting. Don't get cocky. Even when you're outdoors in bright light, a tripod is a really good idea. Picking the right tripod is important, too. Forget ball-head tripods. For serious shooting, you need a geared tripod that allows for minute, precise adjustments. You'll need one with a bubble-level, too. And to make sure your clunky fingers don't bump the shutter button, you should invest in a cable release for hands-free shooting.
The result? A perfectly stable platform for making the crispest possible pictures.
More Light Matters
It's worth revisiting the subject of light because for massive structures, you usually have very little control over illumination. That means you have to put some serious thought into the time and place you choose to shoot.
Here's one quick example. At sunset, the east side of a building will be sheathed in shadows, while the west side may be exceedingly bright. In the meantime, the north and south sides might show a combination of golden sunlight mixed with deep, dark blacks that really bring out the character of a façade.
Another consideration-- if this is a gargantuan building, it's going to take you a while to move to a new spot if you decide your original choice is less than ideal. That's especially true if you're hoofing it with a big tripod on crowded city streets.
Time of day is always very important. Shoot a tall building in the middle of a sunny day and you'll likely have blown-out (or overexposed) areas in the sky. Wait until just after sunset, though, for the so-called "blue hour" and your sky will be darker and bluer for more dramatic and appealing results.
And don't forget about night shots. With your sturdy tripod, you can take artful pictures in the dark, which may accentuate a building's lights, outlines or other details that aren't apparent during the day.
Finding the best light and tweaking your equipment is important -- but what's happening in your brain ultimately makes or breaks your pictures, as you'll discover on the next page.
What's the Story?
All fantastic photography tells a story through imagery, and that applies to architectural photography, too. In order for you, dear visual author, to really share that tale, you need to think about what makes that structure unique.
You might start by doing some research. All major construction projects have a back story, and all of them feature design elements and materials intended to suit a specific purpose. You can often find much of this information with a quick Web search.
With those kinds of details fresh in your mind, you'll likely notice all sorts of new things about a building and then totally revamp your approach. Sure, many people have taken the same wide-angle shots of the adobe church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. But how many photographers have really thought about the clay that makes up adobe and then taken close-up shots of that fascinating texture?
Figure out what makes a structure special. Ponder how that story makes you feel. And then experiment with ways to express those feelings and thoughts in the pictures you make. The more you think about your subject, and the more time you're willing to invest in creating a one-of-a-kind, memorable picture, the more likely it is that you'll find your way.
Don't wait. The best way to learn architectural photography (or any kind) is to jump right in and make as many mistakes as possible. Those little failures will teach you the lessons you need to succeed in ways that you can't even begin to imagine.
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I visited the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York for the first time just before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Standing at the bottom of the towers and peering straight up at their seemingly endless climb had a distinctly nauseating effect -- so I laid on a bench to steady myself and peered up for a few minutes to absorb their majesty.
You can't help but want to try to capture a scene like that with a camera. But architectural photography is deceptively hard. Just as with a portrait or an action shot, you're looking to visualize not just what you see with your eyes but also what you feel in your heart and soul.
Maybe that's just a lot of artistic puffery and noodle-brained nonsense, but I don't think so. Just as our biggest, most elaborate and most gorgeous constructions awe and inspire us, so, too, can the pictures we make of them.
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