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12 Steps to Success As An Architecture Photographer
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12 Steps to Success As An Architecture Photographer

Make beautiful spaces and buildings look amazing

Here are a dozen things you should keep in mind if you want to make a living as a full- or part-time architectural photographer.


Photographs of architecture, especially those that show an impressive, cutting edge interior design or stunning facade, are in high demand.  Want to break into the field? It'll take a commitment to quality, a significant investment in the right equipment, a portfolio, and references. But first, becoming an architecture photographer—even as a part-time job or hobby—requires a learning curve.

Additional resources: Visit the national Association of Independent Architectural Photographers http://www.aiap.net, the trade association of full-time architecture photographers, for more resources and to join.

Here are 12 tips to help you shoot better architectural photos:

1. Walk Around The Place: One of the advantages of architecture photography is that your subject isn't going anywhere. Take your time. Look up (ceilings may be interesting) and down (especially around spiral staircases). Snoop around. Walk around, look for interesting angles, convergences of lines, perspectives. The most obvious point of view may not be the most interesting, and the best image may be a matter of shifting your camera a few inches up, down or sideways, or shooting in a different direction altogether.

Look for line and pattern: Spiral staircases are great subjects for architecture photographers. Photo Photo ©tkalcan/istockphoto.com


2. Use a Tripod. Even though it is true that your subject isn't moving, that can't necessarily be said for you, or your camera. You will find that you'll need to use a small aperture to maximize depth of field, which will necessitate a slow shutter speed that precludes hand-holding. Always bring a tripod! In fact, to really avoid any chance of camera shake, lock the mirror up if you're using a DSLR, and use a remote control to trigger the shutter. This will eliminate all camera motion, even when shooting longer exposures. (If you need a new tripod, Adorama has plenty of 'em.)

 

People Power: With the camera kept steady via a tripod, the photographer captured a long exposure showing the moving person to give the photo both a sense of scale and a dynamic element. Photo ©Alex Nikada/istockphoto.com

 

3. Add a Human Element. Some buildings are designed in a way that requires a sense of relative scale. In most cases, adding a person will do the trick. Be sure your human is dressed appropriately to fit the mood of the space. If it's an office building, he or she should wear business attire, and so on. But the main goal here is to give the viewer a visual clue as to the relative size of the space being photographed.


4. Wait For The Right Light. While this is especially true when shooting exteriors, light streaming in through windows will also affect the mood and quality of an image (and may also dictate whether you need to add your own light). You may want to visit a location multiple times to determine which time of day is best. Direct sunlight Early or late in the day can accentuate patterns and textures, adding depth to your composition. In addition, sunrise and sunset light is warmer and could be more flattering. Dusk is a time when the sky turns deep blue (or orange) and the exterior lights go on, transforming and emphasizing shapes and color in a totally different way.

 

Dusky transformation: As the sky darkents, lights go on and show off the unique interplay of line and form. Photo ©ep_stock/iStockphoto.com


5. Watch Your White Balance. When shooting at night or indoors, be aware that the color temperature of the artificial light can change the perceived color of the architecture. This may not necessarily be a bad thing but it is something to be aware of. Rather than using auto white balance, shoot RAW and use a color calibration kit such as the Datacolor Spyder 4 to get the most accurate color from image capture through monitor display. Alternatively, consider using an X-Rite Color Checker Passport system as a reference to help you adjust color in post-production.

 

Mixed-light, brilliant result. Since the interior light was key to this image the photographer color balanced the scene for tungsten, and let the daylight coming through the window to go to an extreme blue. It may have been a visual compromise, but it looks cool! Photo ©Benjamin Loo/iStockphoto.com


6. Look For Converging Lines. If you have to tilt the camera up to get all of a building, you are going to come across the classic architecture photography bugaboo: Keystoning. Parallel lines start to converge, and the building that you are photographing appears to be falling backwards. One way to correct this is to find a higher point of view and shoot the building straight on, but this is frequently physically impossible. Another way is to use a tilt-shift lens such as a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L, or Nikon 45mm f/2.8 Perspective Control lens, which can be adjusted, view-camera style-to eliminate keystoning. If you are a casual architecture photographer (in other words, you don't make a living at it, and don't plan to) a T/S lens may be too big an investment. Consider, instead, fixing the shot in Photoshop. Follow Diane Miller's step-by-step directions here (she's using an older version of Photoshop, but the principles still apply to current editions).

7. Embrace Distortion: Sometimes, those same converging lines can be kinda cool. Use them to full advantage as a design element. A wide angle lens (the wider the better) can exaggerate the "building falling backwards" look. Get up really close and shoot up, or down as the case may be.

8. Be Aware Of (But Not Intimidated By) The Weather. When shooting outside, of course the direction of the sunlight is essential but what if it's cloudy? This will soften the lines and shadows in a scene. If it's rainy, you might find interesting reflections in puddles that you can include in your exterior shots. When shooting inside, keep in mind that interesting exterior light will spill into your scene, and to work with it. If shooting on a bright, sunny day, the light may be more difficult to work with and you'll need to supplement with inside strobe.

9. Look For Reflections (And Don't Get Caught In One). Mirrors and windows reflect light and photographers! If you're shooting a room with either one, be sure that you aren't in the shot. Chimp, and enlarge to make sure. If you are bringing in your own light, test and make sure the light source doesn't inadvertently bounce off a window or mirror into your camera. To control reflections, have a polarizing filter  handy.

 

The photographer carefully positioned himself to avoid reflections from both the big mirror over the counter and the little one off to the side. When there are mirrors and windows in a setting that you're photographing, make sure you aren't in them! Photo ©johnason/istockphoto.com


10. Look For Details: Pay attention to how lines interact with light and each other. Look at the material used in the walls, and how the angle of the light emphasizes their texture. If there is hard light in the scene, pay attention to where shadows fall. Shadow play can add elements of interest to an image--or can be a distraction.

11. Use The Best Image Quality Settings: When shooting any kind of architecture, assume someone may want a nice, big print. Shoot at your camera's native resolution setting (usually its ISO 100) to get the best overall image quality. From noise to color depth and dynamic range, all digital cameras perform their best at their native ISO.  This will show the best possible details that will emerge when you blow the image up large. Even if you're shooting a space on a self-assignment, you never know if an architect may want a copy if the shot's really good.

Sure you can fix a slightly skewed shot in Photoshop, but why add the extra step? Place an inexpensive bubble level atop your camera for straight shots. Photo ©bluehill75/istockphoto.com

12. Keep A Level Head: One thing that will kill an architectural photo is a tilted horizon, or any line that should be horizontal or vertical but is oh so slightly diagonal. Some digital cameras have electric levels. For the rest of us, there's this, available at Adorama.

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