6 Architectural Photography Mistakes to Avoid

6 Architectural Photography Mistakes to Avoid

Three experienced photographers reveal mistakes that’ll brand you an amateur.

Architectural photography is one of those specialties that has always been pretty self-selecting. Before the days of digital, it took an extreme amount of patience and attention to detail to practice the technical precision that was the hallmark of a good photographer of architecture and interiors. If you remember the days of view cameras with droopy bellows, changing sheet film inside light-tight bags in the hotel closet, cooking Polaroids in your armpit for exactly 2min. 40sec., color temperature meters that were more finicky than a French soufflé in a cold kitchen, and calculating four different exposures each with a different combination of lights on and off, then you’ll appreciate my reminiscing. All those specifics served to filter out most photographers who actually liked to have fun on their shoots, and left those of us with a passion for exposure reciprocity failures and the Kelvin temperature scale.

During the last 10-15 years, the evolution of digital has simplified many of these tedious details and made the entire process so much more forgiving. It’s freed up photographers to work faster, deliver more finished images, and add a ton of value to our clients’ shoots. What used to mean a sheet of processed film in the garbage can now be fixed in five seconds with Photoshop’s healing brush or just a simple crop. With a good retoucher or layered exposures, we’re not even at the mercy of the weather any more.

But one thing that digital hasn’t affected is the original, creative part of photography. Photoshop can’t magically turn a boring, uninteresting perspective from a lazy or inexperienced photographer in to a showpiece. As the technical details of architectural and interior photos have gotten easier to manage and solve, the creative part has become even more important. With the ease and access of digital, everyone’s a photographer, right?  True, but not everyone’s a good photographer.

If you’re just starting out photographing buildings and interiors, or someone in your office just handed you a camera and told you to go photograph some projects, and you’re not sure where to start, then take a look at the following list of mistakes to avoid. I put this list together with input also from two other very experienced photographers. John Durant is an architectural photographer in San Diego with more than 25 years’ experience and Alan Blakely is an architectural photographer and author based in Salt Lake City, also photographing across three decades.

Between the three of us, we’ve seen plenty of examples of the following six mistakes:

 

  1. Not Getting the Focus Right

It sounds obvious, but way too many photos aren’t tack sharp – somewhere. Intentionally putting some parts of an image in soft focus through depth of field, with a specialty lens, or other technique, are acceptable and very useful tools – when done intentionally. But here, I’m talking about images that don’t have any area of sharp focus, or the wrong areas are in and out of focus.

Before pushing the button, consider where the focus should lie. Depending on your camera and its focus settings, focus is controlled in different ways. At the very least, know where the focus point in the viewfinder is, make sure you know how to control or change it, and make sure that you intentionally choose some area of the image to be in focus. If you can, rack the focus back and forth while looking through the viewfinder to see how the appearance of the image changes.

Read more on controlling depth of field and selective focus in an upcoming post on improving your architectural and interior photos. Until then, make sure that SOME part of your image is tack sharp.

 

  1. Showing Too Much Skin – Your Own!

When you’re concentrating on the three dimensions of a room or building through your camera, it can be easy to miss a small reflection of yourself in a window, mirror, or shiny piece of furniture. Nothing ruins the experience for a viewer quite like obsessing over the tiny reflection of the photographer showing up in the table lamp or bathroom faucet – especially if you’re wearing red paisleys.

Before pushing the button, take a look around the room. Pay special attention to reflective surfaces. Wave one or both arms up and down and look for moving reflections in glass, stainless steel, water, and other shiny surfaces. If you can see yourself, you can bet money that other viewers will too.

Seattle-interior-photographer-Andrew-BuchananSLP

Whoops, I see you!

 

  1. Bizarre Colors

Just as light has different brightness, light also has different colors. Not only are the colors of light from bulbs, tubes, screens, and LED’s different from natural daylight, they’re all different from each other. To make matters more complicated, our eye/brain combo is so sophisticated that much of the time we’re not even aware of the changing light color as we move outside, inside, or from room to room. But cameras aren’t that smart.

Ever seen interior photos that look really orangey-yellow? Standard tungsten light bulbs give off a very warm glow that shows up in the image. Ever noticed a green cast in a room shot? That’s most likely from fluorescent bulbs in ceiling fixtures, table lamps, or under-counter lighting. And the list goes on.

To address this, almost all digital cameras have a white balance setting, often abbreviated “WB”. When you change that setting, you’re telling the camera what kind, and therefore what color, of light you’re photographing in. In other words, what light color you want to balance “white” to. There’s also often a setting for “Auto WB” whereby the camera picks the setting for you – sometimes with limited success.

Choose the setting that gets the most of your image as close to neutral as possible. Don’t be afraid to change it for every room you’re in, and don’t forget to set it back to “daylight” when you go outside. Experienced architectural photographers understand light color and have multiple tools to balance colors in an image, so a photo with garish color casts screams “amateur” right away.

Seattle-interior-photographer-Andrew-BuchananSLP

All the incandescent bulbs and very little daylight combine to make these white cabinets look ugly yellow-orange. Re-setting the White Balance for “Incandescent” or “tungsten” tells the camera what color light you’re photographing in.

 

  1. Not Grooming the Set – thanks for the idea to John Durant, architectural photographer in San Diego

It’s amazing how we manage to ignore the detritus of everyday life. We walk in to someone’s brand new kitchen remodel and can look right past the mail on the counter, the tipped over cookbooks, the crooked dish towel on the oven door handle. But do you ever see cluttered, messy rooms in magazine photos? No, because that’s not what people want to look at. They can look at their own kitchens to see messy!

Before you photograph, stand back and look at the scene and really try to see it. Take ten minutes to straighten, tidy, and groom the set and your photos will look more professional for the very small effort. And here’s a tip, take a photo before you move anything so you know where to put everything back!

Seattle-interior-photographer-Andrew-BuchananSLP

Hide the cords, straighten the books, align the chairs, remove extra counter items — five minutes to a cleaner, less busy photo!

 

  1. Poor Use of Direct, On-Camera Flash — thanks for the idea to Alan Blakely, architectural photographer in Salt Lake City

If we all lived underground and walked around with miners’ headlamps strapped to our foreheads, then harsh, front-lit scenes with strong, ghosting shadows and flat, two-dimensional light would look perfectly natural. But we don’t.

Using an on-camera flash as the main source of light to photograph an interior is a bad idea on a whole lot of levels. First, most of those flashes aren’t nearly powerful enough to light the whole room and so the camera settings that are activated when you turn on the flash will leave the edges and background of the image as a dark hole. Second, putting the main source of light in line with the camera only lights up the surfaces that are facing the camera. This “front lighting” makes objects, and spaces, appear very flat and two-dimensional – never a good thing when photographing architecture or interiors. Third, front lighting creates bad reflection problems. Fourth, the color of the light from on-camera flash is often not very complimentary. And so on, and so on . . .

If your camera is automatically turning on its flash, it’s because the scene is too dark to photograph while hand-holding your camera, without risking blurring from camera motion. As with focus, look for tips on controlling exposure in an upcoming post. Until then, learn how to force your camera’s flash to turn off and then rest your camera on something sturdy, like a tripod or a kitchen counter. Then use the self-timer function to take the photo to avoid hand-holding your camera in dark rooms and ending up with blurry photos – another sure sign of a novice.

 

  1. Overuse of Software – HDR / Instagram Filters / Photoshop — thanks for the idea to both Alan Blakely and John Durant

As software has gotten more powerful and also more accessible, many photographers have begun relying on it too heavily as a shortcut — to the exclusion of more hands-on techniques that require a little extra practice and planning.

Like any other tool, HDR (high dynamic range) software can be very useful when balancing interior and exterior exposure, and to help save details in both the highlights and the shadows of a photo. Done badly, HDR images look flat, unnatural, and strangely “illustrated”.  If you’ve never worked without HDR software, you’re unlikely to recognize when an HDR image goes too far. Again, it can be a useful tool, but pay close attention to what you’re trying to achieve with the image and don’t be excessive.

Similar cautions apply to other creative filters that are found on many apps, Instagram, and built in to Photoshop. Treat them as tools for a specific purpose, not as a visual bull in the china shop of photography.  Remember, good architectural photographers let their images – not their software – speak for themselves.

 

Whether you’re just starting out, or just trying to make do without hiring a photographer with a little more experience, keeping these six tips in mind will at least help you to know what you didn’t know!

 

Subscribe to the blog in the lower right for future updates coming this spring:

  • How to Improve Your Architecture Photos using a Point-and-Shoot or Cellphone Camera
  • How to Improve Your Interior Photos with a Point-and-Shoot or Cellphone Camera
  • How to Use Your dSLR Camera for Better Architectural Photography and Interior Photos

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