6 Reasons to Upgrade Your Camera for Better Architectural Photos – pt. 1

6 Reasons to Upgrade Your Camera for Better Architectural Photos – pt. 1

Six reasons to trade in your point and shoot or cellphone camera for a dSLR camera if you want to improve your architectural and interior photography:

  1. Set your ISO
  2. Control your depth-of-field with lens aperture
  3. Place a bubble level on the hot shoe
  4. Shoot RAW files
  5. Take advantage of lens filters and interchangeable lenses to add a polarizing filter, and possibly use Tilt-Shift lenses
  6. Consider using off-camera lighting with a TTL cable, or even external lights

 


 

Although architectural and interiors photography is a pretty exacting and precise field of photography, I’ve never been much of a gear nerd when it comes to photo equipment.  As with the cars I drive and the computers I use, I’m not usually an early adopter and I don’t usually need to have the coolest gear on the block.  I research carefully, choose wisely, spend freely to get all the features I need … and then use it to death!

Remember first and foremost that a camera is just a tool to achieve a purpose.  Great images are possible with the simplest of cameras, while even the most expensive cameras don’t make anyone a photographer.  After all, I own a saw and a hammer but that doesn’t make me a contractor! 

However there’s no denying that with cameras, as with most purchases, there are definitely upgrades and improvements that are only available on higher-end models.  If you or your firm is looking to improve the architectural or interior photos available to you, and you’re hoping to do at least some of that photography yourself, there are definitely some features available on dSLR cameras that may or not be available to you with the office point-and-shoot or with the cellphone camera in your pocket or purse.

In Part 1 of this fourth and final post in my series on improving your interior and architectural photography, I’ll lay out the first three of six dSLR features that you should look for, and use, to help you get better DIY architectural photos.

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If you haven’t already done so, please read the first three posts in this series:

Each of those posts contain information that’s helpful for anyone who’s trying to improve their own photos of architecture and interiors.

For this fourth and final post in the series, let’s look at six camera features that are helpful when shooting DIY photos of architecture and interiors, and how to use them to best advantage.

 

1. Setting the ISO

ISO is just an abbreviation for the International Standards Organization, but in photography it refers to the sensitivity setting of your camera’s digital sensor.  The higher the number, the more sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light.  The more sensitive the sensor, the less light needed to make a proper exposure.  The less light needed for a proper exposure, the more you can use smaller apertures to increase depth-of-field (see below) or faster shutter speeds to eliminate blurring from camera shake (if you don’t remember why that’s bad, read here).  In other words, a higher ISO setting, within reason, gives you options.

The digital ISO setting is analogous to the old-school film speed choices we used to make back in the days of film cameras — higher film speeds were more sensitive and could shoot in dimmer conditions.  The difference being that changing old-school film speed meant changing rolls of film mid-roll, while changing a digital ISO setting can be done shot by shot.

 

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Changing your ISO setting on a digital camera is as easy is finding the right button and checking the readout in the window.

The downside to a higher ISO setting and increased sensor sensitivity is the corresponding increase in what’s known as “digital noise”.  What this means in real life is that your images don’t look as clean and smooth, especially when enlarged, as they do when photographed at a lower ISO setting.  Have you ever shot a photo with your cell phone camera in especially dim conditions that looks fine initially, but when zoomed in to or shown on a bigger screen, appears quite grainy and fuzzy?  When shooting in dim conditions, most cell phone cameras automatically increase the sensor sensitivity (ISO) to account for the lack of light, rather than shoot at a slower shutter speed and risk a blurry, jiggly photo.  For smaller images shown only on screens, these differences are often only noticeable at the extreme settings.  But for images that will be printed or shown at higher resolutions, digital noise in images can be very distracting, washed out, and muddy-looking.

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Cell phone cameras deal with low light by dialing the ISO setting way up – extreme digital noise is the result.

For maximum photo quality across all uses, your camera should be set to the lowest practical ISO setting.  But in dim conditions (like many interiors) and stuck without a tripod, moderately increasing the ISO setting can help you avoid the more immediate problem of dim light causing slow shutter speeds and therefore blurry photos.  All dSLR cameras, and many point-and-shoots, give the photographer the ability to manually control the ISO and dial it up or down – reasonably – as necessary.  Cellphone cameras, not so much.  Check your camera’s manual or the manufacturer’s website for instructions on changing the ISO setting, then use this tool to help avoid blurry images caused by camera shake in low light.

 

2. Controlling Your Depth-of-Field with Lens Aperture

The word “aperture” simply means “opening” and in photography “lens aperture” refers to the variable-sized opening inside the lens itself that helps control how much light passes through the lens with each shutter click.  All but the most basic, entry-level dSLR cameras generally offer control of the lens aperture with either an aperture-priority (or aperture-preferred) mode, or with full manual mode.

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M=Manual & Av=Aperture value: any camera that shows these options for controlling your exposure mode will allow you to control lens aperture and therefore depth-of-field.

Aperture works together with the shutter speed to control the amount of light reaching the digital sensor (whose sensitivity is set via the ISO setting, see above).  The correct combination of aperture and shutter speed allow just the right amount of light to strike the sensor for the given brightness of the scene, and produce a correctly exposed photo — not too bright, not too dark.

But both aperture and shutter speed also control something else besides just how much light is striking the sensor.  As we’ve talked about, shutter speed controls the appearance of motion and blur in your final images and shooting with too slow of a shutter speed (a longer exposure allows more light to hit the sensor in a dim room, for example), can cause blurry photos from our bodies’ small shakes and jerks due to breathing, heartbeats, and caffeine!

As for lens aperture, besides proper exposure, the aperture’s other effect is called depth-of-field and refers to how much of the scene, from front to back, will appear to be in focus in the final image.  Smaller apertures create a wider depth-of-field, giving you sharp focus throughout the foreground, middle, and background.  Larger apertures create less depth-of-field which can cause problems if you’re trying to show off a large space.

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Although both images focus on the red leaf in the center, the image on the left was shot with a very small aperture, f/22, while that on the right with a very large one, f/2.8. Note how much more of the foreground and background appear to be in focus in the left image with the smaller aperture. The numbers that measure apertures are written as fraction so even though 22 is a bigger number than 2.8, the corresponding apertures are actually 1/22 and 1/2.8. Since 1/22 is a smaller fraction than 1/2.8, f/22 is said to be the smaller aperture.

In a large space, be sure to choose a small aperture in order to create enough depth-of-field that the entire room, from front to back, appears in focus just as it does when we view it in person.

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The point of this image is to show off the entire space, from the rocker in the foreground of the reception area, along the length of the blue floor graphic, to the movable furniture behind and the adjacent towers out the window. To make sure everything stayed sharp, I purposely chose a small aperture.

However, less d-of-f can also be used to your advantage as a creative tool to highlight a specific area or feature by focusing on it, and throwing the surroundings or background areas into soft focus.  For instance, by purposely selecting a large aperture to throw the background in to soft focus, I can force the viewer to look at whatever detail of the rail I want in the images below.

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Choosing a large aperture to create shallow depth-of-field and a blurred background in order to force your viewer to notice what you want them to see is called “selective focus” and can be a simple, but very useful, technique when photographing details.

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Regardless of your intent, consciously choosing an aperture and using it to control depth-of-field is only possible with a camera that offers aperture-priortity or manual exposure control, like almost all dSLR’s.

 

3. Placing a Bubble Level on the Hot-shoe

In an earlier post, we discussed the importance of keeping your camera parallel and perpendicular to the planes of the building when shooting architecture.  We want our images to represent the structure the way it was built — flat, level floors topped with sturdy, parallel walls meeting in straight, up-and-down corners.  No builder or architect wants to show off a tipped room or leaning building to a potential new client!

But aligning these building planes with the planes of the viewfinder and of the camera isn’t always as easily done as it is said.  When concentrating on how to frame the shot, what point of view to use, matching your exposure with the light conditions, scanning the scene for wayward reflections, tidying cords, adding props, and all the other details, it can be very hard to remember to keep that viewfinder exactly parallel and perpendicular – enter the bubble level mounted on top of your dSLR camera.

bubble level for architectural photography

3-axis bubble level

another bubble level useful for architectural photos

2-axis bubble level

Nearly every dSLR has a bracket, called a “shoe”, on top of the viewfinder for holding a flash unit (“hot” shoe just means it has an electronic connection wired to it for triggering the flash).  Point and shoot and cellphone cameras lack this bracket, opting for pop-up flashes or the built in LED flashes found on most cell phones.  However, clever manufacturers also make all sorts of other accessories that can be mounted to the shoe, and one of them is a small bubble level that helps you align the camera with gravity and therefore, usually, with the structure.  Levels are available at most specialty camera stores or from online photo retailers, and can only be mounted on cameras with built-in shoes.

Some high-end cameras are now building electronic levels in to their viewfinders so that technology may start to trickle down to more affordable models, but in the meantime spending $15-25 on a two- or three-axis level to mount on the shoe of your dSLR camera will save you lots of headaches and frustration.

 


 

So those are the first three of six features found on almost all dSLR cameras and not on point and shoots or cellphone cameras, that make the process of photographing architecture and interiors easier and more successful.  When deciding whether or not to upgrade your gear, keep this list in mind.  Please check back soon, or subscribe to the blog in the lower right, for the final part of this post, wrapping up dSLR features four through six.

In the meantime, if this all just seems like too much to remember, please feel free to get in touch to talk about your photography needs.  As I’ve said many times, I’d much rather be shooting these for you than having you do it yourselves!

 

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