How to Take Better Architectural Photos with your Cellphone or a Point-and-Shoot Camera

How to Take Better Architectural Photos with your Cellphone or a Point-and-Shoot Camera

Experienced architectural photographers offer four easy tips for improving your quick and dirty architectural photos.

  1. Perspective control
  2. Change your point of view
  3. Pay attention to natural lighting
  4. Plan your shot list by keeping design, use, and context in mind

Now that you’ve had a chance to read up on the looks that will instantly brand your architectural or interior photos as less than professional, it’s time to figure out how to improve on that. For the purposes of this post, we’ll stick with exterior photos but I’ll be sure to offer some easy tips for better interiors photography in a future post.

For the time being, let’s assume you’re not aiming quite as high as the photos of Julius Schulman, Ezra Stoller, or the Hedrich Blessing photographers.  These guys – and ladies, see also Helene Binet — have spent lifetimes translating light, and shape, and volume into miraculous two-dimensional images of three dimensional spaces.

Instead, let’s assume that your firm just has some finished projects and an immediate need. The photos on your website look like an eight-year-old took them and someone’s handed you the office point-and-shoot camera and told you to go do better.  Having read my earlier post on what to avoid, now you want improve on that.

Thanks again to San Diego architectural photographer John Durant and Salt Lake City architectural photographer Alan Blakely for their contributions.

 

  1. The first tip that all three of us immediately thought of is what’s known as “perspective control”.  Perspective control refers to how you’re representing your subject, in this case a building, by how you place and hold the camera relative to that building.

First, all buildings are designed to be solid and stable for the long term, right?  Careless design or construction leads to leaning, slipping, sagging, or falling over completely. No firm involved in building wants to imply that their projects might fall over, so the most professional way to photograph a building project is to show the lines of the building, especially the vertical lines at the edges and corners of walls, perpendicular to the ground. With me so far?

Architectural-photographer-Andrew-Buchanan_Seattle

tipping and rotating the camera makes for some serious vertigo!  Keep the camera parallel to the building’s walls and corners.

The way to ensure the vertical lines or the building are shown at 90 degrees to the plane of gravity (the ground) is to keep the digital sensor in the camera or cell phone aligned with the walls of the building and also perpendicular to the ground (90 degrees to the plane of gravity) when photographing them.  If you tip or rotate the camera or camera phone, the camera will no longer be parallel to the walls and so the edges and corners of the building will appear tilted. And this effect is even more pronounced when using a wide angle lens as we often do in order to show the whole structure.

To correct this, keep your camera as close to perpendicular to gravity as you can. If you need to show the top of the project, instead of tipping the camera try standing on a chair, a ladder, or even the second or third floor of an adjacent building. Doing so changes your point of view (see below) to include what you need to in the frame, without distorting the perspective.

 

  1. Building on the above suggestion on how to avoid tipping the camera, the second  suggestion to improve your architectural photos is to remember to change up your point of view.

Since most people are somewhere between five and six feet tall, a large majority of photos viewers see from beginners are shot looking straight on at the subject, from roughly 5-6 feet above the ground. But variety is interesting to viewers and so you want to be sure to vary your point of view.  Start by changing your height – climb up on something to get higher, crouch down to get lower, lie on the ground to get really low! Now try zooming your lens or using your feet to get closer to the subject and shoot just a detail or a portion of it. Think you’re close enough? Now get closer! Now try getting really far back. Can you photograph your subject while looking through something else, by framing a building through a doorway, for instance, or the branches of a tree, or an overhang?

Architecture photographer in Seattle Andrew Buchanan

When considering point of view, don’t just think about making small things big, consider making big things small.

Despite the size of most architectural subjects, don’t just shoot wide angle images from 5-6 feet above ground — get closer, get higher, get lower, and change up the point of view to keep viewers interested.

Aettle architectural photographer

vary your point of view by choosing different lenses or lens lengths (zooming), or by moving your feet to change your perspective

 

  1. Remember in the last post when we discussed weird-colored interior lighting and your camera’s White Balance settings? Well, an easy way to improve your exterior architectural photos too, regardless of your equipment, is to pay attention to the quality, color, and position of the sun and how it falls on your subject’s surfaces.

I’ll tell you right now that shooting photos on your lunch hour usually isn’t going to cut it. The bright, overhead, mid-day sunshine is color-neutral and harsh while the shadows that come from overhanging roofs, recessed entries, and other shapes of the structure will often cast dark, distracting shadows on the façade and on the foreground in front of your subject.

Instead, figure out which way your building orients to the sun, then plan to photograph when the light is warm and soft in the first hour or so of the day, or the last 2-3 hours, with the low-angled sunlight hitting or raking the façade (this varies with your latitude and the time of year, so watch the light for a few days beforehand to nail down your timing). In general, don’t shoot your building backlit – either the skies will be blown out or the front will be a dark, 2-dimensional box.

School photography by Seattle architectural photographer Andrew Buchanan.

At 11am in late October, the front of this school is in its own shadow, the sky is blown out, and the sidewalk reflection in front is bright and harsh. By waiting until a little after 3pm, the sun is now illuminating the front facade giving texture and volume, the blue sky is richer, and the light is reflecting off the sidewalk away from the camera rather than in to it.

Better yet, as suggested by John Durant, shoot all your exterior photos after sunset. You’ll want access to the building to turn on lights inside, and you’ll definitely need a tripod as your exposures will be very slow. But after sunset, the color in the sky rapidly fades to dark blue, interior lights glow with an inviting warmth, and distractions like cars and people become interesting, artistic blurs and streaks of light.

Dusk photography of a Seattle house by architectural photographer Andrew Buchanan

Photographing the front of this house in the late afternoon with the sun behind me meant bright sunlight reflecting off the white paint, and my own shadow showing on the left edge of the grass. Waiting until dusk means the sky turns a beautiful, deep blue and interior lights can be turned on to give a warm, inviting glow.

While we can’t control the sun the way we can artificial lights, we can control what time of day we choose to photograph outside. Choose a day and time that’s most flattering for your project, or else your viewers won’t get past the harsh shadows and washed out colors in order to see your great design.

 

  1. Lastly, the fourth bit of easy advice to take to heart is to spend some time to think about what you’re trying to show off. Don’t show up and blast away with your camera, hoping to come away with something better than what you’ve got. Instead, plan what you hope to show and then work toward it. To get to a final set of images that best reflect the finished project, think about the three concepts of design, use, and context.

The design of an architectural project is everything that goes in to making a project look the way it does – shape, volume, choice of materials, relationships of one space to another – and it’s the most obvious of the three factors to photograph. Did your firm design some unique tile work, work hard to fit the kids’ play space in to the attic, or spec a metal skin for the façade that reflects the client’s corporate identity? Make sure you shoot images that highlight important design elements as they’re the outward-facing, most visible symbols of your firm’s work.

Next, all projects are built for a reason, a purpose, a use. Often the use relates to people, but not always. The use is the ultimate goal of any project. If you can capture some images that successfully show off a project’s ultimate use, you’ll be connecting the dots for viewers and reassuring them you can listen to their needs and come up with a solution that solves their problem.

Finally, context refers to the external factors, tangible and intangible, that influence that project. Tangible factors might be the surrounding landscape, neighboring buildings or roads, and local flora and fauna while intangible factors could include prevailing weather, local culture and customs, and even political factors like zoning or covenants. The context shot of an office tower might include downtown and a neighboring highway, while a context shot of a Master Bath addition might just show it relative to the bedroom. Showing a project’s context helps locate it in the viewer’s mind and says your firm understands that projects aren’t built in a vacuum.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center photos by Seattle landscape design photographer Andrew Buchanan

The Johnston Ridge Visitor Center at Mount St. Helens National Monument sits just across from the mountain, looking in to the mountaintop crater, and surrounded by the remnants of the destruction caused when she blew her top in May, 1980. My client helped design and site the building for maximum impact on visitors, so the photos needed to not only describe the project, but just as importantly they needed to describe the experience.

The project in front of you wasn’t built without plans. Nobody just showed up with a load of cement, lumber, and a nail gun and started banging it together. Likewise if you spend a few minutes asking questions and figuring out what you’re trying to showcase, your finished images will better reflect the effort that went in.

When producing your own architectural photography on a budget, these four tips should get you started in the right direction. But the bottom line is that without training, practice, and certain equipment there are only so many factors you can overcome. As Alan Blakely wrote, “The easiest way to get professional results is to simply hire a professional!”  We’ll be waiting.  But in the meantime, stay tuned for more updates coming soon.

 

See also my previous post:

And subscribe to the blog in the lower right for future updates coming soon:

  • 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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