In a previous post, I outlined how Street Photography is like a workout for your camera skills. It's fast moving, unpredictable and you don't have much time to think. In many ways shooting architecture is the opposite. Buildings stay put and rarely react to your presence. You have plenty of time to consider your composition and camera settings. Nevertheless, the form is another great way to improve your photography skills and build a social-media friendly style. It does share an important similarity to street photography though, and that is accessibility. Almost everyone has easy access to buildings of one sort or another. I've put together a set of tips here which I hope help you to get inspired to shoot architecture and develop a social media style along the way.
1. Be aware of the light – You need to know where it’s coming from in relation to your location and the time of day. You can wing it, but it pays dividends if you figure this out in advance. I use Photo Transit which is excellent, but not cheap at £8.99. There are cheaper alternatives but I like Photo Transit because it provides a sense of how the terrain will affect the light. I opted to plunk down the cash for this app after learning my lesson the hard way. I meticulously planned the angle of light at sunrise for a shoot – or so I thought – only to discover that it’s no good being in the perfect spot if you’re in the shadow of a hill. I was able to reposition myself in time to catch the 'golden hour', but it taught me that proper preparation is key to success.
2. Go wide. A wide or superwide lens is well worth packing for architecture because it often isn’t possible to stand back far enough to capture the whole building in a single frame. Wide angle lenses allow you to work in confined spaces and have a good chance of capturing an entire facade or a dramatic panorama. I always pack a Nikon AF 20mm f/2.8D because it's tiny and easy to carry, and also far less expensive than an ultrawide zoom. If your glass can’t cope, or you’re aiming for a really extreme field of vision, you can always shoot with the intention of stitching the images together later. Lightroom does a good job of panoramas, but you can also try http://www.kolor.com/autopano/ http://www.ptgui.com/ or http://hugin.sourceforge.net/
3. Go inside too. Architecture is in evidence in every aspect of a building, not just its best face to the world. So don’t restrict yourself to just shooting the fascia. Interior spaces give a sense of the atmosphere of a building. Your sun angle work will be useful here too, as any natural light from windows will alter the character inside. Make sure your white balance is set appropriately, and think about the difference between the weak light from artificial lighting compared to strong light from outdoors. Try choosing a long exposure indoors so that you can shoot with a low ISO to reduce noise. Another benefit to long exposures in public spaces is that you can remove people wandering around in your shot, simply expose for long enough and they will disappear – as long as they’re moving from A to B while you shoot. This shot inside the Natural History museum was taken with a six second exposure, effectively removing many of the people passing on the stairs. It was pure luck that the two people in the shot stayed still long enough to capture. If you're going to try this it's worth noting though that you may be asked to check a full-sized tripod before entering a public building. I shot this image by steadying my camera on the centre banister railing – but you can usually get away with a mini tripod of some kind.
Long exposures shot indoors run the risk of overexposing windows. These can blow out completely while your interior is properly exposed. Sometimes this can work creatively, depending on the look you want or the window treatment – but to give yourself some options, try using Bracketing to work around this. Bracketing sets your camera to take multiple exposures, (usually 3, 5 or 9). Each frame is exposed with a different Fstop, so you end up with a set of photographs over a range of exposures. Then you can use your judgement to mask and recombine these to bring back some of the overexposure in the windows.
4. Neutral Density (ND) filters. By reducing the light entering your lens by as much as 10 Fstops or more, ND filters allow you to shoot long exposures in bright conditions. Perfect for removing people milling around in your shot, which is almost inevitable in a busy city. Try shooting with a faster shutter speed as well to give you the option of selectively reintroducing a person or people back into your long exposure shot. Since your camera will have been locked off on a tripod, making a composite from two positionally identical images is a simple process and one that allows you to bring your artistic judgement back into play. ND filters can also be graduated so that bright sky can be balanced with a darker fore or mid ground. This can yield dramatic results with otherwise unprepossessing skies – you can also use bracketing here again, or bring back detail in an almost blown out sky, and make a composite with another image that is properly exposed for the subject. One caveat with graduated filters – you can create these effects in the digital darkroom with great subtlety and precision now, so spending £200-800 on a set of 'pro' grad filters is not the necessity it once was. For example, I shot the image below of the V&A courtyard on a day when it was snowing, and the image 'as shot' had a featureless light grey sky. However, it was possible to recover a great deal of atmosphere with the data latent in the RAW file.
5. Retouch. Don’t be averse to altering specific colours in an image if they’re distracting or judiciously removing objects. For some reason I tend to remove plastic carrier bags from people in my photos, because there’s always someone with a plastic carrier bag! Lamp-posts get in the way of almost everything in an urban setting, but they are time consuming to remove. So it’s a balance between what you feel is essential to alter and not going too far. You might decide that a dayglow orange traffic cone is unbalancing your whole composition, so there's nothing wrong with selectively toning it down – or even changing its colour altogether. You can judge this by considering the intent of the shot. For example, I wanted to explicitly show a symmetrical fascia in the shot below, so I felt removing an off-centre information kiosk in the foreground, removing a further roofline to the far left and removing a centre flagpole were justifiable changes.
6. Night shoot. After dark can be a great time to photograph architecture. Structures take on a new character and are often lit dramatically. A little light in the sky can help, or a long exposure to bring out the city glow or the faint light reflected off clouds. Set up your tripod as the light is fading and there is still some available light in the sky, take note of the bright points and colour as you compose your image, you’ll need to observe how bright areas interact with the edges of your frame because these will stand out when you eventually view the picture on a large screen. I find with architecture and cityscapes that deep focus is desirable. To achieve this, close your aperture right down (large F-stop). If you swot up on your lens (or conduct your own experiments) you’ll find that there’s an Fstop range where it produces the sharpest results. Bear this in mind when choosing your aperture if you want your image to be as sharp as possible. Set your ISO low to reduce noise and your exposure long. It’s also worth being aware that windy conditions or setting your tripod up near heavy traffic (especially on bridges) can result in a little vibration, and this will soften your image slightly with a very long exposure.
7. Explore and revisit. Unlike other many other kinds of photography, such as Street, the subjects of architecture photography can be revisited repeatedly. This gives the form a unique dimension, it means you can return time and again to the same site, or even the exact same spot and create an image that is radically different depending on the weather, season, time of day or the technique you choose. Exploring a city, and building a mental map of places of interest to revisit is a wonderful facet of architecture photography that makes the form all the richer.
8. Add interest. I talked about using long exposures to remove people from architecture photography, but selectively adding people back in by combining long and shorter exposures, or shooting with people in mind depending on the light is a great way of giving a building scale and context. Think about what the people are doing, how they’re interacting with the space around them and why. Think of how they’re framed, how your composition divides and subdivides and how a figure is framed within those spaces and divisions. Be aware of foreground elements to provide a 'way in’ to the picture, and always be on the lookout for creative ways to use reflective surfaces to add interest. Window glass or water is often easy to find, whether a fountain or a curbside puddle and can add a dimension to a composition that otherwise might be unprepossessing,
9. Research. Learning the how, when, why and by whom of a building is another unique facet to architecture photography that connects to history, commerce, urban development and people. It’s a factor in photographing any building that helps reveal the context and allows you to interpret that context creatively. It’s also a good way of building up your knowledge of a city or town and its unique story.
10. Go abstract. Sometimes being hyper-selective in an architectural shot can lead to interesting results. It’s important not to strip out too much, but looking at an image in terms of an abstract composition can lead to a new way of looking at something that might have otherwise been overlooked. Lately I've been looking at the repetition and patterns in high rise blocks as they’re being built. I like getting under the skin before the final sheen is added.
11. Share on social media. There are an array of tools freely available for bringing one indispensable ingredient to your photography – eyeballs. Choose the platform or platforms that work for you such as 500px or Instagram and shoot 'social' shots with the platform in mind. Instagram in particular lends itself to a certain kind of imagery. It's a style that is immediate, accessible and not shy about crowd pleasing stunts like puddle reflections or light trails. Your audience will come to expect a certain style from you in their feeds, and there's nothing wrong with that in my book. You're getting your photos seen and appreciated and some percentage of that engagement will lead to clicks on the portfolio link you left in your bio, where you can provide a more in-depth look at your work.