Architectural Photography: the built environment

An online talk giving tips and techniques for top quality architectural and interiors photography

My May 2021 online photography talk, Architectural Photography: the built environment, went ahead on 19th May, and you can now watch the recording here. Just click on the image below to get it started. I hope you enjoy it: if you do, then please Like and Share it.

If you’d like to stay in touch about all my videos then please subscribe to my You Tube channel – you’ll be able to do so towards the end of this video, or by going to the Nigel Hicks Photography You Tube channel.

What is architectural photography?

Architectural photography covers a wide gamut of subject matter: everything to do with the human built environment, ranging from entire urban skylines through single buildings, to tight building details, to intimate interiors. This is true whether you’re dealing with photography of modern or historic architecture: the techniques and purpose are exactly the same.

It is all just architectural photography: the built environment.

Architectural Photography: the built environment

Technically correct versus creative techniques

One of the major challenges of architectural photography is that the great majority of building photos come out with the building apparently leaning backwards, their vertical lines no longer vertical or parallel to each other, but converging towards the top of the frame.

This is an inevitable result of having to tip the camera back in order to fit the whole building into the frame, something that is particularly problematic with tall buildings.

The result may look OK in ordinary snapshot photography, but it doesn’t pass muster in high quality architectural photography. So what is the solution?

The answer lies in the central theme of my talk, that there are essentially two broad types of technique applied to architectural ph0tography: technically correct and creative techniques.

The former are used when you want to reproduce buildings in their correct perspective, that is with their verticals actually vertical and parallel: the building stands up straight in the image, with none of the usual leaning back scenario.

Creative techniques, are quite the opposite. Here, almost anything goes, with crazy angles and diagonal lines. Very often that ‘leaning back’ phenomenon is exaggerated for both artistic license and to create some strong diagonal lines that instil a dynamic, energetic mood into what could otherwise be a very static subject.

architectural photography: the built environment

How do we achieve technically correct photography?

The essential step towards achieving technically correct photography is to keep the back of the camera (and hence the sensor inside it) vertical and parallel to the walls of the building(s) being photographed. But how can we do this if the only way to fit the building in the frame is to tip the camera back?

The best method is to use a shift lens. This is a very specialised lens that allows the camera to literally look upwards while keeping the camera back vertical. The lens elements literally slide up and down on a rack, putting them out of direct line with the sensor, creating an upward or downward field of view, instead of the usual straight ahead.

The above is a rather expensive solution. Instead, it is possible simply to use an ordinary wide-angle lens, shoot in the usual way with the camera tilted back, and then correct the perspective aberration using Photoshop post-photography. This works quite well, up to a point, but can result in loss of image quality if an extreme amount of perspective correction is needed.

More commonly, an architectural photographer will use a shift lens for the shoot, and will then simply add a few small final corrections in Photoshop.

It is also possible to use an ordinary wide-angle lens with the camera back vertical. However, this will result in the building being in the top half of the frame with an awful lot of foreground captured in the lower half. If you’re trying to shoot a tall building in this way, you’ll need to back up quite some way to get the whole building’s height in, really opening up the amount of foreground visible in the final image.

This means that your foreground had better be extremely interesting, helping to really augment the building as the image’s main subject. One of the best foreground elements to include, where possible, is calm water, providing the possibility of a beautiful reflection of your subject building, thus doubling its size and effectively bringing it into the lower half of the frame, as well as the top half.

Architectural Photography: the built environment

How do we make use of creative techniques?

It’s actually rather difficult to lay down rules here, as just about anything goes. The usual rules of image composition apply: keep your compositions simple with a single strong subject dominating the frame. It is essential that nothing else in the frame competes for attention: clutter is your worst enemy. And in architectural photography that usually means such issues as parked cars, overhead wires, yellow no-parking lines, wheelie bins, satellite dishes and TV aerials. We really don’t want to see these in your architectural photos!

Within those rules we’re out to capture really geometric compositions, coordinated combinations of diagonals, verticals, horizontals and various shapes. Together they should result in truly graphic, impactful compositions.

Architectural Photography: the built environment

Details

While much of our architectural photography may revolve around entire buildings, the story is not complete without some details. In modern buildings these will often consist of a concentration on curving or diagonal lines in a building’s shape, geometric patterns in the walls or windows, and an interplay of light and reflection off those structures.

In historic buildings, some of these factors may also come into play, though it is also more likely to encompass embellishments, such as sculptures, statues and spires, most often seen on churches and cathedrals.

Villa window close-up

Interiors photography

The inside of a building is just as important to architectural photography as the outside. Indeed, in many instances – such as hotels and restaurants – the interior may be a lot more important.

Interiors can vary enormously, from huge public spaces that make some kind of statement to the world – perhaps civic or religious, for example – through a whole host of different building types, right through to the smallest and most intimate rooms in your home, including the bathroom.

While creative photographic techniques can commonly be used in interiors photography, more often the technically correct techniques are the most important. Leaning walls (usually leaning outwards in interiors photography) just don’t pass muster in most instances.

More often than not these days interiors photography makes use simply of whatever ambient light is available. No additional lighting is inserted, the removal of shadows or bright highlights being left to Photoshop in post-photography processing.

Finally, the most challenging room in interiors photography? The bathroom! It is usually very small and is often filled with reflective surfaces. Together, these two factors can make it very difficult to get a workable angle.

Harpa interior

A final word

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this summary and watching the video of this talk Architectural Photography: the built environment. If you have any queries or comments don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The next talk will be People Photography, on 16th June at 8pm.

Back to top

Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.