Architecture may be everywhere but with a little imagination, it can provide some amazing images. Lee Frost give his advice on getting creative with architecture photography
Take a peep out the nearest window. What do you see? Chances are, the first thing your eyes settle on is bricks and mortar – a building, in other words. Depending upon where you live, that could be a Victorian terrace, a cul-de-sac of modern detached houses, the dreaming spires of a soaring cathedral, or a towering great block of flats. But it doesn’t matter what type of architecture you’re used to seeing, because buildings in all shapes, sizes and styles make exciting and challenging subjects that can be enjoyed by beginners and experienced photographers alike.
From crumbling old cottages, ancient castles and towering cathedrals, to state-of-the-art office blocks, stark industrial units, giant bridges and magnificent monuments, architecture photography offers endless opportunities to make creative images. We’re not just talking outside, either – interiors can be just as inspiring. As well as photographing entire buildings, architectural details also make great subjects. One minute you can be shooting an entire structure with a wideangle lens, the next abstracts and details with a telezoom. One building can be the sources of dozens in different images, shot both day and night, inside and out.
There are no rules when it comes to shooting architecture – just let your imagination run riot and see what happens!
Old buildings are hard to beat when it comes to character, as they’ve had centuries to develop it. Cathedrals, castles, twee old cottages, ivy-covered manor houses – all make fascinating subjects, whether they’re as good as new or falling apart. Warm, soft light is well-suited to old buildings, so shoot early morning or late afternoon and use side-lighting to reveal texture in the old stonework. Framing the subject building from under a tree, archway or doorway will help to focus attention and hide unwanted details. By excluding all signs of modernity, your images will also have a timeless feel.
Credit: Lee Frost. Ait Benhaddou, Morocco. Warm light helps to reveal the character of old buildings. Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 70-200mm, 1/8sec @ f/8, ISO 100
Brash and bold, hard and angular, modern architecture demands a totally different approach. You can be more adventurous with angles to emphasise shape and line, or look for symmetry and exploit that. For once, strong sunlight is friend rather than foe, because its harshness helps to emphasise the strong design elements and give your images graphic appeal. Modern buildings give architects the freedom to experiment and explore, so do the same with your photography. There are lots of amazing buildings in the UK worth checking out: The Sage in Gateshead, City Hall in London, The Selfridges Building in Birmingham, Salford Quays in Manchester. Seeing one in the flesh will get those creative juices flowing and before you know it you’ll be filling memory cards like they’ve gone out of fashion.
Credit: Lee Frost. Valencia, Spain. The City of Arts and Sciences is home to stunning modern architecture. Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 15mm fisheye, 1/320sec @ f/9, ISO 100
When you’ve finished shooting the exterior, why not slip inside and shoot some interiors as well? While dull weather ain’t great for external shots, the soft, flat light can be ideal indoors because it keeps contrast down. Same if the heavens open – get out of the wet and keep shooting! Old buildings often have atmospheric interiors because the windows are small and light levels fall away rapidly to create wonderful studies in light and shade. Low light levels often make a tripod necessary to avoid camera shake, while a wideangle zoom will allow you to get a lot in the shot even when your back’s against the wall – literally. Modern interiors tend to be a riot of repetition – lines, angles and edges or clever curves and sinuous swirls – while symmetry is often evident if you find a central viewpoint.
Credit: Lee Frost
Architecture is well-suited to infrared photography. Old buildings take on a spooky persona as skies go dark and foliage records as ghostly white – the late Sir Simon Marsden made a career out of this fact with books like The Haunted Realm. Modern architecture responds well, too, as the high contrast and starkness of infrared suits the strong lines and sharp angles of contemporary buildings. If you’re got an infrared-modified digital camera, use that. Alternatively, an infrared-transmitting filter such as the Hoya R72 will work fine.
Credit: Lee Frost. Sissinghurst Castle, Kent. Infrared is well-suited to both old and new architecture. Canon EOS 5D, 17-40mm, 1/160sec @ f/11, ISO 200
In the detail
The usual approach to architectural photography is to capture the whole building, but if you take a closer look you’ll discover lots of interesting details and aspects of its design that make eye-catching subjects in their own right. On old buildings, ornate carved stonework details such as figures, faces, columns and cornices are common, while on newer buildings eye-catching patterns can be found in the bold, geometric design and repeated features – think of the hundreds of identical windows in a towering office block, or the dynamic pattern created by the external frame. Use a telezoom lens to home in on interesting details and fill the frame for maximum impact.
Credit: Lee Frost. Casablanca, Morocco. The patterns and lines in this staircase made a great detail shot. Canon EOS 5Ds, 16-35mm, 1/80sec @ f/8, ISO 1600
Buildings at night
Many buildings are floodlit at night, giving you the chance to take photographs that are full of vivid colours created by the mixed artificial lighting.
The best time to shoot is during the crossover period between sunset and nightfall when there’s still colour in the sky but ambient (day) light levels have dropped sufficiently for the artificial lighting to be clearly visible. Also try photographing neon signs outside clubs, bars and tourist attractions. Exposure times will run into many seconds, so you’ll need a sturdy tripod to steady the camera and a remote release to trip the shutter. Start out with your DSLR set to auto white balance (AWB) but also experiment with other WB settings such as tungsten or fluorescent to produce unusual results.
Credit: Lee Frost. Bangkok, Thailand. Cities looks amazing at night. I captured this view from my hotel. Canon EOS 5D Mk III with 70-200mm, 25secs @ f/16, ISO 200
Correct converging verticals
If you shoot a tall building from close range with a wideangle lens, often you’ll need to tilt the camera to get the top of the building in shot. This causes converging verticals, where the sides of the building lean inwards. The effect can look fantastic if you exaggerate it, but if you want the building to look upright, you need to keep the camera back parallel to it by the following methods.
Shooting from a higher viewpoint so you’re looking across at the building can work. Moving further away from the building then zooming in is another option, as the effects of converging verticals are reduced with distance. Alternatively, correct the convergence in Photoshop. Go to Select>All, then Edit>Transform>Distort and pull the corners of the image up and out to straighten the sides of the building. Using View>Show>Grid can help ensure the verticals are truly vertical.
Credit: Lee Frost
The low down
‘Wide and low’ is an approach that pays dividends with any type of scenic photography, but especially architecture. If you want to exploit the drama, scale and perspective of big buildings, shoot from a worm’s eye view with your widest lens. Vertical lines converge dramatically, lines fire off in all directions, curves sweep and swoosh and the sky becomes your background. The urban landscape is where this approach pays dividends because you can juxtapose architectural features to create dynamic compositions. Stand among skyscrapers and look up. Find a flyover or underpass and use it to frame the scene beyond. Stand under the entrance to one building and crane your neck to see others across the street.
Credit: Lee Frost. London, England. I lay on my back for this view looking up the Tulip Staircase in the Queen’s House, Greenwich. Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 14mm, 1/40sec @ f/8, ISO 1600
Tilt and shift
If you’re serious about architectural photography, the easiest way to avoid converging verticals is by investing in a tilt-shift lens like the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, Nikon 24mm f/3.5D ED PC-E or Samyang T-S 24mm f/3.5. With these lenses you can raise the front end to include the top of a building, instead of tilting the camera backwards. The ‘miniaturisation’ effect you get using the tilt function to minimise depth-of-field rather than maximise it also works well on modern architecture.
Credit: Lee Frost. Casablanca, Morocco. I used a tilt and shift lens to avoid converging verticals. Canon EOS 5Ds, 90mm TS lens, 1/160sec @ f/10, ISO 400
Modern buildings are a great source of reflections, because the exterior is usually clad in glass panels that reflect everything from the sky to other buildings nearby. Old building such as castles and stately homes often have water nearby, in the form or moats or ornamental lakes – if you move in close you can capture a mirror image of the building reflecting in the water. Use a telezoom to fill the frame for abstracts and a wideangle for broader views, and remember to focus on the reflection itself rather than the surface containing the reflection.
Credit: Lee Frost
Though you’re most likely to use a wideangle zoom from close range to shoot architecture, don’t be afraid to back off and switch to a longer lens to reveal the building in its environment, and use perspective to add impact. The longer the lens, the more perspective is compressed, so the elements in the scene appear crowded together. This gives a totally different feel to wide shots.
Credit: Lee Frost
Map and compass
Use a map or compass to determine which direction a building is facing, so you can gauge when the best time of day is to photograph it. South-facing facades receive direct sunlight for much of the day, whereas north-facing buildings rarely receive direct sunlight apart from perhaps a few days each year.
Credit: Lee Frost
Shoot street art
You wouldn’t want it on the side of your house, but there’s no denying that graffiti looks stunning. Move in close to capture colourful abstracts, or step back and use the graffiti as a backdrop. Some cities have areas where graffiti is permitted and contained – that’s where you’ll find the best shots.
Credit: Lee Frost
Abandoned buildings are the guardians of many secrets. Who lived there, why did they leave, what became of them? It’s not uncommon to enter abandoned homes in remote areas and find personal possessions still inside – furniture, clothing, cutlery, pots and pans, books and toys. Commercial buildings such as hospitals, factories, schools, dancehalls and nightclubs are just as fascinating – they ooze mystery and intrigue from every creaky floorboard or broken windowpane. You need to be sensible in terms of trespass and personal safety, but empty old buildings are hard to resist and can be the source of stunning images.
Credit: Lee Frost. Cienfuegos, Cuba. Abandoned buildings are full of atmosphere and character. Canon EOS 1DS Mk III, 50mm lens, 1/60sec @ f/4, ISO 800