Photographing Buildings [Composition Tips] - Digital Photography School

Photographing Buildings [Composition Tips]

A Guest Post by Michael Toye

I am a firm believer, at least with photography, that what you get back is directly related to the effort you put in. As with all activities, it’s certainly not linear and I am the first to admit that you can tip the scale in your favor to achieve some great architectural images armed with only a few basic techniques.

photographing-buildings-1.jpg

For me, I think the allure of shooting buildings started as a tourist. We all do it, albeit some with less style and grace than others – yes you leaning tower of Pisa holder up’ers, I am talking about you! So there you are, standing in front of an awesome and aged icon of a building and with little thought other than fitting the structure into the LCD’s frame, you snap away. I know I did. The problem is that the hastily captured image is more than likely just going to be just that, a snap.

I have a mental checklist i go through when i pass a building that catches my eye, so the following techniques apply to all aspects of photography really but, specifically for architecture, you will see significant improvement.

Why?

photographing-buildings-2.jpg

Most of the time this question of why you are going to take a picture or rather what caught your attention will be obvious. It’s pretty simple when your building is freakishly tall, like Canary Wharf Tower in London, or a pier that stretches to the horizon which, in the UK, would be located in Southend. I know you all are thinking this is a little bit redundant, but far from it. Consciously visualizing what you thought interesting about this particular building will help you work out how to compose a shot to capitalize on that feature.

Features aside, there are a couple of basic errors to avoid; keep horizons and horizontals level, verticals vertical and ensure the image is sharp. You might disregard some or all of these, but always initially frame with these in mind because no image looks more unprofessional than a wonky or blurry one!

The most used compositional styles employed by architectural photographers will be one of the following.

Leading Lines

photographing-buildings-3.jpg

Perspective and depth are the usual drivers for leading lines, but the more obvious definition is a scene that directs the viewer’s gaze along an intended path. The elements in the image above – escalator, grooves in the roof and wall and the ‘ladder‘ in the distance – all lead your eyes up and toward the exit. The curvature of the ‘grille‘ in the roof serves as the final area of focus. My intention with this image was for the viewer to participate in a small journey. I also chose this perspective, with the distorted view of the escalator, to provide the viewer a sense of scale; especially relevant as most will not have visited this particularly grand London Underground station.

Dominant Facias

photographing-buildings-4.jpg

This building is pretty ugly and it is closely surrounded by other non complimentary buildings… apart from this elaborate design on the front of Moorfield’s Eye Hospital. There is so much glass in the balcony and facia, the light play is amazing. Another compositional element that everyone bangs on about, and quite rightly, Rule of Thirds; the invisible tic tac toe shaped grid where you place objects of focus along its lines and intersections. Well it works! You should always consider it when framing a scene, even if you decide otherwise.

Specific Detail(s)

photographing-buildings-5.jpg

I love spiral staircases. They are an awesome detail in buildings and a contrast to the usual straight lines and angles found in architectural images. This one is in Queen’s House in London. There’s very little context here apart from the stair case itself. You have no idea where it is or what the rest of the building might look like.

The Contextual Environment

photographing-buildings-6.jpg
These doorways connect adjoining rooms in a family dormitory. This building, amongst others, is to be found in Kolmanskop, Namibia. A long since abandoned town that served the families and workers at the local diamond mine. The sands of the Namib desert have invaded all of these houses and, along with the peeling wallpaper, frames, and faded walls contribute to a real sense of their abandonment.

Symmetry

photographing-buildings-7.jpg

I chose this straight down the line composition, at London’s Natural History Museum, to give a real sense of depth. The power of the image is in the symmetry and off horizontals and verticals would have a serious impact.

Oh yes, and remember to look up!

photographing-buildings-8.jpg

Michael Toye is a professional photographer, based east of London in the UK, specialising in architecture and landscape. You can follow Michael’s images on his blog or contact him on Facebook.

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  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    Wide angle lens and an old castle in Wales makes it look almost like a model

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/A-day-in-South-Wales/G0000w4G_Jyl31qM/I0000ugmYUInr74E

  • http://jasoncollinphotography.com Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    I really like the Namibia shot Michael as I am fond myself of photographing abandoned places, and it is nice to have a colorful blue wall to offset the earthtones of the sand, etc. Your post covers all the major tips for shooting buildings.

    One specific tip I use when shooting buildings is to put the edge of the building parallel to the frame, as in this tip and example:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2012/2/24/architecture-photography-tip-put-building-edge-parallel-to-e.html

    I wonder if you have a similar or different philosophy for this?

  • http://portraitinspiration.com/ Jai Catalano

    I prefer photos of people but these photos are a nice change from the portrait look.

  • Scottc

    This is a great article, architecture is incredibly difficult to photograph. TFS.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5438058903/

  • ccting

    Excellent articles. Understanding this article really helps me in wedding shots a lot… :D

  • Mei Teng

    Love all your work Michael and thanks for sharing these great tips. My favourite is the Namibia image and the spiral staircase. Really beautiful.

  • http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/ marius2die4
  • http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com Jeff E Jensen

    This is one of my favorite subjects to shoot. It is fascinating to me to look for interesting, abstract images found in architecture. One of my all time favorite buildings to shoot is in Las Vegas, but it’s not on the strip:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2011/10/lou-ruvo-center-for-brain-health.html

  • ccting

    What is the strategy used if i want to shoot portrait with buildings? ty

  • http://blog.michaeltoye.com Michael Toye

    ccting, i recommend keeping tilt shift use to a minimum with people in portraits; i would keep rectilinear. when you say portraiture, you obviously don’t mean people for scale, so your architecture strategy is going to be details, facias and perspectives like depth of field behind the subject. you’re also more than likely to have to bring light to the scene too.

  • http://blog.michaeltoye.com Michael Toye

    Apologies for the tardy response, Jason, I thought my earlier comment was waiting moderation, but it obviously didn’t take.

    I would say Architects are picky so, in your example image, i would shift the frame so all lines are parallel to the frame edge. For me, i look at the scene to see where my eyes immediately fall and what they follow. That will usually dictate the frame’s level.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/alienscream/ Joey Rico
  • Gail

    That spiral staircase shot is absolutely stunning :))

  • Danny

    For my A-Level photography our topic is structures and I find buildings really interesting so I find this article very helpful! Giving me inspiration!

  • http://www.tcw.nl Geoff Naylor

    ‘Wonky’… I like it Michael. Thanks for the article.
    I’m also a fan of the spiral staircase photo.
    In my own stuff I try to get people – or at least something animate – involved in my ‘building’ photos. It provides scale and activity to an otherwise static image I find.

  • Bobbi Emel

    These are fabulous shots, Michael, and thanks for the great tips as well. Can you tell me what kind of lens you used to shoot the London Natural Museum shot? Really great!

  • http://amritavaroy.weebly.com/ Amritava Roy

    The photos are fabulous but please provide the details of each photos i.e. the f-number, shutter speed, ISO and the lens used at what focal length. Ya know I’m an amateur hobbyist photographer and learning to take good shots. A little more details would be helpful to me.

  • sbansban

    Amritava, I think the main thrust of this article is composition so the Exif data really is secondary.

  • http://blog.michaeltoye.com Michael Toye

    Bobbi, that would be Canon’s amazing 17mm TS-E tilt-shift lens. Apart from the mechanical wonderment, it’s the sharpest lens in my bag.

    Amitrava, next time I promise to provide shooting info :)

    Michael

  • Ben Chapman

    I love your spiral staircase shot. It’s hypnotising.

  • http://zain.zenfolio.com Zain Abdullah

    Hi Michael,

    Your architectural images are awesome indeed. I love all of them. Architecture also happens to be my pet subject and I especially love classical architecture.

    Do take a look at some of my architectural shots here which I deem among my favourites:

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/national-textile-museum/e27ff8b5a
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/tmtower/e334bf3e0
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/old-kl-railway-station/e2846294a
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/kapitankelingmosque/e11318e75
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/dayabumi/e8b57c37

    Thanks

  • BH

    very nice. Which underground station is it please ?

Some older comments

  • Zain Abdullah

    October 23, 2012 03:48 pm

    Hi Michael,

    Your architectural images are awesome indeed. I love all of them. Architecture also happens to be my pet subject and I especially love classical architecture.

    Do take a look at some of my architectural shots here which I deem among my favourites:

    http://zain.zenfolio.com/national-textile-museum/e27ff8b5a
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/tmtower/e334bf3e0
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/old-kl-railway-station/e2846294a
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/kapitankelingmosque/e11318e75
    http://zain.zenfolio.com/dayabumi/e8b57c37

    Thanks

  • Ben Chapman

    September 28, 2012 05:01 pm

    I love your spiral staircase shot. It's hypnotising.

  • Michael Toye

    September 25, 2012 03:59 pm

    Bobbi, that would be Canon's amazing 17mm TS-E tilt-shift lens. Apart from the mechanical wonderment, it's the sharpest lens in my bag.

    Amitrava, next time I promise to provide shooting info :)

    Michael

  • sbansban

    September 24, 2012 11:29 am

    Amritava, I think the main thrust of this article is composition so the Exif data really is secondary.

  • Amritava Roy

    September 22, 2012 12:50 pm

    The photos are fabulous but please provide the details of each photos i.e. the f-number, shutter speed, ISO and the lens used at what focal length. Ya know I'm an amateur hobbyist photographer and learning to take good shots. A little more details would be helpful to me.

  • Bobbi Emel

    September 22, 2012 12:24 pm

    These are fabulous shots, Michael, and thanks for the great tips as well. Can you tell me what kind of lens you used to shoot the London Natural Museum shot? Really great!

  • Geoff Naylor

    September 22, 2012 01:47 am

    'Wonky'... I like it Michael. Thanks for the article.
    I'm also a fan of the spiral staircase photo.
    In my own stuff I try to get people - or at least something animate - involved in my 'building' photos. It provides scale and activity to an otherwise static image I find.

  • Danny

    September 21, 2012 06:11 am

    For my A-Level photography our topic is structures and I find buildings really interesting so I find this article very helpful! Giving me inspiration!

  • Gail

    September 21, 2012 03:25 am

    That spiral staircase shot is absolutely stunning :))

  • Joey Rico

    September 21, 2012 01:48 am

    one way of looking up

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/alienscream/7090515845/in/photostream

  • Michael Toye

    September 20, 2012 04:17 pm

    Apologies for the tardy response, Jason, I thought my earlier comment was waiting moderation, but it obviously didn't take.

    I would say Architects are picky so, in your example image, i would shift the frame so all lines are parallel to the frame edge. For me, i look at the scene to see where my eyes immediately fall and what they follow. That will usually dictate the frame's level.

  • Michael Toye

    September 20, 2012 04:13 pm

    ccting, i recommend keeping tilt shift use to a minimum with people in portraits; i would keep rectilinear. when you say portraiture, you obviously don't mean people for scale, so your architecture strategy is going to be details, facias and perspectives like depth of field behind the subject. you're also more than likely to have to bring light to the scene too.

  • ccting

    September 20, 2012 02:21 pm

    What is the strategy used if i want to shoot portrait with buildings? ty

  • Jeff E Jensen

    September 20, 2012 05:41 am

    This is one of my favorite subjects to shoot. It is fascinating to me to look for interesting, abstract images found in architecture. One of my all time favorite buildings to shoot is in Las Vegas, but it's not on the strip:

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2011/10/lou-ruvo-center-for-brain-health.html

  • marius2die4

    September 19, 2012 04:11 pm

    I like your pics.Some of my pics:
    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2012/05/spre-lumina.html

  • Mei Teng

    September 19, 2012 10:29 am

    Love all your work Michael and thanks for sharing these great tips. My favourite is the Namibia image and the spiral staircase. Really beautiful.

  • ccting

    September 19, 2012 10:26 am

    Excellent articles. Understanding this article really helps me in wedding shots a lot... :D

  • Scottc

    September 19, 2012 09:18 am

    This is a great article, architecture is incredibly difficult to photograph. TFS.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5438058903/

  • Jai Catalano

    September 19, 2012 06:46 am

    I prefer photos of people but these photos are a nice change from the portrait look.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer

    September 19, 2012 05:20 am

    I really like the Namibia shot Michael as I am fond myself of photographing abandoned places, and it is nice to have a colorful blue wall to offset the earthtones of the sand, etc. Your post covers all the major tips for shooting buildings.

    One specific tip I use when shooting buildings is to put the edge of the building parallel to the frame, as in this tip and example:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2012/2/24/architecture-photography-tip-put-building-edge-parallel-to-e.html

    I wonder if you have a similar or different philosophy for this?

  • Steve

    September 19, 2012 05:03 am

    Wide angle lens and an old castle in Wales makes it look almost like a model

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/A-day-in-South-Wales/G0000w4G_Jyl31qM/I0000ugmYUInr74E

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