Architecture is fascinating, it’s beautiful, and it’s an amazing photographic subject. If you’re interested in architectural photography, then congratulations – you’re in for a treat! You can create breathtaking shots featuring a variety of structures, including modern skyscrapers, old cathedrals, suburban houses, and so much more.
Of course, architectural photography involves a bit more than finding a compelling subject and snapping away with your camera. If you want great shots – the kind that’ll make people sit up and take notice – you have to pay careful attention to a variety of factors, including the lighting, the composition, and your gear.
That’s what I discuss in this article: The four basic elements that any beginner architectural photographer should consider, and how, as a budding shooter, you can hit the ground running.
So if you’re thinking of exploring the wonderful world of architecture, then let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Grab the right gear
As with any genre of photography, it’s possible to get nice architectural images using only a point-and-shoot camera or even a smartphone – but the right gear does make a difference, so I encourage you to invest in some good-quality equipment before really diving into architectural shooting.
First, pick a DSLR or mirrorless camera that offers a decent number of megapixels in case you want to print big (24 MP is a good starting point). The best cameras for photographing architecture also include an impressive dynamic range – so you can capture bright windows and dark interior shadows in a single frame – and a full-frame sensor so you can take advantage of the expansive field of view offered by wide-angle lenses.
In-body image stabilization and impressive high-ISO capabilities can also be useful if you plan to shoot interiors that don’t allow tripods.
You’ll also need to purchase a lens or two. A wide-angle zoom is often a great buy; here, the kit lens that camera with your camera can work, or you can invest in higher-quality glass, such as a 24-70mm f/4 lens. Regardless, make sure your lens gives you an effective focal length of 30mm or wider; that way, you can create dramatic compositions that include lots of architectural details in the frame, even if you’re photographing indoors.
Once you own a nice wide-angle lens, you can start thinking about purchasing a telephoto model that’ll help you capture those architectural detail shots. Here, a kit zoom lens (such as a 55-200mm unit) can do a solid job, though a 70-200mm f/4 lens will generally offer superior sharpness and flexibility.
Also, a telephoto lens will allow you to shoot subjects from farther away and can therefore help you minimize perspective distortion (i.e., converging verticals).
One final piece of beginner architectural photography equipment advice: Purchase a tripod, and make sure it’s a good one. Sure, you won’t always be able to work with a tripod indoors, but when you’re shooting in scenarios where a tripod is permitted, it’ll let you increase the image depth of field and capture well-exposed shots even in dark scenarios. You can also use a tripod to experiment with long-exposure photos, which is a lot of fun!
2. Carefully create your compositions
Composition refers to the arrangement of elements in the image frame. For instance, should you position a building smack-dab in the middle of the frame? Or should you put it off to the side? Those are key composition questions – and by carefully constructing your composition, you can dramatically elevate your shots.
Start by learning popular composition rules, such as the rule of thirds and the rule of odds. I’d also recommend exploring topics such as negative space, positive space, and minimalism.
Then, once you understand the basics, experiment! Practice using the rule of thirds, then breaking it – and make sure you review your images afterward and decide what you like and dislike.
When shooting architecture, pay attention to the angle of your camera in relation to the subject. If you get too close to a building and shoot up, the building may turn out looking unpleasantly distorted (though you can also use this distortion effect for added drama; it’s all about how you use it!).
Bottom line: Always pay attention to your angle and how it conveys your subject. Working from below a building will add drama, but getting higher up can allow you to show how a building is situated within a broader landscape.
Once again, the best advice I can give here is to experiment. When you find a new structure worth shooting, move around and try different angles. Shoot straight up, get closer or farther away, get low to the ground, and if you can, try to photograph from above. Maybe you’ll hit upon a brand-new, never-before-seen perspective!
3. Pay attention to the light
Lighting can make a huge difference in your architectural photos. Unfortunately, you have no control over the position and orientation of your subject, so you generally just have to make the most of the available light.
That said, you can gain some level of control by studying the buildings you’re hoping to shoot, then timing your outing to coincide with the light that you’re after. You’ll want to think about two key elements:
- Light quality
- Light direction
Light quality refers to whether the light is hard or soft, which changes depending on the time of day and the cloud cover. Overcast days as well as early morning and late evening tend to offer soft light, whereas sunny mornings and afternoons offer hard light – and while it’s possible to work with any type of light, softer illumination is generally better if your goal is to create beautiful, painterly architectural shots.
If the weather isn’t cooperating, you can also try shooting at night. Most structures look amazing in the dark thanks to built-in artificial lighting; just make sure you use a tripod and a lengthy shutter speed!
Lighting direction refers to the direction of the light relative to your subject. By adjusting the direction of the light, you can ensure that your images look flat, three-dimensional, or somewhere in between. Of course, you can’t physically move a structure, but you can wait for the sun to move through the sky until you have the lighting angle you want (or you can simply walk around a structure to achieve the angle you’re after).
One of the most interesting (and recommended) lighting options for buildings is side-front lighting – when light falls on the side and front of the facade. This direction provides a decent amount of illumination and can cast interesting shadows across the face of a building, which gives it a more three-dimensional look.
Be wary of strong backlighting when shooting buildings, since it can create uniform dark surfaces – unless you are going for a silhouetted look, that is!
So scout out your location at different times. See how the light and shadows change the look and feel of your image. Then capture the perfect shot! (Of course, if you don’t like your initial result, you can always try returning at a different time or on a day with different weather, so don’t feel like you need to nail the lighting from the beginning.)
4. Get to know each building
It may sound silly, but if you can spend time getting to know the structure you plan to photograph, you’ll end up with much better results.
By “get to know,” I mean that you should do a few things. First, if you have the time, spend time visiting the building and paying attention to the light. See how different times of day produce different looks. Examine the building from every angle, and consider how various compositions will give you different results.
Note that I’m not necessarily talking about scouting here. Feel free to bring along your camera and take some photos; the idea is to really learn the ins and outs of your structure so you can maximize your results.
Second, research images captured by other photographers of your subject. Don’t copy these shots directly, but use them to inspire you. You might also use these images to determine what hasn’t yet been done – for instance, if a certain structure is always shot from the front, you might try shooting it from the back instead.
Finally, learn about the history of your subject. You may find that the history informs your photography! For instance, if it turns out that a certain structure has unusual windows, you might then spend extra time capturing them, and you’ll end up with a unique portfolio that documents the key features of the building.
Architectural photography for beginners: final words
As I hope you now realize, architectural photography can fascinating – and while creating great shots isn’t incredibly easy, it’s not too difficult, either.
Just make sure you purchase the right gear, give yourself some time to get to know each subject, and pay careful attention to both the light and composition. You’ll end up with some outstanding results.
Now over to you:
What type of architecture do you plan to shoot? Do you have any tips that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 4 Beginner Tips for Doing Architecture Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES