This article was updated in February 2024 with contributions from John McIntire, Jaymes Dempsey, and Jeff Guyer.
When doing architectural photography, it’s easy to get lost in the grandeur of buildings – yet the details matter, too. In fact, with a bit of know-how, you can capture architectural detail photography that looks as good, if not better, than expansive, wide-angle shots of structures.
I love photographing architectural details, and in this article, I explain how you can capture great detail shots of your own. I offer plenty of my favorite tips, tricks, and techniques – developed over long hours of practice – with a focus on two essential architectural photography elements: lighting and composition.
By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be itching to grab your camera and shoot some details!
1. Seek out soft light to emphasize details
If the weather is poor and the sky is a drab, colorless gray, you should stay inside, right? Not exactly!
Cloudy weather might seem bad for architectural photography, but nothing could be further from the truth. You see, overcast days provide incredibly soft light that looks great in architectural shots – especially in shots of the little details that photographers tend to neglect.
In fact, soft light actually brings out all the details that are lost in high-contrast lighting, allowing you to create highly descriptive, intricate images of roofs, building edges, inscriptions, and more.
Soft light is also great for bringing out colors; look at how the greens and yellows pop in this next shot:
Even if you’re photographing on a sunny day, you can still find soft light. Either wait for a cloud to pass over the sun, or keep an eye out for photo opportunities in the shade. While shaded light often isn’t quite as soft and lovely as cloudy light, it can still look great:
One final tip: If you want to create architectural detail shots that are sharp throughout, you’ll definitely need a tripod. Soft light, while beautiful, is not strong, and you’ll be forced to drop your shutter speed for sufficient depth of field. I don’t recommend handholding your camera in such situations; instead, bring along that tripod, use a remote shutter release, and capture some tack-sharp images.
2. Use intense sidelighting
Cloudy light is great for highly detailed images, but what if you’re after more intense, shadowy, even abstract shots?
That’s when sidelight comes in handy.
No, it won’t show off intricate details, but it will let you turn buildings into fine art masterpieces by emphasizing texture and shape:
For the best sidelight, shoot on a sunny morning or afternoon. Note the position of the sun, then search for subjects that are illuminated from the side (plus or minus a handful of degrees!). Don’t be afraid to underexpose your shadows or blow out your highlights – the look can add to the abstract effect – but be careful; you don’t want to take the high-contrast compositions too far.
3. Look for highlights and shadows
Sometimes, the best architectural detail photography focuses less on building details…
…and more on the way the light falls on the building. For instance, late afternoon light can create interesting shadows, which you can turn into powerful abstract subjects. Look at how I created a composition using only the shadows on these steps:
That’s why I recommend you always pay close attention to the sun, its position in the sky, and how it’s falling on the scene. As soon as you notice some interesting shadows or highlights, get closer. Consider how you might incorporate them into a powerful image. And test out different camera angles and framings until you get an architectural composition you like!
For the best results, by the way, I recommend heading out when the sky is clear and the sun is strong. High noon will offer plenty of intense shadows, while morning and afternoon feature softer, but no less interesting, shadows of their own.
4. Find higher vantage points
Exploring architectural detail photography often begins at ground level, but there’s a whole new perspective waiting for you above. Venturing to higher vantage points can dramatically transform your shots, unveiling details and patterns unseen from the sidewalk. The upper reaches of buildings—the tops of pillars, intricate cornices, and ornate doorframes—reveal their true forms when viewed straight-on. This elevated perspective not only brings accuracy to your compositions but also highlights the beauty of architectural details that might otherwise blend into the background.
If your subject is an interior space, look for stairs or balconies to elevate your point of view. These spots can offer a unique angle on ceiling designs, upper wall decorations, and the relationship between different levels of a structure. Remember, safety and permission are paramount; always ensure you’re allowed to use these higher positions without risking harm to yourself or the building. For outdoor photography, consider parking garages or accessible windows in neighboring buildings. Another modern solution is employing a drone, which can offer unparalleled views from above. However, it’s crucial to operate drones safely and legally, respecting privacy and securing permissions where necessary.
5. Look for patterns in the architecture
My favorite thing about photographing architectural details is the wealth of compositional possibilities. Human-made structures are full of patterns and shapes, and with a bit of work, you can exploit these to create incredible photos!
For the most powerful images, I recommend you slap on a telephoto lens, then – when you find an interesting pattern – zoom in to fill the frame. Make sure you pay careful attention to the aperture and depth of field; while there’s no single best approach, you should think about your different options and choose the settings that fit your vision.
For this architectural detail image, I used a narrow aperture to achieve a deep depth of field:
Note how the entire pattern is sharp, from the window in the front right to the window in the back left.
A shallow depth of field effect, while more unorthodox, can work great, too:
6. Look for reflections
The world offers picturesque buildings, yes – but it’s also full of drab and ugly structures, and if you ask most photographers, these are rarely worth capturing.
But ugly architecture does, in fact, offer plenty to shoot! You just have to get a little creative.
Here’s what I recommend:
If you’re faced with a drab building, look around. See if you can find any reflective surfaces nearby (ideally across the street), such as windows or car hoods. Then get close to the surfaces and play with different angles, trying to reflect the ugly building. I’d also recommend testing out different points of focus; by focusing on the reflective surface itself, you’ll get one shot, but by focusing on the reflected building, you’ll get a completely different result.
With a little luck, you’ll find an interesting composition, you’ll find the right point of focus, and you’ll manage to capture a stunning photo. Even boring buildings look great with a cool reflection effect!
7. Photograph light fixtures
Architectural detail photography isn’t just about the buildings.
You see, exterior details make for great subjects, too, and one of my absolute favorite items to shoot is the humble light fixture:
Nobody pays attention to light fixtures, yet they often offer beautiful colors, powerful shapes, compelling lines, and – when shot at night – a lovely golden glow.
Don’t just stick to light fixtures, by the way. Once you’ve checked out all the lights on a building, search for other interesting items, such as signs, security cameras, door handles, and gates.
Pro tip: To capture stunning shots of fixtures, you’ll want to use a telephoto lens; many fixtures are located too far off the ground to emphasize with a wide focal length. And if you plan to capture especially small subjects – such as intricate carvings on a door handle – try working with a macro lens.
8. Don’t forget that tripod!
Many architectural photographers capture their wide-angle images with a tripod, but did you know that working with a tripod when shooting details can make a big difference? A tripod stabilizes your camera, allowing for slower shutter speeds without the risk of blur, which is essential for achieving sharp images with a narrow aperture. This technique ensures every intricate detail is crisply captured, from the texture of the materials to the subtleties of the design.
Plus, using a tripod encourages a thoughtful approach to composition. It invites you to take your time, consider your framing, and experiment with different angles and perspectives. This deliberate process often leads to more compelling and well-thought-out images.
However, it’s essential to be mindful of your surroundings. Tripods can be obtrusive in busy interiors or crowded exteriors, and some venues may have restrictions on their use. Always inquire about tripod policies upon arrival to avoid any inconvenience or disruption.
9. Watch out for key pitfalls
Before you head out, be aware of some of the common pitfalls of architectural detail photography.
Even though you are not photographing the entire building, you still have to be careful about tilting your camera back too far and causing distortion. When you tilt back to look up at a building through your camera, the bottom of the sensor is closer to the building that the top of the sensor, resulting in an image where the top of the building looks considerably more narrow than the bottom. While you won’t encounter this issue too often while photographing details, you still need to be aware of it.
Also, watch out for reflections in windows and glass doors. Sometimes, slightly shifting your angle so you are not shooting at a direct 90-degree angle to the glass can correct the problem (and keep your own reflection out of the photos).
10. Don’t forget about statues!
Architectural photographers rarely pay attention to statues – yet these are a key part of many buildings and monuments. The Charles Bridge in Prague, for instance, features 30 large, detailed statues that beg to be photographed.
So don’t skip the statue photography! Plus, it’s a lot of fun, especially when you start trying out different approaches and techniques.
You can get down low to frame the statue against the sky, you can find a vantage point and shoot down, or you can shoot on a level with the statue. Make sure you pay careful attention to the lighting, too; sidelight will emphasize texture, cloudy light will bring out details, and backlight will create beautiful flare and/or silhouette effects.
Finally, be sure to vary your focal lengths. You can zoom out to capture a statue in its entirety, but you can also zoom in tight and focus on heads, edges, gestures, and other details:
11. Convert to black and white
Architectural detail shots are often based on strong compositions.
And by stripping the color out of a shot, you can emphasize the composition while letting distracting elements recede.
That’s why I highly recommend you convert your architectural detail photos to black and white. (This move tends to work well if your compositions are full of texture or strong patterns.)
Of course, not all detail shots will look good in black and white, and that’s okay. You can apply this conversion in Lightroom or Photoshop, and then, if you don’t like the result, simply undo the adjustment.
But in my experience, monochrome architectural photos generally turn out great!
Architectural detail photography tips: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to work with light. You know how to create beautiful compositions. And you know how to discover interesting subjects.
In other words, you’re ready to capture some stunning architectural detail photography!
So head out with your camera. Use these tips. And take great photos!
Now over to you:
Which of these architectural detail photography tips is your favorite? Which do you plan to use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 8 Quick Tips to Improve Your Photos of Architectural Details
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES