As photographers, when we walk through our local communities we’re often scouting the landscape around us for good picture opportunities… but how often do we ever look up? Buildings can be great subjects for striking images, and at this time of year when the sun is getting lower in the sky you have a great opportunity to capture the shape and form of architecture and present it in a way most people might not have seen.
1. When to shoot architecture
Buildings often look their best just after sunset, when their lights have come on and the sky is a rich, deep blue. Likewise, photographing just before sunset you’ll find that the lower light levels will bring out textures, detail and shadows that you won’t find at any other time of day.
Head out in late afternoon as the day is turning into evening and look for a west-facing building. The best subjects are those with crisp, clean lines that will provide clearly defined shapes in your images.
You want something that really makes the most of the low evening light. Cathedrals and other historical buildings always make for great subjects, but these are also oft-photographed subjects. A nice way to create an architectural image with impact is to look for a more modern building that meets the above criteria and think about how you can give it an abstract treatment.
It doesn’t need to be an important building, and you don’t need to travel to London to find it. Often a simple car park or high-rise block of flats will have that futuristic look that you can really hone in on with your camera.
Now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s think about how we can pick out a building’s abstract architectural details and then frame and focus a shot.
2. Set a narrow aperture
Like when shooting landscapes, nine times out of ten when shooting architecture you want everything in the frame to be sharp. So to this end you’ll want to use a narrow aperture (high f number). Typically an aperture of f/13 or f/16 will be a good starting point. You’ll find at these apertures a nice compromise between image quality and depth of field.
Architects love detail. And to ensure you capture these, along with a building’s strong lines and shape, you’ll want an aperture that widens your zone of sharpness.
3. Look for interesting shapes and detail
Of course, to maximise the effect of those details you need to find them first! Buildings are tall, wide structures and can be overwhelming when you first look at them. Knowing where to focus on takes some investigation.
A good way to train your eye is to look for any areas where there are repetitive shapes or details. These almost always make for interesting subjects when you zoom in to isolate them.
Likewise, strong diagonal lines can add impact to a composition. You can also try tilting your camera to make an image even more abstract. When going for this kind of treatment, make sure you exclude from your composition any elements that may give away the context of the environment.
Sometimes it is admittedly hard to identify these areas of a building or simply know if a composition will work when you’re composing through your viewfinder. That’s why it’s often worth using your live view screen and even taking a few test shots first to judge a composition.
A good exercise is to use your viewfinder to frame.
4. Don’t always use a tripod
Most architectural photos are shot with a tripod, particularly if you’re shooting just before or after sunset. But sometimes, if there’s enough light, you can come away with more dynamic images when you take the camera into your own hands.
Shooting handheld gives you the freedom to move around and try out different angles. There are ways you can still keep camera shake at bay even when the light levels are low. For starters, if your camera or lens has image stabilisation, turn it on.
You can also secure the camera better by adopting a wide stance and tucking your arms in to support your camera. Then, as you press the shutter button, take a deep breath to steady yourself; this will help cut down on any body movements during the exposure.
5. Use a circular polarising filter
If you only buy one filter for your camera, make sure it’s a circular polariser. When shooting architecture you’re often pointing your camera up, and a good circular polarising filter will deepen the blues in a sky and brighten the whites in clouds.
To get the best results with a circular polariser, shoot with the sun behind or in front of you. In other words, a circular polariser will produce more dramatic effects when you shoot at right angles to the sun.
6. Be patient and wait
Unlike skittish wildlife or distracted children, a building doesn’t move. This means you have time to hone your composition and wait for the light to change, or let some clouds blow into your scene. Being patient and carefully crafting your scene will make for a stronger image in the end.
7. Be sensible… and carry some ID!
Most architecture you shoot will be in public places, and with the world being what it is now it’s highly likely that someone in a uniform will come question you about what you’re doing.
Nine times out of 10, they’ll say OK and walk away or even take an interest in what you’re shooting. They just want reassurance, so be polite, explain what you’re doing and make sure you have some ID on hand to prove who you really are.
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