Architectural Photography: The Basics

In brief:

  • Architectural photography is as old as photography itself. The first known photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras from 1826, taken by Nicéphore Niépce, depicts a French farmhouse.
  • At first, architectural photography was used to record buildings and other structures more or less realistically. As time went by – and the demand for architectural photography increased – photographers started to experiment with various forms of artistic expression.
  • The basic equipment required for successful architectural photography includes the camera, a wide-angle lens, flash lights and, importantly, a sturdy tripod.
  • Balancing the ambient and the flash light is possibly the most useful ‘trick of the trade’ in architectural photography. While not difficult in itself, working with these different light sources is based on a solid understanding of the exposure triangle.

Info Box: How to Balance Ambient and Flash Light >>

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Architectural photography deals with photographing buildings and other man-made structures. The aim is to represent the object in a realistic and aesthetically pleasing manner.

Architectural photographers are often hired by builders and building companies as well as architects who wish to get a record of the building when it is still brand new and doesn’t show any signs of wear.

Another common scenario for hiring an architectural photographer is to document any structural changes or renovations made to the building.

Sometimes the changes are decorative, as when the building exterior is re-painted or the decor of the house is updated.

All of these cases require a new set of photographs that represent the current state of the building.

Who started architectural photography

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Architectural photography is literally as old the art of photography.

The first known photograph ever created, View from the Window at Le Gras from 1826, depicted a farmhouse at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes in the region of Bourgogne in eastern France.

The photographer, Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833), took the photograph with a camera obscura which he focused onto a 16.2 cm × 20.2 cm (6.4 in × 8.0 in) pewter plate coated with Bitumen of Judea, a kind of natural asphalt.

The bitumen in the brightly lit areas of the scene turned hard, whereas the darker areas remained soft and could be washed away. Judging by the fact that the sunlight strikes the building on opposite sides in the photograph, the exposure must have taken at least eight hours, if not longer.

Ever since the first photograph, architectural subjects have always been popular. In the early stages of photography – when exposure times were recorded in hours, and then minutes – buildings, monuments and various components of public infrastructure were ideal subjects for photographers. They stayed in one place and so made it easy to take a sharp photograph without the usual motion blur encountered when photographing human subjects, or even nature.

The conventions and practices of architectural photography were formalised from very early on. Photographing buildings and spaces was already seen as a separate field of photography in the 1860s.

Architectural Photography as an Art Form

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Since the early years of photography, there have been many technical and artistic changes to architectural photography. Over time, photographers have tended to expand their vision from a strict copying of architectural form into more creative expression by using non-horizontal and non-vertical lines as well as emphasising brightness differences of the scene, among other such technical choices.

From the 1950s onwards, architectural photography has been seen as an art form. Unsurprisingly, the artistic status rendered architectural photography had to do with money: photographers were hired by architects and wealthy house owners more than before, and the fees for architectural photography went up at the same time.

Many of the successful mid-century architectural photographers became rich and famous themselves. The American photographer Julius Shulman (1910–2009) was well-known for his black and white and colour photos of modern architecture. Many of his photographs depicting the houses of the rich and the famous in the Hollywood Hills included a human element. His most celebrated image, the Case Study House #22, for instance, has two female figures sitting in a corner of a modern Hollywood home with floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

Another celebrated architectural photographer, the French-Hungarian Lucien Hervé (1910 – 2007) used “cropped frames, plunging or oblique views, and pared-down compositions” in order to distance his photographs from a strictly natural depiction of buildings. Instead, Hervé aimed at conveying architectural abstractions by adding another layer of meaning to the scene. This he achieved largely with the help of dark shadows that almost seem to compete with the more material forms of the photograph.

Many of Hervé’s architectural photos depict concrete buildings designed in the brutalist architectural style. When we also consider that his photographs were always in black and white (I haven’t found any that were in colour), the high-contrast style becomes an understandable choice: it reflects the medium and acts as a commentary to the harsh, unyielding look of the brutalist architecture.

Modern Architectural Photography

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In contrast to the earlier types of architectural photography, the modern photographers tend to emphasise a natural, home-like atmosphere in their work.

This choice of style is partly due to the advancements in camera, lens and lighting technology. It is far easier to build and photograph a cosy-looking scene using modern photographic equipment than what it was in the past.

Another reason the architectural photography styles have morphed so much is the change in popular tastes. In general, people nowadays gravitate towards using natural materials and earthy colours in their homes. There’s also a tendency to blur the division between the outside and the inside areas of a building, making the patio and other outdoor areas a natural continuum of the indoor living spaces.

It is only natural that architectural photography would adapt to these changes in taste and technology.

At its most basic level, the modern architectural photography aims to recording a building exterior or a house interior with as little contrast change as possible. The new style is the direct opposite of the older, dramatic method which emphasised the brightness differences in a scene.

Interior and Exterior Photography

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Architectural photography can be divided into two self-explanatory groups. Exterior photography records the outside of a building. Interior photography deals with its inner layout.

To a certain extent, a photographer would use the same approaches and techniques when photographing either of these areas.

In reality, however, capturing the exteriors is almost always more straightforward.

The main consideration when photographing the outside of a building is the strength and the direction of the sunlight. You may use external flashlight in some instances but in most cases the sunlight is more than enough.

The Interiors, on their part, pose a few questions of their own. Because we live and work inside houses we have a stronger emotional bond to the inner design of a building.

The photographer’s job is to capture the feeling as well as the design of the space and make it possible for the viewer of the image to visualise themselves within the room.

From a technical point of view, interior photography often requires the use of flashlights, both on and off the camera.

There are two main challenges when photographing interiors.

Firstly, you need to know how to balance the ambient light in the windows with the artificial light cast by your flashes.

Secondly, you must be able to make your lighting seem so natural that a casual viewer of the photograph – who’s not aware of the tricks of the trade – does not even realise that you’ve used any artificial lighting at all.

The solution to interior lighting is fairly simple once you learn the principle – although grasping the theory may take some time. It sure did for me…

Architectural Photography Equipment

Photography Equipment

The most basic setup for architectural photography is very simple. You’ll need your camera, a wide angle lens and you’re good to go.

You might be able to get through a photoshoot with just this minimal gear, and even produce great photos – if you’re lucky.

In reality, you’ll need a few more pieces of equipment to make sure your shoot will be a success.

The number one accessory for architectural photography is a strong, sturdy tripod. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to invest in a professional tripod if your goal is to make professional looking architectural photos.

Having a tripod is more important than even the flash gun. If you have a tripod, you can create perfectly lit interior and exterior photographs in all light conditions and in any kind of situation.

I personally use a Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 tripod legs with Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head. Better tripods, like this setup, come in two parts. You by the legs and the head separately.

A geared head in a tripod means that it can be adjusted in three directions by using knobs that move the head, on which the camera rests, either up, down or sideways.

The operation is not lightning fast but it’s not meant to be that. The adjustments are very precise and will allow you to create the exact composition you want as well as to ensure that your buildings are absolutely horizontal. Getting things right in-camera makes post processing faster and, even more importantly, eliminates the need for cropping and so let’s you keep all your original pixels.

After the camera, a couple of lenses and a tripod, the most essential piece of gear you should think of is the flash.

In many situations, a single on-camera flash bounced off the wall or the ceiling is just enough.

In trickier lighting situations, or if the room is really long, you might also need a couple of off-camera flashes.

I will always opt to use as little gear as I can get away with. Often I only use that one flash sitting on top of my camera and I’m still able to produce photos that are completely satisfactory.

There are architectural photographers that prefer not to use flashes at all. Instead, they will employ a technique called high dynamic range photography. You take a few photos of the scene varying the exposure in each shot.

The idea is to then combine the photos into one hybrid image in Photoshop and utilise the different exposures to create a perfectly illuminated scene. Without the use of multiple images, your only other option for lighting interior spaces is to use artificial lighting.

It’s really a matter of taste, more than anything. Both techniques produce great results in normal circumstances. When you use flashlights, you have some more freedom to create ambience and atmosphere in your shots by strategically placing your lights in different parts of the room. There’s also less Photoshop work afterwards, which is always great.

How to Balance Ambient and Flash Light

Possibly the most important trick of the trade in architectural photography is balancing the flash light with the ambient light coming in from the windows.

Learning to control these two kinds of lights, and being able to make them work in concert is a skill all architectural photographers must learn, sooner or later.

The good news is, however, that it’s not that hard, once you get your head around the exposure triangle.

The photographic exposure is made up of three variables: shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

The shutter speed determines how long the light is allowed to be in contact with the sensor.

The aperture refers to the size of the hole in the lens through which the light travels into the camera.

Lastly, the ISO is the number that tells you how receptive the sensor is to light. The more voltage there is on the camera sensor the more light it can gather. Unfortunately, a higher ISO number will translate to higher amounts of digital noise.

Balancing flash light and the ambient light is based on the differences in their duration.

The flash light only lasts a fraction of a second whereas the ambient light is constant. When you’re taking a flash photograph, your camera records these light sources separately. Because the duration of the flash is much shorter than the shutter speed, it is controlled by the aperture. The amount of ambient light, on the other hand is determined by the shutter speed.

A flash photograph consists of two exposures. The one is controlled by the aperture and the other by the shutter speed.

To have complete control of the look of your architectural photo, you should always use manual exposure.

The camera settings depend on the size of the room you’re photographing, as well as on the amount of light coming in through the windows.

To set your camera for a flash exposure, you can start by having your ISO at its lowest setting which is usually ISO 100. This will ensure that your photo is as free of noise as possible.

For determining the right shutter speed and the aperture, it’s necessary to test different settings. A good starting point – when photographing interiors – is to have your aperture at 5.6 and your shutter speed at 1/100 second.

You can decide the amount of detail in the window by changing your shutter speed. A faster shutter speed gives you a clearer view of the outdoors. It will also make the room darker, which means that it will mainly be lit by the flash light.

If you don’t care about the detail in the window, you can always “drag the shutter”, or lengthen the shutter speed. This will result in a better overall exposure inside the room but may also blow out the windows.

The amount of flash light in relation to the ambient light gives your image its look. In architectural photography, there are two aesthetic views regarding the windows. I call them the real estate school of thinking and the architectural magazine school of thinking.

When you’re photographing houses for a real estate agency, chances are they’ll want to have as much detail in the window as possible – depending on the view outside the window, of course.

The architectural shots in magazines are more often based on the ambient lighting. In consequence, you will see brighter windows than in real estate photography.

Both approaches are valid and can be applied to good effect.

When you’re photographing commercially, it is the client who gets to decide which style you should go with.


Sources:

Architectural photography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architectural_photography
Nicéphore Niépce: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nic%C3%A9phore_Ni%C3%A9pce
View from the Window at Le Gras: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras
Saint-Loup-de-Varennes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint-Loup-de-Varennes
Julius Shulman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Shulman
Julius Shulman Net Worth: https://networthpost.org/net-worth/julius-shulman-net-worth/
Stahl House: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stahl_House
Lucien Hervé: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucien_Hervé
Brutalist architecture: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brutalist_architecture
Lighting 101: Balancing Flash and Ambient, Pt 1: http://strobist.blogspot.com/2006/03/lighting-101-balancing-flash-and.html
How is ISO implemented in digital cameras?: https://photo.stackexchange.com/questions/2946/how-is-iso-implemented-in-digital-cameras


Photos in this article are copyright Markus Jaaskelainen Photography except the photo Case Study House #22 which is copyright Julius Shulman and the photo View from the Window at Le Gras which is in the public domain.

Thank you for reading!

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