Architectural Photography Lighting

architectural photography lighting

In brief:

  • The three kinds of lights used by architectural photographers are the flash lights, ambient lights and the natural light.
  • Using a camera flash in interior photography, it’s important to make the light source as large as possible. To achieve this, you can either modify the light coming from your flash gun or you can bounce your flash from a suitable surface.
  • Various light fixtures are used inside and outside the house. Often it’s a good idea to see if leaving them on makes your photograph more interesting.
  • The natural light from the sun is our main source of light against which we’ll match our artificial lighting. The nature of the natural light is determined by the weather and the time of the day.

The word photography means ‘drawing with light’. For an architectural photographer, there are three kinds of lights he or she has to contend with.

Using the flash light helps you illuminate the indoor spaces without blowing out the windows.

Employing a camera flash will also aid you in lighting tricky outdoor areas.

While the sun light is the main source of lighting when photographing exteriors, the natural light may not reach all parts of the building equally. The covered door entrances and awnings will often be shaded and stay underexposed in your photo, unless you throw some fill flash on them.

The ambient indoor and outdoor lighting is created by light fixtures inside or outside the house.

Lastly, the natural light comes into the house through windows, skylights and other openings.

Using a Camera Flash for Architectural Photography

architectural photography lighting

The main form of artificial lighting for architectural photography is the camera flash, also known as a strobe or a flash gun.

The flash guns usually sit on your camera in a bracket called the hot shoe. They can be used on their own, as the solo light introduced on the scene. Or they can be linked up with each other and placed strategically inside the room.

In both cases, you might want to direct the light away from the space you’re photographing and bouncing it from the wall or a ceiling.

On it’s own, the light from a camera flash is just too hard to create beautiful illumination. The softer the light the less defined the shadows it casts.

Which is what we want.

To create soft light, you’ll need a big light source.

This is how it works: the small lights cast sharp shadows, the big ones stretch out the shadows and make them soft.

How do you make your light source larger if you only have a small flash gun?

There are two ways to make your light bigger. You can direct it through a diffuse material or you can bounce it off a larger surface. Both methods are widely used in architectural photography.

To diffuse the light you’re using, you have an array of commercially available light modifiers from simple plastic light diffusers, that you attach on your camera flash to shoot-through umbrellas and softboxes.

Some of these options can be quite expensive, especially if you’re buying from some of the big brand names in the photography industry.

Luckily, there is almost always a cheap Chinese alternative that you can buy if you can’t afford the fancy stuff – or if you can’t justify spending the extra dollars on something that may not function any better than the more economical options.

As an example, you can either ditch out $120 on Lastolite Joe McNally Ezybox Speed-Lite or you can get a very similar flash modifier from Godox for $15.

If you’re starting out or if you’re a hobbyist photographer, the second one is a great option.

With the first one, you’re getting a product made in Leicestershire, England and designed by the American photographer and educator Joe McNally.

The choice is yours.

The second way to diffuse light is to bounce it off a surface.

The bouncing surface can be something you bring with you to the photo shoot, like a reflective umbrella or a standalone flash reflector.

But the easiest way to bounce your flash is to turn it around and aim at a ceiling above you or at a wall next to you.

To achieve this, you’re going to need a camera flash that’s capable of being rotated a half-circle.

That’s it.

If you’re using more than one photography flash, you’ll also need some way to prop up your off-camera flashes.

I use plastic mini stands most of the time. They have a groove that’s shaped like the camera hot shoe into which you attach your flash. It stands on its own and can be placed on bookshelves, tables, roof rafters, floors or whever it’s needed.

These hot shoe bracket holders are a bargain at about a dollar a piece and should live permanently in every architectural photographer’s camera bag.

In some situations, it might be worthwhile to use tall flash and light stands, also called C-stands. They can be positioned on the side of the frame, outside the picture.

In reality I’ve found that I rarely need them, however. The little flashes and the mini stands can easily be retouched out of the photo. And their use is flexible: they can be put anywhere in the room – unlike the C-stands with their cumbersome tripod legs.

Using Ambient Lighting in Architectural Photography

architectural photography lighting

Artificial light fixtures come in many shapes and forms, and they can be situated inside or outside the house. The existing man-made lighting can create drama and interest in your architectural photography and you should consider incorporating it into your composition when possible.

The general lighting within a room is often created using pendant lights that hang from the ceiling, suspended by a cord, chain or metal rod. These are the kinds of lights most of us picture when thinking of house lights.

They are found in most bedrooms, lounge rooms and children’s play rooms and give out a broad light that can also be topical – depending on the contrast level of the room. Pendant lights are sometimes a feature in hotel rooms where the lamp shades are designed to add to the decor and ambiance of the place.

The light cast by pendant lights is usually flat and inconspicuous, and may not make much of a difference in terms of the overall look of your photo. If the lamp shade is visible in the photo, you might want to turn it on; otherwise just leave it off, especially if you’re using camera flashes.

Recessed lights are set into the wall or the ceiling. Their function is to act as ambient lighting where the space is too low for pendant lights or too narrow for wall lights. They can also be used to highlight certain parts of the architecture like feature walls or other decorative elements. Leave them on if they create interest in your photo.

Track lights are sometimes found in offices or kitchens where they may be situated above the kitchen island. I would definitely include them in my photos of these areas – and possibly turn the lights on – because they are part of the interior design of the house and so important to record.

To stay in the kitchen, under cabinet lights can add extra light and interest to your photo – depending on the level of the ambient light. Make sure not to photograph under the level of the under cabinet lights, however. It’s not necessary to see under the cupboards when photographing interiors.

Vanity lights, used in bathrooms and dressing rooms, are attached to the top or the sides of a mirror. They are reminiscent of the dressing rooms in the backstage of a theatre where the actors and actresses change into their costumes and apply makeup. If you wish to add drama into your photo, make sure to feature a vanity mirror with its lights on – with or without the human props.

Task lighting is situated above or near the office desk, where the work is performed. Office lighting, such as a desk light with a swing arm above the office table, can be used to create atmospheric contrast to the room when the general lighting is low. Spot lights are a feature in kitchens, where they illuminate the cooking area, and garages, where these lights are place above the workbench. Both these lights are an integral part of the interior space and should be on and included in your photograph.

Accent lighting, including wall sconces and other wall lights, adds drama to the room. They are used to highlight and showcase works of art, bookcase displays, pieces of furniture and other design elements. They are popular in museums, galleries and art exhibitions. The effect is cultured and stylish, and you should not only include them in your photos but also emphasise them.

Whereas accent lighting is concentrated on a small area, wall wash lighting is more ambient and often illuminates the whole wall. This decorative element is an important part of the overall interior design and an obvious subject of photography.

Outside of the house, the lighting consists of general landscape lights as well as spotlights. These will come to play in your photography if you’re shooting at dusk or at night.

The general landscape lights, including lanterns, sconces and flood lights are used in the gardens, terraces and walkways of public and private buildings for illumination, security and atmosphere. The flood lights illuminate large outdoor areas and can also be triggered by motion sensor, whereas the first two light up smaller areas of the garden.

Landscaping spotlights are focused beams of light often attached near pathways and small statues. They can also be utilised to make house numbers and other signage visible in the dark.

Both types of outdoor lighting can be used for good effect in architectural photography. They can also be replicated and mimicked with a clever use of off-camera flashes.

Using Natural Light in Architectural Photography

architectural photography lighting

As an architectural photographer, you are mainly working with natural light whether you utilise other kinds of lighting or not. Most indoor and outdoor shoots happen during the day, which is a good thing as we’ll only have to complement the naturally occurring light to make our interiors and exteriors look great.

Light enters the room via the windows which normally are a part of the outer walls and so located on the side of the room. Because of this, the room is the brightest near the windows and gets darker as you move away from them.

If you are lucky enough to have windows on both or more sides of the room, you may be able to photograph the space without using any additional light.

Often there is only one window, however. In this case, it’s your job to bring up the brightness in the darker areas to match the luminosity near the window.

In essence, you have two options. You can use artificial lighting or high dynamic range photography – to take two or more photos with varying exposure levels and combine them in post into one correctly illuminated image.

Both are good options and produce excellent results when implemented properly. As I’ve mentioned previously, you can drag your shutter to take better advantage of the natural light, making sure to keep an eye on the window.

If your exposure is mostly based on the window light – which means that you’re using longer shutter speeds to brighten up the room – you will lose the detail in the window.

The amount of detail you wish to have in your windows is completely up to you, and the tastes of your client. I would probably make sure that your window frames are not blown up though, even if you like bright windows.

For the outdoor areas, the natural light is naturally the main source of illumination. When you’re photographing the exterior of the building, the main things to take into account are the time of the day and the weather.

Sun rises from the east and sets in the west. It also shines on different sides of the building at different times of the day. You’ll rarely have the luxury to shoot a building exterior in the morning and at night but if you do, you’ll find it worthwhile to take the extra trouble.

An overcast day produces different results from a bright, sunny day. Subdued light of a cloudy day makes it easier to balance window light with the flash indoors. A brilliant sunshine from a cloudless sky gives your property shots a bright, upbeat aspect.

Both are good and both pose their unique challenges for the photographer.


Outdoor Lighting Guide: Types of Lights and Installation:
How to Use Ambient, Accent, and Task Lighting:
About Godox:
Lastolite by Manfrotto Brochure:
Scott Hargis: The Essential Guide to Lighting Interiors:

All photos in this article are copyright (c) Markus Jaaskelainen Photography 2018.
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