Books have been written on how to capture a great architectural image. There are myriad aspects to take into consideration. Chapters are devoted solely to the topic of lighting, composition and perspective. Yes, it’s quite extensive and I’ve yet to mention the aspect of photographing interiors! But, here’s my take—in order to get started, a journey has to begin with a first step. Homer created a trilogy of epics placing the first letter of the first word onto a page. Aim your camera at a building and make that first press of the shutter. To get you started, I offer three Quick Tips so that first release nets a more successful image.
Patterns, Shapes, Lines and Color: Whether you start your architectural journey photographing a solitary barn in the middle of a field or a big city skyscraper amidst its brothers, study the patterns, shapes, lines and color of the subject. Note how light emphasizes these designs. Zero in on the parts that provide the most compositional impact. What determines this is how shadows and light play off each other. The shadows and highlights are what accentuate the shapes. Look for contrast, but if it’s too strong, be sure to expose for the highlights so they maintain detail. This being said, return to the same structure at different times of the day when the light will be warmer, softer or less angular. Soft light provides less contrast, which reveals detail in deeply shadowed areas. Dependent upon your location, different cities or parts of the world provide different looks. The art deco region of Miami necessitates different strategies than the lights of Vegas, which necessitate different ones from the Chicago skyline. Regardless, go out and make that first release of the shutter to get started.
Include the Environment: Sometimes, you’ll focus on small details to depict patterns, shapes and colors as referenced above, while at others you’ll concentrate on the big picture. This necessitates including the environment. In a big city, seek out areas that provide clean vantage points so the foreground isn’t filled with clutter. In a big city, this means an investment of time and energy, but the reward is better photographs. Look for subjects to include in the foreground. Use wide-angle lenses, but keep the camera parallel to the buildings to prevent keystoning. Keystoning gives the appearance that the buildings lean backward into the frame. The more parallel a wide-angle lens is held to the subject, the less keystoning that occurs. When the big skyline shot is the focus, the light is extremely important. Make skyline shots at sunrise and sunset. The light is warmer in tone so the buildings glow. Glass buildings look as if they’re bathed in gold. So, if the goal is to capture a big city skyline, pretend you’re Homer and make that first release of the shutter.
Use HDR: Buildings that are elaborately lit make great nighttime subjects. To the human eye, they look magnificently dramatic. The problem is translating that look to your digital camera. The sensor can’t capture the dynamic range of the human eye. So, with a single click of the shutter, the image looks too contrasty. Software can correct this, but in the field prerequisites need to be made. Capture a bracketed burst of five different exposures using one full stop increments. Be sure the camera is on a tripod and all knobs are locked down tight. The dark exposures preserve highlight detail while the bright ones reveal shadow detail. Start with an exposure two stops darker than the meter reading, then one stop darker, then one on the meter reading, then one over and finally two over. Run these images through High Dynamic Range (HDR) software such as Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 or Photomatix. The program will extract the best parts from each file to provide an evenly toned final result. This method requires a bit more thought and effort, but if architectural photography is in your future, it’s necessary.
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