Photography Friday: 10 Tips for Photographing Buildings

There are many different uses for a good working knowledge of building photography. At the simplest level, you may want to capture memories of the places you visit on vacation, which many times include historic or culturally significant buildings. At the most complex, you may be interested in architectural photography and showing off the design details of structure in an artistic manner. Either way, some tips are ahead to get your started on photographing buildings.

The first thing we need to talk about is perspective.

Most buildings have straight lines: the floor is level, the walls go up and down at 90 degrees to the floor, and roof lines are flat or at a consistent angle to the walls. Depending on where you view the building from, the perspective changes. Try taking an exterior shot of a tall building from close up. It looks like the building is falling backwards, doesn’t it?

Exterior of a Building with Columns Against Blue Sky

A tall building looks like it's falling backwards with a regular lens

In the example above, the vertical lines of the building, if extended beyond the roofline, would eventually converge somewhere in the sky. Our eyes don’t always see this perspective because our brain knows the building is standing straight up and down. And unless the plane of your lens is parallel to the plane of the front wall of the building, you will see some vertical perspective shift.

You can control horizontal perspective by shooting from the center of the building. There are a few ways to control vertical perspective, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

A Tilt-Shift lens allows the vertical lines to be straight up and down

1. Use a Tilt-Shift Lens.

The advantage of this is you can change the plane of the lens. This allows you to keep your vertical lines vertical and allows you to work with a relatively narrow depth of field to keep things in focus. The disadvantage is these lenses are pretty expensive.

2. Keep the center of your frame pointed at the horizon with whatever lens you happen to have.

This minimizes that “falling backward” effect, especially from distance. The disadvantage is that the bottom half of your frame does not include any of the building, so you are wasting about half the resolution of your camera.

3. Shoot from distance.

The further away from the building you are shooting, the less you see the perspective shift. Use a telephoto lens and try to get at least as far from the building as it is tall for a usable image. The disadvantage here is some buildings, particularly in cities, are not able to be photographed from distance.

4. Fix the perspective in Photoshop.

Photoshop has an easy way of stretching the image under Edit -> Transform -> Perspective that allows you to manipulate the vertical lines and get them perfectly straight using guides. The disadvantage is that you are stretching pixels and losing detail in your final photograph.

Front View of Several Tall, Narrow City Buildings
Tilt-Shift lenses are helpful when you can’t get back far enough to control perspective.
Interior of a Plaza Atrium
Leading lines give your photo visual interest.

Once you have mastered perspective, you can start to think about composition. Here are some tips:

5. Create leading lines.

Sometimes you can use the perspective (particularly on interiors) to create leading lines — lines that move the viewer’s eye through the photograph toward a focal point. Look for patterns and breaks in the patterns that give visual interest.

6. Use symmetry.

Use symmetry in your photo, as most buildings are designed symmetrically.

7. Remove unwanted objects.

If you are able, remove objects that do not add visual interest to a building or interior space, such as trash cans.

8. Include environmental context.

Include as much environmental context as appropriate. The space around a building can say a lot about it, so don’t be afraid to show neighboring buildings or land also.

9. Create a sense of scale.

And don’t be afraid to include people or other recognizable objects in your photos. Sometimes this helps create a sense of scale, so the viewer has a point of reference to the size of the building.

10. Shoot during different times of day.

Try shooting during different times of day. Dawn and dusk can give you beautiful color skies but noonday sun can bring out textures that you didn’t see before.

Buildings are fun to photograph because they don’t move and allow you to take your time to experiment with different techniques. Which cities have your favorite buildings to photograph?

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