Architectural Photography Tips That Will Make You Stunning Photos

Where are you reading this article? Lounging on the sofa at home, sitting in an office, whiling away some time at the railway station before your train home? There a good chance there’s a piece of architecture around you or near you. Have you ever considered how you might photograph it? We spend much of our lives surrounded by architecture and we often take it for granted. In this guide, we look at ways you can spice up your approach and bring out the best in your architectural photography.

Decide Which Architectural Photography Style Is Best for Your Subject

There’s a huge variety of architecture out there and many genres are best suited to particular styles of shooting. You could be photographing a historic building, a piece of cutting edge modernism or even a functional working space. Architecture photography isn’t a one size fits all genre so let’s consider some of the different approaches.

  • The classic architectural view is a wide shot of a building, showing its context in the landscape. This can work really well, especially with historic structures. For instance, you might wish to show a stately home set in a rolling landscape, or a working mill sitting beside the river whose water it uses.

  • Move in closer to focus on details. Sometimes a closer approach can work just as well. This might mean picking out interesting features in a building, showing some of the craftsmanship that’s gone into carved stonework or stained glass.
A photo showing the architectural details of a building's designed columns
Moving in closer focuses the viewer’s eye on the wonderful craftsmanship in these columns
  • Move in really close to create an abstract. A third option is to go in really close, using features of a building to create an abstract image. This can work especially well with modern architecture, where interesting glass or metal features can offer a fascinating array of lines to play with.
An abstract architectural photograph created by zooming in on a building's patterns
Here the curved lines of this piece of modern architecture have been used to create a stunning abstract image. Photo by Samuel Zeller

Which Lens Should I Use for Architectural Photography?

Your choice of lens will largely depend on what you want to photograph.

  • Wide angle lenses: If you’re after a wide shot, including the whole building and setting it in context, a wide angle lens, perhaps 24 or 28mm, will be useful. It may seem tempting to go for a really wide angle lens or a fisheye. Tread carefully though – extreme wide angle lenses can be tricky beasts to manage! You can easily find you have a building that’s leaning over or bending at the edges if your technique isn’t top notch.
  • Tilt shift lenses: If you still have a hankering for that wide shot and are feeling wealthy you could choose a tilt shift lens. Such lenses have the facility to move the glass elements laterally and vertically, independently of the camera so you can capture an entire building without getting the sense it’s about to fall over. However, they’re expensive – the current Canon 24mm tilt shift lens is around £1700!
  • Prime lenses: If your preference is for a closer focus, a longer focal length could be your friend. A 50mm prime can be really handy for capturing a sense of context as well as some closer shots of interesting architectural features.
  • Zoom lenses: Don’t overlook the possibilities of telephoto lenses for architectural photography either. A long zoom can be a really handy tool for capturing smaller details of buildings. To capture that gruesome gargoyle on a church exterior 200mm could be just what you need!

Related Article: Best Real Estate Lenses

Use a Polarizing Filter to Intensify Colors and Control Glare

Another handy tool to have in your armory, and one that should be in every photographer’s bag,  is a polarising filter. A polarizer can make skies a more saturated and deeper shade of blue. This can work really well if there are some puffy white clouds as they’ll really pop against a deep blue sky. They’re also great for lessening reflections and glare on non-metallic surfaces – a useful bonus if you’re shooting modern architecture with lots of glass. You can learn more about polarising filters here.

A row of houses by a canal photographed using a polarizing filter to intensify colors and remove glare from reflections. A polarizer is an important tool for architectural photography
A polarizing filter helps to intensify colors and remove glare

Pick Your Shooting Time With Care

The way the light falls on a building can make a huge difference in architectural photography. The harsh overhead light of midday can be very unflattering. Catch the same building at the end of the day and you’ll almost certainly create a better image. The soft light of the golden hour, raking across the front of a building, can be wonderful for bringing out the textures in stonework and creating a three-dimensional effect.

If you’re somewhere frequented by lots of tourists it can be frustrating to wait for a clear view of your chosen subject. If that’s the case, why not get up half an hour earlier before breakfast and take a walk?

A photo showing how choosing your shooting time can hugely improve architectural photography. Speicherstadt (lit. warehouse city) in Hamburg
Speicherstadt (lit. warehouse city) in Hamburg

If you’re not sure what time of day would be best to photograph your chosen building, consider downloading an app like the Photographer’s Ephemeris. Using this, you can find out exactly where the sun will be at a given time of day and perhaps save yourself a wasted visit at the wrong time.

Pay Attention to Vertical Lines

Have you ever photographed a tall building and had the sense that it’s about to topple over? The reason for this is because the vertical lines of any building appear to converge as we get closer.

So what can you do to avoid this?

  • Shoot from far: The obvious answer is to step further away from your subject to straighten things up. But, of course, this isn’t always possible, especially if you’re shooting in a confined city location.
  • Use a tilt-shift lens: As I mentioned earlier, you could use a tilt shift lens but they’re very expensive and quite challenging to use.
  • Use a better angle: If it’s not possible to move further from your subject, try to modify the angle of your camera so its sensor is as parallel to the building as possible. It’s worth experimenting with using the LCD screen to compose your picture if that allows you to hold the camera higher to straighten things up.
An architectural photo of the Hungarian parliament with straight vertical lines
A photo of the Hungarian Parliament. By standing far away, we are able to get straight vertical lines

Correct Vertical Lines in Post Processing

If you aren’t able to get the lines straight in the camera, you have two other options. One is to correct the distortion in post-production. Lightroom has an excellent transform tool which will attempt to straighten things for you automatically. I tend to try the Auto option first and if that doesn’t quite sort things out I’ll try the others too. If all else fails you can use the sliders below the buttons to tweak things to your liking.

Related Article: Lightroom Tutorials

An architectural photograph is being edited in Lightroom
Use Lightroom to correct distortions and straighten vertical lines

If you plan to straighten things up in post production do remember that you’ll lose some pixels from the edge of your picture in the process. It’s, therefore, a good idea to shoot at a slightly shorter focal length and allow some extra space around your subject. That way you are less likely to accidentally crop off the top or bottom of the building.

A photo showing the corrected vertical lines of a building
A before and after shot, showing the straightened verticals Photo by Helen Hooker

Your other option is to go to the opposite extreme and positively embrace the converging verticals. Why not try out a few frames where you get really close and make a feature of this distortion? You might find it adds just the drama you were after! It will also make it clear to the viewer that you really meant to photograph the building this way, rather than appearing to be accidental.

I really exaggerated the converging vertical lines in this picture to make a feature of them. Photo by Helen Hooker

Include a Human Element in Your Architectural Photography

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably spend a lot of time waiting for people to get out of your frame. While a human free scene is sometimes just what’s needed, don’t rule out including a human element from your pictures completely. It can be very difficult to gauge the scale of a building. We all know roughly how big the average person is so including one or two in your pictures can help give a sense of size and proportion.

Interior of an enormous medieval barn captured with a human element to show scale
It’s very hard to gauge the size of this enormous medieval barn without something recognizable to give a sense of scale. Photo by Helen Hooker

Experiment With Monochrome

Black and white can be a great tool for architectural photography. It may be you’ve taken a fantastic photo, but there’s someone in your frame wearing a bright red coat. Converting to monochrome will remove this distraction in a flash! Remember too that using black and white can really enhance the structure and texture in your pictures too, both of them intrinsic elements in architecture.

Lightroom and Photoshop both have excellent monochrome conversion tools. Alternatively, you could try a plugin such as Nik’s Silver Efex Pro, which is widely thought to be one of the best tools for this. Even better, it’s free to download now so you’ve got nothing to lose!

Here is a comparison between in camera monochrome mode (left) and a picture converted to monochrome in Nik Silver Efex Pro (right). The second picture has much more impact and contrast. Photos by Helen Hooker.

You can find lots of other handy tips on monochrome photography here.

Add Motion Using Long Exposure

Unlike video, still-photography captures a moment, frozen in time. There is still a way you can give a sense of the passage of time, and that’s through the use of long exposures.

By choosing a slow shutter speed, moving elements in your scene become blurred. This could be crowds moving around a busy street scene or clouds whizzing through the sky above a building. Either way, choosing a slower shutter speed will create motion blur.

A photo of a clouds moving above a bridge.
Using a long exposure has softened the waves and the clouds in this photo by Fradellafra

Sometimes shooting with a low ISO setting and a smaller aperture can slow your shutter speed enough to create the effect you’re after. However, stopping down your aperture too far can reduce sharpness. So it’s often worth considering using a neutral density filter instead. If this is something that interests you, read more info about long exposure photography.

Don’t Forget to Shoot Interiors

So you’ve photographed the exterior of your chosen building – shall we turn our attention to the interior now?

Many of the same rules apply interior photography, especially when it comes to getting the vertical lines straight. Do remember to look out for interesting architectural features too. For example, staircases can be fascinating subjects to photograph, with their plethora of lines and curves.

The lines in this staircase make a fascinating abstract study in this photo by Christopher Burns

Churches can also offer interesting studies in repeating patterns with their many arches. Don’t forget to look up too – you may find all manner of great photographic subjects above head height!

Pay Attention to Shutter Speed and ISO When Shooting Interiors

The biggest difficulty when photographing interiors tends to be the light levels, which are often lower than outdoors. Using a tripod will give you added stability when shooting at slower shutter speeds. If a tripod is not allowed, you could try using something else for stability, such as a Gorillapod or a Platypod. They’re much more compact and less likely to create a trip hazard. Plus, they don’t look like tripods so you’re far less likely to get hassled by an over-enthusiastic security guard!

Another alternative is to shoot with a fast lens. Using a large aperture, such as f1.8, allows much more light into your camera. As a result, you can get a fast enough shutter speed to shoot handheld. If you’re currently using a standard kit lens, perhaps with an aperture of f3.5-5.6, it’s worth considering a 50mm f1.8 prime lens as your next purchase. They’re relatively cheap and a large aperture will open up all sorts of creative possibilities.

Create a Photo Essay

If you’re visiting somewhere new, why not consider what you might do with your photos afterward? How about creating a photo essay with your images? It’s worth thinking about this before you start shooting. For instance, you could shoot a collection of pictures, show everything from wide shots to close-ups of interiors.

Related Article: Photo Essay Ideas

Once you’ve done this, why not share a selection of them with us via the Photoblog platform? We’d all love to see your unique take on architectural photography!

If you need more inspiration to share your architectural photo story, take a look at my story Rediscovering Lincoln on PhotoBlog platform.

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About the author

Helen Hooker

Helen Hooker is a musician and photographer based in the UK. Helen has been photoblogging every single day since November 2008 and has a particular passion for architectural and wildlife photography.

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