My Approach to Architectural Photography

My Approach to Architectural Photography

I’ve been pondering on how to answer a challenging question. I was first asked the question by an Fstoppers reader a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been asked the same question by two different potential clients. In this article, I’m going to attempt to answer, "what is my approach to architectural photography?"

Julius Shulman, perhaps the greatest architectural photographer of all time, considered himself as a craftsman rather than an artist. After 5 years in the profession, I understand. An architectural photographer uses the tools of the trade to create an accurate, flattering set of images of an architect’s built design. The images are commercially valuable. They’re portfolio pieces. They can be breathtakingly beautiful, but they’re not works of art. If you hang an architectural image on your wall, it’s because the building is a work of art.

Communication

This art versus craft distinction leads to why it’s difficult to answer the question of how I approach photographing a building. As a craftsman, my number one concern is what the architect wants.  This can vary drastically from person to person.

My approach therefore starts with trying to gain insight into what the architect is hoping to see from a set of images. I achieve this by looking through their portfolio of existing images, by walking around the building with the architect, and finally, by asking key questions. For a first shoot, my initial aim is often simply to match the images from a past shoot that the architect enjoyed.

Communication

Photographing towards a busy street of pedestrian and vehicle traffic meant taking many images, adding and removing traffic as I deemed best. Deciding what to remove or leave in was guided by conversations with the architect - Denton Corker Marshall

Information

Most often, I’m commissioned to provide a series of images. The bulk of this series is made up of images that I refer to as informational images and these are honest images that provide accurate information about the design. Although I spend most of my time working on these images, I photograph them while the light is less than ideal, usually during midday.

I usually use either a 24mm TSE or a 16-35mm for these images. The 24mm TSE creates an architecturally correct image with little wide-angle exaggeration. I use the 16-35mm between 24mm and 35mm to show tighter areas of the space. Because the vertical midpoint of a room is usually reachable, I’ve found I can get away without using a perspective corrective lens by ensuring that I keep the camera level.

As for lighting, I used to carry around big Bowen’s flash units to every job, but found I was never using them. Most of the time I use available light. This might blow the minds of the flash painters out there, but I’ve found that in Europe, the aesthetic leans towards a soft, natural, muted look. This extends to the light fittings and screens in the property. I will make sure they are all turned off. Of course, this is something that should be discussed with the architect in advance.

Informational Image

This is a simple, informational image taken with a 24mm TSE, showing the design of the kitchen and skylight.

Detail

A series of images looks incomplete without a few key detail images. Also, architects tend to love these images as they spend a lot of time agonizing over the details of their design. Once I’ve completed a “walk through” of the property, I’ll put on a longer lens (anywhere from 35mm to 100mm) and I’ll pick out key details that I’ve noticed.

I’ve found if I have a walkthrough of the property with the architect, they will show me the key details, often pointing out features that I would have bypassed. This is another important reason to have the walkthrough with the architect.

For most architectural images, I use a small aperture, getting most of the scene in focus. Detail images are the exception to this. I love using a shallow depth of field for detail images. This serves two purposes. The first is that a shallow depth of field helps direct attention to the specific detail. Secondly, these images provide a different look in the series, helping to break the pattern and hold interest.

Detail

I loved the arrangement of lighting in this room designed by STAC Architects, but I also enjoyed the specific lighting of this fitting. I used a shallow depth of field to focus attention on this fitting, while leaving the other lights as blurs for atmosphere.

Hero

The most exciting part of a shoot is creating hero images for the series. These are the images that should have the stopping power to grab viewers’ attention, encouraging them to view the remainder of the series. At most, I spend 20% of my time on hero images, but I choose the most important time of day which is usually from sunset until late twilight. At this time of day, the ambient light levels are similar to the artificial light levels, allowing a view of both the interior and exterior in the same image. The interior is usually bathed in warm artificial light which makes a visually pleasing contrast to the cool natural light, inviting the viewer into the property.

For hero images, I find that exaggerated the angles by using a wider lens helps create a more dramatic image. Consequently, I use a 17mm TSE for most of these images. This lens allows me to keep my vertices straight while also creating a dramatic view. I’ve found that shooting towards the corners of buildings or across the building showing a diagonal view creates the most compelling images.

Having said all of this, images don’t need to conform to the dramatic lighting/angles to be hero images. A detail image taken in the right light can be just as effective.

Hero

This image of a design by Kendle Design Collaborative was taken with a 17mm TSE lens, helping to emphasize the angles of the roof design. The time of day also helped balace the interior and exterior lighting.

Experiment

Throughout the process of creating the three regular types of architectural images, I will also experiment. These usually never make it into the final series and are mostly discarded, but I keep this as part of my process to keep the shoot enjoyable.

For my experimental shots, I usually leave my primary camera and the tripod and pick up a secondary camera to use handheld. For these images, I’m not overly concerned about quality. I use this time to look for new angles and ideas. If I found something that works well, I might re-shoot it with my primary setup.

Experiment

I don't tend to blur motion in architectural photography, but in this experimental image, I thought the blurred bus helped emphasize the busy location of the building.

Back to Point One

The steps mentioned here cover the outline of how I approach my architectural shoots. Although the detail will change for each shoot, the basic steps remain the same. The most important consideration I make is to keep referring to step one, communication. An architectural photographer should closely match what the architect envisions the final images to look like. This is only possible through careful communication.

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6 Comments

Andrea Brizzi's picture

Thanks Jonathan, lots of interesting and valid points. I have been active as an architectural photographer for 40 years (yes: I am an old dude!) and still love our craft. You are right: that is what it is because it is derivative, we use others' creations as our raw material. Keep up the good work. Andrea

Jonathan Reid's picture

Wow! 40 years as an architectural photographer. Such an honour to hear from you. Thank you!

Vaidotas Darulis's picture

Jonathan, that's a great approach. I work in a European country and my clients often ask for informational images showing all the important design decisions, features, materials used, even the smallest things like door handles (especially if those details are custom made). Often they expect up to 50 images (including drone shots) what can be quite a hassle when you try to keep up with aesthetic consistency and having each image shot with perfect light, pretty sky, beautiful windows views, staging, people etc. Not every design solution looks interesting in the frame so this is where you have to get really creative. I often get questions like ,,are these all the shots you've made? These 45 pictures are really beautiful, but you kinda missed out on those custom made table legs which we really need'', so as this article suggests, it really comes down to the communication.

Jonathan Reid's picture

So much of what you've said rings true for many of my jobs. I've found its best to concentrate on getting all of the informational type of images and then only concern yourself with the hero images, even though it is way more interesting to work on hero images.

Darren Loveland's picture

Excellent article and great points! Nice work with the tilt shift too.