Practical Tips for Architecture Photography

Found in: Photo Tips
Jun 17 2013
by Amy Cobb

There are definitely some catch-all hints for photographing buildings and structures (which I will include here), but a great many of your choices should be based on your photographic mission. If you're shooting properties for a real estate agency, you don't want your work to become an essay on urban decay, etc. However, if you've seen a structure that appealed to you, or you are just looking to get into architecture photography without a specific purpose, the following is for you.

Explore. Explore. Explore.

If you have a particular place in mind, or when you find The Building you're looking for (or The Bridge, The Statue, whatever), explore it. Walk around and check it out from all angles. Go inside, if that's a feasible option, and explore from the inside out. Keep an eye open for structural details. I find myself consistently, though pleasantly, surprised to discover some charming little sculpture, inset, metalwork, or even something that an architect or builder has left unassumingly. Don't limit yourself to a single search, even if that search is thorough.

Any experienced architecture photographer will tell you that the beauty of shooting static structures is that it isn't necessarily dependent on quick shots or hasty framing and composition, which is often the case when photographing dynamic subjects. You can almost always take your time and compose shots to your preference.

The right weather and time of the day, however, can make a lot of difference in your architecture photography. So, visiting a place you really like shooting at dawn, dusk, midday, and at night is definitely a must. Trekking to your favorite subject on sunny days and raining days, clear and overcast is also important. Different positions of the sun cast dramatic shadows or remove them, revealing interesting features. Light level, of course, can change the entire personality and feel of a structure.

Architecture Photography Tips: Mersey Ferry terminal in Liverpool
Photo by Les Haines. Image source

There's a fairly common phenomenon concerning this sort of work wherein a shutterbug will find some place or feature that keeps drawing them. They know there's something about it that works but aren't sure how to capture it. Then, one day they visit at night or just before, after or during a storm, or whatever conditions, but one that just makes the scene. That's when they're blessed with an "Aha! That's what I've been looking for!" moment. It's a very satisfying experience.

Beyond physical location exploration, research the building's history on the web or in the town, city or county's archives or library. It's a rare standing structure that doesn't have something interesting about it. Did the architect or contractor include some strange building technique or perspective trick? Does it have a macabre history that can be worked into a shot? Find out what that thing is and shoot with that in mind. It can make for good pictures and better conversation starters.

Shoot for context and scope

There's a scene in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator, where Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is frustrated by the results of his attempts to film flight sequences for his movie because none of the planes look like they're going very fast. He realizes it's because there's no context. He needs something static or at least semi-static, against which the speed of the planes can be judged. Hughes eventually hires a full-time meteorologist to find him some clouds, and with the clouds in frame, the flying scenes work. Still photography of structures dramatic for their scale in one way or another isn't dissimilar.

If the vastness (or minuteness) of an edifice speaks to you, simply shooting it may prove disappointing when your developed shot shows... a building like any other. Catch something in the fore- or background that gives it perspective. People are often an excellent choice for perspective-provision.

The same goes for a cottage in a beautiful glen or a home sandwiched between two others that suggests urban crush, or maybe a row of identical houses in suburbia. Just keep looking for it!

Architecture Photography Tips: A small cobblestone out building Architecture Photography Tips: Ebisu Garden Place, Tokyo, Japan
Photo by Brian Wright. Image source
Photo by UggBoy-UggGirl. Image source

Shoot the unexpected

While doing this exploring and shooting for context and scope, look for the incongruous. Perhaps that means finding something strangely industrial in a sylvan field or forested area or something pleasingly wild in an urban area. It can be an unusual reflection or some funny looking feature of a structure. Whatever you do, if anything about your subject suggests the interesting, shoot it: beautiful, ugly, huge, tiny, dramatically normal, wild, urban, refreshing, depressing... You never know what's going to prove inspiring and unexpectedly striking.

Architecture Photography Tips: The intersection of King & Bay reflected in a nearby financial building
Photo by Don Toye. Image source

Guest writer: Amy Cobb

Amy Cobb feels most at home behind a keyboard or a snapping shutter. She's a Jill-of-All-Trades media refugee turned blogger who, since jumping ship from the Fourth Estate, blogs on all things media and media-education-related. Most recently she's worked on pinning down the best photography career options. When not writing, Amy is doing her best not kill everything in her square foot garden plots, while always at the bidding of her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Snarls Barkley.

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