Architect-turned-photographer John Cooper has spent the last year converting his three decades of building experience into high quality architectural images. Despite already having the knowledge of a registered architect and member of the American Institute of Architects, Cooper has learned a lot through trial and error after changing roles and capturing the structures he once helped to create. Here are his 10 pieces of advice for aspiring architectural photographers.
10 Tips for Better Architectural Photographs from a Former Architect
Architectural photography should be a prerequisite for all photographers. It covers all of the basics of available-light shooting in one subject matter. Understanding these principles, and heeding some of these extra bits of advice, will improve all of your photography – not just architectural photography!
1. Obtain permission to be on location. I totally agree with our legal right to photograph public spaces but things are different in actual practice. At 4:30 in the morning it is much easier to show a permission slip/pass than to discuss the Constitution.
2. Shoot only in “blue” and “golden” hours. It may seem restrictive (and it took me a long time to be convinced) but the quality of light really is just better during these early morning and early evening hours. The blue hour is the hour preceding sunrise and the one following sunset while the golden hour is the first and last hour of sunlight in a day. Check the times throughout the year to find out when it is optimal to take advantage of these magical hours.
3. Scout your location and check a few problem questions off a list: What is the path of the sun relative to the building? Is convergence a problem – especially if you have to shoot wide and close? Is there roof access? Can I use a ladder? While you are at it, introduce yourself to security guards!
4. The best camera is, indeed, the one you have. Rent a few wide angle lenses before buying one to find out what you really need. I mostly shoot full frame with a 17-40mm f/4L lens in the 17-28mm range. However, I have shot with crop sensor cameras and a wide zoom and simply stood back further. It is more about perspective than the gear.
5. Use a tripod with a heavy-duty ball or tilt head and use a remote shutter release for maximally sharp images. If I could, I would cast my tripod in concrete for every shoot just for the added stabilization!
6. Shoot at f/8 or higher. Many of my shots are at f/22 but I find that the sweet spot tends to be f/8. Of course, this rule can always be broken to reach a certain effect!
7. Use a low ISO. In low light, this won’t work for hand-held work but it is perfect for stabilized shots since you can expose for as long as necessary. ISO is getting better and better but you might as well keep your images as clean and as clear of grain as possible so I try to always stay below ISO 400 to be safe.
8. Bracket your shots. This is a good insurance policy against misreading how you think a scene is exposed. Always shoot 1 image overexposed and 1 underexposed in addition to the one you think is “right”. This will give you more options in post production.
9. Photography is all about light!
10. Fill the frame in-camera instead of in post. This isn’t as important as it once was, as with ISO, because quality and file size is becoming so good but it is a good habit to get into. Aim for composition out in the field instead of in front of the computer.