Venice with Irix 15mm f/2.4 Firefly
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How to Photograph Architecture Part 1: Exteriors

The Basics of Outdoor Architectural Photography

In this two-part tutorial, we’ll explore a genre that, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated. Architecture has always been one of the most important cultural aspects of a society. For photographers, there are a number of great opportunities to be had in shooting what man creates, from advertising to abstraction. In this part, I’ll go over of the basic requirements and techniques involved in capturing architectural subjects from outside.

Architectural photography is a versatile genre.

Architectural photography is a versatile genre. The emphasis can be on any style, from modern to archaic. It can focus on bridges, skyscrapers, churches, huts, or just about anything that’s considered a structure. These images can be displayed as fine art, gathered for article illustration purposes, as historic records or even to advertise real estate.

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Now that we’ve sort of laid the foundation, let’s start with the outside work. Although it’s somewhat like landscape photography, there are some important differences.

Recommended Equipment: Obviously, the gear you’ll need will vary a bit according to your purpose for the photos, but here’s a list of some of the basics that should cover most situations.

  • DSLR or mirrorless digital camera. Full-frame is recommended, but not required.
  • Wide-angle lens (A rectilinear wide angle like the Irix 15mm f/2.4 is a good choice.)
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Weight (sandbag, etc.) to stabilize the tripod
  • Remote release
  • Filters (circular polarizer, gradient ND, etc.)

Time and Conditions: Weather and timing can be major factors for a shoot and what you’ll want will depend on your purposes for the images. If you’re shooting real estate, for instance, a cloudy day or morning or evening light will provide softer shadows and help you control glare. If you’re shooting fine art, you may want to have a dramatic sky behind your subjects, so scattered clouds, sunsets, etc. may add a lot to your shots. Night shots and twilight shots can be amazing. Check the forecast, sunrise and sunset times and plan ahead.

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Setup: Choose a location for your camera based on the job. Real estate photos should show as much of the property as possible from various angles, without going too high or too low. More dramatic and unusual angles can add interest to fine art shots and abstracts. If you’re using a rectilinear lens like the Irix 15mm, distortion won’t be a factor, but you’ll need to consider it with uncorrected wide-angle lenses. Unless you have a tilt/shift lens or adapter, perspective will always be evident, but that can be easily corrected in processing, or used for aesthetic effect.

Consider the shadows being cast by the sun or artificial light sources. Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible. Try to find a hard, level surface for your tripod and add some weight to ensure that nothing moves. You’ll need a stable setup. Mount your camera firmly and set your shutter to remote.

…knowing and applying the rules of composition will make your photos more dynamic and powerful.

Framing and Composition: These elements, too, depend somewhat on what you plan to do with your photographs. No matter what the purpose, however, knowing and applying the rules of composition will make your photos more dynamic and powerful.

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Exposure Settings: In many cases, I prefer to bracket my exposures when shooting architecture. I also prefer to save my image files in both RAW and JPEG.formats. I’ll discuss why under “Processing”. Both of these preferences are arguable, but let’s not. Do what works best for you.

ISO: Unless you want to induce grain for a nostalgic effect, use the lowest practical ISO setting. On windy days, you may need to increase it slightly to avoid blurring in trees, shrubs, etc. For artistic purposes, blurring clouds, etc. can add pleasing effects.
Aperture size: In most instances, you’ll want to maximize your depth of field, so your initial thought may be to stop down to f/16 or smaller. It’s important to know, however, that at extreme aperture settings on both ends of the scale, all lenses exhibit diffraction, which causes a loss of sharpness. It’s often a better choice to select an aperture setting of f/8 to f/11, or the “sweet spot” of your lens if you know it.

If, on the other hand, you want to isolate a region in your photo, increase your aperture size to reduce depth of field and focus carefully on the area to be emphasized.
Shutter Speed: Shutter speeds will often be slow in this type of photography. Because of the importance of depth of field, this is normally the setting you’ll adjust most often to affect exposure. Be certain your setup is stable enough to allow for this.

Manual focusing will give you several advantages in shots of this type.

Focusing: Manual focusing will give you several advantages in shots of this type. It avoids shifting of the setting between exposures and gives you better control of the focal point within the frame.

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By manually setting your focus to the hyperfocal distance for the aperture setting you choose, you won’t need to focus visually and you’ll ensure that your depth of field is as great as possible. Lenses with depth of field scales will facilitate this, and Irix lenses include a hyperfocal scale that makes it even easier. Once set, you can use the focus lock ring on your Irix lens to ensure that the setting doesn’t shift.

(For more information on using the depth of field or hyperfocal scale, see this how-to article.)

Taking the Shot: In my opinion, the most important thing to remember in actually taking your photos is to keep your hands off the camera. The purpose is to avoid disturbing your settings or shaking the camera. Use the remote release.

When there are people present that you don’t want in your shots, there are a couple of ways to eliminate them…

Dealing with crowds: This can be an issue with your interior shots, too and the remedy is the same. First, of course, visiting popular locations during “off times” can help alleviate some of the problem. When there are people present that you don’t want in your shots, there are a couple of ways to eliminate them:

  1. Use an ND filter to increase your exposure time. This can sometimes blur anyone moving through the frame enough to effectively eliminate them. The disadvantage to this method is that people who stand in one place long enough are still likely to be visible.
  2. Take several exposures (several set of exposures if you’re bracketing), waiting for people in the frame to move to a different spot in between. You can then stack your exposures in processing and selectively erase people in the layers, allowing the scene below to fill in those erasures.It’s extremely important to be sure your shots are perfectly aligned and focused identically when using this method. This makes an extremely stable setup and manual focusing with a lock imperative to your success.

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I’ll only touch briefly on processing, because as with any type of photography, what you do with a photo in this stage is subjective. This is very much a part of the creative process, and your own preferences as well as the market you’re shooting for will determine the steps you take. For instance, the emphasis in real estate photography will often be on enhancing aesthetic details, while a fine art print may need noise reduction, contrast and tone adjustments.

I did mention that I’d explain why I prefer RAW files and bracketing in most cases, so I’ll do that here. As most readers will know, RAW files contain all the data recorded by the camera sensor, and have provide greater latitude for adjustments to light and shadow, white balance and other adjustments. Since JPEG files are compressed by eliminating some of that data, deterioration of an image happens faster if a lot of adjustment is needed. A single RAW file will often be all that’s needed to get the results you want in a final image and you don’t need to worry about ghosting caused by wind, etc.

On the other side of of the coin, there will be times when a single RAW file will have its limitations. For example, shadow noise can be difficult to remove selectively. In these instances, having a file with a bit less exposure time can yield shadow areas with less noise. There are other examples, but for my purposes, having multiple RAW exposures works well.

There are times when I’ll like the in-camera processing of a JPG file well enough for a particular purpose, and HDR processing is sometimes more straightforward with JPG files. I can simply delete the JPEG files from my hard drive if they won’t be of any use.

I hope you find this overview of shooting architectural exteriors useful. The next article will explore the challenges of interior photography. We’ll delve deeper into specific areas of this genre in upcoming articles. As always, remember to enjoy creating images in your own style!

Written by Dana Crandell

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