April 12, 2013
The primarily goal of much of my commercial architectural photography is to showcase the work of an architect. Though there are tight parameters to work within, what I like about this area is that there is still a lot of scope for interpretation. There certainly are times when you can lean more toward the drama but for now lets get a handle on straight doco’.
This is Serious
Accuracy is my objective when shooting a building and from each set up I want to be able to shoot variations of identically framed files that could be used to build an image in postproduction if necessary. Though necessity the tripod I use is sturdy, very stable for consistency and able to extend over 2 metres. If you need height you could set up a shorter tripod on the roof of a car (an old car and preferably not the client’s). I shoot at a deep depth of field to make sure I capture the detail of the structure and materials. Depending on the job it may be important to make sure the colours of materials are accurate so make sure you understand the brief before you get too carried away messing with the colour in post.
To get the vantage point I wanted I was perched in a tree to shoot this photo. I think the leaves in the foreground add to the story.
If you shoot a building from a low angle with a wide lens, the top of the building appears to fall in towards the centre. When shooting wide be especially careful not to shoot very low unless you are intentionally going for something abstract. The closer you are to the mid height of the structure the less the distortion. If it’s a single story building the camera only needs to be between 1.5 and 2 metres off the ground to correct perspective in camera. I feel it’s often a more flattering view of a building anyway.
This was the first commissioned image of this building after completion. I did quite a lot of post production on this image, perspective correction; removing the reflection of the next door building and adding lights to one of the windows in the tenth floor.
A Level Playing Field
I shoot complete buildings with the view to correct perspective in Photoshop. To do this easily I try to make the horizontal and vertical lines of the building level in the frame. Once I have decided on the composition I then use the virtual horizon feature built into my camera to make sure the camera is level with the building. Before I had this feature I used a hot-shoe spirit level. Once I have composed the frame, focused the camera and the verticals and horizontals are trued up, I lock off the tripod in position and I am careful not to bump it whilst shooting that set up.
One of the main issues can be the extremes of contrast between the shadow areas, the sky and the brightly lit parts of the building. If you need to shoot in the middle of the day you may need to shoot a bracket of images over a few stops in order to build a layered image with shadow detail from one file and highlights from another. Watch your edges when blending images! An edge that is too sharp or too soft looks artificial.
This photo of the Australasian was made to advertise a boutique hotel so issues around the colour cast of the lighting aren’t relevant. (the food here is unbelievably good)
My favourite time to shoot a building is dusk. If the building is reasonably well lit it’s not that hard to get really powerful images. There are many treatments for this type of shot so you will need to experiment and see what effects work best. In essence you are waiting until the brightness in the sky matches the intensity of the light on, and in the building (and every building will be lit to a different intensity). The actual window of opportunity when the lit building and sky balance is only a few minutes, so preparation is crucial. When you first try this have all of the decision-making done by sunset and be ready and waiting for the lighting event. Shoot the progressive darkening of the sky in relation to the light on/in the building. The difference in the sky over 10 minutes is profound and ideally you want a variety of exposures to have options to create a few different looks. Typically if you are shooting with your back to the setting sun this balance occurs about 25-40 minutes after sunset. If you are shooting towards the setting sun it’s about 30-50 minutes after the sun has set.
The treatment of this image is a bit brighter as it was taken closer to dusk than the image above. There is still a little residual light from sunset.
To get a good handle on this type of shoot, take a shot every few minutes after set up and keep shooting until the sky is too dark. This will give you files with the sky too light, a range of usable files as well as files with the sky too dark. With this shoot as a reference, the next time you try this you will know what tone in the sky you are aiming for and roughly when to be shooting. Even in low light I always keep ISO’s as low as possible to best render tone and colour. At ISO’s under 400 it can mean longish exposures so the sturdy tripod is essential.
If I only have one opportunity to shoot a building and I need various elevations, I work out my shot list and strongest compositions and the order I need to shoot them at the end of the day. Then I work through them as the light changes. Don’t attempt multiple set ups until you have nailed a few dusk shoots and feel confident you know what’s going on.
Lighting a building
Because of their size it can be very complicated to actually light a building. One way I have gone about lighting single story buildings is to set up my shot, and have an assistant walk along the front face of a building with a hand held flash that fires wirelessly during separate exposures. Then in post I build the image with the various sections, not including the light source or the person. There is a huge amount of flexibility working like this as you can very specifically light individual features of the building.
The trick is to have a plan and also shoot options so you have plenty of variety to work with. Getting it looking believable, dramatic or evenly lit will take some fine attention to detail but hey, all good photography does!
Images and text © Andy Rasheed 2013
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