As ‘Insta-famous’ structures—like the Choi Hung Estate in Hong Kong, La Muralla Roja in Calpe, or the Cloud Gate in Chicago—continue to pop up on our social media feeds, interest in the field has only grown.
Whether they’re publishing in leading magazines, shooting for top firms, or attracting hundreds of thousands of followers, today’s architectural photographers are finding ways to reinvent the genre popularised by pioneers like Ezra Stoller and Julius Shulman, while also staying true to its roots. We asked five experts to tell us their tips for creating modern yet enduring photos.
1. Practice at home
You don’t have to travel to famous sites or faraway landmarks to make great architectural photos. “I would like to see more photographers photographing simpler and more modest projects,” the Spanish architectural photographer Rubén P. Bescós tells us. “When you photograph a great architectural work, it is easy to get good pictures. The challenge is to do it with more modest, day-to-day spaces.”
If you’re just getting started, practice shooting close to home, around your neighbourhood, workplace, or city. Browse Instagram or other social media sites for intriguing spots, and then check them out on Google Earth. If you can make ordinary spaces look extraordinary, you’re well on your way.
2. Make several trips to the same building
“I never feel comfortable photographing a project in a single day,” Rubén admits. “I usually make an initial visit to take a few pictures, and I need at least three days to familiarise myself with the project.”
Making multiple trips helps you to understand how the space looks in different lighting conditions and at different times of day; while some buildings might look best at the golden hour, others might light up beautifully in the evening. Watch how the shadows fall throughout the day. Even the weather and quality of light during different seasons can significantly alter the appearance of a space. These are all elements to consider.
“While some buildings might look best at the golden hour, others might light up beautifully in the evening. Watch how the shadows fall throughout the day. Even the weather and quality of light during different seasons can significantly alter the appearance of a space. These are all elements to consider.”
3. Do your research
“Something else I find very useful is to meet with the architect to discuss the project,” Rubén says. “Even if you can’t reach or connect with the architect, it’s important to know the context in which the work was created and how it functions. Just as important is understanding the social and cultural environment of the space, and then reflecting that in the photographs.”
Reading up on the history and heritage of your location will help you to develop a shot-list of important details and elements within the structure.
4. Move around
On your visits, move around the space and look for unusual angles and perspectives. Look up, and then look down. Get close, then back away. Climb to a nearby roof, or bend down to the ground. If everyone else has already photographed a building from the front, explore the back. The better you know the space, the stronger your images will be. Perhaps you’ll find fine details that others missed.
5. Provide context
Decorative detail shots are popular these days, but it’s also crucial to capture the building in its entirety, revealing not just how it looks but also how it functions. “You must show the whole building and some context where possible,” the Australian architectural photographer John Gollings urges.
“Architectural photography is first and foremost about the architect’s creativity—not the photographer’s. It is a record of the built environment with historic value. To be useful, your photos must show the whole building, articulate the style, and explain the interior volumes.”
6. Find your ‘hero’ shot
“A good rule is to take the fewest possible images needed to describe the project fully,” John adds. “Ultimately, one should aim for one optimal exterior and the best typical interior. Great buildings are defined by one hero image, and finding this image should be the aim of all photographers.”
“Great buildings are defined by one hero image, and finding this image should be the aim of all photographers.”
7. Keep it sharp
Sharp, clean lines are important for any composition, but they’re arguably most important in architectural work. Keep your ISO low to avoid noise, and use a depth of field that suits your subject (close down that aperture if you have to); everything of note should be crystal clear and in-focus.
8. Watch those lines
“Horizontals and verticals are the most important elements for a well-balanced image,” the Mumbai-based photographer Fabien Charuau explains. “For this, you need a hot-shoe bubble level and a good tripod.”
For some of the photographers we interviewed, a sturdy tripod was just as valuable as a high-megapixel camera, and you might also consider a shutter release to reduce any shake. If you need help getting those perfect lines, turn on the grid function on your camera or in post-processing to make sure your photo is aligned along the vertical and horizontal axes.
9. Be careful with that ultra-wide
This tip was the most-mentioned among the artists we interviewed, but perhaps Fabien put it most succinctly: “Super wide-angle lenses in the wrong hands are very dangerous!”
Ultra wide-angle lenses are great because they allow you to fit lots of information into a single frame. But they can also result in barrel distortions, disrupting those straight lines you worked so hard to achieve.
Of course, these lenses do have their applications, but be careful to avoid obviously wonky lines and distortions. Lens correction can help, but a tilt-shift lens will help you side-step the problem altogether.
10. Provide a sense of scale
Adding elements like human figures, trees, or recognisable landmarks can all help bring the story behind your photo to life, so consider adding something that shows a sense of scale—especially if you’re shooting a large building or vast structure.
11. Simplify and subtract
“My personal system of aesthetic rules include creating a clear composition, and that often means subtracting any disruptive elements,” the Milan-based photographer Karina Castro says. “One of my approaches as a photographer is to draw attention to the main subject to clarify and reinforce its message. I work with maximum control, and I rigorously organise every millimetre of my photographs. This approach usually requires time, but it results in precise images.”
12. Study the greats
“After I finished my studies in Portugal, I moved to Italy and started working with the talented Italian photographer Miro Zagnoli as an assistant,” Karina tells us. “This experience taught me so much and had a tremendous impact on my work.
“My main tip for an emerging photographer is to be patient and learn as much as possible; photography is a long-term learning process. I think you have to be a bit of a perfectionist with a compulsive desire to learn.”
Instagram is a great place to find inspiration, but so are the history books. You can learn a lot by studying the works of Berenice Abbott, Ezra Stoller, Julius Shulman, Lucien Hervé, and Thomas Struth. If you can assist for someone you admire, like Karina did, even better.
13. Use what you have
This tip ties back to our first one about looking at your own surroundings. You don’t need a large-format camera to start; instead, begin practising with whatever tools you have at your disposal. “A very common mistake in this field is thinking that you need a great camera to do architecture photography,” the photographer Montse Zamorano, who is based between Madrid and New York, explains.
“My first published photos in printed media were not taken with a professional camera but with a ‘good enough’ one. I actually learned a lot by using all of the features of that camera and manually controlling my settings. Not having an expensive camera isn’t a barrier to taking excellent photos.
“My number one tip for emerging artists is not to wait to take the ‘perfect photo.’ Start sharing your work right away. I meet a lot of talented amateur photographers who don’t feel confident about their work and never show or share it. There are always things you can improve, but the earlier you start sharing your work, the earlier you will start gaining confidence and experience.”
14. Keep your edits natural
Over-processing is one mistake that came up again and again in our interviews. It can be tempting to apply heavy filters or unnatural effects to your photos, but for architectural work, clarity and simplicity are key. Use your edits to enhance the scene, not to alter reality. A light touch goes a long way.
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.