Photography

Architectural Photography: Tips from a Pro

When celebrated architectural photographer Sean Conboy visited the studio for a live interview, he shared a host of fascinating insights picked up over the course of his long career in the industry. We’ve gathered the best of them here.

The short version: while it helps to have the right equipment, and there are certainly some must-have accessories, the most important thing is practice.

Looking around before you start shooting helps you get sharp images in your best camera

Architectural photographer Sean Conboy (Images © Sean Conboy)

If you’re interested in becoming an architectural or interiors photographer, or you want to take your architectural photography business to the next level, read on for some top tips.

But first…

What is architectural photography?

Whether it refers to the process or the product of designing and constructing buildings, architecture is everywhere.

That means architectural photographers, who create photographic images of those buildings (both exterior and interior), are surrounded by opportunities to practice their art.

However, if you’re new to this particular form, you may be unsure how to shoot architectural photography. What’s the best way to get started?

Looking around before you start shooting helps you get sharp images in your best camera

© Sean Conboy

Try assisting – it’s a great way to pick up architecture photography tips

Aspiring photographers often wonder how to get into architecture photography, and frequently ask ‘Does architectural photography require a degree?’

In fact there are many different paths to success in this field, and while higher education can certainly be one of them, a formal qualification is by no means essential.

One excellent way to gain experience is to assist established architectural photographers. This will enable you to see up-close how a professional operates. By helping to organise, set up and execute shoots, you’ll develop a first-hand understanding of how the work gets done.

Photographer's assistants on a rocky outcrop

Being a photographer’s assistant can be hard work! But it’s worth it

Of course, as Sean explains, being a good assistant does not necessarily require you to be a good photographer. Your creative input may be less in demand than your organisational and heavy-lifting skills!

Still, by observing how an architecture photography professional works with clients and achieves winning results, you’ll inevitably boost your own abilities and prospects.

ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE

Interview With Architectural Photographer Sean Conboy

Architectural photographer Sean Conboy, renowned for photographing some of the world’s most famous buildings, joined Karl in studio for this fascinating live talk show.

Plan and pre-visualise

A ‘recce’ (short for reconnaissance) is not always possible ahead of an architectural photography shoot – especially if it’s due to take place overseas.

But there is always research and planning you can do to make sure you’re prepared when you do eventually arrive on location.

For example, if you’re going to be shooting an old building, you can research the building’s history and cultural significance to help you really understand your architectural subject.

In order to get the right light for his images, Sean uses the Suncalc app to research sunrise and sunset times at the destination where he’ll be working. This enables him to establish when the magic, golden and blue hours will occur – information that is crucial for planning where to be and when.

Eiffel Tower sunrise - photography architectural

Plan ahead to capture buildings when the light’s just right

For the same reason, it can be very helpful to use a tool like Google Street View to explore the location of your shoot in advance.

What kind of access will you have? What’s the best vantage point? Which side of the building will the light be hitting at a certain time of day? What different angles might you shoot from? If you do your research right, you can answer this kind of question well in advance.

After all, the same building in the same place shot in high and low light conditions may be the same building, but you won’t get the same image twice!

Looking around before you start shooting helps you get sharp images in your best camera

Scope out your subject for a while before you take your camera out of its case

“I never get my camera out when I first arrive,” says Sean. “I always spend at least an hour just looking.”

This helps you to develop an important skill, which is the ability to see different perspectives and potential photographic images without looking through a viewfinder.

Shoot tethered whenever you can

Connecting your camera to your computer while you’re shooting prevents you from moving freely as you shoot.

But if you’re using a tripod anyway – which, if you’re serious about architectural photography, you probably are – you have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by shooting tethered.

Viewing your image in real time on a large, high-resolution screen allows you to check things like focus, sharpness, exposure, composition and so on far more accurately than you can on the back of your camera.

It’s also useful for positioning different shots side by side, allowing you to compare them as you work. Tools like overlaying and automated focus stacking further enhance your architecture photography capabilities and simplify your workflow.

Sean considers his laptop and USB cable to be essential pieces of photography equipment. “I can’t stress enough the value of tethering. I wish I’d had it when I was learning, and I still use it all the time.”

He even described occasions when, doing interior architectural photography, his camera was positioned on the floor or up against a wall, when shooting tethered was crucial to enable him to see what he was capturing.

Watch Karl’s demonstration of the benefits of tethered shooting here.

Always use a tripod for architecture photography

Shooting with your tripod is a good idea in many types of photography. For architecture photography, it’s a must. Why?

First, it enables you to shoot tethered (see above). Second, it frees up your hands to make the necessary adjustments in focus, aperture, and so on.

Third, whether you’re shooting in low light conditions – indoors, at night, during the blue hour, or under any other circumstances when light is limited – a tripod enables you to use a long exposure with no risk of blurring.

You can see this exemplified in one of our architectural photography classes, when Karl takes his camera and tripod into L’église de la Madeleine in Paris and captures a stunning shot using long exposure and ambient light. You can watch that interior architectural photography class here.

Karl using a tripod for photography architecture

Using a tripod is essential for architecture photography
Another benefit of using a tripod when you’re photographing architecture is that the very act of setting it up requires you to slow down and consider how to capture the best possible shot.

Make sure you have permission to shoot

Before you use a tripod in a building like a church, make sure you have permission to do so. This ties in with a broader tip, which is to always make sure you have permission to shoot a building, whether it’s from the inside, the outside, or both.

This goes for public and private spaces alike. Of course, if you’ve been hired by, for example, a property developer, permission is implicit in your contract. And many public spaces, by their very nature, are fair game for architecture photography.

All the same, it’s always wise to check whether any special permits are required before you embark on an architectural shoot.

Work with people on set

Asking permission is also important when you’re photographing members of the public. Though traditionally excluded from architecture photography, people can add character to your images (interior shots and exterior shots), as well as a sense of scale.

If you decide to include a passerby or visitor in your shot, make sure they understand who you are and what you’re doing.

Members of the public in photography architectural

Make people feel involved in your photography and they will usually be happy to help

The important thing is to be be polite and respectful at all times when you photograph architecture. Even if you need to clear a space, explain to the people you need to move exactly what you are doing and why.

If you do so patiently and warmly, they will feel involved in the process and (hopefully) eager to help you, the architecture photographer, achieve your goal.

Wide-angle lenses and beyond

You may be wondering, ‘What are the best lenses for architectural photography?’ or ‘Do I need zoom lenses to capture good architecture images?’

There are, of course, many options available. If you want to capture high quality images but aren’t sure what lens to use for architecture photography, think about what you (and if necessary, the client) want to achieve.

One popular option is a wide-angle lens. With their smaller focal lengths, these lenses allow for greater depth of field and typically magnify distance between objects. They allow you to capture more in a single frame.

A note of caution from Sean Conboy: ‘Don’t automatically opt for a wide-angle lens.’ Tempting as it can be to try to capture as much as possible in each shot, it’s important not to clutter your images with an excess of material.

In this respect, Karl’s maxim about never letting the ‘supporting cast’ overwhelm the ‘hero’ applies as much to architecture photography as it does to any other type.

Another reason to be wary of wide-angle lenses is the potential for perspective distortion. Though all but the most severe perspective distortion can usually be fixed in post-production, it makes sense to avoid it as much as possible.

Though ultra wide-angle or fish-eye lenses are popular in real estate photography, they are often used to make rooms appear bigger than they are. A serious architectural photographer has no interest in doing this (unless, say, a hotel client demands it.)

Harness the power of tilt-shift

Though photography novices may feel unsure how to use a tilt-shift lens (or adaptor) for architecture photography, they are widely considered essential for this kind of work, whether you’re shooting exteriors or interiors. All professional architecture photographers use them. But why?

Simply put: strong perspective control. In fact, tilt-shift lenses are sometimes referred to as ‘perspective correction’ or PC lenses – and for good reason. The bigger or taller the building you want to photograph, the greater the perspective distortion will show up in your images. Even when you’re shooting an interior shot, if your lens is wide-angle, the walls may seem to lean in.

Karl Taylor demonstrates a tilt-shift lens

Tilt-shift lenses help keep straight lines straight

Tilt-shift lenses enable you to adjust the composition and framing without moving or tilting the camera itself. In other words, you can shift the view to capture what you need while keeping the camera’s axis parallel to the ground.

This can help to fix any perspective issues causing converging angles in your shot, and should help make all vertical lines in the building appear as parallel vertical lines in your image. Magic!

One problem with tilt-shift lenses: they are expensive. Fortunately, you can also buy tilt-shift adapters for a fraction of the price. These adapters enable you to add tilt-shift capabilities to your existing camera. So if a true tilt-shift lens is too pricey for your budget, try and adapter instead.

You can watch Karl work with a tilt-shift adapter for product photography here.

Another option if you can’t use tilt-shift is focus stacking. Focus stacking is a technique in which you layer a series of images, each with a different focus point, and blend them together using Photoshop. By identifying areas of each image that are in focus, Photoshop allows you to create an image that is completely sharp.

You can read our blog about focus stacking here.

Understand (and educate) the client

If you’re doing architecture photography as a professional, you’re usually doing so on behalf of a client.

This could be a commercial building owner, a property developer, a hotel chain, an architecture firm, a private homeowner, or anyone else in the market for quality building or interior design photography. As such, it’s crucial to understand who is hiring you and why.

Sean Conboy recommends that you “get your head into the client’s to really understand the sort of imagery they might want.”

After all, as confident as you may be in your own vision, if you don’t deliver what the client needs, you can’t claim to have succeeded as an architecture photography professional.

Interior architectural photography

It’s important to deliver what your client needs while also honouring your own creative vision

That said, it’s important to educate your client in advance about what you hope (and are able to) achieve. For example, photography shoots are often weather dependent and may be delayed by inclement conditions.

Similarly, the client may overestimate how many quality images of a building you can capture during a shoot (see below!).

By communicating in an honest and positive manner, you can align your vision with that of the client and ultimately build a robust professional relationship that may prove mutually beneficial for many years to come.

Focus on quality, not quantity

When you’re shooting tall buildings with many different aspects – a hotel, for example, with hundreds of rooms, multiple bars and restaurants, pools, saunas, and so on – it’s easy to panic and feel overwhelmed.

You may feel obliged (especially if the client has unrealistic expectations) to try to photograph any and all aspects of a building in the limited time at your disposal.

Doing so will certainly leave you with plenty of images by the time you pack up your camera. But how many amazing images will you capture by working that way? Probably not enough.

Staircase image

One great architecture photography image is worth at least three that are merely ‘good enough’

Take the time to visualise the very best shots. Then take the time to capture them to the best of your ability. You may end up with a relatively small total number of images, having captured only a fraction of the potential shots on offer. But if you have taken them well enough, the client will thank you.

After all, ten stunning images are worth far more than a hundred mediocre ones!

ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE

Interview With Architectural Photographer Sean Conboy

Architectural photographer Sean Conboy, renowned for photographing some of the world’s most famous buildings, joined Karl in studio for this fascinating live talk show.

Charge enough to cover you if things go wrong

When you’re just starting out, it can be hard to know exactly how much to charge for architectural photography. Your rate will of course depend on a variety of factors, ranging from the scale of the shoot to its purpose, and from the client’s budget to your level of experience.

Sean offers a great piece of advice: charge enough up front to cover you in the event of bad weather conditions, which will of course make a huge difference when you’re shooting exterior architectural photography . Inevitably, some shoots will have to be extended while you wait for those weather conditions to pass.

Karl Taylor in a snow storm

When bad weather sets in, sometimes all you can do is wait for it to pass

In a situation like this, asking for extra payment on top of your pre-agreed fee is likely to cause tension with your client. So make sure the price you agree on in advance will allow you to stay on set a day or two longer than planned without leaving you out of pocket.

If you find yourself asking, “How much should I charge for architectural photography?”, you may find it useful to explore some of our other resources on the subject of pricing:

Pay attention to reflections – especially for interior architectural photography

When you’re photographing architecture, whether you’re shooting purely with natural light or deploying multiple studio lights and modifiers, be aware of reflections.

Sometimes reflected light can work against you, such as when a room or building with lots of glass reflects too much light and leaves your image looking overexposed.

At other times, reflections can work to your advantage. For example, in this Sean Conboy photograph, the reflection on the floor is integral to the atmosphere and allure of the image – and would have been lost if Sean had lit the foreground too strongly.

Sean Conboy interior architecture

© Sean Conboy
Meanwhile, in this photograph of the Museu Blau in Barcelona, it is the light reflecting off the white Diagonal ZeroZero building (just out of shot on the left hand side) that illuminates the left side of the building, which would otherwise have been in full shadow.
Sean Conboy Museu Blau image

© Sean Conboy
For architectural photos, says Sean, “reflected light is really important. Other buildings work like reflectors in a studio.” As always in photography, it’s all about timing your shot just right to make sure you get the light you need.

Give yourself (and your camera) time to acclimatise

If you’re lucky, working as an architectural photographer will take you to some interesting locations. If you have to travel a long distance for a photography shoot, you may encounter conditions that neither you nor your camera are accustomed to. This could be extreme cold, intense heat, or unusually high humidity.

Conditions like this can be challenging for both you and your photography gear. To make sure you get the best results, give yourself time to adjust.

This may mean arriving a day or two early to overcome jet lag and acclimatise. Or it may mean simply allowing plenty of time between setting up your tripod and capturing your shot.

Sean Conboy Burl Al Arab exterior image

© Sean Conboy

For this beautiful shot of the Burl Al Arab in Dubai, Sean set everything up on the beach an hour before he knew the light would be right.

This was because leaving the cool, air-conditioned hotel and walking out onto the extremely hot beach caused condensation to form on his lens.

Rather than trying to dry it off manually, he let the lens clear naturally as it warmed. When the time came to capture the light, both camera and photographer were ready to roll!

Iwan Baan architecture photography website

© Iwan Baan
Kamilla Hanapova architecture photography

© Kamilla Hanapova

Keep shooting!

In architecture photography, as in all types of photography, the important thing is to keep shooting. Find inspiration wherever you can, experiment as much as possible, never stop searching for the right light – and always have fun!
ONLINE PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE

Interview With Architectural Photographer Sean Conboy

Architectural photographer Sean Conboy, renowned for photographing some of the world’s most famous buildings, joined Karl in studio for this fascinating live talk show.

© Karl Taylor Education. All rights reserved. No content on this page may be used or shared by third parties.

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