Buildings are an essential part of the landscape. They mark our cities like flags around a field, they create memorable skyline vistas and they can be utterly beautiful works in their own right. In short, capturing buildings well with a camera needs some thought as to how best to approach it as a subject, as opposed to photographing plants and animals which largely ‘do their thing’ regardless of us being there or not. Buildings have lots going on around them, from busy roads to advertising billboards proclaiming the virtues of things we may or may not need for life. However what makes a successful building photograph? The simple answer is that this will vary depending on who you speak to – everyone has their preference after all!
There are several approaches to capturing a building and we’ll look at these ones by one:
As a whole:
When photographing buildings, amateurs often get too close to their subject matter. It’s the equivalent of pattern recognition in psychology – we see something we recognise and we identify it correctly (unless otherwise distracted). Because most people can’t get far enough away from a building to get it all into the frame, they end up with only part of it recognisable which fails to convey what scale or significance the structure has. This doesn’t mean you always need to show an entire building – many times showing just a corner will be more than appropriate for your photo composition. But if you do attempt an overall shot, don’t cut the building off at the knees as it were. Make sure there’s enough to the left and right of your frame so that you can see how big or small a structure is compared with its surroundings.
The other thing to consider when photographing buildings as a whole is leading lines, those imaginary dotted paths which draw your eye towards either the centre of the frame or into the distance. Roads and railways are good examples of these: roads due to their straight nature and railways because they meander like trails cutting through towns and cities alike. Both create strong horizontal lines across your compositions which can help lead viewers eyes through your images if used well. Arguably this shouldn’t be something you need to think about too much – after all, shouldn’t the building be the main draw of your photographs? – but trust us, you’ll see an improvement if you keep this in mind when framing up.
The alternative to photographing a building as a whole is doing what’s called ‘zoomed in’. Instead of using wideangle lenses at the tight end (giving lots of contexts), switch to telephoto or zoom lenses which let you narrow down your angle, often showing fewer surroundings and obtaining good-sized building features. This approach may be better suited for many situations than full on wideangles, especially where things like people walking by become potential distractions. If there are people milling about they can also add scale – after all, if there are other humans captured during the shoot, it’s quite likely the building is of a good size too.
Close up work can be used to show details or textures that often go ignored when photographing buildings as they are part of the overall structure. However, you should also consider using your telephoto lenses to pick out unique architectural features which make buildings special in their own way, whether overt features like finials and gargoyles or subtle ones like window arches. Zoomed-in shots can focus on small elements which would otherwise be lost in wider images but make interesting pieces all on their own. It’s kind of like looking at models through a magnifying glass – suddenly tiny things become big enough for you to study and appreciate them!
Finally, consider using a blend of the above techniques to create a series of images that form a complete story or capture a building from its base to tip. If you’re after detail shots then perhaps try capturing it at two extremes (close-up and whole), then find an intermediate angle that combines both perspectives. This is particularly good for buildings with interesting features like spires and domes where they can be isolated out within your image with relative ease.