This month Stirling Photography Festival is being celebrated across the city, so we thought we’d ask an expert for some top tips on photographing buildings. Huge thanks to Zoe Ballantine and the Survey & Recording team at Historic Environment Scotland for sharing their expertise with us.
About the Author: My name is Zoe Ballantine, I am the Field Photography Projects Manager within Survey & Recording at Historic Environment Scotland. I co-ordinate and carry out the photography for our various fieldwork programmes which can see us recording all kinds of architecture throughout the whole of Scotland.
- THINK LIKE A PHOTOGRAPHER
My number one tip for photography of all kinds is to just keep your eyes open and keep looking and thinking. Watch how the light moves round a room, notice repeating forms in the architecture that create patterns, observe how people interact with a space or find the spaces that are quiet and un-noticed. Most of the work in photography comes before you press the shutter button and the more you practice slowing down and looking at buildings, the more photographs you start to see.
- GET TO KNOW YOUR CAMERA
Whatever camera you have, whether that is a DSLR or the camera on your phone, it’s worth taking the time to get to know it and what it does best. That way, when you’re out and see a great shot, you don’t miss it trying to work out what settings your camera should be on. If you have a camera that allows you to, explore using its different modes – aperture or time priority are good starting points. If you want the most creative control, learn how to use it in manual. Even on a phone camera you can often change the exposure and the focus.
- TAKE INSPIRATION
Look at the work of other photographers of the built environment. This could be on Instagram or in design magazines. Visit the library and look through the architecture and the photography sections. Cast your net wide, it doesn’t need to all be architectural photography – the principles of what makes a good image are relevant in all genres. See if there are any connections between the images you are drawn to and think about how you might be able to try out different ideas and (most importantly) develop your own style.
- LOVE YOUR SUBJECT
Don’t feel that you have to be in front of the Great Hall at Stirling Castle before you can start your architectural photography experiments. I’ve photographed both a shopping centre and an estate of council housing recently in the city, and these were great places to make interesting images about the built environment. There’s even a water treatment plant near my house that continually catches my eye in certain light! The ‘Everyday’ offers the perfect subject once you start looking and thinking, so think about what’s interesting in your locality and don’t feel you have to be in front of a country house before you can be an architectural photographer.
Think about your images as visual storytelling. This can be powerful in both bold and subtle ways and allows us to explain a space in a way that we can’t always do easily with words. When thinking about your image, imagine what kind of story you are trying to tell. What prompted you to lift your camera to that scene?
In any built environment there are abundant stories to tell – how the space is being used, how the setting of a building affects it, what the building might mean to you or to the community who use it. Think about what you can include in your composition to demonstrate your narrative. You could use people to give a sense of scale or purpose, or maybe there is something in the construction of the building that suggests its grandeur (or dereliction). Changing the lighting can also shift the mood of a picture.
We are all able to relate to what we see in an image on some level, whether that is because we’ve been there and it evokes a sense of belonging or nostalgia, or it reminds us of somewhere else. Photographs can create connections, and through architectural images we can pull together stories of history, society and our shared experience.
Consider your composition – you want your subject to be the primary focus of the image. If you feel like there is too much in your photograph or that the surroundings are distracting from the subject, can you move closer or change your angle? Depending on your camera, can you zoom in? (If you are using a camera on a smartphone, I’d advise against using the zoom function as the quality of the image disintegrates as soon as you do.)
Likewise, if you can’t get the whole building in, move as far back as you can. Avoid pointing your camera up to try and get more in. This causes distortion in the image and will look unnatural.
When photographing your building, watch where your building sits within the frame. Good composition leads the viewer’s eye around the image, drawing it towards your main subject. Try using the ‘rule of thirds’ – splitting your photograph into a 3×3 grid and placing your subject on one of the focal points. With architecture, it often looks more natural if there is more foreground than sky in your image, pulling the viewer up to the building.
Depending on the style of architecture you are photographing, your image may benefit from a symmetrical composition. If your camera has it, turn on the grid display as this will help you line things up accurately.
- REMEMBER THE DETAILS
If you can’t get the whole building in, don’t write off the image – look at the details of the building instead. Personally, I love photographing doors and windows. Even the ‘patina’ or surface of a piece of stone can make an interesting image.
What can you see that makes the building stand out? Can you photograph that without showing the whole thing? And remember to look up – there is often a lot to see above eye level that most people won’t even notice!
Light is the one element that can make or break a photograph. It can give the image drama, create a sense of emotion or draw our eye to the subject of the photograph. Watch how the light changes throughout the day and how it effects your subject. Natural daylight is the easiest to work with but get creative, try out different types of lighting – even the torch on your phone can give you some interesting results at night.
Think about where the sun will sit in relation to your subject at different times of day and year. During the summer, the sun is higher in the sky and creates shorter shadows. (this is good in built up areas where you don’t want shadows cast onto your subject from the surrounding buildings). Summer sun can be crisp and bright but sometimes harsh. You might have to be more patient in winter when the sun is low – long shadows can be hard to expose for but it can create a beautiful soft, warm light. Winter sun is even more magical given how rare it can be to catch it!
It’s not always about the bright sunny days though. You can still get good photographs in most weather, they’ll just have a different feel to them. An overcast day can be perfect for architectural subjects, especially at north facing buildings, as it creates a soft and even light where all elements are equally lit. Rainy days can give you some great reflections to play with and often changes the way the materials and colours of a building look in images.
If you are taking photographs of an interior, or in low light conditions such as in the evening or at night, your exposure time will be longer. This increases the risk of camera shake and a blurry photograph. You can prevent this by stabilising your camera in some way. A tripod is ideal however you can also minimise any movement by using a wall or something sturdy to rest your camera on or even holding it in close to your body with your feet firmly planted on the ground and holding your breath while you take the photograph. If you are using your camera handheld, try to use exposure times faster than 1/60th as this gives you the best chance of taking a good image before movement becomes an issue.
- REVISIT YOUR IMAGES
It’s always worth looking back at your images. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend using heavy filters, sometimes you can tweak the exposure to bring out more detail in the shadows and highlights or adjust your colour balance to make the colours look more natural. If you’ve been photographing tall buildings, you can also adjust the perspective to minimise the distortion I mentioned earlier. If you are trying to develop your own style, try printing your photographs. There are a few places you can get photographs printed directly from your phone that aren’t too expensive. Physically laying out images together is a great way to spot any recurring themes or compositions that work well together.
So that’s ten tips for Architectural Photography that will hopefully help you to get out and get started. Above all, remember that photography should be fun, and there are no real hard & fast rules. Buildings are a fantastic subject, unlike children and animals they won’t get bored or misbehave, so you can return to the same place and image again and again to practice. What’s most important is to take lots of photographs, experiment and find what works for you!
If you would like to learn more about what we do at Historic Environment Scotland visit our website here, or follow us on twitter, facebook or Instagram. You can also see all of our survey work on our website Canmore.