Guide to architectural photography

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Definition

Architectural photography is the process of capturing and representing buildings and other built structures in both an aesthetically and accurate manner, via the use of specialized photography techniques and equipment.

This can be applied to either the exterior or interior of the architecture (most often both).

The photographs taken are almost always intended for commercial purposes, and may be required to:

  • Promote and demonstrate the design team’s abilities.

  • Promote and demonstrate the photographer’s abilities.

  • Aid in the advertising and selling of a scheme to future buyers.

  • Feature in a news articles.

Who is an architecture photographer?

An architectural photographer is the person who in their professional capacity takes the above photographs. 

Each photographer has their own individual style or styles that differentiate themselves from one another by using a blend and range of:

  • Orientation – The angle of direct sun light.

  • Field sizes – Wide shots and/or close up detailed perspectives.

  • The depth of field – How much of the foreground and background is in focus.

  • The perspective – Where the photograph is taken from; for example at eye level or shot from above.

  • Atmosphere – The time of day and year it is taken

  • Colour – The level of intensity, style and if it has colour at all.

  • Contents – Are there people and/or cars.

  • Format – Landscape or portrait orientations.

  • Media type – Still photography, stop motion, video.

Architectural photographers will also come from a range of different backgrounds and disciplines, and may have:

  • Specialized in architecture photography from the beginning of their career.

  • Previously specialized in other areas of photography.

  • A background in architecture education.

  • Be a license architect.

  • Or completely changed career path and were once an accountant!

Its varies greatly, and much like architecture itself, further adds to range of diversification and options available. Each person has a different and subjective approach to capturing the right photograph.

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Types of architecture photography

Exterior architectural photography uses natural indirect, direct and/or ambient light, as its illumination, which can and will change depending on the time of day and season the photograph is being taken.

For this reason many photographers will aim to visit a location at several different times of day and even year, to obtain a full range of shots, and to record the different light and shadows changes, as well as the people that may occupy the space.

Interior photography will often accompany a set of exterior photographs and vis-versa, but often requires additional lighting to the natural illumination provided, such as an electronic flash or incandescent.

This gives the photographer far more control over the environment and subject matter then when working externally.

Architectural photography history

By sheer coincidence the oldest surviving photograph that was taken in 1826/1827, also happens to be the first recorded architectural photograph that was taken of a series of building rooftops by the French inventor of photography Joseph Nicephore Neipce.

Photographs of buildings continued to be highly popular photographic subjects throughout history, and by the 1860’s, architectural photography was starting to become an established and recognized discipline.

This was aided by the limitations of the photographic techniques avail be at the time that required long exposure times, and therefore needed subjects that did not move.

Buildings are of course particularly well-suited to this, and a result made architectural photography one of the first photographic specialisms.

Although unfortunately, initially the specialism lacked creativity and was restricted by technology.

However as technology and in fact also architecture evolved, architectural photography followed and photographers started to experiment with more complex compositions, lighting and shadows, that were bespoke to the photograph subjects.

As the desire for architectural photographs grew, by the 1950’s photographers were starting to be directly employed and commissioned by architects and architectural firms. Which lead the discipline to be seen as more of an art form and what know it to be today, appearing in architectural, art, lifestyle, photographic magazines and books.

As time has moved on, so has the required format with the now digital produced photographs firmly preferred instead of the old analogue methods. This has been driven by the requirement for flexible imagery that can be viewed in variety of different scales and formats.

Video and in particular drone photography has also increased in popularity, where aerial photography has suddenly become very accessible with the introduction of readily available remote controlled drones.

The restrictions of where these can and can’t be flown are gradually increasing, however as you can see from the below video, they introduce a whole new dynamic.

What are its uses?

Architectural photography has many uses, however its primary use is without doubt to capture and promote its subject/s.

This can range from large images printed on vinyl and/or hording enclosing a construction site, to small digital thumbnail images used on social media and websites.

Captured from a variety on angles, in varied light and from both an exterior and interior perspective, the photographs must depict the architecture in the best possible light, and encapsulate its finished state.

Architectural photography allows us to visually experience and understand buildings from angles, viewpoints, and in environments that we might never get to experience firsthand. It opens up architecture to the public.

However there is a disadvantage, in that it does slightly glorify the process of procuring a building, which Jeremy Till summarizing in his book ‘Architecture Depends’ , where he states:

The photograph allows us to forget what has come before (the pain of extended labor to achieve the delivery of the fully formed building) and what is to come after (the affront of time as dirt, users, change, and weather move in). It freezes time or, rather, freezes out time. Architectural photography ‘lifts the building out of time, out of breath,’ and in this provides solace for architects who can dream for a moment that architecture is a stable power existing over and above the tides of time.”

Should architectural photography include people?

When it comes to including people in architectural photographs, traditionally photographers have preferred not to include them. This is because they can:

  • Be a distraction and draw the viewer away from the building.

  • Move and distort a long exposure.

  • Obstruct the building altogether.

  • Require written permission.

In recent years however there has been a shift in this approach, and more and more clients are asking photographers to show how the building is used and occupied, and this means including people.

How are photographs presented?

Photographs can be presented via just about any type of media, however today with the prominence of computerised presentations, online portfolios and websites, they are predominately presented via digital means, and rarely printed out as hard copies.

Physical copies are often only required if the photographer and/or sometimes the architectural firm are presenting in an exhibition or submitting physical work for a competition or award entry. It may also be required for site and promotional hoarding to showcase a scheme to potential customers, however the photographs are normally just part of larger presentation.

For this reason, landscape orientations are often favoured over portrait, as they are much more adaptable when cropping to a monitor, tablet, or phone screen, which are now the primary devices in which photographs are viewed.

How to become an Architectural photographer

A lot of professional photographers say that it takes 10 years of hard work as a photographer before you really know the profession and its tools and can call yourself a professional. This doesn’t mean that you need to firstly study photography, although the benefits are obvious, and equally you dont need to have studied architecture, however most have experience in a least one of these areas.

What you do need however is the knowledge and ability to recognise good composition, which either of the above can nurture and teach.

Ultimately, the professional status comes through experience and practice of both camera use and industry understanding, during which time you will also build and grow a portfolio and client base.

What kind of work does an Architectural photographer do

Architectural photographs rarely specialise in a building type but do tend to specialise in a genre, for example modern or classical architecture, which is normally driven by their own individual interests.

Many start their careers by making a local name for themselves working with local firms, but as their popularity grows so do the distances, and they may be asked to travel all over the world.

Buildings as we know are very diverse and bespoke objects and with the exception of housing projects, very few are the same.

This creates a lot diversification in the act of taking photographs, each building reacts differently in certain lights and when viewed from different angles, and calls for a slightly alternative approach every time.

…not to mention its environment and climate.

Types of architectural photography

When it comes to types of architectural photography, there are a number of variables and factors to consider, such as firstly both external and internal environments, one normally follows the other, however it is much easier to specialise in just interiors than it is just exteriors. As interior projects do not always require external views.

There are then an array of climate and lighting scenarios to choose from. Photographers normally take the rough with the smooth when it comes to climates and seasons, however are more particular when it comes to both natural and artificial lighting.

Building types:

  • Public and Cultural buildings

  • Museums, galleries, theatres, entertainment centres, libraries, courthouses, government buildings.

  • Commercial buildings

  • High-rise or medium to low density office buildings, mixed use developments (which include office space with other facilities such as retail, hotel and apartments).

  • Stadiums and Sports buildings

  • Large stadiums and arenas, athletics stadiums, aquatic centres, indoor and outdoor recreation complexes.

  • Education buildings

  • Universities, tertiary institutions, high schools, primary schools.

  • Hospitality and Retail buildings

  • Restaurants, bars, cafes, boutiques, retail stores, department stores, shopping centres, food courts, food and beverage outlets.

  • Health buildings

  • Hospitals, health education facilities, dentistry, hospices, aged care facilities.

  • Hotels

  • Large hotels, boutique hotels, resorts, serviced apartments.

  • Residential buildings

  • Executive residences, private residences, apartment complexes, housing developments.

  • Landscapes 

  • Landscape and urban design in outdoor spaces adds to the community in a beneficial way, promoting a sense of place and well-being.

  • Architectural Models 

  • From a large scale, highly detailed model or a simple card model.

  • Commercial and Industrial buildings

  • For commercial businesses, builders, construction, mining companies and those fields that aren’t strictly classed as ‘architectural’.

Professional associations and societies

There are several key associations that aim to promote and aid the professional success of independent architectural photographers, by providing a platform to find new clients and promoting the profession to the general public.

 These are as follows: