Architectural Photography Around Every Corner
Architectural photography is the discipline where buildings and other architectural structures are the main emphasis of the photograph’s aesthetic.
Architecture is more than just a structure or design; each piece carries history, meaning, and identity. From a rundown gas station to a shimmering glass-covered skyscraper, architecture is a work of art, so much of which is ignored or taken for granted.
Even something that appears to be mundane, therein lies a hidden elegance or style, and these qualities can be illuminated through artistic applications of photography. When looking at an architectural photograph, we evaluate not just the structure itself, but also the purpose behind capturing such an image:
What is the photographer’s intent? Is it accuracy of the structure's details? Is it to chronicle a moment in time? What is their aesthetic? A particular color palette? A specific angle? And, what does the image convey? A sense of wonder? Feelings of dismay?
It is important to recognize the creativity behind every brick, every slab of dry wall, every steel beam in the structures that surround us because it is through such observations that a photographer can enrich their artistic vision. Fortunately, architecture is around every corner.
The intent behind any photograph is crucial as it draws in other significant aspects of evaluation. Often with architectural photography, the intent is to capture a high-quality image of a structure for other material uses, such as advertising. In other circumstances, it could be to convey a certain emotion or meaning through special use of perspective.
An important tenet of architectural photography is the use of perspective control as this can convey different meanings depending on the display of the structure. For instance, an abandoned building can evoke senses of emptiness and waste, but from another angle, that same structure can be projected as a testament to longevity and resilience.
The emotion and meaning captured in a particular perspective is also further exemplified by the photographer's aesthetic. As with the abandoned building example, the senses of emptiness and waste can be evoked by use of bland and neutral colors just as perpetuity and resilience can be extracted from lightened shadows and saturated hues.
It could be a structure that you walk past every day, but never stop to contrast from one perspective to another. Capturing it through a lens can lead to new creative possibilities. Even if the universe is chaos, there is symmetry in everything, providing an ample palette of perspectives for unique architectural photography.
On a more technical note, perspective control is commonly achieved through use of tilt-shift lenses, view cameras, and post-processing software.
View cameras have been the traditional instrument for architectural photography because they allow the lens to be adjusted relative to the focal plane, but in the recent rise of digital cameras, tilt-shift lenses have become increasingly more common and accessible, as they enable very similar effects.
Tilt-shift lenses allow the photographer to shift or tilt the lens in order to match the focal plane of the subject being photographed. Also called a perspective control lens, it changes the position of the lens in relation to the camera’s image plane (where the image is processed).
When tilted, the lens is no longer parallel to the camera’s image sensor, and by doing this, it shifts the focal plane and alters the depth of field.
When shifted, it reframes the image viewed by your camera, providing different vantage points without having to move the camera itself.
Tilt-shift lenses only have manual focus functions that include a tilt control knob and a shift control knob.
The tilt control acts as a type of selective focus, adjusting the sharpness of the photo by tilting the focal plane in relation to the image plane. Remember, by tilting the lens plane, the focal plane is shifted and the depth of field is altered.
By tilting the focal plane in the same direction as the subject, an extensive depth of field is created, thus bringing the subject's focal plane into very sharp focus.
This process is known as the Scheimpflug Principle:
The geometric relationship between the orientation of the focal plane, the lens plane, and the image plane of a camera when the lens plane is not parallel to the image plane.
Named after Theodor Scheimpflug, an Austrian army captain who discovered the application to correct perspective distortion in aerial photographs, the principle determines the proper angle of sharp focus.
The axis point where all three angles intersect (the image plane, lens plane, and focal plane) is the angle needed to bring the subject into sharp focus.
A camera, or any other optical device, normally has both its lens plane and image plane (sensor or film) set parallel to each other. Additionally, they are both parallel to the general focal plane.
If a subject's focal plane is parallel to the image plane, it can be captured in very sharp focus. However, if the subject is not parallel, it will only be in focus up to where it intersects the general focal plane.
In regular circumstances, using a prime or zoom lens, the focal plane is affected through adjustments in aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. With a tilt-shift lens, however, the adjustment is made in a slightly different way.
A tilt-shift lens allows the lens plane to be tilted relative to the image plane and intersect the angle where the subject's focal plane crosses the image plane, forming the axis stated by the Scheimpflug Principle, and thus bringing the rest of the subject into complete focus.
Lastly, the shift control adjusts the frame of view by physically shifting the lens parallel to the image plane while keeping the camera stationary, hence simulating a photograph of the subject from a different physical position.
Shifting the lens helps eliminate perspective distortion and corrects vertical line convergence when photographing a subject from a high or low angle. In keeping the camera level, both horizontally and vertically, and pointed directly at the subject, vertical lines will not converge because the lens is evenly leveled.
With the advent of tilt-shift lenses, architectural photography has become much more accessible. Beforehand, view cameras were much more dominant in these applications.
A view camera has a two part design that is joined by a flexible bellows in the middle. The front part of the camera is known as the front standard where the lens mount and mechanical shutter are located. The rear section of the camera is known as the rear standard and holds a piece of ground glass or film holder.
An important distinction to recognize is that there are no mirrors inside a view camera as there would be in DSLRs or other devices. Light passes directly through the lens to the ground glass where the image will appear. Once the image has been properly focused, the ground glass is replaced by a film holder for the exposed image to be captured.
Given that the front standard can be moved in all directions relative to the rear standard, it utilizes the same effects as a tilt-shift lens. Vertical convergence can be corrected by shifting the front standard upwards and tilting the front standard will adjust the angle of the focal plane relative to the film, allowing for extensive control of focus and depth of field.
With the more complex movement systems of view cameras, it can be said that they have more perspective control than a tilt-shift lens. Because the ground glass provides direct through-the-lens viewing, the photographer has a significantly accurate sense of image quality being captured.
Even so, using a view camera is not a quick or timely process. It is best suited for stationary subjects and compositions that allow time for preparation.
Framing the image, correcting focal adjustments, and calculating exposure encompass only the first step of the process. The ground glass is then replaced by the film slide, followed by closing the shutter and manually setting the aperture before the film's protective shield can be removed. Finally, the shutter release is triggered and the exposed image is captured.
Terms to Remember
depth of field
The distance between the closest and farthest points in a photo that appears acceptably sharp.
The distance between the camera lens and the sharpest point of focus in an image.
The viewable distance of the focal length of a lens from its principal axis.
Inside the optical device, before the lens and focal planes, where subject's projected image is exposed and captured.
A technique of focusing the camera on a specific subject while rendering the rest of the image out of focus.
The orientation of the focal plane, the lens plane, and the image plane of a camera needed to bring a subject into sharp focus.
frame of view
The viewable frame seen through a lens at a particular focal length and perspective.
Architectural photography is possible in any urban environment, even ones with the smallest bread crumbs of civilization. Whether it be a hut in the middle of an open corn field, a cookie-cutter housing development, or even a half-baked strip mall, there is always a hidden elegance to be revealed through unique perspective and aesthetic.
The meanings and intentions embedded within the photographs themselves are either dictated by the artist or the eye of the beholder. They may be achieved using a tilt-shift lens, a view camera, post-processing software, or something else altogether. Nevertheless, if you look at your surroundings a certain way, you will find a composition you did not see before.