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Architectural Photography - Camera Placement, Lighting

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Rochester Institute of Technology

Architectural photography is dominated by photographs of entire buildings and exterior and interior sections of buildings, but the field includes close-up photographs of building details and even photographs of other structures such as bridges, towers, arches, sculptures, walls, and monuments. Most buildings are constructed for utilitarian purposes, but architecture is considered to be one of the fine arts, and photographs of buildings are made for both commercial and expressive purposes.

Buildings were popular subjects with early photographers, as were landscapes, and because buildings and their surroundings cannot be separated, many photographers developed expertise in both architectural and landscape photography. Photographs of historical structures and buildings having unique architectural styles in other countries held special fascination for the public, which previously had access only through drawings. An amateur photographer, Jean Baptiste Louis Gros, made the first daguerreotype images of the ancient Parthenon in Athens in 1840, only a year after the public announcement of the daguerreotype process. As described by Naomi Rosenblum in A World History of Photography (revised edition, Cross River, New York, 1984), “After returning to Paris, he was fascinated by his realization that, unlike hand-drawn pictures, camera images on close inspection yielded minute details of which the observer may not have been aware when the exposure was made.”

Photographers soon realized that it was necessary to keep the camera level to prevent the vertical lines on buildings from converging in the photograph. Rising-falling fronts were added to cameras so that the image could be moved up or down on the ground glass without tilting the camera, with tilt and swing adjustments appearing on later models. Large-format view cameras have long been the preferred camera of architectural photographers, although the most popular sizes have decreased over the years from 8 × 10 and larger to 4 × 5, in response to increased quality of lenses and films. Even 35-mm cameras became architectural cameras with the introduction of the perspective-control (PC) lens, a wide-angle lens that can be shifted off-center to position the image without tilting the camera.

The basic task of architectural photographers is to represent three-dimensional architectural subjects realistically and attractively in two-dimensional photographs. Because of the nature of the subject, they are faced with special challenges.

Camera Placement

For exterior views of buildings, the camera is normally positioned to emphasize the front of the building while also showing one side of the building to reveal form. Ideally, the camera distance would be determined by the type of perspective desired—normal or strong—but in practice this is seldom possible because of obstructions that limit the camera distance and distracting objects that would appear in the foreground. As a result, the camera is placed in the best position available, and a lens is selected that provides the desired image from that angle of view. Thus, the photographer needs a choice of lenses covering a range of focal lengths, but all must have sufficient covering power to allow the view-camera movements to be used.

With interior views, the camera can seldom be placed far enough away from the area of interest for a normal focal-length lens to be used. Although the strong perspective that results from using short-focal-length, wide-angle lenses creates a false impression of distance and space, the effect is usually welcomed because it makes the area appear more spacious than it really is.


Conventional lighting for exterior views consists of having the sun in a position that illuminates the front of the building while the visible side of the building is in the shade, a lighting effect that emphasizes the relief detail on the front surface of the building and the three-dimensional form of the building as a whole. Because the lighting changes constantly between sunrise and sunset, the photographer must anticipate when the desired lighting effect will occur. A hazy sun or mildly overcast sky is sometimes preferred for less contrast. Alternative lighting effects include night photographs of buildings having exterior lighting or that can be “painted” with multiple firings of electronic flash units and double exposures, one at dusk to record a sky tone and one after dark to record the building’s night illumination.

The task of lighting interior views is greatly complicated by the use of color films. Even where the existing lighting is satisfactory, it may be necessary to use color-correction filters on the camera lens, especially with transparency films. When it is necessary to combine existing room illumination with supplementary flash or tungsten lighting and/or a daylight scene visible through a window, the task becomes more difficult.

In cities, there is a large enough market for architectural photographs that professional photographers can specialize in this field. Architectural photographs find many different uses by individuals and organizations in diverse fields. At one extreme, a cover photograph for a national magazine might involve the combined efforts of a number of specialists in addition to those of the photographer, and many hours of preparation before the photograph is actually made. At a another extreme, a local real estate agent might make hand-held photographs with an instant-picture camera to show to potential clients. In between are all the architectural photographs made for documentation, information, advertising, and display, and for publication in newspapers, brochures, catalogs, magazines, and books.

Some architectural photographers develop distinctive styles, but it is important for professional architectural photographers to determine the needs of their clients and to make suitable photographs that meet those needs.

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