A few weeks ago, I went to Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, for a photo walk. I hadn’t done one in a very long while, and I needed to field test my new Fuji X-T1. I also wanted to try a 2-camera setup, with a 70-200mm on the 7D, and a 10-24mm on the X-T1.
Usually, when I do a photo walk in an urban setting, my focus is on street photography. But that time, I thought I’d try something different and had a go at architecture photography. Taking pictures of buildings usually isn’t my thing, but this turned out to be in many ways an eye-opening experience.
The idea came to mind after remembering that Ming Thein does a fair bit of architecture photography and I started wondering “what does it take to makes nice images of buildings?”. I found out is that the answers to that question are actually highly transferable to other types of photography.
I discovered that shooting buildings is a good photographic exercise for three main reasons:
Buildings are boring
In street photography, there is a strong temptation to look for and focus on interesting looking people and/or people doing interesting things. It is to some people the very definition of street photography. When it comes to man-made constructions, unless you’re looking at something that is designed to be an architectural work of art, most buildings are pretty bland to look at. So you have to think about ways to make this subject interesting.
One way to go about this is to go abstract. Find geometric shapes, be they created by the features of the building or the shadows cast on it, and arrange them in your viewfinder. Doing this teaches you to really look at what you place in the frame, and make deliberate decisions about what you do and don’t show. You learn that when it comes to what’s in the frame, sometimes less is more. This way, you learn to recognise, set up and use patterns and shapes in your images.
If you shoot in colour, you can also play with the relationship between the colours in the frame. As the façade of a building usually has a smaller palette of colours than a street full of people and cars and so on, it’s a little bit easier to learn how to make colours work together.
On a related note, because of your choice of lens and/or the distance to your subject, chances are that most of your image is going to be in focus. If you need subject isolation, you’ll have to learn not to rely solely on depth of field.
Another interesting feature of buildings, especially if you’re in a big city centre, is that they tend to be full of windows, i.e. reflective surfaces. So there you start paying attention to what is being reflected and make a decision as to whether you want that to be in the picture or not.
That’s a whole bag of new tricks that you can look for and apply to the rest of your photography. But that is not all architecture photography has to offer because…
Buildings don’t move
Because your subject is static and isn’t going anywhere, you don’t need to wait or look for that decisive moment. Weather and lighting conditions pending, you have all the time in the world to get the best shot you can think of.
You can carefully compose your frame using the avenues of exploration discussed earlier. This however, implies a good shooting discipline, which is something I need to improve on.
You can examine how the light is falling on your subject, and go out of your comfort zone when it comes to exposure settings and attempt effects that you wouldn’t have tried otherwise. You can also experiment with different perspectives, and you’ll sometimes have to, which brings me to the last point.
Buildings can’t move (but you can)
You could say that the previous points also applies to other types of photography, such as still life or staged portraiture (as opposed to candid portraits and street photography), and you’d be right. But with these, if you’re not happy with the composition of your scene, you can always move the subjects around until you get what you want. You can’t do that with buildings and other man-made structures. They are where they are and that is it.
if you want to change your composition or your perspective, if there is an object in the background that you don’t want in your frame, you will have to physically move. This way you learn to explore different points of view, and that the spot where you take your first shot isn’t necessarily the best one.
I could have written the same article about landscape photography, but architecture was what I was doing when the penny dropped. Those concepts should be common sense for many a photographer, but it’s nice to remind oneself about it every now and then. I can’t tell yet if that experiment has made me a better photographer, but as I can see its value, it’s an exercise that I’m certainly going to repeat, if only for myself.