Stationary subjects are easier to photograph, aren't they? Well, not necessarily.
Words and Pictures by Michael Jenkins
With buildings all around us most of the time, it is easy to see why we could assume that they are easy to photograph. However, photography means writing with light and the one thing we know about natural light is that it is always changing. The sun rises and sets; clouds of varying thickness roll along the sky; shadows get shorter and longer with both the time of day and the seasons. If we are to write with natural light, we must remember that it will always be changing.
Points of Interest
Because buildings are so important to us, they immediately become centres of interest. Notice this with the farmhouse in Snowdonia. I stopped the car to take a picture of the cloud hovering over the mountain. Yet our eyes are constantly drawn back to the farmhouse, despite the wide open spaces around it.
Photographing a building with its surroundings, especially if it is a solitary building, can often introduce a very dramatic perspective. Composing the photograph so that the building is on the "intersection of thirds" will strengthen the overall image by helping to concentrate the eye on the main subject.
Pattern, Texture and Colour
Observing how a subject changes with the light is an excellent way to learn about tones and textures. Since architecture relies on a multitude of different materials with an endless variety of textures, we can use them to create interest in our pictures.
In addition, think about the many different building materials; bricks in several shades of red, cream and brown; wood, with all its variety of patterns, textures and colours; smooth, rendered walls painted in all the colours of the rainbow; plastic, steel, lead and so on. I recently spent a few days in the area of Bath, UK, where many of the buildings are built from the beautiful Bath Stone, which has a lovely creamy colour, or so I thought. It seems that when first quarried, it is a brilliant white. As the stone ages, it takes on the characteristic cream colour that we see today in most buildings in which it has been used. You can see this in the picture of a street in Bath below.
Now consider how the light affects these colours. Notice how the low autumn sun gives everything a warm glow and creates long shadows. See how it changes the tones in the building materials.
As noted above, there are usually buildings all around us. It would be easy to simply find a nice building and start snapping away.
That's fine. Take your first photo as soon as you see a building that presents a promising picture. No matter how hard you look, you may never find the image that caught your eye again.
Having said that, don't take too many photos too quickly. Study the building. What makes it so interesting? What caught your eye? How do the colours and textures affect the look of the building? How does the light affect the colours and textures? Are there interesting patterns? Will the setting (or rising) sun create a different mood? Is there water nearby that will present interesting reflections? How do the surroundings affect the building? Do they add or detract from its story?
Remember, with most buildings, the architect will have considered these things in his design.
When taking pictures of buildings, it is not always necessary to photograph the entire building. Sometimes, the details tell a more interesting story, or they may present a study in contrasts. They may provide an opportunity for an abstract image.
Also, when creating a photo story, it is often beneficial to show an overview of a building, followed by detailed shots of its features, especially if they demonstrate a particular style of architecture. Such details also provide a view of the craftsmanship involved in adding the finishing touches to a building.
No discussion of architectural photography is complete without at least mentioning converging verticals. They are not something to fear. We all know how railway lines appear to get closer together as you look farther away, seeming, even, to touch on the horizon. The idea of "converging verticals" is similar, except that it describes the effect on the vertical lines of a building.
This effect, usually caused by tilting the camera, can be overcome in a number of ways.
You could spend a lot of money on a shift lens. This lens has special functions that move the front element vertically in relation to the film. As a result, it is possible to keep the camera parallel with the building. The vertical lines will then record correctly.
Another option is to take the photograph from farther away. You could use a telephoto lens to make the subject appear closer, or you could crop the final print. This version of Paxton's Tower in South Wales was taken from an even lower viewpoint than the one above. Yet you can see that it was possible to keep the camera closer to vertical, avoiding the problem of converging verticals.
Of course, it pays to remember that such imposing views are often designed to have a disconcerting effect on the visitor. Castle towers, for example, create a sense of awe in people standing outside them. Also, people expect to see the walls apparently getting closer together when they look up at them. You can use this effect to create a very moody, dramatic image.
When designing a building, or when trying to make an old building more attractive, architects and planners will often use lighting techniques to accentuate certain features of the building. These can be especially effective at night.
Notice how the lights in this picture of Caernarfon Castle in North Wales provide a dramatic view of the castle at night. The dark shapes of the boats in the harbour only add to the sense of drama.
Of course, taking such pictures at night will require more than a basic camera. However, as has been mentioned previously on ePHOTozine, you don't always need a complicated set-up to get a good picture. This one was taken with the camera resting on the roof of the car, which was later cropped out. Having positioned the camera and set up the focus and exposure, all that remained was to activate the camera's self-timer and stand back. This way, it was possible to avoid the normal vibration of a handheld photograph.
If you don't have a camera with these features, why not try taking the picture in the evening with the setting sun creating a backdrop for a silhouette of the building, as seen in this picture of Kidwelly Castle in South Wales. However, be careful with this type of picture. This one was taken with a digital camera and was composed using the camera's LCD screen. NEVER look at the sun through the viewfinder, especially if you have a telephoto lens attached. You could cause permanent damage to your eyes. If you must look through the viewfinder to focus, keep the sun out of the frame while you do that. Then, move the camera away from your eye and turn it to the approximate position required. If it's not quite right, you can always crop the print later.