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Achieving Balance in Architectural Photography

Achieving Balance in Architectural Photography

Photographing architecture is a wonderful exercise of vision and visual artistry. Architectural photography takes many forms and styles depending on the artistic intent of the photographer as well as the purpose of the photograph. Some architectural photographs are taken simply to document the current state of a building or structure. Others are taken to showcase the intricate design that was put into concrete and steel.

The ultimate goal of an architectural photographer, however, is to both document the artistry of the creator of the structure while also infusing their own mastery in interpreting the image. Much like any other kind of photography, it is about finding the best way to portray the subject which includes finding the right angle and capturing the structure in the best light and environmental condition that complements the design. 

An effective formula for compelling architectural photography is being able to satisfy the craving of the eyes of the viewers. It is said that when we look at photographs we automatically seek patterns and figures. Satisfaction comes from being able to identify such patterns and see the entire frame as one coherent flow of patterns. Part of visual design in architectural photography is in fact achieving balance in various aspects of the image through framing and visual weight, contrast, and of course exposure. 

What is Visual Weight? 

Think of how you perceive parts of an image. You can either see it as empty or full, smooth or rough, busy or serene, chaotic or organized. The features that govern this perception are of course brightness, texture, and contrast. Each visual element in the frame, as well as empty spaces, have visual weight and the key to a satisfying image is achieving perceptual balance from one side to the other. 

Visual Weight in Architectural Photography

Balance in Photography Through Framing

Framing is perhaps the most basic sense of composition in photography. It is basically what we put within the frame and consequently what we exclude. This also governs where in the frame we put our subjects or visual elements and how all other objects in the photograph interacts with the main subject. In architectural photography, it is not just about being able to put a building or structure within the frame.

While the most common requirement is to be able to capture the entire structure, framing and composition also includes where you place the structure and how you use space around it to complement it as a subject of a photograph. The proper use of empty spaces also contributes to how your audience perceives the size of the structure and how it relates to the environment around it. 

Filling the frame with the structure often gives the impression that it is big as it takes up a lot of space in the frame. Putting other visual elements around it, specifically ones that have certain standard sizes gives the image a sense of scale. For example, capturing a tall building with the figure of a human within it gives a clue of how big the structure is.

On the other hand, using a lot of empty space in the frame allows the negative space to overpower the structure. This gives the impression that the building is relatively small compared to the environment around it. By being able to achieve a certain balance in the use of space, one can give the right perception about size and scale. 

negative space in architectural photography

There are various ways to both create and reduce negative space. This can be done through proper use of exposure techniques that will help you manage the amount and impact of negative space to the entire photograph. When photographing buildings that are already occupied, foot traffic not only causes a lot of visual clutter in the scene but also takes away the intended effect of negative space.

To manage this, long exposure images can be done. By placing your camera on a tripod and allowing it to capture long exposures as people walk around the frame, the permanence of the background or the pavement takes precedence in the shot over the transient foot traffic. The duration of your exposures should depend on two things; how quick is the movement of the people walking about, and how bright are they compared to the background. Slower movement and brighter visual elements would mean a need for longer exposures to virtually erase them out of the shot. 

long exposure in architectural photography

On the other hand, you can also use the same principle to fill some empty spaces. This is a handy trick that can allow you to seemingly brush in detail with the use of slow shutter techniques. With a similar setup of having your camera on a tripod, you can make use of brief movements of people within your frame to use them as subtle details that will occupy an empty space.

At the same time, you can also use this to cover unwanted clutter that can be distracting to the overall visual design of your architectural photograph. By taking exposures of about 2 to 8 seconds long depending on how fast the movement is, you can use the moving element to leave a short trail that will emphasize a certain flow in your composition. This trail can also serve as that brush stroke that will cover up the unwanted clutter in frame. This can also be done by using other moving elements such as vehicles to leave a subtle trail.

clutter in architectural photography

To be able to achieve either, a few key tools are essential. For one, a camera with manual functions will be the most beneficial as it can allow you to manipulate the exposure settings and achieve the right effects. A sturdy tripod is important since doing long exposure images have to be done with absolutely no movement from the camera. To be able to do slow shutter exposures, a 3 or 4-stop ND filter is needed to allow the camera to shoot relatively longer even with the overabundance of daylight.

On the other hand, a 10, 12, or even 15-stop ND filter will come in handy when doing exposures of 30 seconds, one minute, or even longer. For a more efficient foolproof shooting process, using a camera trigger will be very beneficial. A camera trigger would allow you to remotely start your exposures without risking any camera shake from pressing the button. Smart camera triggers such as the MIOPS Smart+ and MIOPS Flex would allow you to use your smartphone as a way to control your camera and set it to precise exposure times through various long exposure modes. Both triggers also have different sensor modes such as a light sensor, sound sensor, and a laser sensor for automated exposures. 

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Balance in Photography Through Contrast 

Another aspect of achieving balance in photography is through contrast and texture. This is also closely related to the use of negative space. For a certain structure to standout in an image, it has to be surrounded by portions of the frame that are not as detailed and as textured as it is. Otherwise, the structure would just blend with whatever is around it and emphasis will be lost. Framing the shot so that a structure would be distinguishable from others around it is a basic requirement. On the other hand, other visual elements and surfaces can actually also reduce the contrast in frame. For example, rough textured clouds and turbulent water surfaces would have the same visual weight as the heavily textured architecture. This is where long exposure, again, plays a role.

texture in architectural photography

By using long exposure techniques to allow motion to render smooth textures onto the surface, contrast is achieved. This can be by softening the texture and getting rid of ripples in surfaces of water or by letting clouds scud to achieve a brushed-like appearance in the sky. By having a smooth surface complement the solid structures, you can give more emphasis to the architecture and even guide the eyes of the viewers as they experience the photograph.

Balance in Photography Through Exposure

Exposure is also one aspect of an image that requires balance. Photographing the exterior of buildings means having to deal with all the variances of lights and shadows in the scene. At the same time, shooting the interior details of a building also requires being able to manage the difference of the bright outdoors as seen from doors and windows, and the much dimmer indoor environment.

HDR in architectural photography

These imbalances in exposure are caused by limitations in dynamic range. Dynamic range is the range of light in the visible spectrum that a camera can record in just a single exposure. Any camera, no matter how advanced, has a much more limited dynamic range than what our eyes perceive. This is why whenever we photograph buildings with a bright sky in the background, we either get a silhouette of the building that is devoid of details, or an overexposed sky. In the same way, this is why shooting interiors with open doors and windows during the day would often yield images with the outside details blown out.

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Shooting and processing HDR images can be a solution to this problem especially when you are not able to wait for the right time-of-day to take a more balanced shot. Shooting HDR means taking 3, 5, or 7 consecutive exposures with varying levels of brightness. By combining these exposures, you can extract as much detail as you need for certain portions that would otherwise be too dark or too bright in a single exposure process.

The MIOPS Smart+ camera trigger also offers an automated way of shooting HDR images that is controlled by a smartphone through the MIOPS Mobile app. You can set your baseline settings and how many exposures you want the camera to take, as well as the difference in brightness of each shot. The MIOPS Flex camera trigger offers the same function as well. However, it has the added benefit of being able to process the HDR image and show you a real-time preview of your output on your smartphone and even save that result onto its own memory card.

balance in architectural photography

Visual design in architectural photography is almost entirely reliant on balance. The goal of the shot is always to showcase the beautiful man-made structures. Given an unpredictable environment, the challenge is to make the surroundings of that structure complement and give emphasis to the structure as a subject. By using compositional techniques, exposure techniques, and high dynamic range methods, one can achieve better balance in photography. 

Blog Credit: Nicco Valenzuela

Nicco started his photographic journey in 2007 practicing the craft as a hobby. Currently, he shoots for various local and international architectural firms and construction companies. Out of his love for sharing his knowledge, Nicco began writing about photography and various pieces of gear.