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Exposure Techniques for Better Architectural Photography 

Exposure Techniques for Better Architectural Photography 

Architectural photography is a highly meticulous and intricate genre of photography. With the aim of illustrating the beauty of an architect’s design that is embodied in a mixture of solid materials, architectural photography is a showcase of superb creative vision and artistic composition. Many photographers liken the discipline of architectural photography to landscape photography.

In some ways, the workflow of architectural photography can be quite similar to landscape photography but with the addition of some impactful factors that heavily affect the output. Just like landscape photography, various factors are of great significance in being able to successfully capture the beauty of a building or structure.

Much like photographing sea-stacks and mountains, the direction of the light, the quality of the light, and the overall environment heavily affect the entire feel of the image, and doing so may help the photographer successfully create an image of the environment that effectively complements the architect’s creation. 

In the simplest sense, architectural photography is photographing man-made structures such as buildings, towers, houses, even monuments. To be able to beautifully execute an architectural photography project, there are a number of objectives to be fulfilled.

The first is to create an image that accurately and aesthetically interprets the architectural design in a way that is in tune with the vision of the creator.

For professional architectural photography, this is one of the most crucial steps of any project. While artistry is a must for an architectural photographer, it must not override the artistry in the architect’s design.

The architectural photographer should first and foremost seek to illustrate what the creator wants the world to see of his building. Being able to bridge that gap between the vision of the architect and the photographer would result in better outcomes photographically. 

Another goal of architectural photography is to find the best “faces” of the structure and be able to create refined images that best complements and emphasizes the architectural design. The difference between photographing buildings from creating digital artists’ perspectives is greatly emphasized in the process of architectural photography.

Photographing the buildings in their actual environment is quite different from illustrating them on a blank canvas. There is a multitude of visually significant elements around the structure that will affect the photograph’s visual design and that includes nearby structures, clutter, and the varying states and quality of environmental light.

The goal is to manage the extraneous factors present in the scene either by eliminating them from the frame entirely or strategically placing them at points in the frame where they would visually complement the structure. 

Part of this task is to also observe how the structure behaves in different lighting situations. Some architectural textures are emphasized greatly when illuminated from a specific angle.

Some structures also cast distinct shadow patterns that may visually complement the main structure from a certain angle. Whether or not such occurrences are part of the design and the creator’s intent, photographing such would definitely give a better look at the context of the structure. 

Exposure Techniques 

1) Long Exposure Clean-up

A commonly encountered challenge in photographing buildings and architectural exteriors is the lack of control of the entire location. The best time to photograph a building (especially for shoots commissioned by the architect or contractor) is right after everything has been finished and cleaned up prior to its opening or the start of the building’s use.

This way, there are fewer chances of unwanted clutter from the occupants, the building’s details would be clean and at the time untainted by the environment. However, for most architectural projects, or even for photographers who would like to photograph buildings as a hobby, the ideal situation is most often not the case.

The kind of visual clutter that is easiest to encounter on location is people. They can be the occupants of the buildings or passers-by. It rarely happens that an entire building and all the surrounding passages would be closed just for an architectural photography shoot if the building is already operational.

Luckily, this type of visual clutter is also the easiest to get rid of. Whether shooting architecture in broad daylight or at dusk, moving elements such as foot traffic are very easy to remove.

During the day, using a 6 or 10-stop ND filter allows you to extend your exposure to about 10-30 seconds. If foot traffic is light and there are not that many people in the frame, such an exposure length would be able to cancel them out from your shot.

However, with heavy foot traffic, it might require a denser ND filter to be able to shoot exposures around 5 minutes or even longer to get rid of even the busiest movements.

2) Long Exposure to Render Textures

In a similar approach as in landscape photography, long exposure can be used to render visual effects onto the foreground and background portions of the scene. These are areas occupied mostly by the sky and elements that are not actually parts of the architectural design.

It is important to be able to manage these visual factors to make these areas compliment the structure and effectively direct the eyes towards it.

With proper knowledge and experience in using filters for landscape photography, rough skies are the easiest to manage. With the use of the proper ND filter, you can smoothen out the clouds by letting their movement scud across the frame. This eliminates any significantly distracting textures that would not complement the architectural structure in the frame. 

In some instances, bodies of water, whether flowing or still can be present in the foreground. If left unmanaged, minute ripples and floating clutter in the water can cause a distraction from the building.

By shooting long exposures, you can eliminate the clutter as they move across the frame while being canceled out by the luminosity of the water surface. At the same time, ripples in the water are also avoided.

The cleanest output is often one from exposures that are a few minutes long. With the constant flow of the water, the surface is washed into a clean and smooth surface.

If the building is significantly brighter than the surface of the water (lit by the sun from a certain angle) and enhanced by a polarizing filter, the composition can be enhanced by a reflection of the building on the water surface and this gives a more striking appearance to the shot. 

3) Human Element for Scale

In a different way, human figures in the frame give a sense of scale to the structure. This illustrates how big the structures are in real life and can be quite effective in showing the viewers a realistic glimpse of their entirety.

However, it is often advisable to use silhouettes or a motion-blurred figure of a person walking to avoid making the person’s identity a distraction from the entire image.

In many cases, the photographer can also be the person in the image when there is no designated person to fill the role. With a camera remote trigger or timer, you can very easily trigger the camera from afar and capture a slow shutter image to get the motion blur. 

4) Traffic Trails

When photographing exteriors in the city, it is always a good idea to work the scene and see how the building would look at night. Most modern buildings are made to shine in the cityscape along with the glow of the lights inside and nighttime images are almost always required in most architectural photography projects.

The lights that symbolize the life of the people that inhabit such buildings always make the images more dynamic. When shooting in the periphery of the building, vehicular traffic can be quite a challenge.

Not only can the cars be in the shot but the lights they cast on the road have a tendency to affect your shot altogether. However, working around these factors doesn’t only eliminate the distracting elements in the scene, properly executed exposure techniques can also make use of traffic to enhance your visual design.

By shooting long exposures and composing the frame so that the trails lead to the building, you can create attractive leading lines that would direct your viewer’s eyes towards the building. It is important to capture long enough exposures to fill the space of the road but not too long that it overexposes the scene. 

5) Exposure Bracketing

Another challenge that can arise in shooting architecture is when the scene has a very wide dynamic range. That means that the camera’s sensor can not record and replicate the entire range of light information that is present in the scene.

This is particularly common when shooting architecture and cityscapes at night and some of the lights in the frame are much brighter than most. This can be solved by taking multiple exposures of varying brightness to be able to record all the necessary details and later combine them into a single image. 

MIOPS Camera Triggers for Architectural Photography 

The MIOPS Smart+, RemotePlus, and the all-new Flex camera triggers are perfect companions for architectural photographers and their cameras. These devices work as remote camera triggers that can simplify your architectural photography long exposure and exposure bracketing workflow.

These devices allow you to control your camera with a smartphone and choose pre-programmed modes that are perfect for what your images need. The Smart+, RemotePlus, and Flex all allow for fully controlled long exposures for however long you want through the timer remote function.

All three devices also allow you to control and trigger your camera from a distance for instance when you need to get out of the scene or be the human element in it. These camera triggers also come with a built-in “HDR mode” for intuitive exposure bracketing to help you overcome challenges in dynamic range and luminosity. 

Many of the challenges encountered in architectural photography can be addressed by various exposure techniques. Doing so allows you to create more dynamic and intricately composed images that best personify and represent the structures that you are shooting and creatively interpret the architectural creation. 

Blog and Image Credits: 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.