One question I have been asked a lot lately is what it means to create award-winning architectural photography so I had to think about it. The truth is that the answer is not simple and is multi-faceted but I will try here to give you some simple ideas on what to do to get closer to that. Of course, every photographer is different and has a special vision but there are a few things that always come to mind when I think about this subject and I want to share them with you.
Being an architect and a fine art architecture photographer for a long time, I had the opportunity to work with many iconic architectural structures around the world, and every time I do it, it feels more and more fascinating. Every experience in this field teaches me something new, and I feel the need to pass it on to others: to my students who do me the honor to come from all over the world to my workshops, to the readers of this website and through my books and tutorials. Sharing my knowledge with others is part of the excitement of this journey of photography and discovery that I am making, and seeing so many people being inspired by this shared knowledge makes the whole experience even more captivating for me.
Over the years I have created tens of tutorials on architecture and fine art photography and you can read them here on this website. Many of them are advanced tutorials but lately I have been asked to write more for those who are at the beginning of their photography journey, especially those who are starting with fine art architecture photography and need some guidance. This tutorial is meant as such. If you are an advanced architecture photographer you probably have already developed your own style and you may not need much guidance but if you are still wondering what you can do to make better and more authentic architecture photography, these tips are going to help. So let’s talk a bit about what makes a compelling architectural photograph, what makes the award-winning architectural photography.
FIRST SOME NEWS – ND FILTERS DISCOUNTS AND MORE
Before starting with everything let me tell you that if you need any kind of long exposure equipment these days I have a great deal for you.
If you need neutral density filters or any other accessories you can get them from Formatt-Hitech until the end of August with 20% discount if you use my code JULIA20 and order from the Formatt-Hitech website UK or their US website. After that, you can use my perpetual discount code JULIA10 to get 10% off any Formatt-Hitech products you want to order. There are many filter manufacturers out there but Formatt-Hitech is one of the largest and most innovative companies that manufacture photography filters – the first company that created a color cast free 16-stop ND filter, not to mention that they have the widest range of filter intensities out there. I am working with Formatt-Hitech products for many years and I’m more than happy with them. For a few years, I have the honor to be a Formatt-Hitech Global Ambassador and this is why I can give you this special discount I have for my students and followers.
There is more news that can be interesting for some of you, but you need to be a bit patient and you will find it if you read this article till the end. Don’t cheat and scroll down now to see it! I know that’s what you just thought. Go on, read it all and you will see.
Now, let’s get back to our subject.
There are a few principles that always help to create a better architecture photograph. Even if I mainly work with black and white photography, most of these principles can be applied to color photography too, and they are useful not only for shooting architectural photography but for any genre of photography.
These principles have to do with the way we see light, shapes, and volumes but also with the tools we use to re-create the scene we see in front of us into a photograph. Applying these principles helped me win tens of international awards, and it helped my students to distinguish themselves in the world of fine art photography. I want to share here some of the best tips I have for creating award-winning architectural photography so you can go on and win a lot of them with your photography too.
For those interested in learning more about black and white fine art photography and architectural photography I can recommend my book From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography that I wrote together with Joel Tjintjelaar. Also, you may want to read my article How to Create an Architectural Fine Art Photograph for more inspiration.
1. COMPOSITION IS THE FOUNDATION OF ARCHITECTURE PHOTOGRAPHY
The composition is the first thing the viewer will notice in an image. It is the skeleton of the image and it is what can make or break a photograph. The composition is what can give you an award-winning image or a so-so one. There are a few things that, if done well, can help a photograph become more compelling and engage more actively the viewer.
Symmetry – Asymmetry
First, when you compose, make a conscious decision if you will use symmetry or asymmetry as a compositional principle. As a tried and true rule, avoid placing your subject in the center of the image, unless you are shooting symmetrical objects or scenes, in which case centering them will make your image more powerful, or if you have other elements in the frame that justify a central composition.
You always need to adapt to your conditions and learn to read them, and when you do, you will almost instinctively understand when symmetry is the right answer. Symmetry can be powerful and it can create strong symbols when done right, however, going off-center will give more dynamism to your image while creating a more captivating story.
Without needing to obey the rules blindly, they can be useful as a starting point for your composition.
For instance the rule of thirds. There are a few out there who are lately snubbing the rule of thirds, probably because going against well-known statements can give one a bit of exposure and the 15 minutes of Internet fame, but whatever the naysayers say, the fact is that taking your subject off-center works. And the rule of thirds is mostly about this. So let them say what they want, you go ahead and think in thirds and you’re going to be happy you did.
Except for the rule of thirds, remember also her younger sister too, “the rule of ninths” that can give you even more flexibility and dynamic results. Except for that, know that the best spot to place your subject is in the lower right third of the image since this is where the eye instinctively goes when looking at a photograph.
Remember that placing your subjects on a diagonal in the frame is an excellent way to draw attention to them. Use leading lines, play with patterns, break the patterns, play with shadows and light as the main subject, think of the relationship you create between positive and negative space in your image (positive space as the subject – a building or structure in architectural photography, negative space as, for instance, the sky).
2. LOOK AT THE VOLUMES WHEN YOU SHOOT ARCHITECTURE. THIS IS WHAT ARCHITECTURE IS ABOUT
In architecture, three-dimensional volumes are what it is all about. Architecture photography is about volumes and light, or rather about observing how light falls on the volumes and then portraying this in your images. The light falling on the volumes will emphasize their shape, color, texture, and materials. Being aware of these relations will give you ideas and will help you compose your image.
Look for interesting intersections of lines and surfaces, look for overlapping volumes, for volumes that complete one another or that contrast with one another.
No matter how complex a structure is, try to see your subjects as being composed of simple volumes put together and search for the angle from which the dominant lines of their structure can create a harmonious composition. It is all about how to translate the three-dimensional world you see into a two-dimensional image while retaining the idea of depth – seeing the volumes is what will help you with that.
3. UNDERSTAND HOW LIGHT CAN ENHANCE AN IMAGE TO CREATE AWARD-WINNING ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Light is not always the same. Different types of light will create different looks in your images and can highlight various aspects of a building.
Soft light, as you have when the sky is overcast, will show all the details clearly, without much contrast but without much drama either. The sweet light of early morning or late afternoon will give you golden colors and beautiful long shadows. This kind of light will also help you record the details in a three-dimensional way. This happens because of the position of the sun early and late in the day which creates long cast shadows of the structural and decorative elements falling on each other and the surrounding area.
The midday light is a harsh light that can give you interesting contrasty images, with an interesting interplay between light and shadows, but it can also make the details seem effaced since the light is too bright and it can make them fade.
What about the backlight?
A difficult kind of light for architecture is back-light. You will encounter this kind of light when the sun is behind your subject and this situation will make it difficult to keep a balance in the exposure between the building and the sky. To overcome this situation you can either shoot the subject as a silhouette, shoot a portion of the structure without including the sky in the composition, or you can manually or automatically bracket, by taking two exposures, one exposing for the building, one for the sky and blend them in post-processing.
What you have to keep in mind in all these cases is that there is no such thing as bad light. On the contrary, each kind of light is an opportunity to be creative.
4. SEE THE PHOTOGRAPH AS A DRAWING – THE BASIS OF PHOTOGRAPHY DRAWING
Fine art photography is not only about capturing light but also about creating light, and architecture fine art photography is no exception. There is a certain way light interacts with shapes and volumes which is not only specific to photography but it is rather related to physics and it has been used for centuries in drawing and painting. Since, as an architect, I’ve been doing quite a bit of classical and architectural drawing in my life, I am familiar with this way of seeing volumes and I have applied it to my photography too.
Bringing these principles of drawing to photography had a spectacular effect and allowed me to create three-dimensionality in my images in a rational way and not only randomly as if I was playing by ear because I understand how light works. I have popularized this way of seeing through my work as an educator too so if you look around today you can see quite a few artists approaching photography in this way.
To understand better this interaction between light and volumes and how to translate it in post-processing, while enhancing it and even, if needed, recreating it from scratch, I have developed a method of working with light, both when conceiving the image, as well as in the phase of editing that offers a clear and simple answer to this. I call this method Photography Drawing, in short PhtD, and it consists in applying to photography the rules of light and shadow that have been used for centuries in drawing and painting. I have applied these rules to all my award-winning architectural photography and I can tell you it works wonders every time.
These principles and the post-processing technique you can use to apply them are paramount for the black and white photographer but can be used in color photography too, to raise the quality of an image from a photograph that records a scene to a fine art photograph. I am teaching these principles and the processing method I developed based on them in my workshops around the world, and you can read some things about them in this article about Photography Drawing.
5. USE A POLARIZING FILTER TO ENHANCE THE IMAGE ALL AROUND
One of the best and simplest tools in architectural photography is the polarizing filter.
This filter enhances colors, increases the contrast, removes the haze and the unwanted reflections from glass and metal surfaces, and most of all, it boosts the color of the sky, making a more intense blue and bringing out the clouds that will be more visible and have more depth.
In addition, if you work in black and white, your backs and your gray tones will be richer when you convert to black and white an image shot with a polarizing filter.
6. INSTEAD OF SHOOTING THE ENTIRE STRUCTURE, CHOOSE ABSTRACT
In abstract architectural photography, the attention is centered on details, on fragments of the structure with aesthetic interest and not on the whole structure. Modern architecture offers far more subjects for abstract interpretations than classical and traditional architectural subjects do. This happens because the shapes in modern architecture are cleaner, simpler, more minimalistic, the textures and materials are more evident and the volumes are more unexpected and original so they can offer unique images by capturing surprising points of view and combinations of structural elements.
To create that original look that will make a good abstract architectural photograph, look for unusual and interesting angles, captivating details that are taken out of their context, repetitions, patterns, alternating light and shadow, graphical elements. In one word, in abstract architectural photography, you are free to interpret a structure in any way you want. Just don’t limit yourself to the traditional interpretation of a building.
Secret ingredient – Go tilted
My best tip for creating compelling compositions and surprising abstract architectural images: Forget shooting in vertical or horizontal. Rotate and tilt your camera and play with volumes. This way you will discover a completely new way of looking at architecture and at the world in general and you will find many original and unusual compositions when you forget about verticals and horizontals and think only in abstract lines, shapes, and harmony.
7. SHOOT ARCHITECTURE AT NIGHT – FORMATT-HITECH NIGHTSCAPE FILTER
Night Architectural Photography can give you magical images either in color or black and white. When you shoot at night, besides the volumes of the buildings and the sky there is one more element that will add interest to your photographs: the artificial light. In this case, you have two kinds of light:
- one kind of lighting is the interior lighting of the building – the light coming out through the windows from the spaces inside the building.
- the other kind of lighting we work with when we do night photography is the external decorative lighting of a building that can be quite elaborate in some cases.
A classical and excellent subject to shoot at night is cityscapes, and that is because then you can see the play of light in a more impressive and surprising way than when you shot an isolated building. Some of the best times to shoot night architectural photography is at dusk. At dusk, the sky has a cobalt blue color that will complement the orange glow of the lights and will give you a beautiful rich gray too if you convert the image to black and white
One thing to keep in mind is to first scout during the day the location where you intend to shoot at night so you can find the best angles while you can see the scene well and not need to do that in the dark. Another important detail is to use a tripod when you shoot at night since you will need longer than usual exposures. Also, use a remote control to activate the shutter at night, so you don’t cause vibrations to the camera.
Filter for night photography
The best filter to use when shooting at night is the Format-Hitech Nightscape Filter that is specially designed to remove the light spectrums associated with light pollution and sodium lamps and it helps to remove the color cast that these sources of light create in an image giving you the real colors of the scene. Those shooting night photography know how important this is and how difficult it is to achieve without this special filter.
If you want to buy the Format-Hitech Nightscape Filter or any other Formatt-Hitech product, keep in mind that until the end of August you can buy everything from the Formatt-Hitech website with 20% discount if you use my code JULIA20. Just click on the link above and you will land on the Formatt-Hitech website where you can use the code for any product.
8. CONVERT YOUR ARCHITECTURAL IMAGES TO BLACK AND WHITE
This is actually a no-brainer for me since you know I’m mainly a black and white photographer. But let me explain why for those who are still not convinced.
In my opinion, a good black and white architectural photograph can be more powerful than a color one because it can reach closer to the essence of a building, which consists of the volumes it is made of and the light that brings them to life. In a black and white image, you can observe more clearly the shapes, the depth of the perspective, the interactions between volumes, and the way the composition brings everything together.
By removing the color, you eliminate distractions, and this brings the viewer in closer interaction with the shapes and the structure of the image. You can see more clearly the light, you can use light to bring out the elements you consider more important, and you can even modify the light balance in postproduction which will alter the relationship between volumes implicitly.
Creating B&W award-winning architectural photography is not only about capturing a good image in the camera, but it is just as much about editing it, especially in the case of fine art photography. You may need to spend more time in the digital darkroom to create a black and white photograph than you would in the case of a color photograph, but the result can trigger more emotion. Always keep in mind when you work in black and white that light is your main raw material and that molding the light to create depth in the image is your most powerful tool.
Have a look at my Complete Guide to B&W Fine Art Photography to learn more about how to create a good black and white photograph.
9. SHOOT LONG EXPOSURE ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Another no-brainer for me since, if you know me, you know that I never leave my neutral density filters at home when I go out shooting. For those who don’t know me, let me tell you that except for working in black and white, another way to create an ethereal look is to use daylight long exposure when you shoot architecture.
Daylight long exposure, as opposed to night time long exposure, is an intentional type of long exposure. The goal of this technique is to create a specific effect, the long exposure effect, even in the cases when you wouldn’t usually need to use a long exposure to capture the scene.
To create this type of photography, you will need to increase your exposure up to a few minutes. To be able to do that you will need to use ND (neutral density) filters that you will apply on the lens to slow down your shutter speed making possible exposures of a few minutes (4-5 minutes and even more).
The goal of using this technique is to capture the moving elements in the scene (as clouds or water for instance) not as a specific moment frozen in time but as a process of movement and evolution. These elements will become soft and will lose detail creating minimal surfaces that will contrast with the immobile architectural subject, creating a surreal and unexpected effect. To shoot long exposure by day, you will need to use a tripod and a cable release, just as when shooting long exposure by night.
By using black and white and long exposure when shooting architecture you can create compelling and highly emotional photographs.
For much more about long exposure photography, you can consult my Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography where I go into great detail about this technique and the equipment you need to work with it.
As I said above, for any kind of long exposure equipment you can use my code JULIA20 to get 20% discount from Formatt-Hitech.
I hope these tips were useful and you can find more tutorials about architecture photography, black and white photography, and fine art photography at this link.
FURTHER STUDY RESOURCES
FINE ART BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY, ARCHITECTURE PHOTOGRAPHY, LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY
You can find more resources about fine art black and white photography, (en)Visionography, long exposure photography and architecture photography in my extensive collection of photography tutorials. To receive my future tutorials directly via email you can subscribe to my website.
Learn more about how to create fine art photography, from vision to processing and the final image in my book From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography, in my video course From Vision to Final Image – Mastering Black and White Photography Processing and in my video tutorial Long Exposure, Architecture, Fine Art Photography – Creating (en)Visionography, or by attending one of my workshops.
To study with Julia Anna Gospodarou personally, find out about our
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Julia Anna Gospodarou is an internationally acclaimed award-winning photographer, an architect with a Master’s degree, a best-selling author, and a highly sought-after educator, teaching workshops and lecturing around the world. Founder of (en)Visionography™ and creator of Photography Drawing™, author of the best-selling book From Basics to Fine Art – Black and White Photography, multiple times awarded in the most important photography competitions worldwide (Two-Time International Photography Awards IPA Photographer of the Year 2016 & 2021, World Photography Awards SWPA Top 10 Finalist, and Hasselblad Masters Top 10 Finalist, as well as 100+ more awards), widely published internationally in books and magazines, Julia is passionate about art and photography and striving to spread the ideas of fine art photography and (en)Visionography all over the world.