Architecture is an art form, it is a branch of science, it is a business, it is the architect’s personal expression as well as that of the commissioner. So, it is not surprising that I see architectural photography as overlapping various forms, kinds, branches of photography.
This post will help me crystallize my ideas of architectural photography as I get ready for another round-table discussion at the Film Photographers Association. Fair warning: it is a long post!
But in addition to carefully worded information, there is also an excellent collection of photographs from professional architectural photographers published with their permission. The photographers’ names are in the captions of the photographs. If known, the architect’s name is included before the photographer’s name.
What exactly is architecture? Architecture is a blend of art and science that creates spaces for human experiences. It defines function, form, space, detail, material, and decoration/ornamentation that collectively help create the human experiences. Each element in the above shortlist has significance and each architect expresses them differently in line with the practice of their art.
Through the millennia, architectural styles have gone through changes leaving traces of earlier experiences on the new creations until the new ones become strong enough on their own and then shed the lineage. Many decades ago, I visited the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli in Cappadocia, Turkey. I don’t mean a small cave where a few people lived, I mean levels of living, producing, trading spaces, even underground burial grounds, and tunnels that connected the above two cities that are 4-5 miles apart. Even there, one could see the effort to contribute to the human experiences. Below left is a drawing showing 18 levels of a town that could house upwards of 20,000 people. Underground architecture?
On one floor, for instance, was a cavity on the wall, about 5′ x 5′ and about that tall with a foot high ledge in the front. The ledge had a hole at the bottom that connected it to the outside and it was directly above a hole on the floor. Whatever for? It turned out that they would put grapes on the floor of the opening in the wall, go and stomp on it to crush the grapes to squeeze the juice which would run out of the hole and drip through the hole on the floor to the level below where they had huge amphoras to catch the juice! This is the winery!
Well, we have come a long way from Derinkuyu, but the idea of creating space for human experience remains at the heart of architecture as I see it. When I say “space” I do not limit it to just the volume but the material, shape, form, function, detail, and ornamentation all combined.
Photography of Architecture or Architectural Photography
I see a symbiotic relationship between architecture and photography. Architecture is location-bound and needs visibility. Photography provides “mobility” to architecture and also uses it as a subject for its own purposes. We mostly appreciate and enjoy architecture thanks to photography. There is a rich selection of architectural beauty that most of us will not get a chance to see if it were not for photography. That said, not every photograph that depicts a building or other kinds of architecture qualifies to be called architectural photography. This is not unique to architecture as we do not call any photograph of an individual a portrait. The intention of the photographer and her/his ability to embed that into their photography makes the difference. As photographers, they “read” their subject, the architecture, and interpret the work for us to appreciate it fully.
The architecture may be the subject of different kinds of photography like travel, documentary, art, product. or architecture photography. In this day of photographs flooding the Internet, one can imagine millions of selfies taken in front of almost that many architectural works. They essentially serve as a record and give bragging rights to the taker “I was in front of …” My main interest in this article lies in the last instance where the photograph is taken for architectural purposes. Clearly, this kind of work features a “product” and certainly qualifies as product photography but the sheer magnitude of the subject differentiates it from a bottle of soft drink or a fancy watch. There is, however, a good deal of overlap between the product photography and architectural photography aspects as they both try to convey a message to the viewer about the architecture and its architect.
The distinguishing factor between this kind and the art photography in architecture lies in what will come forward, the photograph or the architecture; the photographer or the architect. Now, I am not suggesting that a superb architectural photograph may not be a fine art photograph. But, successful architectural photography requires that the architecture be primarily admired. This may depend, to a large extent, on how the viewer approaches the photograph. Famous architectural photographer Julius Shulman cites an instance when a viewer exclaimed “what a beautiful photograph” after looking at one of his works. That, he says, made him embarrassed and aware that he and his work need to fade behind the architecture and the architect. The opening photograph that I took in Panagia Isodion church in Istanbul, for instance, will be seen as an architectural photograph as it presents the architecture, its structure, detail, materials, etc. A different view I photographed in the same place is below. It is more of an art photograph because the viewer first sees the unusual treatment of the subject. And, even the frame is not rectangular! Hard to focus on the architecture.
Up to this point, I tried to establish a backdrop for architectural photography. Now we will focus more on photography specific issues. It is important, however, that we keep the idea of architecture and that we are talking about architectural photography not photography of architecture. There are many photographs in the body of the post as well as a gallery that presents a large collection from five photographers. The photographers’ names are in the captions of the photographs which will appear when you click to enlarge them and all of the images are clickable. If known, the architect’s name is included before the photographer’s name.
How to Approach Architectural Photography
There are photographers whose prime subject is architecture. They know their subject, they have the right equipment, they have made enough mistakes to become experts in their field. Some even have formal education in architecture. When photographing architectural subjects, there are points to remember some of which may go against the practice in other kinds of photography. What I present here will share how I see architectural photography based on my opinion, a little experience, a fair amount of reading and looking at a lot of such work. So these are not rules, just points to remember, nor are they particularly authoritative as I am not a professional architectural photographer. Think about them, take what makes sense to you, leave the rest behind.
Remember, It is a Commissioned Project
Architectural photography should be approached as a commissioned project by an architect even when just trying to learn and experience what it is. Understanding the narrative the architect may have in mind for different purposes is of utmost importance. Never lose sight that the finished work will speak for the architect, not for the photographer. By this, I do not mean that the photographer will not bring his or her sensibilities to the final product. That is necessary and almost required. But viewers looking at the end results should primarily be impressed by the architecture, not the photograph, which becomes the messenger.
We Need to Learn to Read the Architecture Right
Trained architects and architectural photographers can extract much more information from this than us casual architectural photographers. But, this does not mean we should not try. I have written several articles here on reading photographs, now I am suggesting the same for another art form.
Think first of the function of the structure, how well does the execution convey that? Louis Sullivan coined the phrase “form ever follows function.” The architectural form may convey this function, can we capture that? What kind of spaces does the design create, how and how well are they connected? What is the context for the structure, would this design be the same at any other place? Can we, should we convey this context, this location? Is there an inspiration for the architectural design coming from its context and environment? What are the materials used and how do they contribute to the fulfillment of the intention of the architect? When I looked at the photograph by Arnaud Marthouret below, the connection between the building design and the rocky ledge on top of the hill was the first thing I noticed. Of course, I followed that thought for the photographer for choosing the vantage point to make the connection. It is quite possible that I may be reading too much into this but better too much than too little in my opinion!
All these are issues that would help the photographer to find the proper vantage points for photographing this structure. In the photograph on the right above, Peter Sieger shows us what appears to be the living quarters of a residence punctuated by an Eames chair no less. We also see the outdoor space connected through large sliding doors and the stairwell on the right implies that there is another floor below. This kind of connectivity is inherent in architecture and its photography needs to convey the same.
Time of Photograph Controls the Light
The exterior of buildings is typically photographed under daylight although dusk and night photography may be suitable for some. In general, photographers seek softer light to avoid strong shadows and use this light to define its form or shape, or texture or detail.
When photographing buildings, our main light is the sun and we can only position our tripod and time the photo session to get the best light angle. To a large extent, reflectors, secondary fill lights, and so on are out of the question although under some conditions other buildings around the subject may help reflect some light. To emphasize the form, you will need more than one side of the building showing and the light needs to hit it in such a way to convey its form. This will benefit from shadows cast by various design elements, balconies, overhangs, inset windows, windowsills, etc. The shadows cast by these elements should not interfere with other important design elements by covering them. If there is ornamentation as an integral part of the design, we must pay attention not to obscure them in full shadows. All these require different angles of light, thus different times of the day and possibly different vantage points. Look at the photograph by Peter Sieger and notice how the form of the building and its linear accents both vertical and horizontal come forward with light and shadow on the structure. Judging by the short shadow of the railing, the time seems to be mid-afternoon and the sun high.
Respect the Scale, Proportion, and Perspective
The vantage point selected, camera format and the lens choice should not distort the proportion intended by the architect. There may be a temptation to exaggerate the angle of the roof, or some protruding parts for artistic reasons but we must question whether that will respect the intended scale and proportion. In order to convey a sense of scale, we may consider including known elements like a human figure, a popular model car, a mailbox, a phone booth (what am I talking about!) These elements will help the viewer better appreciate the size and the scale of the structure we are photographing.
This brings another question to the table about the use of human figures to convey the function of the building. (Read Peter Sieger’s take on this.) Some argue favorably, some do not like the idea but do consider whether adding people will enhance the photograph. Meticulous interiors photographed equally meticulously may require professional models in order to do justice to the photographic and architectural structure. Sometimes the inclusion of people may become unavoidable when photographing exteriors or public places. In the photograph on the right, David Cardelus positioned his tripod at a slightly lower point probably to show the hill-top position of the hotel. The inclusion of the cars and a person going by provides a sense of scale. Now, imagine the same photograph from the other side of the building! It would probably look like a wedge of Swiss cheese as the shorter side would get significantly shorter yet and the tall edge would be towering. That, I believe would have seriously distorted the sense of scale, but, I may be wrong.
Do Not Ignore Detail and Decoration
Some architects like Antoni Gaudi or Louis Sullivan integrate detail and decoration into their structures, and in a very organic way. Looking at the detail and ornamentation in their work is like looking at the bark of a tree, it is very much an extension of the core structure.
Such detail deserves the same level of attention given to the structure itself. Without these elements, their work is not the same. Can you imagine La Sagrada Familia without its mesmerizing detail?
In his post, “Photographing Gaudi,” David Cardelus says, “In the case of photographing the works of Gaudí this idea is especially important given the density of concept and detail in all of its buildings.” It is that density and that level of organic integration of the detail with the core structure that makes the photographic attention not highly deserved, but absolutely essential when photographing their work.
Learn to Use the Right Equipment and Tools
Although some architectural photographs deliberately use low angles, looking up to make the structure soar to the sky with converging verticals, the general practice is to keep verticals vertical. This requires either a view camera with full front and back movements or a tilt-shift lens on a 35mm digital or film camera. These allow including more of the building height without tilting the camera upwards which keeps the correct perspective by eliminating the converging verticals.
Perspective correction can also be done in post-production in Photoshop or Lightroom but we must be careful so as not to distort the correct aspect ratio of the building. Simply making verticals vertical by using the Transform tool in Lightroom will most likely result in the building getting skinnier. This needs additional correction by changing the aspect ratio using the appropriate slider.
Sometimes that may not be enough and careful introduction of horizontal “correction” may be applied to repair the unwanted shift in the width. Photoshop has even stronger tools for dealing with this. Its Adaptive Wide Angle filter has been my favorite since I first saw it when I was in the beta-test group of Photoshop 6 many years ago. It is still an excellent tool which can be augmented by the free transform and warp tools if necessary.
I am not even mentioning the necessity of a tripod and a remote release for serious architectural work although documentary or artistic photographs of buildings can be handled without one. I took the photograph on the right with a hand-held camera looking head on to photograph the facade of the church. Needless to say, it was distorted with converging lines. I corrected it in Lightroom using the circular windows as guides to make sure the building did not look narrower than it was.
How Much Change in Post-Processing
How much post-processing modification to apply to the images captured in the field occupies the minds and the blogs of many photographers. Architectural photographers are no exception. The dilemma is an ethical one, “is removing something from the photograph altering the meaning of the image?” I believe it depends to a large extent what is being removed from the photograph and why.
In one of his posts, Peter Sieger talks about removing some cords from the area below a desk in an office. If the photograph were to be used to promote safety procedures and measures in an office environment, that removal may alter the meaning of the image. However, I see no reason for concern in removing the same wires from a photograph that presents the architectural qualities of the office. I arbitrarily removed a lamp-post from the photograph of the Albert Monument in London which significantly alters the environment, the context. Therefore, not an appropriate level of image alteration. Yes, it was quickly and crudely done to make it somewhat obvious!
Treat Interior Lighting Carefully
Today, one of the obsessions of photographers is to “open up the shadows” to show more detail. This may be quite important in documenting something but when photographing interiors of buildings respect the shadow and let it be! Remember, shadows help create the form, texture, shape and all are important in architecture. When possible, use available light and when augmenting it with artificial light do not fight the natural or available light. A properly lit interior will look just right, with shadows not fighting in different directions. It is not unusual to have stronger light sources be inserted in the existing lighting fixtures to maintain the natural look of the surroundings. It is important to preserve the mood of the space without converting the photograph into a documentary image that records what is in the room for insurance purposes! Here are some examples of interior photographs, and I reluctantly put a couple of my works along with that of a fine professional, David Cardelus. Note how carefully he framed the photograph that uses symmetry in an ironic way; it is there but not exactly! And how the light falls off in distant parts of the room away from the windows. My photograph of the interior of Panagia Isodion Church in Istanbul serves as a reminder that interior photographs may offer a significant amount of detail to photograph, and the Melin Residence is there to remind us that the available light is OK!
Sometimes the camera height is determined by the subject as in the photograph of Park Güell below. By carefully adjusting the height of his camera Peter created a very interesting photograph, almost an illusion. On other occasions, keeping the camera elevated shows more of the horizontal surfaces and gives shape to tabletops, desks, and the floor as I did in the photograph of one of the floors of the Salt Lake City Public Library. Keeping it low emphasizes vertical elements, like the fronts of the desks, bookcases, columns, and the like. So, the tripod does not determine how high the camera will be set but your vision for the photograph. In his photograph, professional photographer Aaron Usher keeps the camera high enough to delineate all the elements. Aaron and Arnaud seem to follow a piece of advice from Julius Shulman who said that he would pull a couch to make room for his tripod behind it. Arnaud also shows the effect of including a person in an interior photograph. Take your pick.
By camera angle, I mainly refer to the horizontal angle. When photographing the exterior of buildings, the facade or its elevation may have a strong interest to keep the camera parallel to it. This yields a single-point perspective photograph which may be quite suitable for many occasions from large palaces and places of worship to modest residences. This angle emphasizes the lines, shapes, texture, the color of the structure as its form would be hidden behind the elevation view. In order to present the form of the structure, on the other hand, we need suitable lighting as mentioned above and proper camera position which will yield multi-point perspective as more than one side of the structure is shown. Showing the height, width, length of the building accompanied by proper lighting angle will create a feeling of volume or the form of the building.
Interiors of large structures may also benefit from this treatment but not all the time. In the Church of St. Anthony of Padua – Istanbul, I decided to use the single point perspective with a hand-held camera in dim light. Luck! With a little more luck (read as a tripod!) I could have lined up the tops of the pews better. Note also in Arnaud’s photographs how changing the height and the angle of the camera can provide much different information.
There is a view that architects design “from a teaspoon to a city” coined by the Italian architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers. And, you will see the marks of their hands from the outside to the inside of the structure, its interior decoration, furniture, to the chandeliers and the decorations on the walls. So, an architectural photographer has to be willing and able to photograph them all. The bank tellers’ cages must be fitting for a Sullivan designed bank, the furniture for a house designed by the minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe must reflect the same sensibilities. Le Corbusier, the world-famous architect has a furniture line, and I even sat in a Le Corbusier chaise lounge at a friend’s house! All these are within the scope of architectural photographers with the same sensibilities that we may aim at their buildings.
Photographing ancient ruins or structures will also benefit from the same approach as if they are just built. Reading them with an eye toward understanding their function, style, space, form, etc. will help in photographing them with the same respect we show to the current buildings and artifacts. Granted, photographing in the narrow hallways of Derinkuyu may not be the easiest thing, devoid of daylight but Red Basilica in Pergamon can be fully explored, this in infrared. The ancient ruins deserve the same attention and respect we give to contemporary works.
Famous Architects and Photographers
This conversation will not be complete without mentioning the people who make all this happen, the architects and the photographers. The list is long, space is short! I will mention a few names and a few articles to get your thinking kickstarted.
The Internet is full of lists of the most important architects of the 20th century, so I will not list them here beyond a few names I know in this article. Here are some of these lists and significant names. I strongly suggest you look at the works with an eye not to like or dislike them but to understand their design sensibilities. The list is not in any particular order.
- Louis Kahn
- Louis Sullivan
- Frank Lloyd Wright
- These Architects Are Transforming the Way We Experience Art
Architectural photographers bring us closer to the architects and their works. I have enjoyed the work of Julius Shulman since I stumbled on his Visual Acoustics movie years ago, and then acquired several of his books. Then on a PBS program, I learned about Pedro Guerrero and how he photographed Frank Lloyd Wright and his works, very interesting. I got a couple of books on him too. Around the same time, I became familiar with Ezra Stoller, another master in this field in the 20th century. When you visit their indicated Web sites you will see their wonderful work.
I have seen many photographs in this genre and very recently found the works of Peter Sieger, David Cardelus, and Arnaud Marthouret. I have known Aaron Usher for some years now and he is the local go-to person for this kind of work. I suggest all of them very highly for your viewing and learning pleasure. Shulman, Stoller, and Guerrero have iconic photographs you may have seen. If you can find their movies, I highly recommend them as well. Here are some links to visit:
- Julius Shulman
- Pedro Guerrero
- Ezra Stoller
- Peter Sieger
- David Cardelus
- Aaron Usher
- Arnaud Marthouret
- The Guardian: Best Architectural Photographs of 2018
- Image Building: How Photography Transforms Architecture
- Why These Striking Images of Cathedrals Take Up to a Year to Complete
- Richard Nickel Archive, an architectural photographer who died in an explosion while photographing a building being demolished
And, I have not even scratched the surface for either list! Keep looking, architecture and its photography can be very rewarding experiences.
A Few Movies
If you have it in your NetFlix, Kanopy, or other sources, I highly recommend the following movies that are about architects and architectural photographers.
- My Architect (about Louis Kahn, made by his son)
- Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture
- Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey
- Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman
Don’t Forget The Seed Germ
Lest we forget that architecture is an expression of a seed idea, as Louis Sullivan called it the seed germ, I would like to close with the following Sullivan drawing and his idea that shaped his art.
P.S. You can find a larger gallery of architectural photographs here.
Thanks: I am grateful to my friends Mete Turan, professor of architecture and Aaron Usher, architectural photographer; Peter Sieger; David Cardelus; and Arnaud Marthouret for their time, and thank the photographers for allowing me to use and enjoy their work in this post.
About the author: A. Cemal Ekin is a photographer based in Warwick, Rhode Island who has been shooting for roughly 60 years. He retired as a professor of marketing emeritus from Providence College in 2012 after 36 years of service there. Visit his website here. This article was also published here and here.