When I land a particularly challenging photo assignment, I turn to my friends for their insights and advice. When the assignment involves architecture, the first person I turn to is my good friend, the talented architectural photographer Elon Schoenholz. He creates subtle, sublime photographs with a beautifully simple approach, using little more than a sharp eye for angles and light—plus, a perspective control lens. Here’s his advice for simple steps photographers can take to create beautiful architectural images.
In photography as in life, success so often starts with careful planning. “Don’t think you can just show up and shoot,” Schoenholz says. “Scout. Know what light to expect, and how it will change throughout the day. And know at least the approximate arc of the sun, whatever time of year you’re shooting.” Pre-planning is crucial so that you’ll know at the very least what time of day will provide the best light. If the façade faces east, for instance, you’ll want to be ready at dawn with the rising sun at your back. “You should choose dusk or dawn, based upon the direction the particular elevation you plan to shoot faces. I just shot an east-facing structure, so dawn was the necessary choice. A west-facing structure would be done at dusk.”
Magic hour lighting at sunrise and sunset is the obvious choice for most shots, but it’s not as simple as just showing up and shooting. Schoenholz prefers dusk when possible, not only because he’s able to set up and prepare in the afternoon rather than the wee hours of the pre-dawn morning, but also because he’s got a better chance of including additional lights in the shot. “The more lights in the photo—landscape lighting, interior lights, etcetera—the better. Are there exterior lights you can utilize? Can you maximize interior lights with your camera position? You’ll also want to make sure you can override exterior lights that may be on a timer. You want to shoot after the sun has set, but before it’s actually dark (that’s why it’s called a “dusk” shot, not a night shot), and exterior lights are often set to turn on once it’s dark—which is too late for your purposes. Look into that ahead of time, or it will be too late.”
Sometimes other factors make dawn and dusk shots impractical or even impossible. And sometimes, frankly, outside factors can make other times of day better for a given photograph. For instance, if the structure is on a busy city street, parked cars might make it difficult to see the façade. If you were diligent during planning, though, you may have noticed when the street would be clear. “Pay attention to street cleaning signs when you scout,” Schoenholz says. “You might get a better shot on Monday between 10am and 2pm, when there will be no cars parked in front of the building.” That means, though, that your midday shot won’t have beautifully warm, directional light. For these situations midday sun can work well, too. “Midday is wonderful if there are specific angles you want to accentuate,” he says. “Midday sun can give you a strong shadow that defines a line you want to define. Better, too, during winter, when it’s almost never directly overhead sun, but rather low in the horizon.” Sunny days are great he says, but mixed clouds are even better. “If you wait for the right moment, when it’s transitioning from cloud to sun, you can get super fine-tuned diffusion—and often with a dramatic sky in the background. Mixed sun and shade is my favorite.”
As cars on the street can draw the photographer to a midday shot, they can just as easily bring him back to dusk. “If a busy street is going to be in the shot,” Schoenholz explains, “shooting at dusk can allow you to use a long exposure and create nice red and white lines of light from passing cars. It’s a much better option than distracting, fully exposed cars in daylight.”
As for adding lights of your own to a scene, Schoenholz says it’s simply not necessary. “I never use light on exteriors. Unless you’re shooting a really small house, the scale is just not practical with a small production. I can’t use 3K Arri HMIs. I have 650-watt Arri lights and 1000ws strobes. So, I can’t easily light anything on a large scale and it’s usually not necessary.”
It may not be necessary, he says, because you can always make multiple exposures and composite them together in post, in order to fine-tune the finished photo in much the same way you might have used augmented light during the shoot. “Five exposures for a single scene isn’t too much,” he says. “It’s much easier to add in elements with layers, than it is to light while shooting, or to balance an unbalanceable mixed-light scene.”
Even with all of these technical considerations mastered, there’s still the matter of addressing the one creative element that will make or break an architectural photograph: the composition. Schoenholz advocates positioning the camera primarily to emphasize and exaggerate the angles that first caught your eye when looking at the structure. “If you see lines, forms or other strong architectural elements in a building you plan to photograph,” he says, “move your camera around until you’ve found an angle that emphasizes what you see. Sometimes using a very wide-angle lens, very close to your subject, can help. How far can you push the perspective, before it looks too distorted? Experiment. Go slowly and be deliberate.”
For tall buildings, Schoenholz says the rule of thumb is to shoot from approximately one-third of the height of the structure. “Maybe you can gain access to a rooftop or office across the street? Shooting through glass can be surprisingly painless if you’re able to turn the lights off.” Again, these elements are the perfect items to address when you’re planning for a shoot.
Lastly, when it comes to perspective control, Schoenholz acknowledges you can do a lot of fine-tuning in the computer during post-production, but he highly recommends renting a perspective control lens to experiment with. “You don’t have to have any view camera training,” he says. “Just don’t touch the tilt axis. Leave it alone entirely and make little shifts and see how they can improve your composition without losing straight vertical—or sometimes horizontal—lines. The tilt is very hard to use effectively. It dramatically alters focal plane, which is a real challenge to master if you need depth of field. The shift takes nothing because it just changes composition, nothing else.