1. No Tripod? No Problem.
Normally you might want to place the camera on a tripod in order to make fine compositional adjustments and to ensure the camera is level. This also helps to use a smaller aperture (such as ƒ/16) to produce sharper focus and greater depth of field. But without a tripod, you’ve got to improvise a bit. A good place to start is with a higher ISO in order to enable a fast shutter speed (of 1/125th or faster) with a small aperture (such as ƒ/16). On a bright sunny day, this might simply require ISO 200 or so. But on a cloudy day or closer to the magic hour, lower light levels might require a higher ISO. Still, the quality of today’s sensors means only a little more noise even at very high ISOs, and noise can be largely mitigated in post.
To help keep the camera level, use a digital level to ensure your straight lines will stay straight. With many popular cameras, such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or Sony a7R III, for instance, you can turn on the digital level displayed on the LCD on the back of the camera which will help you hold the camera straight. Alternatively, if you can plan ahead you can invest a few bucks in an affordable and very compact hot shoe-mounted spirit level, which also does a great job of helping to level the camera. With the camera level, you won’t have to correct for crooked structures in post. And if you hold the camera so that the sensor is parallel to the ground, you won’t create any distortion that makes vertical lines (such as the walls in a building’s exterior) appear to converge.
2. No Tilt-Shift Lens? No Problem.
Speaking of keeping straight lines straight and parallel, perhaps the most useful architectural photography tool is the perspective control (or tilt-shift) lens. This articulating lens emulates the movements of a view camera in order to change the plane of focus and to correct for the distortion that occurs when the sensor plane isn’t parallel to the planes in your subject. When your subject is a building—either interior or exterior—you might find yourself aiming the camera up to create the ideal composition, but then tilting the lens back down to help mitigate the distortion that creates keystoning (the appearance of convergence of lines that are in reality parallel).
If you don’t have a tilt-shift lens, you can always try to repair some of that distortion in post, but an even better approach is to start with a better capture with less distortion. To capture a scene with less distortion, use a wider lens than you might need otherwise, and instead of aiming the camera up at the building, position the camera level to the ground. This is the best way to make distortion-free architectural images (even if you do have a tilt-shift lens) because it will keep those building lines straight and vertical. The side effect is it will also create a composition with way too much foreground at the bottom of the frame and perhaps not enough sky. To remedy this, simply crop out the excessive foreground in post, and consider making a second capture of the sky above the scene that can be composited into the frame later to provide a little more breathing room for the composition.
Remember, too, that if you’re unable to position the camera perfectly level, minimizing the amount of tilting up you’re doing will also minimize the keystoning distortion for the added benefit of making post-processing corrections easier and more effective as well.
3. No Lighting Kit? No Problem.
Traditional architectural photographers of the film era relied on multiple light sources to illuminate both interiors and exteriors in a single exposure. But one of the many benefits of digital capture, particularly with a non-moving subject and a camera locked down on a tripod, is that you can create multiple exposures and composite them together simply and effectively—meaning you can get away with just a single additional light source. To do this, I use a cable release in order to minimize any movement of the camera. I also frequently use a single speedlight-style flash, handheld, to illuminate areas within the frame one flash at a time.
For instance, if I’m photographing a kitchen I start with a single capture with the ambient lighting as I like it—with dimmers dialed up and down and curtains and blinds typically opened wide to permit as much light into the room as possible. Then I position my flash to illuminate a specific portion of the frame—perhaps by bouncing the light off the ceiling to create broad, soft illumination—and shoot another exposure, this time firing the flash. (For long exposures of a second or more, you can easily trigger the flash manually. For shorter exposures, use a wireless transmitter to fire the flash automatically.) With a bit of experimentation, you can dial in the proper power to create subtle fill or stronger illumination as needed. I then move around the room aiming the flash where needed—bouncing off the ceiling to broaden it, focusing the Fresnel lens in the speedlight and aiming it directly at scene elements where a spotlight effect is helpful. You can move around the room and shoot a new exposure for each area you’d like to illuminate and layer them together in post. You don’t have to worry about where you stand in the frame, either, as long as you’re not interfering with the camera’s view of the portion being illuminated on any given exposure. Because you’ll only take a small part of each frame for its contribution to the whole, you don’t need to worry about extraneous elements—such as yourself—that appear elsewhere in the frame. In this way you can create the equivalent of dozens of light sources of varying types, all in a single compact and easy-to-use speedlight.