From grand, sweeping cathedrals to local bus stations, when you’re tackling architectural photography, the focus is often on composition. How do I get this building into the shot?
How do I add interest to a large facade? With this as the focus, lighting can sometimes be forgotten.
But good lighting can really transform architectural photography. It can be used to create lines and balance the composition, as well as highlight textures and details.
Natural light is best for architectural photos, but when you don’t have access to it, artificial lighting can be used to create a mood.
Natural lighting isn’t exactly easy to control, so if you want to shoot architecture, you need to practice patience. You also need to get to know how the lighting in the area works.
Learn more about using light to enhance your architecture photos with this guide.
1. Sunlight Is The Best Light
When you’re photographing architecture, the best light to use is always natural light. It’s also the light you have the most access to. If you’re shooting exterior architecture, the sun is likely to be your only readily available light source.
This might initially sound restrictive, but the right sunlight can enhance even the most uninspiring of architectural spaces. The lighting can define the space, drawing the eye to focal areas, creating clarity, and infusing the scene with attractive coloring.
But sunlight is constantly changing. The light alters throughout the day and what was the perfect lighting 10 minutes ago can be flat and boring by the time you have your shot set up.
2. Learn The Light Before Taking Any Photos
Instead of diving straight in with your photo shoot, take some time to learn the light. If you have the opportunity, visit the area multiple times before you start taking photos.
This way, you can learn what the light is like throughout the day, and when it is at its best.
Explore the area surrounding the architecture to find new angles. If you’re photographing a particularly large or unusually shaped building, the light might be terrible from one angle and perfect from another. Light can be a playful thing that takes you by surprise.
Learn the lighting in your area. What is the light like when the sun is high? When does the sun start to set? How does the cloud affect the overall balance of the light?
3. Take Photos At Different Times Of Day
It’s hard to understand how the light will work until you’ve seen it in action. It’s generally agreed that the best light occurs when the sun is lower down in the sky.
This is when the light is diffused and soft, capturing details without creating harsh lines. For complex architectural designs, this light allows every area to shine.
The golden hour is considered to be the most superior lighting style. This occurs just after the sun has risen, or just before it sets. At the golden hour, light becomes rich and warm, creating intense shadows and high drama.
But this softer angled light isn’t always the best option for architectural photography. There are times when the bright light of midday can benefit a building.
Those with harsh lines and simple architectural features might look simple with rich lighting. Instead, the bold lines of midday can add intrigue.
4. And In Different Weather
You know from your research that the lighting is best at 7 pm. Unfortunately, the weather isn’t quite so clued in. When the golden hour hits, your perfect sunlight might be ruined by a heavy cloud covering.
Part of learning your lighting is about learning how the weather affects it. Understand how clouds and fog might change the overall appearance. Gray skies tend to be the worst thing for architectural photography. They’re flat, dull, and uninspired.
On the other hand, clouds can add unusual effects to your architectural photography. A scattering of clouds can actually be better than a clear blue sky. They’re particularly useful if you’re trying to create balance when photographing low architecture.
Don’t get scared by different weather conditions. They aren’t always ideal, but there are ways to work with them.
5. Practice Patience!
When you’re focusing on architecture, the sun will try to dictate the shoot. You won’t be able to control the light, so you need to work with it instead. This will often mean being patient and waiting for the right moment to strike.
This is how you take control of the light — by showing patience and learning the conditions.
Once you understand the conditions, including the angle of the lighting and how that plays with the architecture, you can practice patience.
Similarly, once you understand how the weather interacts with the lighting, you can learn to predict how your photos will turn out.
Now, it’s a case of waiting for the right time and the right weather.
6. Use An Artificial Light When Necessary
Although we might urge you to wait for the right natural weather conditions, this isn’t always possible. That’s when artificial lighting comes in.
Artificial lighting is primarily useful for shooting interior architecture. However, it can be used sometimes to light the exterior.
Floodlights are best if you want to shoot large spaces, which are common in architectural photography. Flashlights are fantastic at low light, allowing you to capture clear images with instant exposure.
Strobe lights can be used when you want exceptional control of the lighting.
7. Mimic Natural Light
When using artificial light to photograph architecture, you want to create a diffused light with an easy feel. Essentially, you want to mimic natural light as closely as possible.
Consider where the sun would be coming from when setting the scene. Avoid creating strong shadows that might throw off the line of the architecture. Be careful with coloring as well. If it’s too white or too yellow, it will read as artificial.
If you’re using artificial light, play around with placement. For interiors, try placing the light outside, shining through a window, This can mimic the streaming effect of sunlight. For exteriors, consider how distance affects the shadows.
8. Create A Mood
If you are using artificial light, you have much more room to experiment with mood and atmosphere. Use artificial light to create shadows and enhance contrast, depending on the feeling you want to create.
Light guides the eye through the picture. Create lines using the bold power of artificial lighting to add movement. In a large area with no clear focal point, artificial lighting can be harnessed to improve focus and direction.
Use artificial light to pick up textures in the architecture, or to emphasize smooth areas. Place the light side on to highlight the fine details. Avoid placing the light directly behind the camera, as this will often flatten the image.
Artificial lighting is tricky to master, so practice is essential. Experiment with your lights to see the kind of effect they create.
9. Use Light To Balance A Composition
Good composition is about balance. Contrasting areas of high interest with simpler settings gives the photo a focal point and tells the eye where to go.
When it comes to architectural photography, composition is about framing a still object. You can’t move the buildings, so you have to rely on new ways to approach the buildings.
This allows you to balance the heavy weight of the architecture with a simpler background.
However, another way to build a composition is with lighting. Good lighting can be used to create strong areas of shadow, which can act as a dividing line in your frame.
Areas of darkness can change the density of the picture, balancing the sky and the building.
Similarly, lighting can be used to pick up texture. These textures can be the “busy” areas of your picture. Contrasted with smooth areas, these textures add weight.
Light is essential to good architectural photography. Unfortunately, light is also very hard to control when shooting exteriors!
Natural light is ideal for enhancing your architecture photography. To exploit natural light, you need to learn about natural light. See what the sun is like when it’s high in the sky, rising in the morning, or sinking in the evening.
When you understand natural light, you can learn to control the light. And when you can’t control the light, use artificial sources to add balance to your composition.
Frequently Asked Questions
Natural light is the best light for architectural photography. The hours just after sunrise and just before sunset, when the sun is at a lower angle with a softer and richer light, are considered the greatest hours for photography.
Light can be used in architectural photography to balance the composition, highlight the features of the building, and create an atmosphere.
A talented photographer can use light to emphasize certain elements of the architecture, for an image with a purpose.
Yes, you can use artificial light to photograph architecture. If you’re photographing interior architecture, artificial light might be necessary to illuminate the entire space.
Artificial light can also be used to highlight textures and create areas of shadow.
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