When shooting architecture, it’s easy to get lost in the grandeur of buildings, but details matter too. In fact, with a little know-how, you can capture photographs of architectural detail that are just as beautiful, if not betterthan vast wide-angle shots of structures.
I love photographing architectural details, and in this article I explain how you can capture great detailed photos yourself. I offer many favorite tips, tricks and techniques – developed over long hours of practice – with a focus on two essential elements of architectural photography: lighting and composition.
When you’re done reading, you’ll want to grab your camera and snap some details!
1. Look for soft light to emphasize details
If the weather is bad and the sky is a dull, colorless gray, you should stay indoors, right? Not exactly!
Cloudy weather could appear bad for architectural photography, but nothing could be further from the truth. You see, cloudy days provide incredibly soft light that looks great in architectural plans – particularly in shots of small details that photographers tend to overlook.
In fact, soft light brings out all the detail that is lost in high contrast lighting, allowing you to create highly descriptive and intricate images of rooftops, building edges, inscriptions, and more.
Soft light is also great for making colors pop; look at how the greens and yellows appear in this next shot:
Even if you are shooting on a sunny day, you can still find soft light. Wait for a cloud to pass over the sun or keep an eye out for photo opportunities in the shade. Although shaded light is often not as soft and pleasant as cloudy light, it can still be beautiful:
One last tip: if you want to create sharp photos of architectural details, you will definitely need a tripod. Soft light, though beautiful, is do not strong, and you’ll be forced to lower your shutter speed for sufficient depth of field. I don’t recommend holding your camera in such situations; instead, bring that tripod, use a remote shutter, and capture sharp images.
2. Use strong side lighting
Cloudy light is great for very detailed images, but what if you’re looking for more intense, dark, even abstract blows?
This is where the side light comes in handy.
No, it won’t show intricate details, but it will let you turn buildings into masterpieces of art with a focus on texture and form:
For best side lighting, shoot on a sunny morning or afternoon. Note the position of the sun, then look for side-lit subjects (plus or minus a handful of degrees!). Don’t be afraid to underexpose your shadows or blow out your highlights – the look can add to the abstract effect – but be careful; you don’t want to take the high contrast compositions also far.
3. Look for highlights and shadows
Sometimes the best architectural detail photography focuses less on construction details…
…and more on the way light falls on the building. For example, late afternoon light can create interesting shadows, which you can turn into powerful abstract subjects. Watch how I created a composition using only shadows on these steps:
That’s why I recommend that you always pay close attention to the sun, its position in the sky, and how it falls on the scene. As soon as you notice any interesting shadows or highlights, move closer. Think about how you could incorporate them into a powerful image. And experiment with different camera angles and framings until you get an architectural composition you like!
For best results, by the way, I recommend going when the sky is clear and the sun is strong. High noon will offer plenty of intense shadows, while morning and afternoon have softer, but no less interesting shadows.
4. Look for patterns in the architecture
My favorite thing about photographing architectural details is the wealth of compositional possibilities. Man-made structures are full patterns and shapes, and with a little work you can exploit them to create amazing photos!
For the most powerful images, I recommend sticking in a telephoto lens, then – when you find an interesting pattern – zooming in to fill the frame. Be sure to pay close attention to aperture and depth of field; While there is no one best approach, you need to think through your various options and choose the settings that match your vision.
For this architectural detail image, I used a narrow aperture to get a great depth of field:
Note how sharp the entire pattern is, from the window at the front right to the window at the back left.
A shallow depth of field effect, although less orthodox, can also work very well:
5. Look for highlights
The world offers picturesque buildings, yes – but it’s also full of drab and ugly structures, and if you ask most photographers, these are rarely worth capturing.
But the ugly architecture actually offers plenty to photograph! You just have to be a little creative.
Here is what I recommend:
If you are facing a dull building, look around. See if you can find reflective surfaces nearby (ideally across the street), like windows or car hoods. Then get closer to the surfaces and play with different angles, trying to reflect the ugly building. I would also recommend testing different focus points; focusing on the reflective surface itself will give you a single shot, but focusing on the reflected building will give you a completely different result.
Hopefully, you’ll find an interesting composition, find the right focus point, and manage to capture a stunning shot. Even boring buildings look great with a cool reflection effect!
6. Photograph the light fixtures
Architectural detail photography is not just about buildings.
You see, exterior details also make great subjects, and one of my absolute prefer the elements to be photographed are the humble luminary:
No one pays attention to fixtures, but they often offer beautiful colors, powerful shapes, compelling lines and, when photographed at night, a lovely golden glow.
Don’t just stick to light fixtures, by the way. Once you’ve checked all the lights in a building, look for other interesting items, such as signs, security cameras, doorknobs, and gates.
Pro tip: To capture great shots of light fixtures, you’ll want to use a telephoto lens; many luminaires are located too far from the ground to be highlighted with a wide focal length. And if you plan to capture particularly small subjects, such as intricate carvings on a doorknob, try working with a macro lens.
7. Don’t forget the statues!
Architectural photographers rarely pay attention to statues – yet these are a key feature of many buildings and monuments. The Charles Bridge in Prague, for example, features 30 large, detailed statues just begging to be photographed.
So don’t skip the statue photography! Plus, it’s a lot of fun, especially when you start trying out different approaches and techniques.
You can go down low to frame the statue against the sky, you can find a vantage point and shoot down, or you can shoot at the statue. Also be sure to pay special attention to the lighting; the side light will emphasize texture, the cloud light will bring out detail, and the backlight will create beautiful light and/or silhouette effects.
Finally, be sure to vary your focal lengths. You can zoom out to capture a statue in its entirety, but you can also zoom in and focus on heads, outlines, gestures, and other details:
8. Convert to black and white
Architectural detail plans are often based on strong compositions.
And by removing the color from a plane, you can focus on the composition while letting the annoying elements go away.
This is why I strongly recommend that you convert your photos of architectural details to black and white. (This move tends to work well if your compositions are full of texture or strong patterns.)
Of course, not every detail will look good in black and white, and that’s okay. You can apply this conversion in Lightroom or Photoshop, then if you don’t like the result, just undo the adjustment.
But in my experience, monochrome architectural photos usually turn out awesome!
Architectural Detail Photography Tips: Final Words
Now that you have completed this article, you know how to work with light. You know how to create beautiful compositions. And you know how to discover interesting subjects.
In other words, you are ready to capture stunning photographs of architectural details!
So go with your camera. Use these tips. And take great pictures!
Now your turn :
Which of these architectural detail photography tips is your favorite? Which do you plan to use? Share your opinion in the comments below!