The Art of Architectural Photography

A corporation’s offices are often its most public face. The architecture a company chooses sends a message about its brand. Landmarks such as Hong Kong’s Bank of China or New York’s Chrysler Building, originally constructed to house the offices of the Chrysler Corporation, broadcast international statements about a company’s ambitions.

These messages are often delivered through photography — which means architectural images should be constructed with the same care and attention to detail as the building being photographed.

Planning an Architectural Shoot

Black Star’s Tom Callins, who has been photographing professionally for over 30 years, likes to visit a location several times in advance to select positions and identify the best times of day for the shoot.

When planning an architectural shoot, you want to show the building’s best architectural features in the best light from the best angle. A few scouting trips are needed to see the building at different times of day to determine which views and times are the best. Then, you have to decide the best place to take the pictures. If it’s from the 20th floor of the building across the street, you have to secure permission from that building to gain access to the 20th floor. Hopefully, they will cooperate.

While successful executive portraits depend on effective communication between the photographer and the subject, and shoots for annual reports rely on careful organization and a clear understanding of the art direction, the key to successful architectural photography is often much more technical in nature.

Waiting for the Light

Light, for example, defines the building’s mood, and it’s through effective lighting that the architecture makes its statement.

For external shots, that can mean a lot of waiting. Scouting will help to discover the best times of day when the sun strikes the building, but that means making sure that the equipment is set up and the photographer is ready to capture those few moments of optimal brightness. And that assumes that the weather cooperates. It doesn’t always.

An assignment may be booked on a sunny day when the building is perfectly lit and shines out against its neighbors, but if it rains on the day of the shoot — or even if there are clouds — the assignment may need to be rescheduled until the right weather is available at the right time.


Photo Credit: Tom Callins

Tom Callins’s photograph (above) of Hertz’s equipment rental center in Houston was one of a series of images taken in two locations in the city. Scouting had told him that the shot needed to be taken in the evening, when low light cast a golden hue over the building, but each evening clouds on the horizon would block the effect that Tom wanted. It took over a week of patient waiting before our photographer was able to take the shot that he had envisioned.

Even the time of year can affect the sort of image the photographer is able to produce. Explains Tom:

Depending on which direction the building is facing and the season of the year, the sun may not want to cooperate. It may be spring, but the building looks best in fall.

Clients, of course, rarely have the freedom to wait until the best time of year to complete the shoot. Assignments often take place on tight deadlines, requiring the photographer to produce a range of options based on various lighting scenarios — then make full use of his or her technical skills to produce the best image possible.

Indoor Lighting Challenges

Lighting challenges don’t end when the photographer moves indoors. Although the photographer has more control over the light levels when shooting internal spaces, offices and rooms create problems of their own.

Fluorescent strips, for example, can affect color balance, while shadows need to be identified and lit.


Photo Credit: Marc Schultz

Harrison McClary, a former news photographer who now primarily shoots executive portraits, industrial photography and architecture, says that the aim of the shoot is to make the space appear as though it were lit naturally, so that the viewer feels as though he’s using the room rather than looking at it.

Because every building is different, every shoot requires different solutions and different kinds of preparation. That usually involves turning on all the lights in the room, overexposing the windows so that there are no distracting details from outside the building, and paying attention to shadows thrown by equipment and reflections in windows, mirrors, screens and televisions.

Says Harrison, who has been with Black Star for 15 years:

Pet peeves for me in this kind of photography are “dark” doors. If the room I am shooting is bright, then the door to the other room should not be a black hole.

Harrison’s architectural subjects have ranged from hotel rooms and buildings to commercial properties and multimillion-dollar residences — and he’s encountered many unusual spaces. He recalls:

I did a shoot in a house that had a recording studio in it. I had to shoot from the control room into the recording room. The control room had several small rooms off it with glass doors, and the booth was separated by a huge window made of double-paned glass to soundproof the room.

I had to light all these rooms and keep all reflections out of the glass — not just reflections from my lights, but all reflections. There is a way to light so that reflections do not show up, but doing this so that the light looks natural and so that there are no hot spots can be difficult.

Clearly these aren’t the kinds of problems most photographers come across in their daily jobs. They require the kind of knowledge of architecture, design, lighting strategies and angles that can only develop from years of study and plenty of hands-on experience.

At Black Star, we confer with the client to find out exactly what the client needs—and when they need it by—but our most important preparation is to make sure the photographer we send on the assignment has all of the skills necessary to cope with those unexpected and unusual challenges.

The alternative is to risk producing inferior images which fail to do the job, which fail to represent the professionalism of the client, and which fail to encapsulate the message the building contains.

How the Client Can Help

While we will choose a qualified photographer and make sure he or she understands what needs to be done, the client has responsibilities, too.

The client must make sure that the building is ready to be shot. Ensuring that the building’s guards are briefed and prepared to provide access, for example, is the kind of small necessity that is often overlooked and which can cause unnecessary delays.


Photo Credit: Craig Sands

Open access is a request that’s usually met easily, but sometimes a photographer can spot an opportunity that requires a certain amount of flexibility and the freedom to meet demands that can be as unusual as the building itself.

Tom Callins, for example, praises a client who understood that he wanted every light in every room on the west side of a building turned on at precisely 7:48 p.m. It’s the kind of request that can require a high level of organization and good cooperation from the client and the client’s staff. But when it works, the results can be dramatic — producing the kind of image that shows the building, and company, at its best.

The Importance of Post-Production

Of course, even with the most helpful client and the best photographer, things don’t always go as planned. Part of the photographer’s job is to know when the image in front of him is the best that can possibly be shot — and then understand how to make it better in post-production.

Tom Callins’s picture of Hertz’s equipment rental center, for example, underwent processing through Photoshop to remove the reflections of telephone poles and wires from the windows.

Tom’s pre-shoot scouting had identified the right time and the right place to shoot the most dramatic picture of the client’s property — a moment in which the sky was exactly the right color, the lights inside the building depicted the company’s industriousness and the name of the firm shone out against the building’s wall.

He was prepared to wait more than a week to capture that moment, but he knew even then that the image wouldn’t be completely perfect. There would be no way to capture the outside of the building without also photographing unattractive reflections in the windows. Because Tom also possesses editing skills, he was able to trust in his ability to capture the best picture that the location and the light could create — then add the final corrections before passing the image on to the client.

Shooting architectural images offers all sorts of advantages over photographing busy executives or managing a complex shoot for an annual report. The scheduling is often easier — buildings don’t have meetings — and they may require a smaller team to photograph.

But while the personality of an executive will depend on the ability of the photographer to put the subject at ease, the personality of a piece of architecture will depend on the right light striking the right places at the right time. It’s work that requires preparation, patience, expertise and organization.

The preceding post is an excerpt from Black Star’s new e-book, “When to Use Assignment Photography.” Download the free e-book here.

2 Responses to “The Art of Architectural Photography”

  1. It is nice to here the voice on Tom Callins who has been shooting for 30yrs. The insight was great. It is also nice to hear that some of the challenges are the same whether you been shooting for 5 or 30 years.

  2. I'm constantly looking to improve my renderings by studying photography; I really appreciate the article!

Leave a Reply